House of Commons
Wednesday 13 December 2006
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Duchy of Lancaster
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
The social exclusion taskforce is working on identifying and promoting best practice in targeting support at socially excluded people. That will include developing a common rating system for high-quality evaluations and examining the case for a centre for excellence in children’s and family services. The Government will also be undertaking a review of how well services aimed at at-risk families are working together on the ground.
I know that the Minister is fully aware that there are no easy answers to tackling social exclusion and that we need to build up an evidence base of good practice to inform future policy. Will she assure me that such projects will be based in not only England, but Wales?
I know that my hon. Friend has been assiduous throughout her career at trying to play her part in tackling social exclusion. She is absolutely right. To turn lives round, we have to use interventions that we know really work. We must make sure that programmes with a proven track record are adopted more widely. I am happy to assure her that Wales has been doing very well. The Welsh Government are seeking to roll out throughout Sure Start centres in Wales a parenting programme called the incredible years. That significant programme has been well tested and has very good outcomes. Indeed, Judy, who runs the programme, has been very helpful and an inspiration to me since I was appointed. The evidence gained from such programmes is crucial to drawing up social exclusion policy.
Does the Minister agree that among those who are most excluded in society are the elderly, disabled and parents of young families, who do not have a car and live in rural communities without access to many services? One in four or five families in rural areas have no access to a car. In such circumstances, has she used her influence to try to persuade her colleagues not to announce the closure of thousands of sub-post offices in those communities, which provide services to precisely those excluded groups?
The hon. Gentleman has worked extremely hard to cover as many subjects as possible. In the social exclusion taskforce, we are looking carefully at those who have been most excluded—wherever they live and whatever their circumstances—and considering what we can do to support them as effectively as possible. We know that all too often even if a service exists, the most excluded do not access it properly. We want to tackle that too, which is why we are concentrating on early intervention.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that socially excluded people can also be financially excluded. I hope that she welcomes the report “Cash machines: meeting consumer needs”, which was produced this morning under my chairmanship. Some 600 free cash machines will be put in low-income areas. Will she ensure that we work with local authorities so that they can identify sites and free up the planning process to allow us to make inroads into the problem and ensure that socially excluded people become financially included?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under his chairmanship, the Treasury Committee has begun to examine much more closely how the way in which financial services work affects people who have not had the sort of access that they should have had. I am very pleased that he has examined that matter. I look forward to working with him to ensure that we can make financial services much more accessible. Indeed, as part of some projects, such as the new deal for communities, we have been considering how we can achieve that in imaginative and creative ways. My right hon. Friend’s work will help us with that.
Does the Minister agree that some of the most excluded people in our society are those who sleep rough on our streets? Sadly, the number of such people is on the rise again at the moment. Will she take this opportunity to pay a warm tribute to many voluntary and charitable organisations, such as Shekinah Mission in Plymouth, that will open their doors this Christmas and provide much-needed warmth and support to a vulnerable and at-risk group?
Of course, those who sleep rough on our streets are among the most excluded. When I was Minister with responsibility for housing, I was responsible for reducing the number of people sleeping rough on our streets by more than two thirds, so I know that the Government are absolutely determined to get the most vulnerable people off the streets and inside. That will not cure all their problems, but it will mean that the Government and those who work with them, including many exceptionally good voluntary organisations, can begin to help those people to put their lives back together. Next year, the social exclusion taskforce will take a lead in pilots in which we will consider how we can more effectively help many people who end up with chaotic lifestyles that may well include rough sleeping.
Rates of teenage pregnancy have fallen in recent years, but across Government, we are working to bring them down further. As part of that effort, the Government’s recently published teenage pregnancy strategy sets out a strong focus on personal, social and health education. Good quality PSHE can make an important contribution to young people’s emotional development. Young people value sex education that is set in the context of discussions about relationships and the responsibilities involved, and that is what the Government aim to provide.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I am still concerned about the fact that if we are really to tackle the high levels of teenage pregnancy in this country, we can do so only by radically changing the way in which we teach children at school about sex. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that unless we teach them about the emotional side, and about self-esteem and self-confidence, at a much earlier stage than secondary education, nothing will have an impact on the country’s high levels of teenage pregnancy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that education should prepare young people for life, and that the emotional aspects of sex education are important. In addition to providing PSHE, we are putting an emphasis on sex and relationship education. A programme on the social and emotional aspects of learning, known as the SEAL programme, is already in place in one third of schools, and another third are expected to introduce it by mid-2007. All that is part of the effort to increase confidence and maturity, and to help to prepare young people for coping with making important decisions later in life.
Although I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), may I point out to the Minister that there will be no success on the subject unless parents are involved? Will he note that the only time that teenage pregnancies and abortion rates really fell was during the Victoria Gillick case? Hon. Members will remember that she tried to ensure that parents were informed if their under-age children were given either abortions or contraception. After all, parents have to give permission if a child is to have a tooth extracted, but not if he or she is to be provided with sexual education.
It is absolutely right to say that parental involvement and a parental role is important. It is important, both for parents and schools, that we have a full and frank discussion about the issues. We should discuss them openly and not try to sweep them under the carpet, and in that way, we can prepare young people for the important decisions that they have to make in life, and ensure that they delay making important decisions about pregnancy until they are fully equipped to do so.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments on teenage pregnancy advice, but that advice is desperately needed for people with severe learning difficulties, too. Although some attempt has been made to address that target group, provision has been immensely limited. Will he extend that advice and support to carers of people with severe learning difficulties, who want to be better advised so that they can assist the person for whom they are caring?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it illustrates that if a strategy to reduce teenage pregnancy rates is to be successful, it has to involve a wide variety of people. Where it has been successful, it is because parents and the people involved in education, in local authorities and in local health care have all contributed to the strategy. I very much agree with my hon. Friend that when people work together, we can have an impact on the issue.
Preliminary findings from the state of the sector panel survey for 2004-05 indicate that 57 per cent. of all public funding was awarded on the basis of full cost recovery, and 53 per cent. for three years or more. We recognise that we need to make further progress, so the pre-Budget report announced that a norm for the spending review would be three-year funding, and training for commissioners and standard contracts will further promote full cost recovery. Overall, central Government funding for the voluntary sector has increased by 96 per cent. in real terms since 1997.
The Minister knows how important the issue is for voluntary organisations. He will know that in 2002, the Treasury recommended certainty for three-year funding, and the Chancellor has recently made a statement. Last year, however, the National Audit Office said that little progress had been made, so will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and tell the House what guarantee there is that voluntary organisations will have some certainty?
I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks up for voluntary organisations in his constituency, but his party does not like targets. We think that the target is right, which is why the Chancellor’s announcement in the pre-Budget report last week is important. My right hon. Friend said that the norm for the spending review is three-year funding, and I might add that such funding was not even dreamt of when the previous Government were in office. The Government introduced three-year funding for central Government, and it is soon to be introduced for local government and for the voluntary sector as well.
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
I am just checking to see that the press are in the Gallery.
I regularly discuss policy relating to Europe with ministerial colleagues. Detailed departmental policy relating to the European Union is decided collectively by Cabinet and its committees. For example, I chaired recent Cabinet committee discussions about the future of the European emissions trading scheme. As a result of those discussions, we agreed a set of proposals that were submitted to the European Commission. The House will be aware that the Commission recently confirmed that the UK is the only member state to produce an acceptable cap on carbon emissions for the next stage of the emissions trading scheme. It was a tough decision, but it demonstrated the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change and the importance of bringing Departments together to discuss difficult political issues and make a decision.
With the advent of the German presidency of the European Union, and Chancellor Merkel’s commitment to a revived constitutional treaty, albeit in compressed form, will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House an undertaking that if there is a transfer of more powers and competences, and any further loss of UK sovereignty as a result of a compressed or mini treaty, the UK will have an opportunity to express its view in a national referendum?
It was agreed after the last referendums that there would be discussions, and that the German presidency would introduce proposals after those discussions. We have always made it clear that a referendum would be required, whatever the conclusions of those discussions.
Is it not important to take a positive and engaged approach to the European Union so that we do not just talk about climate change but introduce serious proposals for change through an emissions trading scheme and a post-Kyoto agreement?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, the statement by the Commission to which I referred made it clear that Britain and Sweden were the only two countries that met their Kyoto targets. On the emissions trading scheme, we were the only country to make a proposal that was acceptable to the Commission. Yet again, that shows that Britain is ahead on most of the climate change proposals.
The House may recall that, as I reported last month, I recently returned from the far east, where I discussed a range of international and bilateral issues with Prime Ministers and senior Government Ministers. Our discussions included climate change, sustainable development, security and nuclear tests in North Korea. I also used the visit to promote British business interests in those fast-growing economies. As is usual for ministerial visits, I was accompanied by civil servants on scheduled flights to support me in my role.
We learned last month that the Treasury had spent £56 million on subsistence for travel in the United Kingdom and overseas. Since the Deputy Prime Minister commenced his new role—I do not use the word “responsibilities”, as he has none—how much has he spent, and does he consider that good value for money?
It is clear that when one compares the amount of money spent on hospitality and travel by this Government, it is a lot less than the amount spent by the previous Administration. [Interruption.] Yes, it was, and I believe we get better value for money than they did.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are more than 2,000 civil servants living in my constituency and the surrounding area who provide a national service through the Inland Revenue? Those 2,000 jobs would be at risk if the nationalists stole Scotland out of England.
However many civil servants accompanied the right hon. Gentleman to the far east, is it not an insult to the taxpayer that 20 civil servants have to support him in what has become the non-job of Deputy Prime Minister? Is not the £2 million cost of that a sum that could keep open nearly 100 post offices, and would that not be dramatically better value for the nation?
That is almost as much money as the right hon. Gentleman earns making speeches abroad. [Interruption.] The holder of the position in the previous Administration did less work in Cabinet Committees, did less work than I do, and made it clear to the Select Committee that a Deputy Prime Minister does the job as requested by the Prime Minister. I am happy to do the job that I am doing. I have met more Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers than the right hon. Gentleman has in his job.
The House is aware that that is a complex and sensitive issue. I have chaired a Cabinet Committee a number of times to discuss the future of the post office network. The Government will make an announcement very shortly.
I recognise that my hon. Friend has made clear in an early-day motion the importance of post offices providing social access for people in rural and urban communities. That is the major consideration in the Cabinet Committee that I chair. I can assure her that the decline occurred under both Administrations—about 50 per cent. of the decline took place under the previous Administration—and there is a real problem achieving a proper balance between cost and social access to those facilities. We will take that into account, and it will be included in the consultation document that we will shortly announce to the House.
In the Deputy Prime Minister’s co-ordinating role, can he say what action he took when four separate Government Departments announced their intention to take business from the Post Office, leading to closures? Did he do nothing, or did he intervene but was overruled by his colleagues?
I think the hon. Gentleman knows that when those decisions were taken, I was a member of the Government but did not have responsibility in the Cabinet Committee for that. I was given that responsibility when I was given my present job. I can tell him that the matter causes real concern. All Governments have examined the expenses of Departments and asked them to get value for money. However, under this Government we have spent about £2 billion supporting the post office network, whereas nothing was put in by the previous Administration, so we will take no lectures from the Opposition about that, and as for the Liberals, they are never in power to make any decisions anyway.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall telling the Labour conference in 1999 that he would protect post offices against closures? Is it not the case that since then the Government have taken away the traditional business of post offices and that the fastest rate of closures has been in the past two years? Since it is his responsibility to co-ordinate Government policy on this, is the devastation of our post office network the intended result of a brilliant piece of co-ordination or the unintended result of a staggering piece of incompetence?
Always clever with words, but the facts never measure up. Nearly 50 per cent. of post office closures took place under the Government of whom he was a member. He gave no money or financial support to the post offices; we have given nearly £2 billion. We established the Post Office card account, which everybody agrees was a good step forward. Our actions in government have shown our support for the maintenance of a post office service, which has to be sustainable and to have public support. I note that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the Leader of the Opposition offer any guarantee of giving subsidies to a future network if they were to get control in here.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the report published recently by the Communication Workers Union into the future of the post office network? During the course of his review, will he meet representatives of that union to ensure that post offices continue to be a valued part of our community?
