House of Commons
Wednesday 7 February 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—
Equality (Sexual Orientation)
The timetable for the introduction of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 was set to ensure that regulations were in place for 1 January 2007. The Government wished to have the regulations in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity following the consultation.
Did not a fact that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments drew the attention of this House to the fact that the regulations are defective in no fewer than five areas? The Secretary of State bulldozed these new laws—which promote gay rights over religious freedom—through Parliament, not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, but because of his own political ambition to become the next Deputy Prime Minister.
The hon. Gentleman’s contribution does not do him good service. The House of Lords voted overwhelmingly for the regulations, and the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for the regulations. They did so because they recognised that the regulations are fair and proper for gay and lesbian people in the community at large. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has made some comments, and we have agreed to lay amending regulations based on them. However, those comments do not detract from the main resolution, which has been passed by this House. Indeed, the measure was passed and agreed by the Assembly in Northern Ireland on a 38:38 vote. The hon. Gentleman should examine the equality issues and share the aspiration of this House and another place to support equality in the community.
The regulations were certainly not passed by the Assembly—it is beyond me how a tied vote represents a pass. The four main denominations in Northern Ireland and many political representatives oppose the regulations. They believe that they offend against religious freedom in Northern Ireland. The regulations were railroaded through, despite the fact that the Government held them back for the rest of the United Kingdom. Why is Northern Ireland continually treated as a place to experiment with such laws on behalf of the rest of the UK? This is about political expediency rather than recognising the will of the people of Northern Ireland, the majority of whom oppose these regulations.
The hon. Gentleman proposed the vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly to reject the regulations, and that vote was not carried. The other place voted overwhelmingly for the regulations, and this House has done so, too. In Committee, the regulations were carried by 15 votes to three. They were supported not only by my hon. Friends, but by Opposition Members. The regulations are fair and proper, there has been consultation and I have met the Churches. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), will discuss with the adoption agencies how to implement the regulations. I believe that they are fair and proper, and I commend them to the House.
Does the Minister accept that although the regulations and the process were not perfect, there is, as he has said, strong support for the regulations from Opposition Members? The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) might note that only one Conservative turned up to vote against the regulations in the Standing Committee, which suggests that the Conservative party’s objections are not very deep. There was only one vote against from the Conservatives.
I was grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) in Committee. As was his legitimate right, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) voted against the regulations—I respect his opinions, too. The regulations are about protecting fairness and justice and ensuring that there is no discrimination and that people have the opportunity to receive goods and services, whatever their sexual orientation; they are not about discriminating against people’s views. People are entitled to hold views and to preach views, and the Churches are entitled to hold views, but they are not entitled to practise discrimination on the receipt of goods and services.
The latest Independent Monitoring Commission report provides further confirmation that paramilitary activity is declining and that the security situation in Northern Ireland has been transformed from what it was even 18 months ago.
We all welcome the announcement by former paramilitaries that they will now support the police and security forces, which is a good first step. Does he agree, however, that words from such sources come very cheap and that it is only through sustained delivery that we can have real confidence that they have changed?
Of course there needs to be delivery. It is important that people appreciate the fact, which the hon. Gentleman has welcomed, that the leadership of Sinn Fein has said that it is the responsibility of people to co-operate with the police in dealing with crimes such as burglary, rape and the harassment of old people. It has said that republicans should join the police, and it has said that evidence, where it exists, and information should be brought forward on the McCartney murder case. Those are all positive signs that delivery is taking place. The IMC report is definitive—as it has been in the six reports since the IRA issued its statement that it was giving up its armed campaign on 28 July—that the IRA poses no terrorist threat, that it is driving criminality out of the organisation and that it is delivering on what people have demanded: no terrorism, no criminality and support for the police and the rule of law. The House should welcome that.
Given that there have been thousands of unsolved murders and serious crimes in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years, many of them committed by the Provisional IRA, and given the statement by Sinn Fein a week ago at its conference, to which the Secretary of State alluded, does he expect, as many of us do in Northern Ireland, that even though the qualified words were there, information should now be given to the police about those crimes so that they can be brought before the courts?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Chief Constable’s historical inquiries team is investigating past cases. Of course, everybody will want those cases to be pursued, and where prosecutions can be brought they should be brought. What is irrefutable, however, is that in the current context—partly, I readily concede to the hon. Gentleman, due to the pressure that his party has applied over recent years—we now have a situation whereby all the parties in an incoming Executive on 26 March support the police and the rule of law. That is an historic transformation, and it is up to the DUP to respond positively to it.
