House of Commons
Wednesday 10 January 2007
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Before I answer question 1, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you, and all Members, will want to join me in expressing sadness at the untimely death on Monday of David Ervine, the leader of the Progressive Unionist party. David’s story and character were unique and he will be greatly missed by the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will attend his funeral on Friday, and I am sure that the whole House will want to send its condolences to his family.
The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning has reported that it has witnessed full and final decommissioning by the IRA. It is vital that representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups engage with the IICD and make the full transition from conflict to peace.
Obviously, I join the Minister in the sentiments that he expressed about the death of David Ervine, and I am sure that all Opposition Members would do so.
Will there be an ongoing assessment process to ensure that Sinn Fein-IRA do not rearm? How can we trust Sinn Fein-IRA when at a recent commemoration ceremony to mark the death of two Sinn Fein-IRA terrorists who had been raiding a police station, a collection of weapons was on display—albeit that Sinn Fein-IRA claimed that the weapons were from an historic collection? Can we trust that they have genuinely decommissioned, or do they yet again have an occasion for deception, which is typical of Sinn Fein-IRA?
The hon. Gentleman asks whether there is an ongoing monitoring process, and there is. The IICD continues its work and the Independent Monitoring Commission reports regularly. In successive reports, the IMC has reported that the Provisional IRA no longer possesses either the capacity or the will to wage violent conflict in Northern Ireland. That is an essential step in creating a sustainable long-term peaceful future in Northern Ireland.
What the hon. Gentleman says would be right if he were to point to dissident republican groups, which still pose a threat to peace in Northern Ireland. One of the strongest reasons why we need to have devolution in Northern Ireland is so that we can get all the political parties and communities in Northern Ireland united against dissident republicans who would undermine the peace process.
May I, from the Labour Benches, add support for the words of my hon. Friend the Minister in memory of David Ervine? When I was security Minister I was privileged to work with David, and I was always struck by the courage that he displayed, very often in facing dangerous challenges from his own side. I am confident that we would not have made the progress that we have made in decommissioning, and in other areas to do with security in Northern Ireland, without the voice of David Ervine having been raised.
It is always well to have a previous security Minister watching carefully over my left shoulder on occasions such as this. I join my right hon. Friend in the sentiments that she has expressed. Indeed, it would be a fitting tribute to the memory of David Ervine if loyalist paramilitary groups were to decommission and play their full part in the future of Northern Ireland.
May I, on behalf my party, add to the tributes paid to the late David Ervine? Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family at this time.
Can the Minister confirm that a major security operation was carried out on 11 or 12 December 2006 at the home of a leading Sinn Fein member, Declan Murphy—the brother of Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein Member of this House—in Camlough, Newry, and that important documents relating to security force members and leading politicians were removed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland?
In my view, what the hon. Member for Upper Bann and his party—and, indeed, all Members— should be doing is uniting in a call for loyalist paramilitary groups to decommission and fully to join the peace process in Northern Ireland, as well as forming part of the united community against dissident republicans, who would still pose a threat to the peace and future prosperity of Northern Ireland.
May I associate myself and the Conservative party with the Minister’s remarks on the sad passing away of David Ervine? We agree that it would be a most fitting legacy if the paramilitary groups on the so-called loyalist side were completely disarmed and an end were put to all paramilitary activity. But would it not also be good if there could be an end to all criminality on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland? As a recent report from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs highlighted, that remains a big problem in the Province, so should not that take place now?
I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about David Ervine—and he is right to raise organised criminal activity, which underpins the remaining paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and occupies my mind very much. We have the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland, which is doing a good job of bearing down on the problem. I am sure that the whole House will unite in the quest to ensure that organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland is eradicated.
The prospects for agriculture in Northern Ireland are positive.
The Minister will be as relieved as farmers in Northern Ireland that recent tests on pigs found with foot lesions at an abattoir in Antrim have proved that foot and mouth disease is not present. Will he congratulate the chief veterinary officer on acting efficiently and expeditiously, and will he ensure that he has sufficient staff to monitor live imports properly, in a situation that remains volatile as far as animal health is concerned?
I am happy to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Bert Houston and his staff. As soon as he was aware of the possibility of the disease, he brought the matter to my attention. I had a long discussion with him about the steps that we needed to take, and they were taken. That shows that the processes put in place following the unfortunate foot and mouth outbreak a few years ago are now working. I am happy to confirm that no such disease exists in Northern Ireland, and consumers should have absolute confidence in the industry there. I hope that everyone will buy its high-quality produce.
One of the changes to the common agricultural policy has been a move away from production subsidies to schemes designed to benefit the environment more. What is the rate of take-up of those schemes? What has been the environmental benefit to Northern Ireland and its farmers?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. The Government have been at the forefront of the campaign for reform of the common agricultural policy, which in its old incarnation was distorting internal markets and wreaking havoc on producers in the third world. We have now broken that link with subsidy production and moved towards the agri-environmental schemes that my hon. Friend mentioned. About 12,000 farmers are participating in those schemes, which help to make up some of the income that they would otherwise have forgone. In addition, the schemes are benefiting the environment of Northern Ireland, and, therefore, all those who enjoy the beautiful Northern Ireland countryside.
The Minister is aware that the Ulster Farmers Union recently published a document, “Five Steps to a Better Future”, which the Assembly unanimously adopted in a debate last week. One of the proposals is the removal of red tape. Will the Government actively support that campaign?
I have met the leaders of the Ulster Farmers Union on many occasions to discuss bureaucracy and red tape. Recently, my officials worked with the UFU to reduce to three pages a form which, in its first draft, was 11 pages long, so that was a very productive engagement. My door is open to the UFU and I will certainly listen if it wants to discuss any forms or processes that it believes can be simplified and made clearer.
I must add that we have to balance that against the fact that we are talking about £300 million of taxpayers’ money, and it is right that we have proper accountability for that. It is also right that where some practices are impacting on the environment, we take our responsibilities to the environment and future generations very seriously. We need to balance the need to make processes as simple and clear for farmers as possible with our responsibilities for taxpayers’ money and the environment.
The Government are committed to increasing the number of apprentices to 10,000 by 2010. A new flexible menu of professional and technical training provision entitled “Training for Success” will be available from September this year. There will be two levels of apprenticeship training to suit different abilities and to meet the requirements of employers and industry.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply—but to complete an apprenticeship a person needs work-based training. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that those who win public sector contracts offer young people the opportunity to complete their apprenticeships?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We recently ran a pilot scheme with Victoria Square, a construction company under contract from the Social Development Department, under which we put in place some 11 or 12 apprenticeships as part of the work let by the Department. That is a good model to consider in the future. We are increasing the number of apprenticeships by 4,000 up to 2010, in parallel to what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is doing in Great Britain. The Labour Government, in stark contrast to the Conservative party, are committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships.
The Minister will know that if we are to achieve a world-class economy in Northern Ireland, we will need to enhance our skills base and improve the skills of our young people so that we can attract inward investment and help indigenous companies to grow. Will the Minister advise me what part the essential skills platform being developed by the Department in Northern Ireland will play in expanding the number of apprenticeships to 10,000 by 2010?
The hon. Gentleman makes the important point that we need to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are skilled for the jobs of the future. We have put in place three levels of apprenticeship. Both apprenticeships for 16 to 24-year-olds are key levels of training, and I hope that the whole House supports the fact that we have also put in place pre-apprenticeship training in schools for 14 to 16-year-olds, so that they can begin to examine the menu of options available to them and enter full apprenticeships after leaving school at 16. Only by ensuring that we have the top level of skills for people in Northern Ireland will we be able to compete with India, China and the rest of the world in due course.
Northern Ireland Executive
All Ministers are required to affirm the pledge of office before taking up office. This includes a commitment to uphold the rule of law, based, as it is, on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts, as set out in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement.
I welcome that reply, but what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that any commitment made on the police and upholding the rule of law is permanent, rather than transitory? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that Ministers encourage their supporters to give information to bodies such as the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains?
I think that all party leaders, including Sinn Fein’s leader, have urged that in respect of the disappeared—to whom I think the hon. Gentleman was referring at the end of his question—information should be brought forward. That is welcome, because those who have lost loved ones are in the worst possible circumstances if they do not know what happened, or where those people’s remains might be.
In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s broader question, all people, especially those holding ministerial office, and all major parties elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, need to comply with support for policing, which was why the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle—its executive—meeting of 29 December was so important in committing the party to exactly that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that none of the uncertainties at the moment on a number of issues—both political and in relation to MI5—should be an excuse for any party to hold back from offering clear and absolute support for the rule of law and those charged with upholding and enforcing it? Will he also address the Government’s statement of today indicating that there will be no diminution in police accountability under the new formula agreed between Sinn Fein and the British Government? Will he tell us how there will be no diminution in the accountability of intelligence policing if primacy for intelligence policing goes to MI5, yet if MI5 is not subject to the access or powers that the police ombudsman has at present regarding its information and activities?
On the first point, yes. Irrespective of anything else, all parties, including Sinn Fein, should sign up to policing and support for the rule of law. I take heart, as does everyone in the House, from the executive decision made by Sinn Fein on 29 December. The executive is meeting again, hopefully with a view to calling an Ard Fheis, which is necessary to complete the process of preparing for the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive, and power sharing in Northern Ireland.
I agree absolutely about there being no diminution in the accountability of the police service. The existing accountability arrangements will stay regarding the ombudsman and also in every other way, including for intelligence work carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and any necessary liaison that PSNI officers have with MI5. There will of course be no diminution in that accountability. The five principles that the chief constable has put forward are embedded in the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement of today.
Finally, on the other point, I can tell the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is currently engaged in a discussion with the security service about how she can have access to sensitive information. She certainly has such access in certain circumstances, and I believe that she will have more access in the future.
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm that the triple lock will remain securely in place when there is devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland? The triple lock means that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must agree to that devolution, and that there must be cross-community support in the Assembly and an order in this House. Will he confirm that that devolution will not be imposed in Northern Ireland without cross-community support?
Of course, and I said as much to an Assembly sub-committee yesterday. I want the appointment of a justice Minister and a deputy justice Minister to be achieved by a cross-community vote in the Assembly, with the so-called triple lock, to which the hon. Lady referred, in place. The Act passed by Parliament last year made no attempt to change that, but we need to get on with the process. All the Unionist parties, including hers, and all the other parties support the principle of devolving policing and justice. The Government are committed to that, and if there is delivery on policing, we want to meet the St. Andrews time frame of May 2008 for that devolution.
The House will be grateful for what the Secretary of State has just said, but will he give us another unequivocal assurance—that those who accept ministerial office in any Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive will have placed on them the same requirements and obligations as are placed on those who serve in the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales?
I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point, but in some respects the obligations in Northern Ireland are greater. The ministerial pledge of office, as amended in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which this House passed last November, makes it clear that Ministers must support the police, the rule of law and the courts. The Ard Chomhairle motion passed by the Sinn Fein executive on 29 December specifically authorised its members to take the ministerial pledge of office, and that is encouraging for the future.
Does the Secretary of State accept that words alone are not enough when it comes to policing and support for the courts and the rule of law? Sinn Fein’s support for the police, the courts and the rule of law must be tested against its actions over a credible period. In the past, we have learned to our cost that Sinn Fein’s words are meaningless when it comes to translating them into action. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that people in Northern Ireland believe that Sinn Fein should sign up for policing and the rule of law without conditions or concessions? That means that the May 2008 date for the devolution of policing and justice cannot apply, as there can be no commitment to any date when we do not know whether Sinn Fein will deliver.