As my hon. Friend knows, we have had discussions with several stakeholders about our responsibility for the post office network and their concerns about it. We will shortly publish a consultative document. When that is announced to the House, the debate can start on the Government’s proposals on the Post Office and the maintenance of its network.
I thought that the game was that I was to give an answer and the right hon. Gentleman was to respond—he has been here long enough to know that.
The House will be aware of the Government’s commitment to developing an affordable, just and sustainable pensions system. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister chairs the Cabinet Committee on welfare reform, where decisions on pensions policy are taken. I continue to play an active part in those discussions. The Government’s Pensions Bill, which was presented to the House on 29 November, makes a landmark settlement for future generations. It will link the basic state pension to earnings—a link that was broken by the Opposition—and make the system fairer to women and carers. The pensions personal accounts White Paper was laid before the House yesterday. It sets out in more detail our proposals for a new, low-cost way for ordinary working people to save for retirement. I am proud to be part of a Government who are bringing forward these plans for the long-term benefit of ordinary people, and I commend them to the House.
In view of the Deputy Prime Minister’s active interest in this, and in view of his own imminent retirement, will he, as his last act, put right that crime against pensioners—the £5 billion annual raid on pension funds carried out by the Chancellor since 1997—or is he content to retire himself on a secure pension having undermined the savings and pensions of the rest of the country?
I will take no lectures from the right hon. Gentleman, who was a member of a Government who drove 2.5 million pensioners into poverty, whereas we have lifted them out of it, who changed the pension rules allowing them to tax surpluses on pension funds—that was first done by Geoffrey Howe—and who allowed pension holidays. They created the problems in pensions, and we are now correcting them.
May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend for the close interest and support that she has expressed for next year’s commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade? As she is aware, the Government have been working to co-ordinate activities across a wide range of groups in the UK and with our international partners. As part of that effort to ensure international co-operation, I recently met a number of senior figures at the UN in New York. Along with a range of other issues, I discussed the bicentenary with the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and with the permanent representatives of several Caribbean countries and of some Asian countries whose people suffer from the modern form of slavery that is people trafficking.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Will he make it clear to the House when a statement will be made on the programme of events taking place in 2007, how organisations and individuals can contribute and get involved, and whether he supports a Government-funded annual remembrance day?
We are actively co-ordinating that, and I hope that the Prime Minister will make a statement in January about the nature of national and international activities to commemorate the 25 March—a resolution was passed by the House. The UN passed a resolution a few weeks ago saying that 25 March should be commemorated and celebrated throughout the year. The House will recognise, however, that 23 August is the UNESCO international day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition. We will mark both those dates during the 2007 commemorations.
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of the Royal Marine from 42 Commando who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. Again, we in the House pay tribute to the bravery, professionalism and commitment of our armed forces.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
I am sure that the whole House will want to support the Prime Minister in his comments about our lost serviceman.
Is the Prime Minister aware that most of the strategic A1 road in north Northumberland remains the single carriageway that it was when he went from Durham to school in Edinburgh? Does he blame that on bad decision making, which has led to nearly £500,000 being spent on schemes that have been dropped from the road programme, or on the fact that he has never given the north-east anything like the Barnett formula, which has enabled Scotland to spend more money on transport, public transport and other services?
There are a number of political minefields that I could step on in answering that question. We have, of course, invested a great deal more money in road building. I not only know about the A1 but recall many occasions on which I drove on it and wished for precisely the upgrade to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. We must make sure, however, that our transport budget is spent according to our overall means. Although we have increased the budget substantially, we have not been able to find the money for that upgrade yet. I know that he would want to pay tribute to the work that has happened in the north-east over the past few years, which has seen the strongest economy in the north-east for probably the past 100 years, massive investment in education and health and the lowest unemployment there for the whole time that I have been an MP, and probably for the whole time that he has been an MP.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to express horror at the events and sympathy with the family and friends of the five young women who have disappeared from in and around Ipswich and probably have been murdered. Will he express confidence in the Suffolk police, the other east of England police services, their ability to work together and the resources available to them in order to bring this vile murderer to justice as quickly as possible?
I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said. We support the police fully in dealing with the horror of the situation and with the entirely understandable fear in the community. I am sure that the whole House will want to send sympathy to the people of Ipswich, to the people of the county of Suffolk, and particularly to the family and friends of the victims. I assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything that we can to support the police in the difficult and challenging work that they do, and I have every confidence that they will perform their task well.
I agree very much with what the Prime Minister said about Ipswich. We all want this monster to be caught and locked up. May I join the Prime Minister in sending our condolences to the Royal Marine who died in Afghanistan?
The Defence Secretary told the House of Commons that changes in allowances for troops would
“not take one penny away from anybody”.—[Official Report, 30 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 13.]
Will the Prime Minister confirm that Government briefing now shows that that is not true?
Let me explain what is happening in relation to the allowances. I apologise at the outset because some of it is complicated, and this is as I understand it.
At the present time—[Interruption.] I am trying to give the explanation, if the House would be kind enough to listen. At the moment, for the Navy and Royal Marines, two different allowances have been amalgamated. One of those allowances—the longer service at sea bonus—is then split into two different types of payment. When all of it is amalgamated into one allowance, which is going to be called the longer separation allowance, the amount of credits under that particular part of the longer service at sea bonus will be deemed to be at roughly 60 per cent. That will mean that within that bonus there are those people who have accrued more than 60 per cent. who may receive less than they otherwise would. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Will the House listen? However, that is more than compensated for by the fact that the new allowance is going to be paid at a bigger higher rate—£25 rather than £12.80—and all personnel will be credited with an extra 100 days as the deemed separation.
As a result of that, so I am informed, the letter that the Second Sea Lord sent to the Navy and Marines is correct—people will not lose under that benefit. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but this is the explanation. [Interruption.] I spent a long time this morning trying to get to grips with this.
In relation to the other allowance, the accumulated turbulence allowance, I am told that at present it kicks in when 280 days are served. That is now going to be amalgamated so that there is the one longer separation allowance. I am told that it is possible that some of those who are getting that allowance at present may receive less than they otherwise thought they would. However, the majority of them will receive more under the longer separation allowance. Quite apart from all of that, however, the new operational allowance—tax free at £2,200 a year—means that overall no one loses money and everyone gains money.
I am very grateful for that answer. This is complicated and I think that the Prime Minister has shown that when his current career is over, a relaunch of “Yes, Minister”, with himself as Sir Humphrey, would be very effective.
At the heart of this is a simple question: are Ministers reflecting the briefing that they are given? I have the Ministry of Defence briefing. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes. Officials now are so concerned about inaccurate answers that they have started giving the briefing to us as well. The briefing, which says “Restricted policy”, states:
“The Prime Minister is being briefed along these lines for PMQs on Wednesday”.
It also says very clearly:
“It has always been recognised and accepted that there will be a few potential losers”.
Given that there are going to be potential losers, why did the Defence Secretary effectively give an inaccurate answer? Will the Prime Minister get him to come here and apologise for doing so?
If one looks at what is happening as a result of the explanation—which I shall not repeat, the House will be delighted to know—it is not the case that, in relation to the allowances paid to Royal Marines and the Navy, people are losing out. On the contrary, they are gaining. Indeed, in some cases they will gain significantly. That is why the Defence Secretary, when he agreed with the letter that the Second Sea Lord sent to the Navy and Marines, was absolutely accurate. The point in relation to the other allowance—the accumulated turbulence allowance—which arose, I think, in the newspapers this morning in respect of the Grenadiers, is not that they receive less money—[Interruption.] No. It is that the money that they were going to receive under the current allowance may be less than they thought they were going to get. However, many of those will in fact get more. In any event, the charge that has been made by the shadow Defence Secretary—that we are effectively giving the operational tax allowance of £2,200 with one hand and taking it away with the other—is completely wrong. In actual fact, we have worked it out that £60 million additional in total is being paid under the allowance system.
But the lieutenant-colonel in the Grenadier Guards said:
“To have this entitlement withdrawn nine days before Afghanistan sends an appalling message after a 7 month… interval.”
The point is simple. The Secretary of State for Defence was briefed to say one thing, and said something else. Why not apologise? Why do this Government find it so impossible to apologise?
Let me turn to another front-line service that the Government are letting down. Today the Labour-dominated Health Committee said that many of the problems in the NHS were caused by “poor central management”. Who is responsible for that poor central management?
Of course anything managed from the centre is the responsibility of Government, but let us look at the situation in the health service today. As well as the Health Committee report—which actually, on balance, points to improvements in our health care system—we have seen the publication of the latest results showing the amount of work done in our health service. They show, for example, that for the first time ever the average waiting time for out-patient appointments is less than four weeks, and that there have been dramatic falls in both waiting lists and waiting times across the board.
The Prime Minister stands there week after week saying that local cuts are the fault of local health staff. This report shows that they are due to poor central management. The Health Committee report says that
“the NHS has veered from one priority to the next as the political focus has changed. It has concentrated on meeting targets with too little concern for finance.”
It also says
“Not only will services be affected, but also patient care.”
Does the Prime Minister accept that that poor central management, and the financial crisis in the NHS, is harming patient care—yes or no?
I do not accept that patient care is not improving in this country. I believe that patient care is improving in this country. That is perfectly obvious from the publication of the results this morning, but also from the fact that when we cane to office, literally hundreds of thousands of people used to wait for 12 months, sometimes 18 months, for their operations. We are now on course for an 18-week period from door to door for the in-patient and out-patient lists combined. That is happening not just as a result of massive investment, but as a result of change.
Not only did the right hon. Gentleman vote against the investment, every penny piece of it, but he is now apparently opposed to the reforms and changes that are necessary to provide value for money in the health service.
The Prime Minister talks of the situation when he came to office. Let me tell him that when he is leaving office, accident and emergency departments are threatened, maternity units are under review and community hospitals are closing. The Prime Minister must be the only person in the country who thinks that patient care is not suffering.
Is not the problem the fact that that the Government cannot address the problems of failure at the centre because the person at the centre is a lame duck? Why does the Prime Minister not give us all an early Christmas present, and tell us when he is off?
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw the claim made by his shadow health spokesman that 29 accident and emergency departments were to close. I have been through this. It is true that many are subject to consultation about changes in provision, but 12 are not even subject to consultation about change.
Let us look at what is happening overall. Accident and emergency departments have been transformed from how they were a few years ago. When we came to office, people had to wait for weeks and weeks, sometimes months, to see a cancer consultant. They no longer have to do that. As for cardiac care, people used to die waiting for operations; now people get their operations within three months. People used to wait for more than two years for cataract operations; now the average is three months or less. Moreover, the largest hospital building programme since the inception of the NHS is under way.
The fact is that the NHS is getting better. It is getting better under a Labour Government. After years of cuts and under-investment under the Tories, the NHS is once again the pride of the country.
I hope that the Prime Minister will ignore the fatuous invitations to inform the Opposition about his departure intentions, but will he tell us whether he has any plans to visit the House of Commons to lead a debate on the current and deteriorating situation in Iraq, so that the House can exercise the duty of scrutiny that has so far been accorded only to the Americans?
I have to say to my hon. Friend that I do of course answer questions on Iraq at this Dispatch Box the entire time. Over the next few weeks, there will be the US Administration’s response to the Baker-Hamilton report that has been presented to it. We will also come to a different position ourselves in respect of how we deploy troops in Iraq, provided that the operation currently being conducted in Basra is successful, for all the reasons that the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have given. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will tomorrow give details of how we can make sure that the House has an opportunity to debate these issues properly.
I join the Prime Minister in his earlier expressions of sympathy and condolence.
Like the rest of us, the Prime Minister is obviously shocked by the disturbing events in Suffolk. Is it not clear that we once again see that there is a link between poverty, prostitution and drug abuse?
There obviously is a link between all those things, but let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that although there might well be lessons that we have to learn as a result of the terrible events of the past few weeks, I think that those lessons are best learned in a considered, rather than a reflex, way. At present, our priority must be to find the person responsible and to give our full support to the police. It is wise for us to leave to a later time a more considered response, and potentially a policy one, to the issues that have arisen.