Some £50 million has been set aside for building a new Olympics sports infrastructure. The Government have made good progress on their first project for the 2012 Olympic games. Castlereagh and North Down borough councils are the final two bidders seeking to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool. We have also recently announced the first stage of the second competition for the other Olympic and Paralympic sports facilities, which will close on 30 March.
I am encouraged by the Under-Secretary’s response on the physical infrastructure, but when her hon. Friend the Minister outlined the Department’s strategy, he laid emphasis on the fact that there are two aspects to this—the physical infrastructure and the human infrastructure. He defined the requirements in terms of getting greater participation in sport, improving sporting performance on the international stage, encouraging greater involvement in schools and opportunities for young people, and, importantly, improving the skills available to coaches, sports scientists and others involved in the human infrastructure. What measurements does the Under-Secretary have to ensure that progress is made in those areas so that there is a real legacy from the games?
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there is no point in having facilities without young people exploiting their talent in order to achieve sporting success, and that the human infrastructure is just as important as buildings and facilities. The sports strategy for Northern Ireland that is to be published shortly—not during the election purdah period, but immediately thereafter—will set out our proposals for many of these issues, with moneys bid for under the comprehensive spending review. The strategy sets out a full range of arrangements in respect of elite athletes, for volunteering and for coaching. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that many schoolchildren from Northern Ireland have already participated in the first of the schools games, which will take place annually leading up to 2012. He will have to wait a little longer to see the details, but I can assure him that there is a fully worked out programme that should enable us to develop the human infrastructure that we need, as well as to build the facilities required.
The Government have put in place long-standing and effective arrangements for cross border co-operation to combat organised crime, with strong links at both strategic and operational levels.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and congratulate him on the work that is being done in Northern Ireland as regards cross-border co-operation. I know that he understands that it is important to fight criminality on both sides of the border, but is he convinced that the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency will deliver benefits in tackling organised crime on both sides of the border?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for not only his question but his long-standing interest in the matter. I am not afraid of the merger between the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency—it signals that we will toughen up the fight against crime in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The Home Office has given us assurances that the resources will remain at least at the current level. A lead figure will be put in charge of the asset recovery work in the new merged agency. The message is clear: organised crime will not be tolerated; those responsible will be held to account.
Is the Minister aware that there is disquiet on both sides of the border? From conversations that members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs held in Belfast and Dublin, it is clear that the premature abolition of the Assets Recovery Agency causes disquiet. Will he spell out the assurances that people on both sides of the border need?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Indeed, I pay tribute to his work and that of the Committee in drawing attention to serious organised crime in Northern Ireland. I repeat that there is a commitment to provide at least the same level of resources to tackle such crime. A lead figure in the new agency will take the lead on asset recovery work. The agency will be able to set its local priorities in Northern Ireland in communication and collaboration with colleagues south of the border. I understand that the change causes concern because of the success of asset recovery work in Northern Ireland. However, the message is clear: the fight will go on as before.
As the Minister said, the Assets Recovery Agency has been successful in Northern Ireland. It has conducted joint operations with the Criminal Assets Bureau in the south, such is the extent of the co-operation. Indeed, the Criminal Assets Bureau estimates that some 35 per cent. of its case load has significant cross-border dimensions. What further assurance can the Minister give us that the switch from the Assets Recovery Agency to the Serious Organised Crime Agency will not compromise that good work? The Serious Organised Crime Agency goes after bigger game than the local Mr. Bigs that the Assets Recovery Agency successfully tackles.
As well as addressing further north-south co-operation, can the Minister say anything about plans to expand east-west co-operation, including through the British-Irish Council, with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands?
Of course, the widest possible co-operation is essential in the fight against organised crime throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the new merged agency will be able to set its local priorities in Northern Ireland for asset recovery work. He is right, especially in his first point about the co-operative work between the Assets Recovery Agency and the Criminal Assets Bureau. Only a short time ago, a VAT fraud case was settled after being tackled by both agencies to the tune of some £18 million, which was repaid to the Assets Recovery Agency and the Criminal Assets Bureau. That is the sort of work in which those agencies are involved. It sends a strong message that organised crime will not be tolerated.
I listened intently to the Minister’s responses to questions on the matter. Given the serious disquiet of the Chief Constable about abolishing the Assets Recovery Agency, and given that the agency will meet all its budget targets for the coming year, will he shed some light on a question? Did the Northern Ireland Office make any representations to the Home Office to prevent the annihilation of the Assets Recovery Agency?
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s comment about the annihilation of the Assets Recovery Agency. Two agencies, for which the Home Office is responsible, are being merged. The Home Office has introduced the changes as part of a review of non-departmental public bodies. It makes sense, but I understand why she and others express concern. Asset recovery work in Northern Ireland has been successful, and I assure her and the House that it will continue undiminished.