I of course agree that Sinn Fein should sign up to policing and the rule of law, and to the justice system in every other respect. I also agree that there has to be sustainable delivery. There is no question about that, but the May 2008 timetable agreed in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act is a Government objective, to which all parties should work. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the date set out in that Act, which was passed by Parliament, is very clear. On March 26, there will either be the restoration of devolution or there will be dissolution. That date cannot be moved. We are proceeding towards devolution and I think that we can achieve it, but there will be dissolution if we do not.
May I ask the Secretary of State to be a bit more specific and state the criteria that he and the Government will use to judge whether Sinn Fein’s hoped-for support for policing is delivered in actions as well as in words? Such actions are needed to make the devolution of policing and criminal justice possible.
We will want Sinn Fein representatives to display full co-operation with policing in every respect, and I know that the hon. Gentleman wants the same thing. For example, that will mean that they will report any crime carried out in their communities, and that they will assist the police in every respect. We also expect them to join the Policing Board for Northern Ireland and the district policing partnerships. As I said earlier, the executive motion passed by Sinn Fein on 29 December commits that organisation’s representatives to all those things, and it is therefore important that we get on with the process.
Does the Secretary of State envisage that the Independent Monitoring Commission, or some other body apart from the Government, will play a role in monitoring Sinn Fein’s performance at living up to its words in practice, so that Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly have some objective evidence and assessment available to them, as well as the views of Ministers, to guide their opinion on whether delivery has been achieved?
An IMC report is due at the end of the month, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and there will be continual IMC reports over the coming months and years in order to ensure full compliance with what is needed. May I also say to the hon. Gentleman that what is at stake is an historic prize, of devolution and support for the rule of law and policing? We have never been in this position before, where all parties want power sharing and all parties are ready to stand up and support policing and the rule of law. Let us grab that prize and go for it, because the clock is ticking and we need to achieve by 26 March—with full restoration and delivery on policing in place. [Interruption.]
We welcome the landmark report published last month by Professor Sir George Bain, which recommended improving the quality of education in Northern Ireland through better use of resources, better planning of schools and improved sharing and collaboration. It is a blueprint for excellence in all our schools and will enable all Northern Ireland children to get full value from the efficient use of the massive 60 per cent. real-terms increase in resources committed to education by the Government at a time of falling rolls.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Will she briefly explain the relationship between the Bain review and the policy documents issued by the Department with specific reference to the planning of new schools and the rationalisation of schools? Paragraph 9.3 of Bain states that any planning of new schools must reflect the make-up of society in Northern Ireland, but that does not appear in the Government document for consultation. It further states that each sector must be supported in its plans, but only one sector seems to be relevant—the Department, which will dictate exactly what happens. Will the Minister please rationalise that?
One of the main recommendations of the Bain review—one that will enable us to achieve maximum efficiency in the spending of increased resources—is the concept of area-based planning. It will no longer be sensible or possible for individual sectors to plan only within their sectors, which would be a recipe for pouring our extra resourcing down the drain. It will be important for all sectors to involve themselves, in conjunction with the Department, in planning for schools, and to spend increased resources on an area and geographical basis, not just within sectors.
There is absolutely no justification for continuing with the unfair and wasteful policy introduced by Martin McGuinness, which requires the Education Department to fund integrated and Irish-medium schools with an intake as low as 12 pupils—at a time when there is massive overcapacity and the Minister is closing down schools with far higher intakes in the maintained and controlled sector. That is unfair, divisive and wasteful, so will the Minister end that policy?
I certainly do not agree that integrated or Irish-medium schools are divisive, as they are meeting a need that parents in Northern Ireland want to see met. That is legitimate. However, I accept that we will not get full value from the extra resources going in if we keep supporting extremely small schools, as we have in the past. Bain set out some minima below which it will be important to review the continued educational sustainability of schools, and it is important to take those recommendations forward speedily and in all seriousness. I hope that all education stakeholders in Northern Ireland will join me, and the Department, in taking them forward in a positive and constructive manner.
Regarding the—[Interruption.] I think that hon. Members should leave any cheeky business to me.
Regarding the death of David Ervine, I knew him for more than a decade, and in my book he was a true statesman of Northern Ireland politics. He was also a friend. I shall miss him, and I am sure that everyone who worked with him feels the same way about his passing.
In his report, Sir George Bain underlines the need for more religious mixing in schools, so how can the Minister refuse new integrated schools in Antrim, Ballymoney and Strabane, and deny existing schools in Armagh and Belfast integrated status, especially as that would have no impact on existing schools? Will she reconsider that that is a bad decision?
Under the present Government, we have seen the biggest push ever towards increasing integrated education. As I have already said, the integrated sector is a vital part of creating the shared future that is crucial to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Whenever I consider proposals, I do so with a view to being positive and constructive. I have accepted proposals that had previously been turned down, and I have just accepted four proposals to create, transform or expand integrated schools. I shall consider further proposals constructively, but each proposal must be considered on its merits and on the basis of the legal framework pertaining; unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to turn one down.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the two servicemen killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq over the Christmas recess. They were Lance Bombardier James Dwyer of 29 Commando Regiment and Sergeant Graham Hesketh from 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. We also send our profound sympathy to the family and friends of Sergeant Wayne Rees, of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, who died at the weekend while on patrol in Iraq. They were performing vital roles in working for the security of our country and the wider world, and we send our sympathy and our prayers to their families.
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.
Traditionally when a Government Back Bencher refuses to toe the line, they are invited to a little interview without coffee with the Government Chief Whip, but what does the Prime Minister do when collective responsibility has effectively collapsed and his Chief Whip, aided and abetted by the Home Secretary and his party chairman, has become a rebel on national health service cuts, in defiance of his health policy?
Unsurprisingly, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. MPs who are Ministers are perfectly entitled to take part in local consultations—it is not even a local decision that has been made in my right hon. Friends’ constituencies. What is utterly absurd is to be in the Conservative party’s position: having opposed all the additional investment in the national health service, the Conservatives now oppose each and every change in principle.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why, in terms of investment in new ships, we have the largest warship building programme that we have had for many years in this country, and why, as opposed to the position under the Conservative Government, we are increasing defence spending in real terms year on year. Let me say to my hon. Friend that I understand that 17,000 people are employed in the Portsmouth naval base, including 8,800 civilians, and that there are a further 26,000 jobs in the wider defence industries in the region. It therefore performs a vital task, not only for Portsmouth and the region, but for our country’s security.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Bombardier James Dwyer, Sergeant Graham Hesketh and Sergeant Wayne Rees. They died serving their country and we honour their memory.
Yesterday, the police revealed that details of British criminals, including rapists and murderers, who have committed offences abroad were sitting in boxes in the Home Office and that nothing had been done. Can the Prime Minister at least reassure us that all their details have now been entered on the police national computer and, where appropriate, the sex offenders register?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Home Secretary will make a statement immediately after I sit down, but I can tell him that the Home Secretary has been informed this morning by the Association of Chief Police Officers that every one of the most serious offenders that it has identified—on whom there is sufficient detail to be put on the police national computer—have now been entered on the system. Let me make one thing clear: until May of last year, there was no proper system, not merely in this country but elsewhere in Europe, for the details of people who have committed offences in other countries to be given to Britain, or indeed to other Europe countries, as may be. The situation changed as a result of the decision taken by the November 2005 Justice and Home Affairs Council. Since May 2006, ACPO has been working through all the cases to make sure that there is proper protection for the public.
Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister has just said: the names of those people have been sitting in box files and he is admitting today that not all their details have been put on the police national computer. The Prime Minister has confirmed that yet again the Government have failed in their central duty to protect the public. Let us also be clear: of the 525 serious criminals, there are 25 rapists, 29 paedophiles and five murderers. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that none of those very dangerous people has been working with children since their conviction?
The Home Secretary will make a statement in a moment that covers precisely that point. However, let me just make one thing clear. Before May 2006, there were no proper details; indeed, before 1999, no details of any sort whatever were kept. Between 1999 and May 2006, details were sent under the old voluntary system that used to apply in Europe. Very often, however, those details were not sufficient to allow us to identify people properly. That is why I said that those on whom proper information was sent to us by other European countries have been entered on the police national computer. In so far as insufficient details have not been sent to us, that is not, with respect, the fault of the Home Office but of those people who have been sending the details from other countries. All the way through there was, of course, an attempt to improve the system; however, it was only when Europe took a decision to make compulsory what had previously been voluntary that we were able to deal with the backlog satisfactorily.
Let us be clear: I asked the Prime Minister for a guarantee and he simply cannot give one. His answer underlines just how serious this is. There are rapists, murderers and paedophiles at large in Britain who could have got through the net and could have been working with children in the NHS, in social services or in our schools. The Prime Minister says that the Home Secretary will give a statement, but is not it the fact that the Home Office is part of the problem? Last night, the Home Office said that details of the serious offenders had all been entered into the computer—that is what it said. This morning, a Home Office Minister said that they had not all been entered. Why does the Home Office keep giving such misleading information about such an important matter?
It is not giving misleading information—[Interruption.] As I explained to the right hon. Gentleman beforehand, while the system was voluntary in the rest of Europe, when details were provided on a voluntary basis, there were often not sufficient details to allow people to be put on the police national computer. Now that we have a compulsory requirement, all those for whom there is sufficient detail are, as I understand it, now on the police national computer. It is correct that it is important that we make sure that from now on—now there is a compulsory system in place—all the information is entered properly; but before that decision was taken in Europe, some countries, despite the fact that obviously we wanted greater amounts of information, did not provide it. As a result of the decision taken in December 2005, as I explained to the right hon. Gentleman, that information is now given on a compulsory basis.
The Prime Minister has completely failed to answer the question. Why is it that last night the Home Office said one thing, but this morning the junior Minister said something completely different? On taking office, the Home Secretary said that he would have a fundamental review of his Department. A hundred days later, he said, “Job done”, yet we now know that 500 criminals are on the loose and his Department did virtually nothing about it. Is not it the case that if one of those dangerous criminals is found to have been working with vulnerable adults or with children, the Home Secretary will not be able to run away from responsibility for it?
No one is seeking to do that. I thought that I had explained the position to the right hon. Gentleman, but let me explain it again to him. All the people for whom there is sufficient information are on the police national computer, but as for those who are part of the backlog of cases, and where the information was delivered to us when doing so was only voluntary, not compulsory, there may be some of those for whom there is insufficient information. That is not the fault of the Home Office. In respect of those for whom there is sufficient information, they, I am now informed, are all on the police national computer.
Does not this go to a much bigger problem about the Home Office? We have had illegal immigrants working in the Home Office, endless escapes from open prisons, and foreign prisoners released and not deported, and now there is this latest fiasco. Let me make a constructive suggestion to the Prime Minister. The Home Office is a huge Department, covering prisons, probation, immigration, criminal justice and terrorism. Will the Prime Minister take up my suggestion that there should now be a separate Home Office Minister responsible for terrorism, who sits in the Cabinet alongside the Home Secretary? We are on our fourth failing Home Secretary; would not that suggestion at least give him some chance of doing his job properly?
No, I am afraid that I do not think that that is the right way to proceed on security. Let me just make one thing clear in relation to absconds, which the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned. Absconds from open conditions are at their lowest level since we came to office, and absconds from closed conditions are at their lowest level. [Interruption.] Let me give him the facts. The facts are that, prior to 1997, some 1,300 prisoners escaped. For the 10 years since 1997, the figure is 137. There have, of course, been several category A escapes, including when he was at the Home Office as an adviser, but there have been no category A escapes since we came to power.