As I have said, I think that we should try to learn the lessons of this whole issue at a later time. But I should just make this point as well: when we published a consultation paper last year, the responses showed how difficult policy in this area is.
When my right hon. Friend next visits Liverpool will he meet Kay Fyne, who came to Britain from Germany on 26 August 1939 with the Kindertransport? Does he agree that the painful, honest testimony of folk such as Kay brings shame to those who deny the holocaust?
I agree entirely with what my right hon. Friend says, and I think and hope that the response right across the civilised world to the attempt to deny or cast doubt on the holocaust at the conference in Iran sends a very clear signal that people such as Kay, and the misery that they and their families went through, should never be forgotten.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on both the excellence of Aberdeen and the facilities there and the potential for renewable technologies. The difficulty is how long it will take to get those technologies to market. I also agree with him about diversity of energy supply. That is why we recently concluded the deal with Norway on the import of Norwegian gas into this country, which will meet about 30 per cent. of our gas needs. I also happen to believe that that is why we need to replace our existing nuclear power stations as well. But, whatever we do, the Government will make a significant additional investment in renewable technology, and co-operation between business and the academic world will be of prime importance.
As my hon. Friend says, the non-governmental organisations and the Department for International Development have done a superb job that is deeply necessary. We will provide about £1.5 billion of extra money in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Some 4 million people get infected every year in Africa, but the more positive news is that 800,000 people there are now getting treatment, and that number can rise very substantially over the coming years if this millennium goal is met. That shows that, if the necessary political will is there, it makes a difference on the ground in treating people who need such treatment.
Since the Prime Minister is so fond of apologising to foreigners for the conduct of our long-dead ancestors, will he now, particularly in view of the “accumulated turbulence”, apologise to the British people for his own folly in leading us into the Iraq disaster?
I am afraid that I will not, because I believe that it was right to remove Saddam and that it is right now to support people in Iraq, who want democracy. As for the earlier comments—I do not think that I have ever heard the word “foreigner” expressed with quite such strong emotion—I am always amazed at how these things are treated. I should have thought that even the hon. Gentleman and I could agree on our saying in 2006, as we approach the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, that it was a shameful trade.
I must confess to my hon. Friend that I was not fully aware of all the changes in British waterways and canals—but I am now. It is correct to say that in the past few years, there has been a very significant rise in people’s use of our canals and waterways. The British Waterways board has done a superb job, and as a result, the situation has been turned around from the position a decade ago. However, it, like everyone else, has to live within the means that we set ourselves. We are giving moneys additional to those that were available in 1997, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, like everyone else, must live within its means.
I in no way, shape or form underestimate the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises, but we have put some £2 billion into social housing, and we have tackled not just rough sleepers but the concept of families being in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for long periods. But I agree that we have to do far more, which is why the investment coming over the next few years will be very important. The danger in giving yet another statutory obligation to local authorities is whether they are able to meet it within the resources that they have, and whether it is right for central Government to set them such a target. But I entirely agree that it is a proper responsibility that local authorities should take seriously.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the independent Audit Commission yesterday announced that Labour-controlled Wigan council, superbly led by Lord Smith of Leigh, was one of only two councils in the country to be awarded four stars. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Labour councillors on their strategic success, and the officers on their superb achievement? Does he also agree that it is important that we provide additional resources for excellent councils such as Wigan, not just the freedoms that were announced in the local government White Paper?
I am certainly happy to give my congratulations to Wigan council and the councillors and officers who have made such enormous progress there over the past few years. To take just one example, I know that education in Wigan has seen a tremendous amount of improvement and change, including record results. The area has also had substantial reductions in unemployment, and increases in tax credits and additional child benefit have reduced poverty. The partnership between a strong Labour local authority and a Labour Government has delivered for the people of Wigan.
When my right hon. Friend is in Brussels later this week, one of the most difficult problems that he will have to deal with is Turkey, as the opposition of several centre-right Governments and politicians in Europe has made its application to join the European Union much more difficult. Does he therefore agree that the decision by the Conservatives to break all links with the centre-right parties of Europe—
People will be concerned today to hear that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence report recommends that some teenagers may, as a last resort, have to have surgery to treat obesity. Would it not instead be better to deal with problems with nutrition through the healthy start programme? While the extra money for low-income families is welcome, is not nutritional and exercise advice the best way to tackle the growing problem of teenage obesity?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the healthy start scheme—a good scheme that provides vouchers for healthy food for hundreds of thousands of children. Through extended schools, the increase in breakfast clubs and after-school activities, many children who previously did not get a meal before school are now doing so. Also, as a result of the several hundred specialist sports colleges, we are increasing the availability of sport in schools. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a major area in which the Government have to expand our activities and deepen the support we give people, because the issue of public health—on which the future of the national health service depends, in large measure—can be met only by people having the opportunity to live healthier lives and taking some responsibility for doing so.
I assure the hon. Lady that of course under the provisions of any such Bill no one will be forced to speak the Irish language. In relation to the consultation document that has been put out, we will await responses. However, the sooner it is possible to get devolution back up and running again, the easier it will be for such decisions to be taken where people in Northern Ireland would wish them to be taken.
I wish the campaign for Reddish baths well, and hope that it is successful. My hon. Friend draws attention to the strength of our voluntary and community groups, and in fact we held a reception for them in Downing street last night. Up and down the country, those groups provide facilities in the way that he described, and perform all sorts of magnificent social enterprise work. The Government fully support them and the work that they do, even if the Liberal Democrats do not.
When inquests are held into the deaths of service personnel whose bodies are returned to the UK, the Government are represented by the Treasury Solicitor, who has access to effectively unlimited taxpayers’ funds for QCs, witnesses and support investigations. In contrast, families of the bereaved attending the same inquest have to pay out of their own pockets. Is it right that the dice should be loaded against the bereaved?
First, when we talk about those who have fallen in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, we should pay tribute to their heroism, courage and dedication. I know that the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) is looking carefully at the arrangements in respect of coroners. I do not have anything to say about that at present, but it is of course important to make sure that bereaved families are given every possible facility.
The Prime Minister was asked—
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the future of the child maintenance system.
The Child Support Agency was set up to tackle a failing system of court-administered child maintenance. However, despite the best efforts of its staff, the CSA has never properly fulfilled its mission and its failings have been obvious and apparent for some time. That is why, earlier this year, I asked Sir David Henshaw to advise on a fundamental redesign of the child maintenance system. In July, we accepted the broad thrust of his recommendations for an entirely new approach.
Today’s White Paper makes proposals in five key areas. First, we will remove the barriers that prevent parents from reaching private settlements. Secondly, we will create a simpler and more efficient system for assessing and processing child maintenance liability. Thirdly, we will replace the existing Child Support Agency with a new non-departmental public body—the child maintenance and enforcement commission. Fourthly, we will significantly strengthen the enforcement regime. Finally, we intend to do more to promote joint parental responsibilities.
Let me take each of these measures in turn. The new system of child maintenance will promote parental responsibility and tackle child poverty. Too often, once parents break up, the current system works against both. The requirement for parents with care in receipt of benefits to use the CSA leads to the overturning of mutually agreed maintenance arrangements and undermines parental responsibility.
Prioritising the recovery of benefit expenditure creates the incentive for many non-resident parents to refuse to pay maintenance because their payments go to the Government rather than to their children. Following legislation, from 2008 we will remove the requirement that all parents with care claiming benefit must use the child maintenance system. At the same time, where maintenance is being paid, we will extend the £10 per week benefit disregard to cases on the original scheme, thus helping around 55,000 children and 40,000 parents with care.
Moreover, from 2010—when we expect a new system of assessment to be in place—we will introduce a significantly higher maintenance disregard for all benefit claimants, so that more children benefit from the maintenance that parents pay. I believe that those changes will help encourage more parents to reach their own maintenance agreements.
I also believe that we can do much more to reduce the bureaucracy of the assessment process. We will take new powers to make fixed-term awards for child maintenance based on the latest tax year information, unless current income differs by at least 25 per cent. Those awards will last for a year. We will use gross income, rather than net. As a result, only three pieces of information will be required to determine maintenance liability in the new system: gross income, the number of qualifying children and the number of children living with the non-resident parent. The assessment process will no longer be frustrated by a non-resident parent refusing to give information on their earnings; we will have obtained it from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
Changes to policy alone, however, will not, I believe, be enough. Sir David argued that the existing Child Support Agency was not equipped to administer the new system. He recommended a clean break with the past. We agree. A new non-departmental public body: the child maintenance and enforcement commission, or C-MEC, will therefore be established, and will be led by a child maintenance commissioner. C-MEC will have primary responsibility for all aspects of operational policy and delivery, overcoming one of the flaws in the existing division of responsibilities.
The commission will be given extra powers to recover maintenance from those who repeatedly fail to pay. That will include the imposition of new curfews and surrendering of passports; piloting the mandatory withholding of wages as the first means of collecting maintenance; and exploring with the financial services sector new powers to collect maintenance from accounts held by financial institutions. We will remove the requirement to apply to the courts for a liability order before taking enforcement action, and we will take powers to recover debt from deceased estates. In future, I expect that C-MEC will charge the non-resident parent for its services and that we will publicise the names of non-resident parents who are successfully prosecuted or have a successful application made against them in court.
About 7 per cent. of births in the United Kingdom are registered solely to the mother, yet in about half those cases mothers continue to have significant contact with the father following the birth. The law currently automatically assumes that married couples will be jointly registered, whereas unmarried parents both have to agree before a father’s name can appear on the birth certificate. As a result, the CSA has to close nearly a tenth of cases simply because the father cannot be successfully traced.
The Government have concluded that more should be done to promote joint birth registration. Current legislation should be changed to require both parents’ names to be registered following the birth of their child, unless it would be unreasonable to do so. I think that is an area where it is right to consult in more detail and to legislate only once we are sure that robust safeguards can be put in place to protect the welfare of children and vulnerable mothers.
Two further issues will, I know, be of particular interest to many Members on both sides of the House: first, the management of existing debt and, secondly, the transition to the new system. The CSA has accumulated about £3.5 billion-worth of debt—approximately half is owed to parents with care. In his report, Sir David suggested that the Government consider taking a power to write off that debt.
I have decided against any general write-off power. I believe that parents have a right to expect that the Child Support Agency and its successor body will use every power available to recover that debt. There are some limited cases where we will need to deal with completely irrecoverable debt: for example, where the parent with care or the non-resident parent is dead, or where the parent with care has asked for cessation of recovery activity—often following a mutual reconciliation. In total, I do not expect those debts to exceed £50 million.
I agree with Sir David’s suggestion that the CSA and its successor body should be able to negotiate offers to settle debt, including factoring debt, but I want to make it clear that where the debt is owed to the parent with care, any decision to factor debt or to accept less than the full amount will be taken only with their full agreement. I believe that we should revalue punitive interim maintenance assessments so that they more realistically reflect a parent’s actual liability. That will provide a stronger basis for the CSA and its successor body to chase down those debts and get money flowing to parents with care.
Let me turn, finally, to the issue of transition. Unrealistic expectations about moving from one system to another have blighted previous attempts to reform child maintenance. In moving to a new system we will need to strike a balance between providing a clean break for the C-MEC organisation and ensuring that maintenance payments that are flowing can easily continue. Following legislation later this Session, we aim to establish C-MEC in 2008. It will prepare and procure for the new system of assessment and delivery to be in place within two years.
Existing cases will either be able to make private arrangements or, if they prefer, move to the new system over a three-year period or take advantage of a simple cash transfer service. The cash transfer service will, where both parents agree, minimise disruption by continuing to move maintenance payments between parents based on their current maintenance award. The final details of the transition process will be worked through by C-MEC, but I am confident that the approach set out in the White Paper will effectively balance the interests of existing as well as new clients.
The White Paper sets out a fundamental redesign of the system of child maintenance. I am confident that it provides a proper foundation for a much more effective and efficient system. It will realign policy in this area with the reality on the ground. It will help address child poverty much more directly. I commend these proposals to the House.