Can the Minister say whether, if the devolution of criminal justice and policing takes place, a devolved Justice Minister, possibly from Sinn Fein, would be expected to play a part in determining the priorities for asset recovery and other SOCA work in Northern Ireland, as his Home Office counterpart intimated to me in a reply last week?
I shall not speculate about the identity of a future Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, but I expect anyone who takes up that position to play an active role in the fight against organised crime. I currently chair the Organised Crime Task Force stakeholder group. I hope that other Ministers in future will continue to be actively involved, as I am. The strong message is that the fight against organised crime will go on, whether or not there is direct rule and whether or not policing and justice have been devolved.
I am grateful for that reply. As the Chief Constable has said publicly that he is unhappy about the proposed merger, will the Minister give an absolutely clear-cut assurance that the reports in certain newspapers that it is intended as a political concession to republicans to take the heat off in south Armagh are completely wrong? Will he assure the House that the Government are determined that there will be no let-up whatever in efforts to bring to justice the godfathers of criminality in south Armagh and elsewhere in Northern Ireland?
There will be absolutely no let-up in the fight against organised crime. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, on which the media have speculated, of the merger between the Assets Recovery Agency and Serious Organised Crime Agency somehow being a concession to Sinn Fein. It was certainly not such a concession: the proposal emerged from a proper review in the Home Office of non-departmental public bodies. The merger makes complete sense and will strengthen the fight against crime. The message that it sends out, as I have said previously, is that all those involved in crime will be held to account.
The Sinn Fein ard fheis decision to support policing and the courts was historic. The steps taken by Sinn Fein leaders in recent days to deliver that mean that all obstacles have been removed for devolution on 26 March.
Has the Secretary of State received an indication from Sinn Fein about when it will begin openly to support the police and the rule of law? Will Sinn Fein and its supporters report to the police any crime that they know about, especially as breakaway republican groups have not accepted Sinn Fein’s decision on policing and the rule of law?
As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, breakaway groups of dissident republicans are expressly trying to sabotage the democratic peace process on which we are embarking for an election on 7 March and devolution on 26 March. That is their objective, and we must not allow that to happen. I can confirm, however, that Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, has said that in respect of crimes such as rape, car theft and violence against all people,
“we will be actively encouraging people to work with the police, co-operate with the police to get the culprits, to get the perpetrators off our streets and dealt with properly.”
As I said earlier, he has also said that there should be full co-operation with the police on a range of other matters. The ard fheis motion passed by the Sinn Fein special conference was explicit in authorising support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system. As the hon. Gentleman has been concerned about such matters for many years, he will welcome all of that.
What consideration has the Secretary of State given to a plan B in Northern Ireland? He will be aware that Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party cannot trust each other and cannot be trusted to share power. They may agree to some sort of ugly carve-up by 26 March, but the circumstances do not bode well for the future of sustainable, devolved government. Does he think that a reliable plan B is now necessary in view of the unlikelihood of establishing devolved government by 26 March?
Obviously—I do not expect this to happen—if everything falls over on 26 March, direct rule and cross-border co-operation will continue, and we will have to decide what to do. But that is by far an inferior and unsatisfactory alternative to plan A. Because of Sinn Fein’s continuing delivery on support for policing, I expect that devolution will occur on 26 March, with an all-inclusive power-sharing Executive in which the SDLP will be represented. There should not be any reason for that not to be achieved—[Interruption.]
On what the Secretary of State described as plan A, the DUP set a condition explicitly relating to full Sinn Fein involvement in Northern Ireland policing. Now that Sinn Fein has committed to exactly that, surely the conditions are being met, and the onus is on the DUP to play its part in restoring the Assembly. Does the Secretary of State see any justification for any party not now doing so?
No, I cannot, provided that, as I expect, we see a continuation of what has already happened in the initiatives taken by the Sinn Fein leadership following the special conference 10 days or so ago—delivery on support for policing and the rule of law. In that event—and that is what Sinn Fein is saying will happen—there is absolutely no reason for any Unionists not to join a power-sharing Executive on 26 March. I am optimistic because the alternative is only dissolution, not a postponement of 26 March, for which the legislation passed by Parliament does not allow.
Does the Secretary of State accept that Sinn Fein’s conditional support for the rule of law, policing and the courts is totally unacceptable and will not advance devolution? Will he require Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams to call on their supporters to deal with terrorist crime? Does he not understand that DUP policy is condition-led, not calendar-led as he has suggested?