Last year, I had the good fortune to be operated on by Mr. Aung Oo, who leads an excellent surgical team at the Liverpool Broadgreen cardiothoracic centre. I would like the Prime Minister to offer reassurances to people in centres of excellence such as that centre and the Walton centre for neurology and neurosurgery that the funding and support that has been given hitherto, and that has gained such marvellous results, will be maintained in future.
I am sure that we will continue to make strong investment in the health service in my hon. Friend’s area, as in others, and may I say that I am delighted to see him back and well in the House—[Interruption.]—so that he can continue that vociferous support that he has given over the years. His example shows—and this is worth emphasising, as we get a lot of negative stories about the health service—that there is fantastic work done by the national health service, day in, day out, in this country. The national health service is an improving service; it is improving as a result of investment, but also as the result of the dedicated staff whom he mentioned.
I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence. Given that the Prime Minister and President Bush are in agreement about strategy in Iraq, and that later today President Bush will announce the deployment of 22,000 additional American troops to Iraq, how many British troops is the Prime Minister considering sending?
President Bush, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman just indicated, will set out the policy for the United States forces, in particular in respect of Baghdad, later today. Let me just make one thing very clear, however: in relation to Basra, the situation is different in some very critical respects.
First of all, in respect of Basra, we do not have the same Sunni-Shi’a sectarian violence, we do not have al-Qaeda operating in the same way, and we do not have the Sunni insurgency operating in the same way. As he knows, there has been an operation that the British have been conducting in Basra over the past few months, which will be completed in the next few weeks. That operation, I am pleased to say, has been successful up to now. That will allow the Iraqis to take over more and more control of their own policing and security in Basra. The purpose of the American plan—and it is for President Bush to announce it—will be precisely the same: it is in order to allow the Iraqi capability to take over security progressively, over time. The situation in Baghdad is different from the situation in Basra.
The assumption behind that answer is that there will be no displacement of terrorist activity from Baghdad to Basra, but it is difficult to make such an assumption at this stage. At the weekend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that he favours an independent foreign policy. Do we have to wait for the resignation of the Prime Minister before we get one?
In my view, the alliance of Britain with the United States of America—I assume that that is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is attacking—is in the British national interest, and it is an important part of our foreign policy. Britain has two great relationships in the world—one with America and the other with Europe—and we should maintain both and keep them strong.
In respect of British policy in Iraq, it remains as we set it out in the weeks leading up to today. However, once the operation in Basra is properly concluded, yes, it would be appropriate to report to the House. I am very happy to do so, but it is right that that takes place when the operation in Basra has concluded.
Just occasionally, the Liberal Democrats’ nerve takes even me by surprise. I would point out to the hon. Lady that they opposed all our antisocial behaviour measures. I cannot recall offhand, but I think that they even opposed community support officers at the time. At the request of local police chiefs, we have said that it is for them to decide the best way to deliver neighbourhood policing, but we are going to deliver neighbourhood policing in every part of the country. In the hon. Lady’s area, like others, there has been a massive increase in the amount of investment that we put into the police.
As we have embarked on the German presidency of the European Union, will the Prime Minister tell the House what discussions he has had or proposes to have with the German Chancellor about relaunching the Quartet discussions on the middle east peace process, building on his own recent visit to the area?
I have discussed that at length with the German Chancellor, and I hope that there will be a meeting of the Quartet in the next few weeks. It is now very important to create a situation in which we build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority; we ensure that the suffering of the Palestinian people is alleviated and that proper money gets through to the Palestinians for the basic services that they need; if at all possible we get the release not just of Corporal Shalit but of the Palestinian prisoners likewise; and we set out a framework for political negotiation leading to a negotiated solution between Israel and Palestine.
I hope very much that in the next few weeks we will be able to announce some progress on that issue which, of course, is an important part of the wider picture in the middle east, affecting discussions in relation to Iraq as well. I said that I would report back on the situation in respect of British forces in Iraq, and I hope that I will also be able to say something about the middle east at that time.
That is a serious problem in Cornwall and elsewhere. We have significantly increased the amount of funding that we have given for social rented accommodation and social housing. We have increased the funding dramatically and also the number of homes, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly implies, the need is increasing. That is why we are looking, for example, at shared equity schemes. I had a meeting yesterday with those engaged in providing social housing about how we can increase the ability of the arm’s length management organisations and the tenant management associations to take on more of the burden of providing new social housing. We must keep up the investment—by 2010 we will have put in about £20 billion. We are constantly looking at new and innovative ways in which we can increase social rented accommodation, but we must do that within the budgetary constraints within which we operate.
I understand the importance of the Leicester Mercury campaign. As my hon. Friend indicated, we have provided an immense amount of additional help to pensioners—the £200 winter fuel allowance, with a further £100 for those over 80, the free TV licence for the over-75s, and the additional money through the pension credit, which has lifted some 2 million pensioners out of acute hardship over the past 10 years—but we constantly look to see what more we can do. I know that the campaign to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention will form an important part of our considerations.
First, let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that last Friday we had the lowest figures for waiting lists since we have had waiting lists—400,000 down from what we inherited. We had a report on heart disease which shows that we are saving tens of thousands of lives a year. We have the best cancer provision that we have had for years. In relation to the work force, we have 300,000 extra people, including 85,000 extra nurses, in the national health service. Finally, let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that his policy is to oppose the investment in the national health service. Having opposed the investment, the Conservative party opposes any change that will deliver better services for patients.
It is a shame if local authorities such as the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency are not using the powers that are available. Those powers in relation to antisocial behaviour orders have made a dramatic difference in various parts of the country where those orders are being used. Recent publicity was given to the fact that 50 per cent. of them are breached, but that means that 50 per cent. are working. That is a massive achievement in respect of this type of punishment. Of the orders that are breached, more than half of those people go to prison, so there is a tremendous amount that can now be done in local areas through the new antisocial behaviour legislation and through the new powers that have been given to the police. My hon. Friend is right. Those powers should be used in future by local authorities, and if they are not being used by local authorities, local people know what to do, which is to vote Labour.
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is in the interests of our security services and in the interests of local civic policing that we make it clear that MI5 is not going to have anything to do with local civic policing—that is a matter for the local policing authorities—but we will of course do nothing that compromises the security of this country.
Does the Prime Minister share the widespread concern around the world at the unilateral action of the United States in bombing Somalia a couple of days ago and again yesterday? Does not he think that that bombardment will merely intensify the already desperate situation for the people of Somalia, when what is required is not foreign intervention but a peace process in Somalia?
I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent: of course what is in the interests of everyone in Somalia is to have a peace process that works properly. He will be aware, however, that some of the extremists who have been using methods of violence to get their way in Somalia pose a threat not just to the outside world but to people in Somalia as well. When we look around different parts of the world today, we can see this global terrorism. It is a clear ideology and a clear strategy, and it is right that wherever it is attempting to warp local decision making and to prevent people from getting the type of life they want, we should be there standing up and supporting those who are combating that terrorism and giving people the chance to live in better circumstances.
Let me again point out the facts to the hon. Gentleman. In fact, as he knows, there has been an immense amount of additional funding into his local health service—[Interruption.] The funding increase has been somewhere in the region of 30 per cent., and the new primary care trust will have increases of more than £100 million. In any health service, there will be changes that are necessary to give us the best type of services for the future; that applies in his constituency as elsewhere. Whatever short-term campaign the Conservatives may mount, they are losing all credibility by ending up opposing in principle any changes in the health service at all—[Interruption.]
As for housing, whereas the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members oppose any extension of housing, the shadow Chancellor made the position absolutely clear when he said, in effect, that we need a supply of new housing, but not in his area. I do not think that that is very practical.
In Wakefield, we have seen the number of students getting five good GCSE passes increase from 37 per cent. in 1997 to 57 per cent. recently. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating students on that great achievement, as well as their teachers and parents and, of course, the schools in Wakefield, which were among the first in the country all to achieve specialist status?
I am delighted to give my congratulations to the schools in Wakefield and to all those who have worked so hard to raise standards. Whereas in 1997 fewer than half—45 per cent.—of pupils got five good GCSEs, the figure is almost 60 per cent. today. If we include English and maths, the figure used to be 35 per cent., whereas it is now over 45 per cent. The most remarkable fact is this: when we came to power in 1997, there were more than 600 schools where fewer than 25 per cent. of pupils got five good GCSEs and just 80 schools in the whole country—[Hon. Members: “What about the next question?”] I am going to finish in plenty of time. Today, there are 47 schools with fewer than 25 per cent. getting five good GCSEs and more than 600 schools with a rate of over 70 per cent.—a dramatic reversal under this Labour Government.
The Minister is considering the proposal that the Motor Neurone Disease Association submitted on funding, and I hope that we can respond as soon as possible. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on his extraordinary work for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and I hope that he continues with it.
This Sunday, Mr. Putin shut off all the oil supplies to several countries in Europe, thus seriously threatening their energy and fuel supplies. Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to tell me what we will do in this country to ensure that we are not dependent on individuals who would try to blackmail us on energy and that we become energy proficient and productive?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am delighted that the European Commission, following on from the discussions at the Hampton Court informal summit in October 2005, has today put forward important proposals on climate change and protecting the environment, and on energy security and supply. It is important that we as a country ensure that our energy supply is secure for the long term. In my view, that requires a diverse supply of energy and the decisions that we will have to make when the energy White Paper is published in March are, therefore, very important. I say again that we need to ensure that replacing our nuclear power stations is one important part of the deal. In the past few months, we have signed contracts with, for example, Norway to guarantee 30 per cent. of our gas from it in the next few years. We are in the process of replacing our nuclear power stations, but energy security for this country will be as important in the next decade as many of the crucial security issues of past years. If we do not get the decisions right quickly, we will pay a heavy price in future.
Criminal Records Backlog
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the backlog of unrecorded overseas crimes committed by British citizens abroad. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) for the late arrival of the statement. As he probably saw from the papers being passed along the Front Bench, the inconvenience was mutual.
I intend to outline the situation up to May 2006—when the Association of Chief Police Officers became the lead organisation—the current situation, and the further actions for which I have asked today. No hon. Member should be under the illusion that I do not regard the subject as serious.
First, let me outline the situation to May 2006. Since 1959, there has been a Council of Europe convention on mutual legal assistance, which established the expectation that the more than 40 member countries would inform each other of the criminal convictions of their citizens while in another member country. That was the position from 1959 until last year. The system had several grave weaknesses.
First, implementation of the system for exchanging the information was patchy across Europe. Secondly, much of the information was of poor quality—for example, on some occasions, it constituted just a name. Thirdly, the process for handling the incoming notifications when they arrive in the United Kingdom was fragmented and piecemeal. There were therefore fundamental flaws in both the sending and the receipt of information.
It was agreed that this situation should be improved at European level, and in 2005 a European Union Council decision made it mandatory for all member states to have a central authority in each country for receiving and sending such information, to counter the fundamental flaws of the prevailing system. In March 2006, it was decided by my predecessor—in my view completely correctly—that the central authority for this country would be the Association of Chief Police Officers. I think that I am correct in saying that we were among the first in the European Union to appoint such an authority to improve the exchange of such information. A backlog of 27,500 notifications was passed to ACPO, and its team was operational by May last year.