We have not yet had a chance fully to digest the White Paper, as we received a copy only a few minutes ago, but I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation of the decision to scrap the Child Support Agency and to move to a more robust form of assessment based on previous years’ income and using Inland Revenue records. That is the conclusion that we have come to over the summer as the best way to build a strong foundation for effective collection and enforcement.
The Secretary of State’s proposals for the creation of a new streamlined agency depend on a significant reduction in expected case load, which in turns depends on the promotion of private arrangements between parents, the ending of automatic claims by those on benefits and a significant increase in the child maintenance disregard level within the benefits system. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how much money will be available to support voluntary organisations that seek to support parents in reaching voluntary agreements? Can he also explain why he is not able to tell us what the level of the increased disregard will be, as on 24 July he promised to do so, “later this year”? There are only a few days of this year left. Is it not the case that the Chancellor will not agree to the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals for a substantial increase in the disregard, or, indeed, to any other of his proposals? Is it not another example of the squabbling between Cabinet Ministers getting in the way of the process of constructive and effective government?
Millions of families trapped in the chaos of the CSA will, like Conservative Members, be bitterly disappointed by this announcement, particularly in respect of the time scale that the right hon. Gentleman outlined. The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 was supposed to solve the problem, but £500 million and six years later, the National Audit Office says that the new system is performing no better than its predecessor. The Secretary of State tells us today that it will be 2010 before the new system effectively kicks in and then there will be a further delay of up to three years in converting existing cases to the new basis of assessment. What he is saying to families in the system is that it could be 2013 before they see any relief.
Let me tell the Secretary of State that previous years’ income data is available now and a more robust system of assessments could be introduced on the basis of that data now, so why does he not seek to use that basis of assessment for existing CSA cases now, rather than wait another four or five years before bringing relief to families? If that requires legislation, I can tell him that Conservative Members would support the fast-tracking of any such legislation specifically designed to achieve that objective. Will he also explain why he is not able to extend the £10 disregard to benefit claimants on the old system now rather than delaying it until 2008?
The Secretary of State said that he would not assume a general power to write off debt, but can he confirm that the revaluation of interim maintenance assessments, of which he spoke, will actually mean a big write-off of the debt on the CSA’s balance sheet? Will he consider the case for creating a power for parents to pursue debts owed to them by virtue of an assessment made by the CSA through the civil courts, where the CSA has failed to collect those amounts? What will be the funding arrangements for setting up the new system? Will the funding for the new agency have to come in the form of a reduction in the funding available to the CSA in the period 2008 to 2010?
I turn finally to the Secretary of State’s proposals on enforcement powers. As he would recognise, enforcement can work only if based on robust assessments—we are pleased that we are now moving in that direction—but once that part of the system is working, there is clearly a role for greater enforcement powers for the new agency. We will support enforcement powers that are meaningful and effective and that will be used. In short, we will support real enforcement powers, not gimmicks designed to grab tomorrow’s headlines. I remind the Secretary of State that, last year, not a single absent parent had his or her driving licence confiscated. However, I ask the Secretary of State to look again at the idea of using deduction from earnings as a routine means of collection. It seems to us that there needs to be a distinction between compliant and non-compliant parents, and we should maintain that.
We welcome the main elements of the proposed new system that has been outlined today. We will now study the White Paper carefully. However, we cannot stand by and watch the Government turn their back on the immediate needs of the 1.4 million families trapped in the current system, and we will want to challenge the timetable that the Secretary of State has set out today, because those people need help now, not in 2013.
I start by at least welcoming those parts of the hon. Gentleman’s comments where he indicated his support for the general direction of travel, and I am grateful to him for that. It is true that, when the previous Government set up the CSA, they had the benefit of a cross-party consensus, and it is certainly my intention to try, wherever possible, to sustain that as we take these reforms forward.
The hon. Gentleman asked me specifically about the role of the voluntary sector. It is true that, in future, we want to see stronger advice and support, and yes—I do not want to use this word; it is not particularly politically correct, but it is important—some counselling in the system when parents contemplate splitting up. That is a proper role for the voluntary sector to discharge. I do not think, if I can be blunt, that that is a proper role for the state or the arms of the state.
Yes, to ensure that there is a proper service, it must be properly resourced. That aspect of the system will not come in until 2010, and I must accommodate all the expense and cost of that from within my comprehensive spending review settlement. I am confident that I can do so. The details of exactly how much support is available will need to be fixed nearer the time.
The hon. Gentleman’s principal concern was with the time scale for the transition, and I understand the point that he has made. I am sure that other hon. Members will seek to make the same point, so to all of them who are thinking of making that point, I offer a general response: we must be realistic and honest and straight with people. It would be dishonest to pretend that there is somehow a magic bullet that I can fire or a lever that I can crank in the Department to speed up the transition to the new system. If there is one thing that we should be wary of doing it is to assume that people such as me, who have responsibility at the moment, should overrule the advice that I have received from the experts who advise me and impose my judgment about a faster time scale. [Interruption.] Look, without labouring the point, that would be the real betrayal.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that he can do it faster, we look forward to hearing his advice. If it comes to a choice between the experts and the hon. Gentleman, I am afraid that I will go for the experts every day of the week. If he thinks that we can go faster, we will certainly look at his proposals and study them in detail, but we should not repeat the mistakes of the past, and the time scale seeks to reflect that properly. It is quite wrong to say that nothing will happen until 2013, as it is wrong to say that we are turning our back on the cases that are trapped in the current system—that is not true. The main aspects of the reforms will begin to come through in 2008. That is when we will be able to offer the ending of compulsion for benefit claimants and the availability of the new £10 disregard. We can do that in 2008, because new software is required to make that payment. It will not come from the CSA; the maintenance disregard will be reflected in an adjustment in benefits, so Jobcentre Plus will do that.
The hon. Gentleman asks me about the interim maintenance assessment revaluation. That is a genuinely tough call. Again, we would do a disservice to our constituents if we did not acknowledge that there is a genuine problem that needs to be addressed. It is worth pointing out that those cases stopped in 2001, because we realised that the measure was ineffective. The dropping of IMAs was done by common consent across the parties—a shared agreement. We replaced the measure with a new criminal sanction of withholding information from the CSA. The original intent was that an interim maintenance assessment would act as a punitive encouragement to the non-resident parent who was not paying to fork out the cash. It spectacularly failed to do that. In cases where we revisited interim maintenance assessments, we found that, in view of the total debt in the system, the likelihood of money getting to the parent with care was about 30 per cent.
We have to make a choice. There is no point in pretending. Let me be honest: I know what will happen. If I try to pursue the whole debt, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and perhaps some of my hon. Friends too, will say, “Hang on. This is unfair. You are asking the non-resident parent to pay back too much.” We have to prioritise and make a simple, clear choice. I want to get as much of that money back into the hands, pockets and purses of the parents with care as I can. That is going to be my priority. I think that I can recover about £500 million of that money. I am being honest and straight with the House: I do not believe that all of that £1.3 billion is now recoverable. If I have a choice between investing resource in the new organisation and debt recovery, I am going to follow the money that I can recover cost-effectively and not waste the time of the agency, or anyone else, in trying to recover debt that, frankly, is not recoverable. If that is what he is proposing, he is making a mistake.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman wants me to reconsider deduction of earnings orders. Let me be clear: the White Paper proposes that we take a power to pilot that as one aspect of the system. I am sorry if I did not make that clear. That is what we are doing. I want to make one other point clear, too. If we are to incentivise the reaching of voluntary agreements, we have to make parents who are thinking of holding up the proverbial two fingers to us again and saying, “I can play the system. I can string this out and it is going to be fine. I will wriggle out of my responsibilities,” aware that that is not going to happen. I have to make the system as unpleasant, tough and harsh as possible for the non-compliant parents. That is what this potential new power could do. I want to charge the non-resident parents, as well—
Before we come to the Secretary of State’s future plans, will he confirm what is in the White Paper: namely, that the CSA currently has £3.5 billion-worth of arrears to chase, and 250,000 uncleared cases, with an average waiting time of approaching 500 days? Before his new plans come in in 2010, what is he going to do to ensure that the agency continues to deliver? Why is the CSA planning to reduce staff numbers—I understand by something like 2,000—over the next couple of years? Surely there should not be any reductions in staff until the CSA starts to deliver and ceases to be such a shambles.
In relation to his future plans, will he acknowledge that many people—particularly after the way in which the statement has been spun over the last few days—will regard the new organisation as a re-badged son of CSA and not the fundamental reform that they want? They will certainly be disappointed that we will not see the changes until 2010.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State promised the House that his policy on the CSA would not be driven simply by gimmicks. In that case, why is he announcing a website to name and shame parents who are not paying, when he intends to use that measure only against people who have been prosecuted in any case? Does he acknowledge that that is likely to make almost no difference and will simply be seen as a gimmick?
Will the Secretary of State confirm what he did not say in the statement, which is that paragraph 5.42 of the White Paper makes it clear that he is planning to write off £800 million of the £3.5 billion arrears? I understand entirely his concerns about whether he will collect all that money, but why is he writing it off before he has even struck agreements based on the actual incomes of the non-resident parents? Surely that will be the right time to write off arrears. Will not people be suspicious that this is simply about massaging down the overall figures?
On the issue of trying to assess people’s income and collect the money, we are disappointed that the Secretary of State has not gone for the fundamental reform of folding the Child Support Agency into Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. When he says that he is going to use previous years’ income data, will he acknowledge that some of that will be 20 months out of date? That may mean that he will have the same challenges, appeals and disagreements that currently bung up the system. Is that not a serious concern?
Does the Secretary of State also acknowledge that, if he wants to demonstrate that he is getting tough on people who seek to avoid their responsibilities, he ought to change the CSA so that it is capable of pursuing parents who move abroad? That is possible for many other agencies. Are not people likely to conclude that they have had 10 years of non-delivery from the Government on the Child Support Agency, in spite of the initial promises, and that the Secretary of State is now suggesting four more years of delay? Why should people be confident that he will deliver on these grand aspirations?
I am very disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s response. He has completely misunderstood the nature of the proposals. This is fundamental reform. It is quite ridiculous of him to suggest that it is not. Every aspect of the system is being changed—root and branch. We are not delaying the reforms. We are progressing them as quickly as we can. We need primary legislation to implement the changes, so the speed at which we are able to progress will depend on the progress of that legislation.
The tougher enforcement rules that I am proposing are not a gimmick. The problem for the Liberal Democrats is always that they like to talk tough, and they brief tough when they whisper to the Daily Mail and other newspapers, but whenever they are given the choice in the House of supporting tough action against non-resident parents who are not paying up, they always wriggle out of that responsibility and find some reason or other why they are not able to support the proposals. That speaks volumes about the hon. Gentleman’s vacuity and the emptiness of his position. I have dealt with the issue of interim maintenance assessments and I do not want to repeat my remarks. We asked Sir David Henshaw to look at folding the CSA into HMRC. He rejected the idea, as has everyone else who has looked at it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem with the CSA, from day one, has been collection and enforcement, but that that does not absolve anybody of their personal responsibility? We need an adequate maintenance flow to parents with care so as to attack the ongoing problem with child poverty and to give people a sustainable platform so that they can move from welfare to work.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I agree with everything he said. It is undoubtedly true that the problems with the CSA have been partly about policy and administration—there is no point in pretending otherwise—but fundamentally those problems are the result of the actions of non-resident parents who refuse to meet their financial responsibilities to their children. That is the culture that we have to challenge fundamentally. I hope that the reforms that I am bringing forward today will succeed in bearing down on the unacceptable culture that has grown up that says that it is okay for people not to pay for their kids. It is not.
May I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement? I appreciate the amount of work that he has put into this difficult area. Two of the principles behind the agency were, first, to ensure that children got a proper and fair maintenance payment and, secondly, to ensure that responsibility was not passed on to other taxpayers—not the Government, but other taxpayers and the parents of other children. Although I welcome an attempt to make sure that there are more consensual arrangements, will he ensure that those two principles are not lost and that we will not go back to a system whereby deals were done that put the emphasis on the taxpayer? The parties who did that knew what they were doing. Finally, on experts, will he watch the Treasury experts and make sure that he continues to drive the policy, not the Treasury?