Since then, ACPO has sifted through all the approximately 27,500 notifications and carried out a priority risk assessment on them. This identified 540 most serious offenders on the police’s own definition. All the notifications relating to the most serious offenders that had enough information to be entered on the police national computer and which were not already on the computer as a result of Interpol work have now been put on it. Together, that means that 260 of the 540 serious notifications are on the police national computer. The remaining 280 cannot be entered on the PNC and are the subject of further inquiries to the notifying country to get more details to try to establish the identity of the offender. I should make it clear that the 280 cases are not necessarily notifications received since May last year or, indeed, since this Government came to office. However, we are having their origin checked.
I shall now outline the actions that I have asked to be taken. As the House will know, I regard protecting the public as my highest priority, and I know that that view is shared by the whole House. I therefore consider the past failings in the system to be a very serious matter, and I regard the response of my predecessor to have been a correct response to those failings. However, I also believe that the system now operating puts responsibility in the right place.
I want to express my gratitude to the Association of Chief Police Officers for the action that it has taken and for the assistance that it has given me this morning. I have today met Ministers and my officials, the president of ACPO and the chief executive of the Criminal Records Bureau. I have asked ACPO for an assurance that every one of the more serious offenders that it has identified and on whom there is sufficient information has now been entered on the police national computer. I have been given that assurance.
Let me now set out the actions that I have taken as a result of the past 24 hours. I have asked the permanent secretary at the Home Office to set up an inquiry into the Home Office’s handling of these notifications. This will include determining a chronology of events, the practices and procedures in place at different times, whether appropriate action was taken, and the lessons to be learned. I have asked that every effort be made to complete this inquiry within six weeks.
In addition, I have asked my officials, ACPO, the CRB and the probation service, in liaison with any other Department should that be necessary, to ensure that all appropriate public protection steps are taken. In particular, I have asked the CRB to check whether there are any disclosures to employers in respect of the most serious offenders who have been identified that ought to be looked at again in the light of that new information. I expect to have that information in a matter of days.
I have also asked the police and the probation service to ensure that all sex offenders who have been identified through that process are subject to appropriate monitoring in line with the public protection arrangements that would be expected if there had been a conviction in this country.
Finally, I have asked ACPO and the CRB to accelerate the timetable to process the remainder of the backlog—that is, those cases that have not been identified as serious, which involve less serious offenders. As of this morning, that timetable, due to less serious offenders being involved, was envisaged to be 12 months. I have also asked them, with extra resources, to provide that within three months. They hope to complete it within that time scale.
As I hope is now clear to the House, this is a problem that was some years in the making. By May 2006, a better system had been established and was operational. I take full responsibility now for ensuring that that new system operates effectively to protect the public and that the lessons of past failings are properly learned.
I thank the Home Secretary for the advance notice of his statement, although I understand entirely why it came not quite as early as normal.
The British public today will be wondering when on earth this catalogue of blunders at the Home Office will come to an end. None of the Government’s excuses, I am afraid, explains why the last three years have been the worst in the 200-year history of the Home Office. That is because the Department has been overwhelmed by an avalanche of legislation, regulation, targets and headline-grabbing initiatives, and by strategic failure on immigration, criminal justice, prisons and a variety of other areas. So Ministers have the major responsibility for this, but the responsibility is even more specific and it means that the Home Secretary can no longer go on blaming civil servants or police officers. Nor does the latest excuse that he has no idea what is happening in his Department auger well for the security of the nation.
This is a database failure. It is the latest in a series of database failures. Five years ago, we had the Soham tragedy, in part because of police and Home Office database failures. There have been failures on the sex offenders register, the police fingerprint database and the CRB—notably, two weeks after the right hon. Gentleman took over as Home Secretary. Did no Minister in the last eight months, as a result of those failures, ask, “Are there any weaknesses or omissions on the police national computer?” That is a straightforward, basic question. If no Minister asked it, why not? I would expect such basic scrutiny from a junior manager working in any business, let alone a Minister working in one of the most important Departments of State.
The right hon. Gentleman became Home Secretary on 5 May 2006. On 21 May, the UK central authority for the exchange of criminal records was set up, as we have been told today, transferring responsibility for those records from the Home Office to ACPO. Ministers will have received a submission on that transfer. Did he not ask the simple question whether there were any problems with it? After he took office, he told us that he had conducted a fundamental review across his Department. Did he ask whether all the databases had complete integrity? How fundamental is an inquiry that misses 27,000 files sitting on a desk for up to six years?
In practical public safety terms, will the Home Secretary tell the House, first, when the transfer will be complete? In particular, when will the 280 serious criminals be tracked down? I could not quite get that from what he said in his statement. Secondly, when will the sex offenders register, the Criminal Records Bureau and other relevant databases have been updated and checked back to see that no one has been missed in the gap since 1999? Thirdly, has he now checked for any other weaknesses in those databases? For example, if people from abroad who are given the right to work in the UK have criminal records, is he certain that those records are on the police national computer? If not known about, that is a serious issue.
I am afraid that the public will have little faith in yet another review led by a civil servant. The Home Secretary can no longer blame his officials, the police or his predecessors. He has been in the job long enough to have had every chance to put the right questions. He has failed to do so. He assures us that he is in charge of his Department. Is he? If he is, when will he start shouldering the responsibility for it?
It is normal to start my response by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for those elements of his contribution that were in some way laudatory; I could not find one today, so he will not mind if I go straight to the heart of the issue.
My statement today was not an attempt to lay blame, but to explain. That is what the House and the public want. It was also an attempt to outline the actions, now that I have been informed of the situation, that ought to be taken.
First, the right hon. Gentleman said that there are failings in the Home Office. That is the least newsworthy item that could be declared today. I do not think that any Secretary of State has been more open about some of those failings. Had I been told about the backlog, I assure him that I would have added it to the other failings about which I told the Home Affairs Committee in order better to tackle them.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman queried whether I had asked about the integrity of systems in the Home Office. Yes, I explicitly asked all the leading officials, in the first week, to tell me everything that needed to be known about systems failures, precisely so that we could address and share that with the public. Why was I not told? That is precisely why the permanent secretary is undertaking an inquiry. Let us now get away from the process points and move on to the substance of public protection.
I would not for one minute like the right hon. Gentleman to give the inadvertent impression that nothing has been done to improve the surveillance, monitoring and registering of people who have committed offences abroad. First, it is a major step forward that a lead organisation—ACPO—was appointed to ensure that the information that we sent to and received from other member states was dealt with in a systemic fashion that had integrity. That decision was taken six months before I became Home Secretary, and I applaud it.
Secondly, ACPO has now worked through and identified all serious cases in the backlog, and every one of those that it is possible to put on the police national computer, without the entry being useless at best or disturbing the system at worst, has been put on that computer.
Thirdly, in relation to the Soham question, the protection arrangements for children and vulnerable people have been improved significantly following Sir Michael Bichard’s report. The Home Office and ACPO are now working on a new IT initiative, IMPACT, which will improve significantly the recording and sharing of information. Under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, we have established a vetting and barring scheme. That is scheduled for implementation in late 2008 and will strengthen significantly the protection of children and vulnerable adults. One of its key features is the continuous monitoring that will be introduced, by contrast with the present arrangements whereby the Criminal Records Bureau is only able to provide what information is currently held in police systems.
Therefore, without in any way attempting to paint a rosy picture, the position is much better than it was from 1959 to 2005, during which period Governments of all persuasions have held office.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the date of transfer. I do not know whether he meant the date of transfer of the files. It was when ACPO’s role was set up—in the first half of last year, between January and June—that the files would have been established, electronically and physically. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will no longer allude to his colourful but rather misleading proposition that I have been sitting in the midst of all the files since May last year. I have not.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the date of reform. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I cannot respond to remarks made from a sedentary position. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to raise other issues I will deal with them, but let me make this absolutely clear: I have now asked not only for an assurance that all the serious cases on which we have sufficient information have been entered on the computer, but for a retrospective check to be carried out with the Criminal Records Bureau to ensure that no questions have been asked about anyone who ought to have been registered on the computer.
I am asking the police to accelerate the process of dealing with the other 27,500 cases, and I am asking the Probation Service to give me an assurance that anyone who has now been discovered to have committed an offence as a result of having been entered on the computer will be given the same level of supervision as anyone who has committed an offence in this country. I hope that all that will be done as rapidly as humanly possible.
The Home Secretary and his Ministers seem to have developed a novel doctrine of ministerial responsibility over the past 24 hours. If a Minister is not aware of something, we are now told, he or she can somehow not be held responsible for it. Let us be clear that ignorance is no excuse for incompetence. The British public have a simple question to ask of the Home Secretary: if he is not to be held to account for the work of his Department, who is?
Can the Home Secretary confirm that 27,500 files relate to information collected from Council of Europe countries? Can he tell us what would happen to files on offences committed by British citizens in non-Council of Europe countries, especially countries in, say, Asia or North America where there are large numbers of British residents or visitors? Can he assure us that there are no files from those countries sitting in Home Office filing cabinets?
I do not think the Home Secretary gave us a precise date for the completion of the CRB checks on the most serious offenders. Will he do so now, so that parents and members of the public can have a cast-iron guarantee that none of the offenders are working with children or vulnerable people?
The Home Secretary may be aware that since April 2005 a pilot project has been running, organised by Germany, France, Belgium and Spain—joined recently, I believe, by the Czech Republic—to establish a fully operational criminal records network. We are told that the United Kingdom has been very reluctant to join the project. Can the Home Secretary explain how he will deal with this crisis on a sustainable basis without committing Britain more fully to this type of international arrangement?
I will deal with the last question first. Of course we consider all ways of improving co-operation, but no one should believe that because systems have been established they will work perfectly, even now.
To the best of my knowledge, under the new system, all Council of Europe countries have notified us of all offences, and all those offences are being entered on the computer immediately by ACPO.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that since I became Secretary of State, none of the cases that have come in have added to the backlog. I accept responsibility for sorting the problem out, but unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, what I cannot tell him is that I was presiding over it from 1959 until last May. I was not. I will accept responsibility for sorting out the problem, but it has developed over many years. Even now, with the new system, when I ask how many notifications we have received from Spain, for instance, the answer is none. I find it very difficult to believe that we have had no one convicted of offences in Spain. That illustrates some of the problems that we are experiencing, even with a strengthened system.
We will continue to do what we can, and I accept full responsibility. It is a question of establishing the facts, and I have asked the permanent secretary to do that.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the time scale. I hope and expect that we shall have gone through the backlog of 27,500 less serious cases within a few months—three months, I hope, although I cannot absolutely pledge that. He also asked an important question about the retrospective checking of people who are now on the computer but may not have been for a long time. I am also concerned about that, and I have asked the CRB to check and run it through the systems. I trust that the process will not take months or even weeks; I hope to have received the information by the end of this week. I will in any case present a written statement to the House when appropriate, to update Members on what is happening.
The backlog of 27,500 files that built up at some stage between 1959 and 2006—probably from the mid-1990s onwards, but that is part of what I am trying to establish—relates mainly to the 45 or so Council of Europe member states to which the convention on mutual legal assistance relates. That arrangement was even less systematic that the present one. As I have said, there were two flaws. First, the information that came to the United Kingdom was fragmentary, piecemeal and ad hoc, and secondly the system at this end, in the Home Office, was inadequate to deal with that. Had I known about those failings I would have incorporated them in the report that I gave the Home Affairs Committee, along with the other failings in the system.
We are remedying those failings now. A huge amount of work is being done by Home Office officials to reform the Home Office, and I praise them for that work. My only regret is that because they did not, apparently, tell me about it at the time, something that happened a considerable time ago is being blamed on officials as if it were happening now. Actually, it is on its way to being remedied now. What has happened is that we have only just found out about a problem that all of us should perhaps have known about some time ago.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Is he aware that when the incoming Labour Government began to set up the Criminal Records Bureau, it became apparent that we could not even be sure that convictions in this country were being entered on the police national computer? Laxity in these affairs long predates my right hon. Friend’s time as Home Secretary, and stretches back over other Governments.
May I point out to my right hon. Friend the real purpose of the Hampshire chief constable’s contribution to our Committee session yesterday? It was not to draw attention to past problems, which he regards as being on the way to solution, but to report that we are continuing to receive notification from other European states that contains too little information to allow individuals to be positively identified and registered on the national computer. Will my right hon. Friend add to his list of priorities a real drive in Europe to sort out the problem of the quality of data, so that we can establish the information on the computer and so that we are not still debating this issue in two or three years’ time?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the information that he elicited yesterday, which is very helpful to all of us. [Laughter.] This is a serious problem, and the information was helpful in spurring further action with the aim of establishing a process of constant improvement.
As my right hon. Friend says, over the past few decades public expectations of this as of other public services have become much higher. The public are entitled to demand more, as is the House, and I will try to respond. It is also the case, however, that we are monitoring, categorising, listing and registering, and through those actions protecting the public better than we were several decades ago.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the evidence given by the police yesterday. I am very grateful to the police for what they are doing. We have a problem that is currently being solved; but in the midst of that solution, there have been revelations about the problem as it existed before and as people had to grapple with it then. That is why I say that whatever happened previously, my predecessors were absolutely correct in taking the steps that were necessary for a speedy response to the European Union directive. We were among the first European member states to tender, and then to set up, a central authority—the Association of Chief Police Officers—to deal with the problem.
Although we are now working on system improvement, it is by no means perfect. My right hon. Friend said that the evidence yesterday was that some European Union member states were still not giving us information in a manner that can be registered on a computer; giving us the name “John Smith” with no address, no background and no identification, along with some general crime is not very helpful in terms of the police computer. Even worse, some states appear to have given us no notification of anybody at all, so I will certainly make that one of my priorities as well.
The Home Secretary, in the usual discreditable way that he and his colleagues adopt, has sought to spread some of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs to the previous Administration, but less than an hour ago the Prime Minister told the House that the voluntary transfer of information commenced in 1999, and I am sure that the Prime Minister was carefully briefed on that matter. Is not the simple truth that, since 1999, thousands of records of this kind have been received at the Home Office, have been put into boxes at the Home Office and have been left to gather dust at the Home Office? Is that not a disgraceful state of affairs, for which this Government are entirely responsible?
The year is 1959 for the European Council convention on the exchange of information—the mutual legal aid. Information was exchanged from 1959. [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman is challenging me on the basis that all the files in the backlog are from 1999 onwards. I think that he will find that that is incorrect, and I hope that if he does find that it is incorrect he will be apologetic about what he said about me attempting, in discreditable fashion, to blame somebody. I am not attempting to blame anybody; I am attempting to explain how a problem arose and to address the problem.
I also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the public are less interested in the blame game and party politics than they are in the protection of themselves, their families and their children, which is what I am interested in.
I seek clarification on a small point. Yesterday’s Home Affairs Committee sitting was entirely about home affairs issues relating to Europe. My right hon. Friend mentioned Interpol in his statement; yesterday, we talked about Europol. Can I understand from what my right hon. Friend says that ACPO is now receiving information from Interpol, and therefore from around the world, rather than just from Europe?
Interpol has played an active part. Let me give an example—it is a rather complex one, but Members demand and expect detailed answers to such points. When ACPO received the files—some electronically, others physically—it sifted through them; it conducted what we would call a triage, sorting them into more serious and less serious offences. Of the 540 more serious offences, it transpired that 149 were already on the police national computer because they had been put on it by Interpol. That means that Interpol had already been playing an active role.
We will certainly encourage it and other institutions, including the European Union and its member states, to make information available. That is not, however, quite as simple as we would all want it to be. For example, only three countries in Europe have a sex offenders register: the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. Other countries do not protect the public in the way that we do; we have a standard of protection that has been built up over the years. I do not make any exclusive claim for that for the Labour Government. Over a period of years, we have built up a system of protection that is in advance of that of any other country in Europe, but it still has major deficiencies, and we are trying to address them.
The Home Secretary referred to the tragedy in Soham in my constituency, and to the fact that if there had been better communication between police forces that tragedy might not have happened. However, although that happened five years ago, the Home Secretary said that the IMPACT—information management, prioritisation, analysis, co-ordination and tasking—system is still being implemented. How much longer will my constituents and other people in this country have to wait before there is a system in place that ensures that everybody who has committed crimes that could mean that they are a threat to children in the future are recorded in a manner that is accessible by those who might be considering employing them?
We should bear in mind that at the beginning of this process there was already a system in place in Scotland; the Scottish forces had a system that allowed the kind of communication that has been mentioned. Yet the Home Office ignored that and went ahead; it started to implement an IMPACT system which, as the Home Secretary has told us, is still not fully operational five years later.
We are attempting to introduce such measures as quickly as possible, but I understand why the hon. Gentleman is concerned, and he is correct to be so.
On more general matters, I was invited to say whether I think that what happened is serious and detrimental. I have made it publicly clear that I do think so, and we are attempting to remedy that. However, as I also pointed out, it is not as though nothing has happened since then. What has come out of that tragedy? Apart from IMPACT, we have established the vetting and barring scheme, which is scheduled for implementation in less than two years; it will significantly strengthen the protection of children and vulnerable adults. We are trying to improve the national offenders management system and the oversight of serious offenders. We have the POCA—Protection of Children Act 1999—register for those who might be a threat to children. We have the POVA—protection of vulnerable adults—register for those who might be a threat to vulnerable adults. We also have what is called the sexual offenders register, although it is actually the violent and sexual offenders register. Therefore, a lot is going on in this area.
None of that, however, excuses our inability to handle such matters in a better fashion. The task now is to make sure that we improve that much more quickly, and that we do so much more fully—and that has been under way since last May when ACPO took the lead.
Given that many of the problems that have affected our Government since we came to power have emanated from the Home Department, does my right hon. Friend agree that the time is right to give serious consideration to splitting the duties and responsibilities of the Home Department, for example by creating a new department for immigration and migration separate from the rest of Home Department responsibilities?
My arrival at the Home Office was not without a degree of controversy. I identified what I thought were failings that had to be remedied. I said that within three months—100 days—I would bring forward plans for reform. I am sorry to disappoint the House and some commentators, but I did not in fact say that I would solve the problems of the Home Office within 100 days; I said that I would bring forward plans to tackle the fundamental problems.
Those plans were produced. One of them is a reform plan for Home Office systems—the systems and functions, and the integrity of them. Another is a plan to reform radically—and, hopefully, make far more efficient—the immigration and nationality department. We are proceeding with those reforms, but we keep the whole situation under review. The agency status we have proposed for the immigration and nationality department might be a big contributory factor to creating a more efficient organisation, but I have also carried out a study and review of the counter-terrorist side of the Department’s responsibilities. We keep that under review. I never rule anything out, but at the moment we have a plan for the reform of the central systems and the IND, and it is better to try to implement those plans before we devise others.
The Home Secretary has said that he will accept responsibility for sorting this mess out, but he has been Home Secretary since last May. Does he accept any personal responsibility for how this mess has arisen in the first place—any responsibility at all?
The hon. Gentleman is asking me to comment on and take responsibility for things that happened prior to my becoming Home Secretary. [Interruption.] No, I did not say that it was the previous Home Secretary; indeed, I said that I welcomed the previous Home Secretary’s decision to sort these things out by putting the matter to ACPO and being among the first in Europe to take action. All I am pointing out is that I accept the responsibility for dealing with this, but as I said in my statement it is a problem that has been mounting over the decades.
The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) pointed out the reference to 1999. That was made because accurate records began only in 1999. I am reliably informed by my officials that we have no accurate records for the period during which the right hon. and learned Gentleman presided over the Home Office. However, I accept full responsibility. That is why I am in front of the House, volunteering a statement, within 24 hours of the discovering that there was a problem, albeit some time ago.
Will the Home Secretary separate out some of the questions about whether Ministers knew about this or would have had cause to ask about it in the past, because MPs clearly did not know about it or have cause for concern? Would the offenders concerned have had any reason to know that they were not on the national computer, or can we hope that they were living and behaving under the assumption that they were? Does the Home Secretary feel any unease about the fact that the new information becoming available, including that about countries that have not passed on information, might come as some comfort to those offenders? We all need to address that issue, not the political spat about who knew what, when.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who addresses the practical problems and the protection of the public. That is what the public are interested in, and it is what I am interested in. I cannot guess, and it would be a guess, at the attitude of some of these offenders or whether that attitude was shaped by a realisation that their names had not been placed where they thought they might be.
The hon. Gentleman has hit on a serious point. Even if these names are now being put on the computer and we are tackling the problem as a result of the decision of the previous Home Secretary to pass the matter to ACPO, there was a gap. Can we be sure that during that time people did not get positions that they ought to have been prevented from getting because their name should have been on the computer? I spoke this morning to the Criminal Records Bureau, and said that I wanted it to check with utmost speed that there is no one in a job or position of trust who would have been prevented from getting it had their name been on the police computer and various registers more speedily. I have asked the CRB to give me the answer to that question by the end of this week, and I assure my hon. Friend that I will keep the House informed of these matters.
I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. There is still deep concern about this matter and a fear that proper checks and disclosures may not have been carried out correctly on a number of these people, who may now be employed back in the UK. I welcome some of what he said, particularly about the fact that the records have now all been sifted and a priority assessment carried out to identify the 540 most serious cases. I welcome the fact that there is now notification of whether data exist concerning those on the PNC.
I remain very anxious, however, that 280 of the most serious cases—more than half—cannot yet be notified and are subject to further inquiry. To allay public fears, particularly in Scotland, can the Home Secretary assure us that as notifications to the police national computer are carried out, comparable and parallel updates are made to data held by the Scottish Criminal Records Bureau, where appropriate? That would at least put some minds to rest in Scotland that as data are found and notification is completed, comparable Scottish records are updated in parallel.
That is a very important point. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about what has been achieved so far. He is quite right to ask about the gaps. I asked the CRB this morning to give me advice and to try to ensure that this information goes on all the various registers that should have it. I will make sure that that includes the Scottish CRB, too. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have a list of, for instance, football hooligans, those who might be a threat to children, those who might be a threat to vulnerable adults and those who might be violent and sexual offenders—ViSOR—as well as the police national computer. He correctly points out that there are parallel or separate organisations in Scotland, and I will ensure that what he requests is done.
Given that part of the problem is the poor quality of information, is the Home Secretary seeking meetings with his fellow Interior Ministers in the European Union to address the problem? Does he feel that if we improved our system of identification and registration of residency, he would be greatly helped?
I entirely agree on both points. If European Union members act co-operatively on certain major subjects, for the practical benefit of their populations, we will greatly enhance the status of the European Union in the eyes of our public. If they spent more time doing that than they do attempting to harmonise where harmonisation is not necessary, we would all benefit in practical terms in this country and in the EU more widely.
I turn to my hon. Friend’s second, and most important, point. In a spirit of constructive engagement I ask Members in all parts of the House to consider that one of the most fundamental flaws of the last few decades in the exchange of all this information is the inability to identify the offenders from country to country, and nothing would be a bigger boost to our ability to protect the public than some form of identity management. ID cards are an important consideration in the future of the protection of the public, and quite frankly it ill behoves people to stand up and demand the ends that they say the public want and then on every occasion oppose the means of achieving those ends.