In relation to the last point, the Government as a whole are taking the policy forward. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments, because he had to struggle with these issues himself when he was in government. He was a fine Minister. I accept and agree with the two fundamental points that he raised about the basic design features of the system. That is why we have decided not to accept, for example, the suggestion that there should be a complete maintenance disregard. We have to make sure that the arrangements reflect the point that he made about a balance when it comes to thinking about what it is reasonable for the taxpayer to do. We all have an interest in preventing child poverty and preventing families from slipping into poverty when, unfortunately, they break up, but we have to do that in a balanced and proportionate way. More work needs to be done on that to make sure that there is not also a disincentive to work for lone parents, which we have to guard against as well.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his clever and subtle statement. Does he accept that while there is never a lack of support in the House for reforms, what is lacking is reforms that work? How will he measure success? Does he believe that once the reform is up and running, 40, 60 or 80 per cent. of parents using the new service will gain their maintenance payments regularly and in full?
Yes. We will have to agree with the commission and commissioner the exact performance standards that we will expect that new agency to deliver. We should set the bar high. It is important that we focus on this issue. There will be an opportunity between now and the time at which legislation comes forward and the establishment of the new commission for my right hon. Friend to influence our thinking in all those areas.
The lifting of the bar on private agreements is most welcome. Obviously, I have not yet seen the White Paper. Has the Secretary of State dealt with the core problem of which we are all aware: self-employed people who waltz around the system? How will the new arrangements deal with that major problem in the old system?
I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am sure that we have all dealt with constituency cases in which we have had to wrestle with that problem. The means to deal with it is to use HMRC data, but obviously we would welcome his and his hon. Friends’ further comments on the matter.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which focuses strongly on simplification and setting a framework for the things that have not been working. During his statement, he said, “Despite the best efforts of its staff,” and it is important that we recognise what the staff have been doing. Although they will recognise a lot in the statement as being good, they will have some uncertainty about the transition to the new arrangements. They are no doubt being briefed as we sit here, but will my right hon. Friend set out to the House how he will reassure the staff about their future and their part in the future?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to the work that her constituents have done over many years at the CSA’s offices in Plymouth. I think that this week marks the last week of service in the CSA of Jean Brown, who has been an outstanding public servant. We are all grateful for the work that she has done.
There will have to be proper negotiations among those representing CSA employees, the Department and the new commission. However, we should all reflect on an obvious fact: in an ideal world, we would not need a commission or an agency, but sadly this is not an ideal world. Many absent and non-resident parents will still decide, for a variety of reasons, not to pay up for their kids. We will need an efficient and well-run organisation to make sure that they do pay up, and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents will continue to play a part in that.
On the issue of a well-run organisation, does the Secretary of State accept that the first contact between the customer and the new commission will be essential, given that that is where things have too often broken down with the Child Support Agency? Will he ensure that when the commission is telephoned, the telephone is answered rapidly, that one named person deals with each case, and that that person is accessible, available and responsible so that the customers think that someone is actually looking after their case and they are not being bundled from pillar to post, with papers being shuffled around the agency, which has been the real problem in the past?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is important that any well-run service, whether it is in the public or private sector, delivers that kind of first-contact service. Since we have been putting more money into the agency, we have tried to improve its performance in that area. Some 95 per cent. of queued calls in the system are being dealt with. I would like that figure to be higher, but the situation has significantly improved on what came before.
I welcome the statement, which is obviously going down the right road—at least my office staff will be given a bit of respite if the proposals work. May I follow on from the question asked by my friend, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)? I have found that a lot of fathers say that they do not get paid, but in fact they work in small businesses and get paid cash in hand. Obviously, the mothers know that that is happening because they see them driving around in cars and going on holidays, but there is no way to get at them. Will the new system get them?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We know that there are such cases. If we use HMRC data, it will simplify the system and give us a proper benchmark. We will continue to explore all opportunities to look at other sources of information about non-resident parents’ income to build up a sense of what they might be doing.
I wish to follow on from a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that has not yet been answered by the Secretary of State. The statement will offer little cause for optimism to my constituent, Mrs. McCabe. In her case, arrears were built up in the UK by a non-resident parent who now cannot be pursued because he is living abroad. Under the new system, will the arrears be written off, or will the new organisation have the jurisdiction to pursue them?
We are not taking a general power to write off. Any settlement of an outstanding debt must be subject to agreement by the parent with care.
As one of the Members of Parliament who gave evidence to Sir David Henshaw when he was examining the CSA earlier this year, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), I have dealt with many cases since becoming a Member of Parliament. Like many, I am sure, I know of constituents who are owed five-figure sums by absent parents. Write-offs would be devastating to them, and I am pleased by today’s announcement about them. However, can the Secretary of State explain the existing relationship between the Birkenhead and Bolton offices? The situation is causing many problems and we cannot get answers from them. What is happening between those two offices? I have raised this point elsewhere. From my perspective, the arrangement is resulting in conflicting and inaccurate information being given to Members of Parliament and constituents alike, so it needs to be addressed immediately.
I will certainly look into the matter on behalf of my hon. Friend. It is worth pointing out that the Bolton office, which is a new service in the CSA, is dealing with some of the most difficult cases in the system—the so-called clerical cases. Obviously, we all expect a proper level of service from the CSA, so if that is not happening, I will cause inquiries to be made.
There is obviously merit in the tougher enforcement and collection procedures, so the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on those. Does he agree that in order to guard against error, there must be robust review or appeal procedures? Will he ensure that he provides that all sanctions are legal, proportionate and reasonable? Will he bear it in mind that many of us think that curfews and the withholding of passports will not satisfy those tests?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is true that the powers that we are taking are much tougher than those that are usually associated with the recovery of civil debt. However, we are taking those tougher powers for a very simple reason: we want to ensure that more of the money that is owed to families gets paid. We must tackle the culture of non-compliance, which is a fundamentally corrosive factor in our society that undermines family values and parental responsibility. Of course, any proposals in the legislation must comply with the European convention.
As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee in the previous Parliament, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust statement, which implements many of the recommendations put forward in our report of two years ago. We found that the lack of use of enforcement powers, such as the taking of driving licences, was budget-driven because enforcement teams got sucked away into carrying out assessments. I am delighted that the new agency will have the word “enforcement” in its title, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that the enforcement budget will be ring-fenced under the new arrangements so that resources are not sucked away for assessments and there is proper and robust enforcement, which has been lacking in the past?
It will clearly be a job of the commissioner and the new commission to ensure that that mistake is not made. We are certainly trying to get the agency to focus more on enforcement, which it is doing. However, I do not judge the success of enforcement powers, such as those on driving licences and curfews, by the number of times that they are used. I want the powers to be available so that they act as a deterrent to those who are thinking of cocking a snook at the system. That is why the powers should be available to the commission and the agency at the earliest possible opportunity.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about doing more to promote joint parental responsibility. I am sure that everyone agrees with the notion that it is a good idea to get the joint registration of both parents on a birth certificate. Equally, I agreed with his comments about the vital importance of ensuring that everyone understands that it is not acceptable to avoid one’s responsibilities as a parent. The Government have frequently talked the language of rights and responsibilities and have rightly said that those two things often go hand in hand. Has the Secretary of State had any conversations with his Cabinet colleagues about revisiting the question of parental contact—the rights of parents to have access to their children—or does he have any proposals of his own? If we are quite rightly raising the bar for people’s responsibilities as parents, will those rights also be extended, because many people think that the existing system is unfair on parents without care and children themselves?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair and appropriate point. In relation to child maintenance, we are talking about the obligation to comply with the law, but there is an equal and equivalent obligation on the part of the parent with care to ensure that any orders that the court makes in relation to access and custody are complied with, too. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has introduced legislation to improve the contact process and contact orders, and we need to keep the matter under careful review.
The hard-working, dedicated staff of the Child Support Agency care deeply about getting money to the children and parents who need it, so I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to give them the tools to do that work effectively. Will he say whether further work is required on the current IT system, and if so, will the provider of that system contribute towards the costs? Can he say that lessons will be learned before the procurement of the system for the new commission?
I thought that someone would mention IT. Obviously, the new commission will need a proper software and IT system—that goes without saying. We must try to learn lessons from what went wrong a few years ago, and we will work hard to make sure that that happens. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s overall support for the reforms.
In his statement, the Secretary of State said that he would “significantly strengthen the enforcement regime”, and he outlined a range of measures, which I broadly support. However, they will not be available for four years, and in the meantime obligations are all too easily, and too widely, ignored. Will he consider bringing forward the additional powers that he mentioned in his statement?
Yes, I will, and we propose that once the Bill completes its passage through the House, as I hope that it will, those new enforcement powers should be available to the current agency. The powers will not await the establishment of the new commission.
May I give a general welcome to what my right hon. Friend said, and may I ask him to consider an issue that the existing system does not deal with—the possibility of shared care between two parents? I have a classic case in my constituency—other hon. Members will have similar ones—in which, over a 10-year period, each of the two parents looked after their child for three days and a bit every week. The problem is that the size of the bit kept changing, so there were calculations and recalculations, and money passed back and forth between the parents. Diaries were kept, and there was a great deal of acrimony. There were hearings, appeals, and visits to Ministers, involving the two MPs’ offices. It could all have been avoided from the very beginning, if it was recognised that both parents had shared care, and neither owed any maintenance to the other.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The White Paper does not propose any changes to the way in which maintenance liability is assessed in such cases, but I assure him and the House that, if there are other Members who feel as strongly as he does, we are prepared and willing to listen to representations on that point.
Like every MP, I have long strings of constituents coming to my constituency office and surgeries with problems to do with the CSA, so I welcome many of the proposals announced today, not least because I called for some of the measures between 2002 and 2005, when I was the Liberal Democrat spokesman on work and pensions. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) has pointed out, one major concern is the fact that it will take some years for certain of the reforms to come into effect. Will the Secretary of State explain why he, or rather his predecessors, failed to introduce the reforms five and 10 years ago, when all concerned were calling for them?
I think that successive Ministers and Governments tried everything that they possibly could to make the system work. I had to make a decision on whether to proceed with the reforms or not, and I decided not to. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and I look forward to him taking over his former responsibilities once more, in place of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).
My right hon. Friend’s statement will be welcomed by many parents in my constituency who have yet to receive a penny piece in maintenance, despite the fact that their former partners often have very good lifestyles and drive around in big cars. I would like clarification on two matters. First, what safeguards will be put in place to prevent those who have abusive or violent partners from being coerced into private arrangements that may involve a lot less money than they would get through the new system, and, secondly, what sanctions will be put in place if people make a private arrangement but fail to honour it?
If the voluntary arrangement breaks down, the parent with care is free to submit an application to the agency, or to the commission in future, and we will rigorously enforce those applications. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an important point, and we must make sure that parents with care do not become the victims of abusive, violent or coercive behaviour, aimed at making them settle cases against their best interests. I accept that we have more work to do on that, and we must fix the level of maintenance disregard, as that is an important issue, too. At the end of the day, we must all address one fundamental question, and answer it in one way or another: on the back of everything that we have learned over the past 13 years, do we think that it is the right way forward to move to a system that tries genuinely to encourage and incentivise voluntary agreements? I believe that if the answer to that question is yes, we can deal with the concerns that my hon. Friend raised. If the answer to the question is no, we have a more fundamental disagreement, but I think that my hon. Friend is with me on the main issue.
In broadly welcoming the statement that the Secretary of State made today, may I pay tribute to the hard-working staff of the CSA in Plymouth? It is certainly not their fault that the current system has fallen down so badly. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not enough simply to get the architecture of his new arrangements right—it is crucial to get the culture of the new office right, too. It must be customer-focused, and must deliver a service in a non-bureaucratic, consumer-friendly way. If he can achieve that, he will certainly have our wholehearted support.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have tried to make it clear that the failures of the agency are not the fault of the staff. We all have to look to our own actions—we passed the legislation, and we have contributed to the problem; we should be clear about that. I agree with him about the need for the new commission to offer a much more customer-focused service that is more efficient and friendly, and I think that it will be able to do that. Dropping benefit compulsion could probably reduce the flow of new cases into the system by about two thirds to three quarters. That is one of the fundamental pieces of the new system—he called it architecture—and better delivery of a customer service will follow from that.