Does the Home Secretary agree that the responsibilities that have been given to ACPO are very demanding and go a long way beyond anything that it has previously been responsible for? What resources has he made available to ACPO? How much has it cost? Are ACPO staff now satisfied that they have adequate resources to fulfil the task that he has given them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for a very important point. I should point out that ACPO—which has been helpful this morning as ever, and I pay tribute to it—is not a conscript. It has not had this task imposed on it. As a result of the European directive at the end of 2005, which said that every country should have a lead body for sending out and receiving the information, we put the job out to tender, and ACPO put in a bid and won. That is why I say that even though we are discussing a historical problem with current ramifications, a solution is already under way because ACPO has taken on the role of lead body and is working through the problem. As for doing things a little quicker as a result of my perusal of the situation, if more resources are necessary, we will discuss that with ACPO. We started those discussions this morning.
The House is grateful to the Home Secretary for his statement. He has explained that there are 280 serious cases that cannot be entered on the police national computer and are the subject of further inquiries. Is there any sort of deadline for entering those 280 cases and, if so, will he inform the House what it is?
There is not a deadline because it would be artificial. The cases cannot be entered not only because it would not add anything to put in a name and very little else, but because it would damage the existing system if there were hundreds of cases that were nothing but a name. The problem is that we are moving from a system that was completely piecemeal and fragmentary—quite frankly, it fell into disuse—to one that is meant to involve the systematic and organised transfer of information, although it is obvious that people are not keeping to the basic format for the necessary information that should be exchanged. We have to try to ensure that we go back through the cases with the countries. Some of the files are indecipherable—they just cannot be read—not because they are in a different language, but because of their scribbled manner. The records are not all typed case files; some are written notifications. There is thus a real problem. We will do that work as soon as possible. As soon as the information is in a fit state to go on the computer, it now goes on it. There is no backlog for perusal, other than the remainder of the 27,500 cases, which are the less serious files. I have asked that there should be an attempt to deal with them in the next few months, rather than in a year, as was originally planned.
Does the Home Secretary agree that there is an urgent need to reassure the public that convicted child sex offenders are not working with children at present? Is he in a position to make a statement in the very near future on the child sex offenders who have been identified already—I believe that there are 29 of them—and what process he will follow regarding others who may be revealed?
The hon. Lady has a long-standing interest in this and served on a Committee that considered a Bill concerned with these matters. She is absolutely right. That was why I met this morning not only the police and officials, but the Criminal Records Bureau. I have asked the bureau to run through all the information that has now been passed to it. I have asked for the 280 names to be given to the bureau and for it to go through its computer files in the next three days. By the end of the week, I hope that I will be in a position to give such confirmation, or to be able to identify anyone about whom an inquiry was made before information was received from the national computer. If there is someone in such a position who has been appointed, I will tackle that problem when we discover it.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to initiate an inquiry to determine what has happened and how that should be dealt with, rather than making assumptions about who was at fault. Will he not just take the weasel words of the Opposition on this issue, which are never substantiated by any action to deal with—
If the permanent secretary, on the conclusion of his inquiry into the matter, identifies the official who did not give the correct information in reply to the specific question posed by the Home Secretary, will that official be sacked?
The hon. Lady makes several assumptions, one of which is that the relevant people might still be working in the Home Office. All I can say without prejudging the inquiry is that one of the reasons—not the only one—why I asked for it was that I found it inexplicable that such a backlog had not been brought to my attention when it was pretty obvious to everyone else, including hon. Members, that I wanted to identify the problems in the Home Office that we needed to address quite openly and then deal with them. Although I do not wish to prejudge the inquiry, we will deal with that when it comes out.
I thank the Home Secretary for his full statement and for initiating the investigation. Will he assure the House that he will ensure that this item will be on the agenda at the next meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU so that our partners are aware of the deficiencies in the provision of information? In respect of countries outside the EU, will he meet the Foreign Secretary to determine whether there is any way in which, through the posts abroad, she can help to lobby other Governments to ensure that they provide adequate information?
I can say yes to both my right hon. Friend’s points. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), who has been dealing with the matter with me over the past 24 hours or so, will be attending the next meeting in the near future and will raise both those points with colleagues formally and informally.
The Home Secretary outlined the situation up until the time of the agreement in 2005 in the European Union and tried to reassure the House that the stricter regime put in place after that, with a single national authority in each member state, would lead to the problem being much easier to control. The original situation occurred under a Council of Europe convention involving 46 member countries. The European Union has only 27 member states, which means that 19 countries, including large ones, such as Russia and Ukraine, and others with a large British expatriate population, such as Norway and Switzerland, are not covered by the arrangements. How many cases in the backlog involve us seeking answers from countries that are not required to have a single national authority and from which we are thus unlikely to get answers?
We can approach several institutions and we can carry out work through Interpol. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman in advance how many of the 27,000 cases that have not yet been examined in detail are of a particular nature. I would hazard a guess that around half of them might not be sufficiently detailed for us to enter them on the police national computer because about half of the 540 more serious ones were not. If that pattern is repeated, it might well be that many of the cases involve pieces of paper with notifications that are in no condition to go on the computer. However, we will pursue every avenue.
The hon. Gentleman makes the simple point that while things might have got better under the new system, they are not perfect. I have not claimed that we have perfection. We have the European Union, beyond which there is the Council of Europe. Beyond that we have the world, so a couple of hundred countries will be sending us information that is not as perfect as it ought to be. I merely say that the system is a lot better than it was before and that it is among the best in Europe, along with the systems in France and Ireland.
Protection of Listed Vehicles
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a scheme to promote the maintenance and preservation of certain vehicles of cultural value; and for connected purposes.
The Bill has its roots in the well-supported campaign to ensure the preservation and, I hope, maintenance of a Concorde in a suitably airworthy condition to enable it to be flown on what might loosely be called ceremonial occasions. As I am sure that you are aware, Mr. Speaker, Heathrow airport is extremely close to my constituency. I frequently raise issues such as the noise and pollution that are an inevitable result of such a large airport and, indeed, my determined opposition to the construction of a third runway there. However, that does not mean that I was not a fan of Concorde. I never failed to be proud of it and concede that watching Concorde fly was a truly spectacular sight, despite its ear-splitting noise.
Of course, Concorde has now gone from our skies. The airframes were sold off to museums and collections around the world following its retirement in 2003. None are airworthy, and the ex-British Airways aircraft are in a worse state than the French ones, especially because of the decision by British Airways to order that all hydraulic pipes be drained and the electrical systems disabled on its seven Concordes. Jock Lowe, the airline’s former chief Concorde pilot and fleet manager, described that decision as an act of vandalism. I am not suggesting that Concorde should be returned to regular commercial service because that is no longer a viable option. However, many would like at least one Concorde to be restored to an airworthy condition, in a similar manner to the battle of Britain memorial flight, and would hope for it to be ready to fly in time for the 2012 Olympics. Currently, there is little hope of that happening. British Airways stated in a letter to my colleague the shadow transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), that
“the technical and financial challenges and difficulties of keeping an aircraft airworthy for ‘heritage’ purposes are hugely prohibitive.”
However, former technicians who worked on the aircraft, and independent observers, have stated that there is no reason why Concorde cannot fly again. If it were protected by vehicular listing, it should be possible to make BA think again about its policy towards what is a British icon.
Although I was thinking initially about Concorde, it occurred to me that very little status is given to the protection of certain vehicles of historical and cultural value. Over the years, there have been some notable success stories, such as the preservation of HMS Belfast and HMS Victory, and of the battle of Britain memorial flight that I mentioned earlier. More often than not, however, aircraft, steam engines and ships have struggled to achieve the necessary protection.
Ships of historical importance, such as the RMS Queen Elizabeth—which played a vital role as a troop carrier during the second world war and which was instantly recognisable as Cunard’s premier liner—have been lost to the nation in the past. We are in danger of losing vehicles and vessels of similar historical and cultural importance if no action is taken.
A prime example of that is the SV City of Adelaide. Built in 1864, she is the last remaining example of a composite-built passenger sailing ship. Although she is located at the Scottish maritime museum, the BBC has reported that her restoration will be abandoned and that she will be broken up and scrapped. Similarly, I am informed by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who I am delighted to see in his place today, that steamrollers are gradually disappearing. He tells me that owners find that, if they convert them to showmen’s road locomotives by replacing the rollers with wheels, they can double their value. I am never adverse to a bit commerce, but it would be a great shame if there were no way for us to ensure that some examples are preserved for posterity in their original state.
I am sure that hon. Members could think of many other examples, but I am anxious not to delay the House further as there is some very important business that Opposition Members want to discuss. In a nutshell, the aim of the Bill is to try to prevent any further loss of historic and culturally significant vehicles. Too many have been lost for good. It is time for us to take good care of our vehicular culture, just as we do of our architectural heritage. We owe that to future generations.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Randall, Kelvin Hopkins, Mrs. Janet Dean, John Thurso, Mr. Greg Knight, Mr. Gerald Howarth, Mr. Robert Goodwill, Michael Fabricant, Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Julian Brazier and Mr. Greg Hands.
Protection of Listed Vehicles
Mr. John Randall accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a scheme to promote the maintenance and preservation of certain vehicles of cultural value; 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 44].
Community Maternity Services
I beg to move,
That this House supports the provision of high quality maternity services designed around the needs and wishes of expectant mothers and reconciling choice, access and safety; values the hard work of health professionals working in maternity care; endorses the need for every woman to be supported by the same midwife throughout her pregnancy; is deeply concerned at the closure or prospective closure of birth centres and maternity units and the consequent impact upon choice and access to services; regrets that the impacts of financial deficits and the Working Time Directive are forcing closures; welcomes and congratulates the cross-party opposition to such closures; and calls on the Government to respond positively to the demands for a national debate about the future configuration of maternity services.
Thirteen years ago, in a report entitled “Changing Childbirth”, the previous Conservative Government set out principles for the improvement of maternity care. They stated that the woman must be the focus of maternity care, that she should be able to exercise control over her care, that maternity services should be readily accessible, that they should be planned with the involvement of women, and that resources must be used efficiently.
Since then, Ministers have added to those principles. At the time of the last general election, the Labour manifesto stated:
“We want every woman to be supported by the same midwife throughout her pregnancy”.
Subsequently, a date of 2009 was set for the achievement of that commitment.
The Opposition motion effectively reiterates the commitments that I have set out, which I think are shared by hon. Members of all parties. They are based on the following principles: that, wherever possible, childbirth should be normal and governed by the exercise of choice by the mother and her partner; that the services that provide maternity care must be accessible, with continuity of care wherever that is possible; and that that maternity care must be safe and effective.
However, good intentions are not enough. We have to deliver. The motion recognises the NHS staff involved in that delivery—the midwives, maternity assistants, obstetricians, neonatologists and others—and thanks them for their hard work, the support that they give to mothers and the quality of service that they provide. But they know—as do we—that there is a long way to go. This week, the Royal College of Midwives expressed its concern about maternity services when it said:
“Maternity services are being pared back…unless midwifery services are expanded there is no hope of these manifesto commitments being achieved”.
The RCM this week published a survey of heads of midwifery that paints a very worrying picture. It found that two thirds of midwifery units are understaffed, that qualified midwifery posts are being left unfilled or replaced by maternity care assistants, and that training budgets are being cut.
The Government have responded to that with complacency. They say that maternal and infant mortality rates are continuing to fall, and that is true—to the continuing credit of those who work in our maternity services. The Government say that that demonstrates the underlying safety of care, but mortality rates are not a sufficient measure of outcomes for the vast majority of mothers. Achieving a reduction in mortality rates is not the same as achieving quality.
The hon. Gentleman said that outcomes had improved in terms of mortality rates, and of course that is due in part to the dedication displayed by staff. However, does he agree that that is also due to increased funding? Why did his party oppose that increase?
The long-term reductions in maternal and infant mortality rates are due to more than increased funding. There is a long-term trend across the range of mortality rates, and the Prime Minister said as much earlier today when he talked about cancer mortality rates. The matter is much more complex: it involves funding, the organisation and quality of the care that is provided, the technology that is applied and the skills of the staff. I do not accept that the problem is simply one of resources.
However, resources—that is, inputs—matter, as do outputs. The availability of midwives is an important factor. The Government amendment says that there are 2,400 more midwives than there were in 1997. That is on a head-count basis, but a calculation based on full-time equivalent staff shows that there are only 896 more midwives than there were in 1997. Full-time midwives now work 37.5 hours as opposed to 40 hours, which means that there are fewer midwife hours available now than was the case in 1997.
Moreover, the number of midwives is significantly smaller in relation to the number of live births. To begin with, the increase in the number of midwives under this Government was in the context of a falling birth rate nationally, but what has happened in the past five years? In that time, the number of live births in England has risen from 563,644 in 2001 to 613,028 in 2005. That is a 9 per cent. increase, so it is little wonder that midwives are hard pressed.
Has the number of midwives risen or fallen in the past year? The answer is that 36 fewer midwives are employed in the NHS, according to the most recent work force census.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but is he not distorting the statistics to a certain extent? It is true that the live birth figures have risen since 2001, but they are subject to cyclical trends and remain roughly what they were in 1996. The hon. Gentleman is right that the number of live births oscillates around a slightly rising trend, but he exaggerates the position.
I am sorry but I do not accept that at all. If the hon. Gentleman reads the record, he will find that I said that there was a falling birth rate when the Government took office, but that it has risen substantially since—a 9 per cent. increase.
Did we not see in the past couple of weeks just how good—or I should say how bad—Government work force planning is? The departmental internal documents showed how poor it had been. The equivalent documents produced in 2004 were junked within two years, before most of their predictions ever came to pass. The Government are not enabling the service to match the number of midwives to the task in hand. Increasing the supply of midwives is absolutely central to delivering the objectives on which we all agree—for example, one-to-one care and continuity of care from midwives to mothers and the availability of midwives to enable women to exercise choice and have either home births or named midwife-led care. The supply of midwives is instrumental if those options are to be available.
No one would disagree with the points that the hon. Gentleman has just made. No one would disagree with him in respect of valuing the work of midwives and paying tribute to them. No one would disagree with the words in the motion to the effect that the House
“values the hard work of health professionals”.
However, it is one thing to value that work, but quite another to show admiration and respect for it by providing the highest ever rate of increase in resources in the history of the NHS. The one thing that has increased massively since 1997 is the rate of salary paid to midwives and other health professionals. Surely, the hon. Gentleman cannot argue with that.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that his point would have been a lot stronger before the publication of the internal Department of Health document two weeks ago, which made it clear that the Department was planning how to reduce the real-terms wages of NHS professionals on account of the embarrassment of financial deficits into which it has plunged the NHS. So I will not take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Today’s debate provides an opportunity not only to reiterate our commitment to the quality of care that we want to achieve, but to call on the Government to stop and think about what is happening to maternity services across the country at the moment. Let me take the House back to 8 December, shortly before the recess. On that day, two regional announcements were made— affecting the Greater Manchester area and the east of England—that highlighted the serious consequences of the closure of maternity units across the country. On that one day, nine maternity units were identified for possible closure as a consequence of reconfigurations.
We undertook our own consultation to find out what people on the front line of the NHS feel about the future configuration of maternity services—something that the Government need to do and that the motion calls on them to do. The national picture shows that while we talk about and value birth centres and midwife-led units, 19 of them are at risk of closure. While we talk about accessible services, a number of smaller consultant-led maternity units—by our reckoning, 24 of them across the country—are at risk of closure. As I said, nine were identified in one day.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Greater Manchester reconfiguration, but is he seriously saying that, setting aside which hospitals are identified in it, there is no need for a change to services there? That is absolutely crazy.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. May I tell him that it is not just Greater Manchester or the east of England trusts that face drastic cuts and closures, because the East Sussex trust is faced with the closure of the maternity unit in either Eastbourne or Hastings. My constituents may face a journey of up to 50 minutes to get to a maternity unit. In that case, a poorly resourced midwife service or home births may become not just an option, but a necessity.
My hon. Friend anticipates a general point that I wanted to make, so I shall make it now in response to him. Changes in the configuration of maternity services are occurring across the country, and they are driven by financial deficits, as in the case of East Sussex, or by the working time directive and staff shortages, as is predominantly the case in Greater Manchester. Those changes are not justified by evidence about clinical safety, yet we should be concerned primarily about quality and safety.
I will give way again in a few moments.
As for Eastbourne and Hastings—Labour Members may recall the same thing in respect of Calderdale and Huddersfield—we are presented with the question whether maternity units with fewer than 3,000 live births can be maintained in this country any more. My contention is that we should retain such units, because we need to maintain access and extend to women the sort of choices that we want them to have, but NHS organisations across the country are planning to shut them down. They are doing so because of deficits and the working time directive and not because of issues of clinical safety.
Has my hon. Friend taken into consideration one widespread issue? At my local hospital, the Queen Elizabeth II in Welwyn Garden City, the maternity unit is under threat, yet the review into the closure that is about to take place does not take into account the fact that over the next 15 years its catchment area is due for a population increase of 70,000.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the issue of the Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS trust. He made a point about the number of births required in order to maintain standards of safety, but may I tell him that it is obstetricians who say that at least 5,000 births are necessary for viable units and it is politicians like him and me who want to maintain services as close to home as possible. Midwife-led units may be the right answer when assessments of patients’ needs have been made. It would then be possible to say that fewer births were necessary to maintain services in a particular area. That could be a way of maintaining services closer to home. We need to find a compromise so that—
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but I do not know what world she lives in when she says that maternity units need 5,000 live births in order to be viable. [Interruption.] Has the hon. Lady ever talked to people working in France or Germany? If we go to Germany—[Interruption.] If Labour Members would listen, they might learn something. In Germany, the largest maternity unit is the Humboldt in Berlin with just more than 3,000 live births and the largest maternity unit at Lille in France has 4,000 live births. Let me tell the hon. Lady why that is the case. It is because those countries have put far more effort into the identification and management of low-risk births in the community and in smaller units so that the number of births concentrated in specialist centres can be kept down. That is not what is happening in this country at the moment.
I want to make some progress, as many Members want to speak and I have a lot to say about Manchester before giving way again.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley made a point about midwife-led units and I agree that it is perfectly possible for them to be one of the best ways of providing services and that it may be appropriate for them to replace existing consultant-led units in some cases. However, midwife-led units are being shut down across the country, not opened on the required scale. Midwives are not taking responsibility for those services.
As far as Calderdale and Huddersfield was concerned, the independent reconfiguration panel reached the conclusion that, because of the working time directive, it was unable to staff paediatric services, so it accepted the loss of maternity services at the Huddersfield royal infirmary. Let us consider the position in Manchester. The consultation document, “Making It Better, Making It Real” was presumably supplied by the department for ironic titles within the Department of Health—[Interruption.] I hear the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), saying, from a sedentary position, that it is all local. I suspect we will hear a lot from him about how this is not his responsibility. Here he is, the Minister with responsibility for maternity services, who says that everything that has happened in Manchester over the past two years is absolutely nothing to do with the Government.
The local primary care trust says in the consultation document:
“There is evidence that sick children, young people and babies do better in larger units than in smaller units.”
Reference is made to a study undertaken in southern California in 1991, which demonstrated that low-weight babies born where there was no regional neonatal intensive care unit did not do well. We all know that, but that does not support the general proposition that babies do better in larger units. There is no evidence for that. The Government have told us that there is no evidence for that: last year, they published a call for evidence and research, which we now know is to be undertaken by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, which will not report until 2009. The Government’s call for tenders states that
“there are concerns about the lack of evidence of this shift in service provision on the outcomes for both mother and child”
and that what is required is that
“empirical research is urgently undertaken to evaluate the outcomes and costs of home births and all types of midwife-led birth centres.”
Ministers do not know what the outcomes are and they do not believe that there is any evidence for the proposition that births in larger units are safer than births in smaller ones.
In those circumstances, how can it be that on 8 December, the primary care trust in Manchester published a press release that stated that it had decided—not that it was thinking or consulting further, but that the trust had decided—that five units in Manchester were to close? At the time, I was astonished that the Labour party chairman—I told the right hon. Lady that I might refer to her, but she has chosen not to be here—and the Under-Secretary said, “Ah, well, this is a consultation—nothing has been decided,” when the PCT had issued a press release saying that it had decided that the units were to close. The Under-Secretary’s local maternity unit, at Fairfield hospital, is to close, as are maternity units in Pendlebury, Trafford, Macclesfield and Rochdale. The Under-Secretary argues about the geography, but says that he accepts the case for change. How can he accept the case for change when there is no evidence to support the proposition? The “Making It Better, Making It Real” document even states, on page 18,
“The birth rate nationally is falling so there will be fewer children and young people in the future.”
That is the basis on which the decisions were made, but that statement is not true.
What actually underlies the Greater Manchester strategic health authority’s decisions? To quote page 18 of the document again,
“Staffing pressures on the 13 units providing in-patient care are getting worse. Already children’s wards and maternity units have to close on occasions because there are not enough staff to cover them safely. We will not be able to staff all these units by 2009 when the European Working Time Directive becomes law and doctors are not allowed to work the hours they currently work.”
That is what is behind the events in Manchester—the working time directive, not quality and safety. In April 2004, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who was a Health Minister at that time, said that the UK would have to comply with the working time directive but that the Government would not allow it to impact on local services. But it is having an impact on local services. The Under-Secretary cannot get away with saying that the changes are the result of local decisions; they are driven by national policies and the failure to reform the working time directive.
No, because I do not contend that what ought to happen in Greater Manchester is my decision to make. However, I do contend that the Members of Parliament who represent Greater Manchester and the population of that area are ill served by a Government who imposed the working time directive that has forced the changes and by a local NHS bureaucracy that is so transparently unaccountable and unprofessional in carrying out its job.
I will not give way, because I wish to make progress.
The Labour party chairman can do one of two things: either she can represent her constituents and say that the consultation is neither evidence based nor justified, or she can leave the Government and argue that the Government’s implementation of the working time directive and imposition of certain policies is having a detrimental impact on her constituents and is clearly unjustified at national level—but she cannot do both. She cannot represent her constituents in one way and then, at national level, support a Government who are working in precisely the opposite direction.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members will thank me later for not giving way now, because they will have a chance to make their own speeches.
I have one more point to make before I leave the subject of the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears)—I wonder where she is. Today, she has received a letter from a former chief executive of the Salford and Trafford health authority, in which he says:
“We in Salford are now in a position where, instead of having a local hospital with a full range of secondary hospital services for our people, we face under your government the loss of a significant element of local health care, with probable further consequences for hospital services here in Salford. Your unprincipled intervention in 1998 helped to bring about the unfortunate situation in which we now find ourselves.”