May I seek the urgent help and assistance of the Secretary of State and his officials with regard to the bizarre and extraordinary treatment of my constituent, Mr. Thorpe, who is a compliant and part-resident parent? Until July this year, he had a nil assessment from the Child Support Agency, but he is now being chased by a debt collection agency that, on the CSA’s instructions, wants to recover debts of some £226,000.
Obviously, I know absolutely nothing about that particular case, but I am happy to look into it for the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Nick Hurd, supported by Gregory Barker, Mr. Richard Benyon, Mr. Douglas Carswell, Mr. Martin Caton, Colin Challen, Mr. David Chaytor, Jim Dowd, Mr. David Drew, Julia Goldsworthy, Mr. Michael Meacher and Dr. Desmond Turner, presented a Bill to make provision for the Secretary of State to publish action plans in connection with promoting the sustainability of local communities and to enable local authorities and local communities to participate in the formulation and implementation of those plans; to require the Secretary of State to provide information on government spending in local authority areas to local authorities upon request; to make provision for local authorities to produce local spending plans; to require the Secretary of State to approve and implement those plans; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January, and to be printed [Bill 17].
Energy Saving (Daylight)
Mr. Tim Yeo, supported by Peter Bottomley, Sir John Butterfill, Mr. David Chaytor, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David Kidney, Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews, Lembit Öpik, Richard Ottaway, Dr. Desmond Turner, Mr. John Whittingdale and Sir George Young, presented a Bill to advance time by one hour throughout the year to create lighter evenings, for an experimental period; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 26 January, and to be printed [Bill 18].
Land Use (Gardens Protection etc.)
Mrs. Caroline Spelman, supported by Mr. Eric Pickles, Alistair Burt, Mr. Robert Syms, Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Greg Clark, Mr. Greg Hands, Robert Neill, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Mr. James Arbuthnot, Michael Gove and Michael Fabricant, presented a Bill to make provision for the protection of gardens and urban green space; to confer on local authorities powers to set housing density targets; to make provision about the transfer of land formerly used for economic purposes to residential use; to transfer to local authorities certain powers relating to housing and planning; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 February, and to be printed [Bill 19].
Disabled Children (Family Support)
Mr. Gary Streeter, supported by Mrs. Joan Humble, Danny Alexander, Dr. Hywel Francis, Mr. Stephen Dorrell, Angela Browning, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mrs. Janet Dean, Annette Brooke, Mr. Brooks Newmark, Alison Seabeck and Mrs. Betty Williams, presented a Bill to make provision about the assessment and delivery of short breaks and respite care for carers of disabled children; to amend the law relating to disabled children and their carers; to place duties on local authorities and the National Health Service in respect of disabled children and their carers; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February, and to be printed [Bill 20].
Off-road Vehicles (Registration)
Graham Stringer, supported by Mr. George Howarth, Ann Coffey, Helen Jones, Clive Efford, Mr. Lee Scott, Mr. Mike Hancock, Geraldine Smith, Jim Cousins, Jane Kennedy, Mr. Clive Betts and Ian Stewart, presented a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a compulsory registration scheme for off-road vehicles; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 March, and to be printed[Bill 21].
House of Commons (Participation)
Mr. Robert Walter, supported by Derek Conway, Mr. John Redwood, Bill Etherington, Angela Browning, Mr. Christopher Fraser, Mr. Nigel Evans, David Taylor, Mr. Christopher Chope, Derek Wyatt, Mr. James Clappison and Peter Luff, presented a Bill to provide for the Speaker of the House of Commons to have power to determine the eligibility of members of the House of Commons to participate in certain legislative and other proceedings of the House: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 March, and to be printed [Bill 22].
Financial Mutuals Arrangements
Sir John Butterfill, supported by Mr. Adrian Bailey, Dr. Vincent Cable, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. David Curry, Kelvin Hopkins, Mr. Andrew Love, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, Mr. Ken Purchase, Mr. Mike Weir and Sir Nicholas Winterton, presented a Bill to remove existing funding limits in respect of building societies, subject to regulation by the Financial Services Authority; to provide consequential rights to building society members; and to enable specified categories of mutual organisations to transfer engagements to one another or to a company: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 March, and to be printed [Bill 23].
Temporary and Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment)
Paul Farrelly, supported by Charlotte Atkins, Colin Burgon, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. Bob Laxton, Mr. Andrew Love, Ann McKechin, Mr. George Mudie, Geraldine Smith, Ian Stewart and Derek Wyatt, presented a Bill to prohibit discrimination against temporary and agency workers; to make provision about the enforcement of rights of such workers; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 March, and to be printed [Bill 24].
Local Planning Authorities (Energy and Energy Efficiency)
Mr. Martin Caton, supported by Gregory Barker, Colin Challen, Mr. John Gummer, David Howarth, Mr. Nick Hurd, Mr. Michael Meacher, Mr. Elliot Morley, Andrew Stunell, Joan Walley, Dr. Alan Whitehead and Mr. Tim Yeo, presented a Bill to enable local planning authorities to make certain requirements regarding the generation, conservation and use of energy; to require local planning authorities to consider specifying requirements for the generation of renewable and low carbon energy and the imposition of energy efficiency standards when determining planning applications; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January, and to be printed [Bill 25].
Vehicle Registration Marks
Richard Ottaway, supported by Mr. Greg Knight, Mr. John Maples, Derek Wyatt, Mr. Greg Pope, Mr. Phil Willis, Mr. Malcolm Moss and Mr. Nigel Evans, presented a Bill to make further provision about the retention of vehicle registration marks pending transfer: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 March, and to be printed [Bill 26].
Polling Stations (Regulation)
Mr. Roger Godsiff, supported by Mr. Mohammad Sarwar, Mr. Marsha Singh, Mr. Piara S. Khabra, Mike Gapes, Mr. George Mudie, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. Khalid Mahmood, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Mrs. Ann Cryer and Mr. John Spellar, presented a Bill to make it an offence to campaign in prescribed areas around polling stations on the day of certain elections; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February, and to be printed [Bill 27].
Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Property)
Mr. Shailesh Vara, supported by David Davis, Mr. Dominic Grieve, Patrick Mercer, Mr. Edward Garnier, Mr. Jonathan Djanogly, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Lady Hermon, Mr. Rob Wilson, Mr. Stewart Jackson and Dr. Richard Taylor, presented a Bill to amend section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 and section 3 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 in relation to the use of force in the prevention of crime or in the defence of persons or property: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 March, and to be printed [Bill 28].
Streetscape and Highways design
Mr. Alan Duncan, supported by Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mrs. Nadine Dorries, James Duddridge, Mr. Nigel Evans, Charles Hendry, Kate Hoey, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Mr. Bob Laxton, Anne Main, Mr. Mark Prisk and Mr. Graham Stuart, presented a Bill to make provision about standards of streetscape and highways design; to require the Secretary of State to provide guidance and advice to local authorities and the Highways Agency on streetscape and highways design; to require local authorities to publish policies on the quality of design of traffic signs and highway developments; to require local authorities to have regard to such policies when causing or permitting traffic signs to be placed on or near a road or when carrying out highways work; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 March [Bill 29].
Cystic Fibrosis (Exemption from Prescription Charges)
Mr. John Hayes, supported by Greg Clark, Michael Gove, Mr. Brian Binley, Mr. Iain Duncan-Smith, Angela Watkinson, Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson, David Taylor, Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Lee Scott, Mr. Stewart Jackson and John Bercow, presented a Bill to exempt persons with cystic fibrosis from charges for drugs, medicines, appliances and pharmaceutical services; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 March, and to be printed [Bill 30].
Post-16 Education and Training
Mr. Barry Sheerman, supported by Mr. Tim Boswell, Mr. David Chaytor, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. Rob Wilson, Jeff Ennis, Mr. Gordon Marsden, Helen Jones, Tim Farron, Paul Holmes, Dr. Tony Wright and Mr. David Curry, presented a Bill to make provision about post-16 education and training; to amend the law relating to the definition of compulsory school age; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February, and to be printed [Bill 31].
Trade Union Rights and Freedoms
John McDonnell, supported by Ms Katy Clark, Alan Keen, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Nia Griffith, Jon Cruddas, Jon Trickett, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Kelvin Hopkins and Mrs Siân C. James, presented a Bill to make provision for the law relating to the rights and freedoms of workers and of trade unions, the regulation of relations between employers and workers, protection of employment in lawful industrial action, and remedies in trade disputes; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 March, and to be printed [Bill 32].
Electric Shock Training Devices
Sarah McCarthy-Fry, supported by Mr. David Drew, Tony Baldry, Mr. Mike Hancock, Lyn Brown, Mr. Roger Gale, Ms Diana R. Johnson, Mr. John Whittingdale, Lynda Waltho, Mr. David Anderson, Andrew Gwynne and Laura Moffat, presented a Bill to prohibit the sale, manufacture, hire, loan, importation or use of electric shock training devices; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 February, and to be printed [Bill 33].
Waging War (Parliament’s Role and Responsibility)
Mr. Michael Meacher, supported by Alan Simpson, Mr. Neil Gerrard, David Taylor, Adam Price, Dr. Vincent Cable, Mr. Nicholas Brown, Mike Penning, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Don Foster, Mr. David Chaytor and Mark Fisher, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to lay before the House of Commons a mechanism for obtaining the approval of that House for the deployment of British forces for armed conflict: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 February, and to be printed [Bill 34].
Housing Association (Rights and Representation of Residents)
Emily Thornberry, supported by Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Clive Betts, Mike Gapes, Mr. Andrew Love, Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Andrew Slaughter, Ms Dawn Butler, Mr. Sadiq Khan, Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods and Harry Cohen presented a Bill to make provision about the rights and representation of housing association residents; to make requirements of housing associations in relation to service delivery; to make further provision for the regulation of housing associations; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 March, and to be printed [Bill 35].
Infrastructure Audit (Housing Development)
Mr. Francis Maude, supported by Mr. Tim Boswell, Greg Clark, Mrs. Nadine Dorries, Mr. Nick Gibb, Charles Hendry, Nick Herbert, Tim Loughton, Mr. Andrew Tyrie and Mr. Nicholas Soames, presented a Bill to require an audit of existing or planned infrastructure in areas of significant housing development: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 26 January, and to be printed [Bill 36].
INCOME TAX BILL
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 60 (Tax law rewrite bills),
That the Income Tax Bill be proceeded with as a tax law rewrite Bill.—[Tony Cunningham.]
Question put and agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),
That the draft Petroleum Act 1998 (Third Party Access) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 20th November, be approved.—[Tony Cunningham.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),
That the Customs and Excise Duties (Travellers’ Allowances and Personal Reliefs) (New Member States) (Amendment) Order 2006 (S.I., 2006, No. 3157), dated 28th November 2006, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th November, be approved.—[Tony Cunningham.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),
Welfare Reform and Pensions
That the Report by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions under section 82 of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999, stating the changes in law which the Secretary of State is proposing in the Welfare Reform Bill by way of amendments to the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979, the amount of expenditure which the Secretary of State proposes to incur and the purposes for which he proposes to incur it (HC 39), which was laid before this House on 21st November, be approved.—[Tony Cunningham.]
Question agreed to.
EUROPEAN UNION DOCUMENTS
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),
Electronic Recording and Reporting of Fishing Activities and Means of Remote Sensing
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 14181/04, Draft Council Regulation on electronic recording and reporting of fishing activities and on means of remote sensing; and supports the Government’s objective of ensuring that this proposal delivers improved management and control, thereby contributing to the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.—[Tony Cunningham.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I will not detain the House for long, but you will recall that I raised my objection to the scheduling of Northern Ireland business at the same time as the Welsh Grand Committee. You advised me to pursue the matter through the usual channels, but I have not succeeded in preventing the two pieces of parliamentary business from taking place at the same time. Is there any other channel that I can use to prevent such disrespect to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who is Secretary of State for Wales and for Northern Ireland, and the rest of us who are obliged to cover both portfolios?