He is referring to the loss of paediatric services from the Hope hospital in 1998. There is a lesson there for Labour Members: the loss of paediatric services leads to the loss of maternity services. Hon. Members representing Huddersfield—none is present—know that. That is what is happening in Manchester and elsewhere.
The position in the east of England is astonishing. A document has been released stating that units dealing with fewer than 3,000 live births a year are not supportable. As a consequence Hinchingbrooke hospital, which covers part of my constituency, the Queen Elizabeth hospital in King’s Lynn, the James Paget hospital and West Suffolk hospital may all lose services. In essence, the document states that a maternity unit cannot be maintained with less than 40 hours a week consultant cover on the labour wards, which now requires no fewer than six consultants. It is the working time directive problem all over again. It is astonishing that six obstetric consultants are required to maintain 40 hours a week consultant cover on labour wards. That is not true and it should not be the basis on which the strategic health authority makes its judgments.
The East of England strategic health authority has the effrontery to say that the lack of consultant cover on the labour wards caused the problems at Northwick Park hospital and that that is the reason why small maternity units have to be closed. When the chief executive of the East of England strategic health authority came here in December, I asked him how many live births there were at Northwick Park hospital in the period after 2002 when 10 tragic maternal deaths occurred. He did not know. The answer is 5,000. What is important is that the unit is well run, that the consultants are on the labour ward and work as a team with the midwives, and that the unit does not have to deal with an unsustainable number of births. Northwick Park hospital was affected by, among other things, the fact that the Central Middlesex hospital had shut and births were transferred to Northwick Park. What will happen in the east of England if the Hinchingbrooke unit or the West Suffolk hospital unit is shut and all the births are sent to Peterborough and Cambridge, or if the facilities at the Queen Elizabeth hospital are closed and patients are sent to the Norfolk and Norwich hospital? The consultant-led maternity units will be subjected to unsustainable pressures, resulting in all the problems that were seen at Northwick Park, yet the East of England strategic health authority is trying to use lack of consultant cover as the reason for shutting maternity units down. I know why the strategic health authority is doing what it is doing: there is a £240 million deficit and budgets must be cut. The authority believes that economies of scale are automatic, but in practice they are not.
There is not any evidence. That is the point that I am trying to make to the Government. That is the point in the motion. The motion is not an aggressive attempt to expose the Government’s failures; it is an attempt to get the Government to ensure that the NHS across the country takes time to think. The Government have started a research programme, to be completed in 2009, to discover the evidence on the scale of maternity units that are safe and on outcomes in different types of maternity setting. How can we secure the number of midwives that we need to meet the Government’s commitment to achieving one-to-one care by 2009? All those things are necessary and there should be a timetable through to 2009, but there is none. What is happening in Manchester, the east of England, Redditch and other places is that financial deficits and the pressures of the European working time directive are causing maternity units to be shut down.
Restrictions are being put on the choice, access and opportunities that mothers should have to receive the maternity service that is in their best interests. Today, in our motion, we call on the Government to stop and think—not to stop change everywhere but to stop and think—and then to proceed on the basis of the evidence, not of the financial pressures. I urge the House to support our motion.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“welcomes the extra investment in NHS maternity services under this Government; further welcomes the endorsement by the Royal College of Midwives of the ambitious vision for maternity services; notes that this investment has funded 2,400 more midwives than in 1997 and supported a 44 per cent. increase in students entering the midwifery profession, and that the latest surveys show that 8 out of 10 women say they are satisfied with their maternity care; recognises the preparatory work underway to deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment that by 2009 all women will have the choice over where and how they have their baby and what pain relief to use, and that every woman will be supported by the same midwife throughout her pregnancy, with this support linked to other services provided in children’s centres; supports the focus of services to tackle inequalities; and recognises that maternity services will need to continue to change in order to deliver this commitment and to ensure that the NHS provides the safest and most effective maternity care for babies, parents and families and the best possible value for money for taxpayers.”.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual awards ceremony of the Royal College of Midwives, where I was able to meet many of the midwives who provide such outstanding care to women, their partners and babies all around the country: professionals such as Jackie Christer and George Brook at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust, who have led the creation of midwife and nurse-led neonatal care. Their team is providing round-the-clock cover to the special care baby unit, the delivery suite and post-natal wards.
As I like, when possible, to find a point of agreement with the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), I note that at the Alnwick midwife-led centre in the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust, a small midwife and nurse-led unit is providing superb quality care to mothers and their babies, with fewer than 200 births a year. I want to return to that point a little later, but it serves to illustrate the fact that depending on the way in which the local NHS chooses to organise care, and the investment it makes in the training and support of its staff, it is quite possible for a small midwife-led unit to provide high quality, safe care to mothers—in that case, in an isolated, rural area.
Research from southern California, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) referred in his speech, has been cited by the PCT and the hospital trust as a reason for closing one of the maternity units at Eastbourne or Hastings. Does the Secretary of State accept that that research from the early 1990s is valid for regular, UK maternity closures of, for example, of units handling 2,000 deliveries?
I prefer to take my advice about consultant cover for hospital births from the—British—Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I shall have a little more to say about that in a moment when I turn in more detail to the issue of clinical standards.
Like most Members on both sides of the House, I still remember the midwives and the consultant obstetrician who helped my husband and me with our two children. That was about 20 years ago, but millions of families around the country have every reason to be grateful to NHS staff for the superb quality of care they give at a critical point in people’s lives.
All of us should be proud of NHS maternity services. Women are generally happy with them; according to my Department’s latest maternity survey, eight in 10 women tell us that they are happy with the care they received during birth. That is down to the superb hard work and dedication of thousands of NHS midwives and other clinicians and professionals. It is down to the increased investment—more than £1.5 billion a year—that we are making in NHS maternity services. It is down to the fact that the number of midwives has increased by about 2,500 over the past 10 years, which is of course reflected in the fact that childbirth is probably safer now, for both mothers and their babies, than at any time in the past.
As many of us know, in some parts of the country services are not only good, not only safe, but outstanding: they match the best in the world.
Unlike Opposition Members, I have a long memory. I was a member of a health authority for many years. During that time, an independent report about my constituency of Carlisle stated that babies were dying because there was a split site; the consultants were on one site and the maternity unit was 2 miles away across a crowded city. In 18 years, the Conservative Government did nothing to assist us, yet within three years of a Labour Government it was put right. We have a brand new hospital. The maternity unit was moved to the same site as the consultants and we now have an excellent service. Those people across the road should remember what it was like when they were in charge of the NHS.
My hon. Friend speaks with great experience in the matter. He is absolutely right and has given us a vivid illustration of how in many parts of the country maternity services need to change to provide even better and even safer care for mothers and their babies.
The Secretary of State says that maternity services need to change, and that in many places there is satisfaction with the quality of maternity services. What would she say to expectant mothers in my constituency whose antenatal classes, provided by West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, have been withdrawn with little notice? First-time mothers in particular feel nervous about giving birth, for understandable reasons, and they were relying on those classes to provide them with the education and preparation that is so useful, yet it has been withdrawn. The reason? Financial deficits.
I should be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about the details of that point but, as he knows, there are real financial difficulties in some parts of the country, including his. In a minority of places, there has been overspending at the expense of NHS patients and staff in other parts of the country. That is simply not fair. It is particularly unacceptable at a time when more money is going into the NHS than ever before and, in case the hon. Gentleman has forgotten, his party voted against that extra investment. The local NHS in his area needs to make sure that it gets the best value for the increased money we are putting in, and that it delivers, within that budget, the best possible services.
I want to make some more progress.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and I agree that we need to do more. In parts of the country, there are more births, more births to older women, more complex births, more assisted conceptions and more babies born prematurely—thanks to the advances in medical technology more premature babies and babies with profound disabilities survive. That is a great advance for human progress, but all those changes in society and in medicine mean that maternity services need to change, too.
As we stressed in our national service framework, we know well that giving birth does not need medical intervention for a high proportion of women. Many of those women would much rather give birth at home or in a community setting, supported by a midwife.
The shadow Health Secretary tried to depict the Manchester reconfiguration as the basis for cuts in provision. Is my right hon. Friend aware that when Manchester reconfigures its services significantly more money will be spent on maternity and children’s services and there will be a significant emphasis on services to mothers and babies and young children in their homes rather than in a hospital setting?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall talk about Manchester in a little more detail in a moment.
First, I want to make the point that only about 3 per cent. of women have their babies at home and only about 4 per cent. in community facilities such as a midwife-led birthing centre, although in some parts of the country, such as Torbay, where I had the opportunity to meet the midwifery team last year, maternity services have been organised differently. More women are being supported so that they have a real choice about where to have their babies, and more than 10 per cent. already give birth at home.
On the Secretary of State’s response to her hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), if everything is so fine why is the Minister without Portfolio, her right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), campaigning and demonstrating against the plans?
Let me turn to the reorganisation of services in Greater Manchester, which has been under consideration for many, many years and has been subject to more than two and a half years of formal consultation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) indicated, it will involve increased investment in maternity services in Greater Manchester.
No, I will not give way at the moment. The reorganisation has nothing whatever to do with the financial difficulties that recently emerged, or with the overspending in a minority of NHS organisations over the past year. The reorganisation of services has been proposed and led by clinicians. It is disgraceful that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire spent so much of his speech attacking and denigrating outstanding NHS clinicians in Greater Manchester—clinicians such as Dr. Anthony Emmerson, consultant neonatologist, who says that across the review area, which is Greater Manchester,
“There are too many hospitals each seeing too few patients”—
so the issue is not the working time directive—
“to maintain the skills and expertise of those who provide obstetric or paediatric care.”
I will make progress before I give way again. Let me continue to quote a professional on the issue of the Manchester reconfiguration:
“Doctors treating babies so small that they fit into the palm of the hand can do so with far more confidence and skill if they see those cases every week”
than if they see such babies on only a handful of occasions a year. Changes to intensive care will save the lives of approximately 20 babies every year. It is the assessment of the clinicians and the NHS professionals who are leading that reconfiguration that if services are changed in the way that they propose, between 20 and 30 babies a year will live, who previously would have died.
I was a premature baby—I was born at St. Mary’s hospital in Manchester some 32 years ago—so I support what the Secretary of State says. Is not the good news story of the reconfiguration the fact that central Manchester will have a state-of-the-art facility for the whole county of Greater Manchester, which we do not have at present?
I will not give way, because I want to respond to the points already made, particularly about the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). It is absurd for Opposition Members to attack my right hon. Friend for making representations about NHS changes in her constituency, and yet to spend months, as they did last year, accusing us of gerrymandering NHS changes to protect Labour constituencies. They simply cannot have it both ways. Opposition Members seem to be saying that a Member of the House should not make representations to his or her local primary care trust and strategic health authority, or put forward the case for nine, rather than eight, specialist maternity centres. Are they really claiming—this is what the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire says—that the people of one constituency should have less representation in the House of Commons simply because their Member of Parliament sits on the Front Bench? That would be completely unacceptable. I do not know—[Interruption.]
I want to take the Secretary of State back slightly. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who opened the debate for the Opposition, said that the working time directive was driving matters. Clearly that is not the case—the issue is improving the quality of service—but does my right hon. Friend, particularly as a former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, share my dismay that the Conservatives, who broke European Union law by not implementing the working time directive are, 10 years later, apparently still against it? It is a safety measure for staff.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Opposition negotiated the working time directive when they were in government—and a pretty poor job they made of it, too. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has explained on many occasions, they ignored the advice that they were given at the time and failed to negotiate the directive effectively, and thus opened the way to judgments in the European Court that have made life genuinely difficult for parts of the national health service.