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Three weeks ago, Royal Assent was given to legislation that cleared the way for the restoration of locally accountable, democratic, power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. As the House knows, the Government are firmly committed to the aim of devolving policing and justice powers to the Assembly, as envisaged in the Good Friday agreement. Since 1998, considerable progress has been made in creating the conditions that will make that goal possible. The legislation passed by the House earlier this year provided a framework for that, and it put in place a process to ensure that devolution can take place only with support across the communities of Northern Ireland. It is right that there should be such support.
I understand the concerns of the Democratic Unionist party, and I have articulated in debates in the House the fact that the circumstances must be right. I know, too, that all the parties, including the DUP, support the principle of devolution. The Government have a responsibility to make sure that devolution can take place quickly when the Assembly requests it. We set a timetable for May 2008 in the St. Andrews Agreement, and I have asked my officials in the Northern Ireland Office to press on with the necessary preparatory work, including the appropriate Orders in Council, to ensure that we achieve that.
It has been a long and difficult road to reach that point, but all sides have shown determination and commitment to take Northern Ireland forward, and I commend them on doing so. I have no doubt that any remaining obstacles can be negotiated before journey’s end at Parliament Buildings on 26 March next year. When we reach that point, the kind of politics that we in the House and our colleagues in Wales and Scotland take for granted will increasingly become the order of the day in Northern Ireland, which is as it should be. The “normal” will then cease to be remarkable. The Bill helps Northern Ireland further along the road to normality. In the crucial areas of justice and security, it reflects the very significant progress that has been made and which has been well documented in this House, even in the 18 months or so that I have had the privilege of speaking at the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
I am not an expert in Northern Ireland affairs, but I noted the right hon. Gentleman’s reference to normalisation. May I direct his attention to clause 7, which is an ouster clause of the most pernicious kind? We have rejected outright such a provision for jurisdictions in England and Wales, and it appears to contradict the recommendations of my noble Friend Lord Carlile of Berriew. Will the Secretary of State comment on that?
I am happy to do so, although I was about to deal with the meat of the Bill. Clause 7 is an ouster clause—there is no doubt about that—that effectively prevents challenges to decisions by the Director of Public Prosecutions. It restricts challenges to his decisions to circumstances in which there has been bad faith or other exceptional circumstances. That puts the case law on reviews of the Attorney-General’s decision not to deschedule in Diplock cases on a statutory footing. It derives from the Shuker case, which confirmed that the procedure for determining the mode of trial for the accused is not suitable for the full panoply of judicial review. Cases could be reviewed on grounds such as bad faith and dishonesty. It is not a change from the current position—in any event, the DPP’s decision is about the mode of trial, and the defendant will receive at least as fair a trial without a jury as with one, so they will not suffer any detriment. As I shall make clear, the intention is to move to jury trials as the norm. Juryless trials will be the exception, unlike the so-called Diplock arrangements, whereby juryless trials are the norm.
The Secretary of State began by referring to the timetable for the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. He tried to persuade the DUP that the 2008 timetable is right—I am not sure that it is, but I will come to that later—but does he not accept the fact that there is an inherent contradiction? He is aiming for normalisation, but the Bill, which I hope we will scrutinise carefully this afternoon, extends the opportunities for non-jury trials, and does not decrease them, as he suggested.
No, I do not agree with the hon. Lady. It is not often that I have to disagree with her. The measures proposed in the Bill, which I shall describe shortly, are the right ones for the right time, given the progress towards normalisation and the need to complete the process of normalisation.
The Bill puts in place arrangements that are designed for the Northern Ireland of the 21st century, not the Northern Ireland of the 1970s. Trial by jury is one of the cornerstones of the criminal justice system, but for many years it was simply not possible for all cases in Northern Ireland to be tried before a jury because Northern Ireland was in the midst of the nightmare of paramilitary terror on a massive scale. Non-jury trial was therefore a necessity in those circumstances.
Northern Ireland has now moved forward enough to enable a return to a presumption for jury trial in all cases, even those that would currently be heard before a Diplock court. However, I recognise that, although circumstances have undoubtedly changed significantly for the better, even in recent months, and the paramilitary threat is greatly reduced, it has not gone away completely.
Dissident republicans who seek to undermine democracy and destroy the prospect of devolved government under the St. Andrews legislation and the St. Andrews agreement are still there, and they are still threatening peace and progress to the extent that they can. They are isolated, they are small, they are marginalised, but they are potentially dangerous, as we have seen.
Loyalist paramilitaries are still active and have yet to decommission their weapons. Organised crime is a real problem which we are working hard to tackle, and there are those—thankfully declining in numbers but nevertheless there—who still want to retain a hold on their communities through fear and intimidation. For these reasons, there is still a risk of perverse verdicts, either by intimidation or by “stacking” a jury to influence its decision. We intend to minimise that risk by reforming the jury system.
In his move towards a presumption for jury trials, will the Secretary of State take account of the recent report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which indicated that there is indeed a considerable degree of intimidation going on, not just by paramilitary-related groups, but by other criminal groups, and directed not just at business people, but right across the communities in Northern Ireland?
We are dealing with extortion and those other serious crimes through the Organised Crime Task Force. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that especially in relation to organised crime, that is still an issue. There have been only—one might say “only”—six cases of known jury intimidation in the past five years, and he and I know well that that figure could be significantly higher. That is why there is the option of a juryless trial after a recommendation by the Director of Public Prosecutions, acting perhaps on intelligence or other information provided by the police or the security service, for example. After the Bill receives Royal Assent, the DPP can go to a judge and say, “The norm of a jury trial should be suspended in this case and provision should be made for one without a jury.”
Again, I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I know that his wife was involved in a car accident recently, and my colleagues and, I am sure, the entire House, wish her well, particularly before Christmas. We may have our arguments, but I wish his family a very enjoyable Christmas, which I know may well be spent in Northern Ireland.
Before he welcomes the Bill and tries to persuade the House to agree to it without a vote, may I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there is already on the statute book the Criminal Justice Act 2003, passed three years ago in the House, which allows for non-jury trials in Northern Ireland? Rarely does mainland legislation extend to Northern Ireland—we seem to have separate bits of legislation these days—but that Act extends to Northern Ireland and allows for non-jury trials where there is a real and present danger of jury tampering. Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House about why it has never been used—never been activated by the DPP? Why should we have any confidence that the DPP will exercise his discretion any differently in relation to the Bill before us?
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks about Elizabeth, who is getting better. Yes, I will be spending Christmas in Northern Ireland and the hon. Lady might guess where that might be, although I am not supposed to say where I am at any time.
Yes, the non-jury provisions in the 2003 Act will still be implemented in Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady is right. Our proposed new system of non-jury trial will apply only in the restricted set of circumstances prescribed in terms of the statutory test. The ability of the Director of Public Prosecutions to make a certificate ends at arraignment, so if jury tampering becomes evident after the arraignment has taken place, the DPP cannot intervene. The 2003 Act covers the other cases, including those where jury tampering becomes apparent after the case has started. The jury tampering provisions will be implemented in Northern Ireland early in January—in a few weeks.
The Bill puts in place a number of measures, including juror anonymity and restrictions on the disclosure of personal information about jurors. It also abolishes the defendant’s right to peremptory challenge, bringing Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales. To balance this, the Attorney-General will issue guidelines restricting the exercise of the prosecution’s right of stand-by and the exercise of jury checks. We will also be pursuing other juror protection measures administratively. These include better routine checks to identify disqualified jurors, making separate accommodation for jurors available, and making better use of screening of jurors from the public gallery.
The Secretary of State is aware of the important work of the historical inquiries team, which is looking at the unsolved murders arising out of the troubles in Northern Ireland—thousands of unsolved murders. Will the provisions of the Bill apply to those cases, if the inquiry team is able to produce sufficient evidence to warrant prosecutions, given the criteria set out in the Bill for non-jury trials?
Yes, on the assumption that any such cases are brought after the Bill’s procedures have been implemented, of course that will apply. In some of the examples to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the DPP may well be able to go to the judge and say, “I think a trial without a jury is appropriate in these cases.”
The changes introduced by the Bill will help to reduce the risks to jurors, but even with these reforms, there will still be cases where there are paramilitary and community-based pressures on a jury that could lead to a perverse verdict. I accept that there may be exceptional cases which cannot be tried before a jury. However, we will take a radically different approach to how these cases will be managed.
The decision to move to a non-jury trial will be made by the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland in future. He or she will be required to apply a defined statutory test that is based not on the offence itself, but on the circumstances in which it was committed. Crucially, non-jury trial will be possible only where there is a risk to the administration of justice.
There has been a downward trend in the number of Diplock trials over recent years, and we want to get to a point where there are no cases at all that must be heard without a jury. However, I am sure that the House will understand that it would not be appropriate to remove that option entirely, even in the current improved conditions in Northern Ireland.
Considerable progress has already been made in normalising the security profile in Northern Ireland, as the Independent Monitoring Commission has reported. Towers and observation posts in south Armagh have been demolished, troops are being withdrawn from police stations in Northern Ireland, military bases and installations in Northern Ireland are being closed, most routine patrolling by the military has ceased, troop levels are at an all-time low, and not a soldier was on the streets on 12 July, for the first time in almost 40 years. However, there is still more to do.
I have two concerns about the ouster clause. First, merely allowing it to be in the Bill will lead almost inescapably to mission creep, whereby it is used more and more to return to the very thing that we are trying to get away from. Secondly, and even more importantly, what guarantee can the Minister give us that putting an ouster clause into Northern Ireland legislation will not be used as a precedent for introducing it in the rest of the UK, knowing as we do that the Government have tried to do exactly that in the past?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and it is appropriate for him to raise it. He will have a chance to pursue it in Committee, and no doubt he will. As he knows better than I do, Northern Ireland has a very different set of circumstances—that is why these provisions are tailor-made for its particular history and for its current emergence from conflict and the circumstances in which that is occurring. Organised crime committed by ex-paramilitaries or, indeed, still active paramilitaries, is a particularly serious problem.
I shall of course return to it in Committee, but I must press the Minister. What assurance can he give that the inclusion of an ouster clause in Northern Ireland legislation will not be used as a precedent for including it in British legislation, knowing as we do that the Government have tried to do this before? They were defeated on it by reviews that took place a couple of years ago, yet they seem to think that it is still acceptable in special cases in Northern Ireland.
Why have not the Government provided in the Bill the safeguard that exists in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which requires the prosecution to apply to a judge to agree that a case should go to non-jury trial? Why could not that procedure have been adopted in this case?
I did consider that, as my officials and ministerial colleagues know. My initial instinct was to see whether something similar to the provision in the 2003 Act could be applied. However, because of the need to handle intelligence and highly sensitive national security information, the DPP was prescribed the role of going before a judge in private to make the case that is necessary in the circumstances.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who questioned me closely on this matter and wondered whether there might be a role for the Attorney-General in this respect. It is unusual for Select Committees to support Governments unanimously, and I am especially grateful for that.
The right hon. Gentleman must not go too far. The Committee was not unanimous in every particular, as I shall make plain in my speech, but it was unanimous on the general principle that there should be provision for non-jury trials, as it was on organised crime in its report in the summer.
I was thinking as I said it that I was being a bit provocative to the hon. Gentleman, and indeed I was.
From 1 August next year, the military will take on a fundamentally different role in Northern Ireland. Routine military support to the police will cease. However, the military will remain available for certain specialised tasks in support of the civil authorities, consistent with their role in the rest of the United Kingdom—for example, in the conduct of search and rescue operations. Additionally, while the armed forces are not responsible for maintaining national security in the UK, they provide focused support in this area to the civil authorities. As envisaged by the Patten report, the police will be able to call on military support for public order situations if they require it. It will be for the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to decide if he needs support of this kind.
The military will need some statutory powers; without them, a soldier would have no more powers than the average citizen. The Bill provides those powers. It creates powers of entry, search, arrest and seizure necessary for the military to carry out its role effectively. Some of those powers also extend to the police, as is set out in the Bill.
Those powers in respect of the military were previously contained in part 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The British Government made a commitment to repeal those provisions in the joint declaration of 2003. In effect, the Bill recycles the powers that they had previously committed to repeal.
I remind my hon. Friend that just eight of the 48 provisions in the previous legislation—the part 7 powers—have been transported into this Bill. Forty of them—the vast majority—have been lapsed, appropriately and rightly.
The powers are necessary to deal with a number of different circumstances. They will help in managing parades, road closures, and dealing with extreme public order incidents such as what happened at the Whiterock parade last year, which mercifully was not repeated this year. They may be used in dealing with organised crime and will be essential in combating loyalist and dissident republican terrorism, which is still with us. Let me give some practical examples. The stop and search powers may be used to search people for weapons around a parade or a sports event where it is anticipated that there might be trouble, to deal effectively with bomb threats by allowing police to cordon off the area and providing appropriate powers of access if the device is on private property, to search premises ahead of VIP visits, and to allow the police or the Army to chase criminals across private land without breaching trespass laws. Those of us who were briefed by the Chief Constable after the Whiterock parade last year will know that these powers are necessary. We saw the horrifying attacks on soldiers and police officers by loyalist gunmen and the steps that the police and the Army had to take to try to deal with that situation, including going through premises and on to nearby premises.
This is a matter of concern to everyone in the House. In talking about normalisation, if we are asking people to live normal lives, we have to ask the police to do the same. I am worried that if the police have these powers and do not use them properly, we may end up giving people who will not recognise the police a stick to beat us over the head with.
I note my hon. Friend’s general point, which is well made. The fact is, however, that the PSNI is now the most accountable and regulated force in the world, with the Policing Board, the district policing partnerships and the police ombudsman, who is, appropriately, not known for her reticence in these matters. Apart from political oversight by this House and, in future, by a devolved Executive and Assembly, the structures of the Policing Board and the other arrangements provide important safeguards.
The Secretary of State rehearsed a list of powers attributed to the Army—entry, arrest, stopping without suspicion, and so on—that are not within the ambit of or under the control of the PSNI. That potentially creates a hugely difficult political situation in Northern Ireland, particularly as the actions of the Army are not, and will not be, subject to the same investigation and scrutiny as those of the PSNI. They are not subject to the ombudsman’s office or to several other authorities that currently have the power to investigate activity by the PSNI if necessary. That route will not be available, or at least not to the same extent, where it is deemed that the Army may be at fault.
Again, I understand the point that my hon. Friend legitimately raises. During this summer’s marching season, and especially on 12 July, the Army was not involved, which is testimony to the work that has been done on the ground and to the dialogue and negotiation promoted between people who had never talked to each other before, including between the loyal orders and his party, which is fantastic progress. The object is not to have the Army involved at all. When it is involved, however, it will be involved in support of the police, under the accountability arrangements that I described earlier, and only in support of the police. In performing that role, however, it might have to make arrests and conduct searches. We must provide for circumstances such as those that occurred at Whiterock. If those circumstances occur at all in future in Northern Ireland, I think that they will be very isolated, as the past year has shown. However, the possibility is still there. Additionally, while the armed forces are not responsible for maintaining national security in the United Kingdom, they do provide focused support to the civil authorities.
Northern Ireland continues to be a challenging operating environment for the police and the Army, not least because the risk of terrorism from dissident republicans, loyalists and international groups remains real. Therefore, aspects of military support in Northern Ireland, including explosive ordnance disposal work, will remain different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom for the time being.
I am satisfied that the powers in the Bill are the minimum necessary, rather than the maximum necessary. We considered that extremely carefully, partly to address the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and his colleagues. The powers have been developed by considering the role of the police and military in the future, not by looking back at the past. Appropriate safeguards have been put in place, which will give some comfort to members of the SDLP and others in Northern Ireland. The safeguards ensure that the use of the powers will be reviewed each year, and that the Secretary of State will be able to repeal the powers by order, under clause 40, when they are no longer needed. As we make increasing progress towards normalisation, therefore, the option of lapsing the powers by order will be available, without the need for fresh primary legislation.
To assure those of us with concerns, the Secretary of State has simply offered the lapsing of powers. However, the Bill essentially makes permanent provisions that were on an emergency basis and subject to renewal. When the Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Bill was debated in October 2005, the Secretary of State said:
“Provisions have been on a temporary footing since 1973, but have been necessary to tackle the security situation. They were never intended to be permanent, and we have always remained committed to their ultimate removal, once the security situation allowed.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2005; Vol. 438, c. 628.]
What has changed?
As I have described, 40 of the provisions will lapse under the Bill. That is a big change, in tandem with the normalisation that has occurred. In addition, as I just explained, I decided to insert clause 40—of course, I decided to insert all the clauses myself—as I was particularly concerned about that matter. I know that the hon. Gentleman and his party will share that concern. There will be a provision to lapse the powers by order, as and when circumstances require. In relation to devolution of policing and justice, the Executive will have an influence and be able to say to the Secretary of State that it is time for such powers to be lapsed, if it so judges.
We have now got to the point at which we need legislation that marches in parallel with normalisation. The constant renewal process is not what we want. We want to put in place a long-term framework for the future, which—at the risk of repeating myself too much—contains the power to lapse by order certain provisions when they no longer seem relevant or have become outdated.
The Secretary of State referred to approaches that the Executive might make to the Secretary of State after policing and justice has been devolved. Is not he making huge presumptions about what the scope of the devolved powers and functions will be? Does not he recognise that the Bill is pregnant with implications and potential complications in relation to devolution of justice and policing?
I am not sure whether it is pregnant, but I understand my hon. Friend’s point. If he considers the Bill in the round, he will see that its different provisions, from the presumption for jury trial to replace Diplock arrangements, to the significant reduction and modernisation of police and Army powers and other matters covered, are appropriate for Northern Ireland today and, I believe, in the future, as they are designed to be.
Both the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), and the Independent Monitoring Commission have highlighted the problem of organised crime in the private security industry in Northern Ireland. The current regulatory scheme in Northern Ireland is focused on paramilitary organisations, and is designed to prevent private security firms from being used as a front for criminal activity by terrorists. Companies offering manned guarding services are granted a licence provided that a proscribed organisation will not benefit. The provisions in the Bill will bring arrangements in Northern Ireland into line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I am now slightly confused about the Secretary of State’s position on the ouster clause, as he has just said that the Bill is for Northern Ireland in the long term. In relation to clause 7, however, he said that the special security circumstances of Northern Ireland were the reason for the provision. Is he saying that he expects the circumstances that justify clause 7 to exist in the long term?
I am saying that the provision is necessary because we cannot, in the foreseeable future, envisage a situation in which we would not want to keep the option for the Director of Public Prosecutions to go to a judge and say that it is not safe to have a trial in particular circumstances. I can provide the hon. Gentleman with figures on the massive reduction—from hundreds down to just tens—in the number of Diplock cases over the past 20 years, which shows the scale of the progress. As I said, the provision is for an exceptional and infrequent occurrence, but it must be in the Bill.
The Secretary of State referred to the circumstances in which the DPP would go to a judge, which, I think, would be acceptable to those on both sides of the House. As I read clause 1, however, the DPP does not have to go to a judge; he issues a certificate, hands it to the judge, and that is the end of the matter.
Will the Secretary of State consider what he was just saying? The fact is that the power will lie with the DPP to issue the certificate. He will decide to do so simply on the basis that there is a risk—not a likely or substantial risk, but just a risk—that the administration of justice might be impaired were a jury trial to be held. Once the DPP has issued that certificate, it cannot be questioned and challenged in the court, by the court or anywhere else.
There is balance. Otherwise, as I explained, there would be a risk to national security with the possibility of intelligence getting into the wrong hands. I repeat: the Bill is designed to ensure that juryless trials are the exception and hardly ever occur. We have looked at the process extremely carefully and taken advice from the Chief Constable and others involved in law enforcement, and the approach that we have taken seems to be the best one. It strikes the right balance between meeting the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and the overriding importance of ensuring that the administration of justice in Northern Ireland is not contaminated by jury intimidation, which it has often been in the past.
The Secretary of State’s point adds to our concerns rather than takes away from them. He suggested that the DPP would use the powers not just because of a risk to the administration of justice, but because of a risk to national security. Has the Secretary of State let the cat out of the bag? Is not that the real reason for the Government’s three-point turn?
We have had pregnancies and three-point turns; I do not know what we will have next. I have a lot of respect for my hon. Friend on this and other issues, but that is not what I was saying. My point was that if the DPP judges that there is a risk to the safe administration of justice because of information that he has received, the source of which is a matter for national security in terms of intelligence and so on, he is entitled to go to the judge and say, “This is a certificate for a juryless trial.” I am not trying to suggest anything else, anything more or anything less than that.
Not for ever.
The Secretary of State implied that the trial judge could reject the certificate if it was unreasonable, which would be a sensible compromise, but that is not what the Bill does. Clause 2 simply says that the DPP will lodge the certificate with the court. There is no opportunity for the certificate to be rejected by the court. If there were—this is something for the Standing Committee to consider—it would be a wholly different matter.
Yes, it would be a wholly different matter, as I said. I considered that carefully and discussed it with those who would be involved in it, including the Chief Constable and his senior officers, and I am sure that we are taking the right approach in the circumstances in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is correct: the Bill is clear that the DPP essentially takes the decision and issues the certificate, but he must have good grounds for that. The judge may want to ask him privately about the decision. The alternative of effectively having a contested application for a certificate, with the defence and the prosecution coming into the picture, and the judge effectively being the determining agency, was examined. We considered it carefully, but it is a big risk in the circumstances, which is why we have opted for this provision. I repeat, however, that it is due to be focused on a very small number of cases, which will become increasingly infrequent over the years, and that is its purpose.
The remit of the Security Industry Authority will be extended to Northern Ireland. The regime will put greater checks on the industry to ensure that all those who work within it are properly qualified and fit to do so. The potential benefits are immense: better public safety, less crime, higher standards in the industry and increased competitiveness for Northern Ireland companies. However, it will take some time to put the arrangements in place. Both the Security Industry Authority and private security companies will need time to prepare. That is why the Bill also contains an interim regulatory regime to bridge the gap between the current arrangements and the future. The interim scheme builds on the current arrangements. It is designed to bear down on the problem of criminal activity in the industry as well as paramilitary exploitation.
Human rights underpin the Government’s view of a modern society based on opportunity and fairness for all. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission plays a major role in protecting and promoting human rights in Northern Ireland, and it is right that it has the powers necessary to carry out its duties effectively. Following consultation on the powers of the commission, the Government believe that they should be extended. The Bill is being used to grant the commission the power to compel evidence, to access places of detention and to rely on the European convention on human rights when initiating judicial proceedings. The commission already has the power to carry out investigations. Granting it the powers to compel evidence and to access places of detention will ensure that it can conduct investigations more effectively, as it has asked to do.
Is there not a problem with the Human Rights Commission in so far as there is still a concern within the Unionist community that its membership is not broadly reflective of the wider community? If the Secretary of State is going to give it additional powers, does he not need to address that confidence issue by broadening the commission’s membership to make it more accurately reflect the community that it serves?
I am aware of the position of the hon. Gentleman’s party on that, because the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues have made that point to me repeatedly. On the other hand, I have talked to Unionist members of the commission, or those who align themselves with Unionism, and they are satisfied that it is conducting its activities fairly and impartially. Despite the initial reservations expressed about the commission’s leadership, everybody has now accepted that that has settled down and is working well. We should welcome its work, allow it to get on with its job and empower it, through the extra provisions, to do its job even better.
As the Secretary of State has praised in the warmest of terms the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and said that it plays a major role, what major role did it play in responding to the extension of non-jury trials? What was its response to the Bill?
As I said, it is my responsibility to introduce the Bill, but the commission has welcomed the additional powers that it provides. It asked for them and I am providing them, so of course it is pleased.
Giving the commission the power to rely on the European convention on human rights in judicial reviews will allow it to bring important test cases to clarify points of law in situations when it would not be appropriate for an individual victim to do so. I guess that those will mostly be class actions. The provision will ensure that the powers are used appropriately by the commission and complied with fully by public authorities.