I understand the DUP’s position, and when the manifesto is published I shall be interested to see what it says. However, it seems to me that the St Andrews agreement, to which the DUP subscribed along with the other parties, is very clear. It refers to support for power-sharing and support for policing and the rule of law. Provided that, as I expect—and as indeed has already happened—Sinn Fein signs up to support for policing and the rule of law, there is no reason for Unionists in the DUP or any other party not to join it in governing in the future. If that opportunity were missed, it would mean a tremendous price for the hon. Gentleman’s party and all the other parties, because dissolution would face Northern Ireland politics with a very bleak future for a very long time.
Mr. Adams has delivered a statement about Sinn Fein’s support for the police. Is it not the case that the IRA carried out an investigation of the murder of Mr. Robert McCartney, and indeed that it holds intelligence on those who carried it out? If the IRA is serious about supporting the police, should it not hand that file to them so that those people can be brought to justice, and so that the other constitutional parties can feel confident that Sinn Fein is serious about its support for the police?
The hon. Gentleman will have read, as I have, a statement by the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, in which he said:
“Anybody who has any information on the McCartney killing should give it to the police.”
He could not have been clearer or more explicit. With all due respect, I think that, in the circumstances, the hon. Gentleman should welcome that, should welcome the other progress made last week, should welcome the ard fheis motion, and should join the Government in saying that now is the time—with continued delivery on support for policing and the rule of law—for everyone to join in a power-sharing Executive and a new era for devolved democracy in Northern Ireland.
School Hours (Extension)
Under the children and young people funding package, almost two fifths of Northern Ireland schools are receiving extra resources so that they can provide additional activities such as breakfast clubs, homework clubs, study support, counselling and mentoring services, youth and sports clubs, arts and crafts, summer schemes, and environmental and health activities. A great deal of work is going on.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming that new money, which will reduce educational underachievement and improve health outcomes for the children of Northern Ireland. Has she made any assessment of the likely impact on the ability of parents, particularly mothers, to gain access to work opportunities, and can she reassure the House that she has given some consideration to long-term sustainable funding once the £100 million runs out in two years’ time?
Although the money in the package is part of a two-year programme and is intended to feed into bids through the spending review, we have every intention of ensuring—as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear—not only that the most disadvantaged children can benefit from extended schooling, but that all children and all schools in Northern Ireland can do so in due course.
Many efforts are being made—through domestic Departments in Northern Ireland and through initiatives such as pathways to work—to ensure that people who are of working age but inactive are able to work, and the extended school hours are bound to help women return to employment.
In welcoming the extra investment, which I hope will make an impact, can I urge the Minister to go further and to extend the programme from the current two fifths of schools to more schools in Northern Ireland, particularly in socially deprived areas such as in my constituency, where it would have a great impact?
Obviously, I was not speaking loudly enough when I gave my first answer. I have already said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has expressed the wish to extend the provision to all schools in Northern Ireland. I support him in that, and it would be valuable. There are pockets of deprivation elsewhere that would benefit from such support. Indeed, all schoolchildren in all schools would benefit from having such extended provision, and I hope that we will be able to provide that in due course.
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 and sympathy to the family and friends of Second Lieutenant Jonathan Carlos Bracho-Cooke of the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who was killed in Iraq on Monday. He was a talented officer, and the whole House should be very proud of him and grateful for the difficult and dangerous job that he and others are doing on behalf of the country.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I will have further such meetings later today.
Last week the Community Security Trust reported a 31 per cent. increase in anti-Semitic incidents, including desecration of cemeteries and violence and abuse aimed even at children travelling to and from school, including in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend respond urgently and positively to the recommendations of the all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism to demonstrate his absolute commitment to dealing with this appalling hate crime?
I am grateful for the all-party parliamentary group’s report on anti-Semitism and for the data compiled by the Community Security Trust, which show that there have been about 600 anti-Semitic race hate incidents. We are determined to do everything we can to stamp out this form of race hate, not only in respect of Jewish people but in respect of any members of our community. The announcement today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government of a £5 million package, which will help us to combat extremism in local communities, will do something to help in that regard, but I think that a strong signal from the entire House of our abhorrence of any anti-Semitism or race hate crimes will be very welcome indeed.
I join the Prime Minister in sending our condolences to the family of Second Lieutenant Jonathan Carlos Bracho-Cooke who died on Monday in Basra. I also associate myself entirely with what the Prime Minister said about racism and anti-Semitism.
We have also been reminded in the last week that one of the tragedies of war is that terrible mistakes are made and that people die from so called “friendly fire”. Does the Prime Minister agree that, when mistakes happen, the Ministry of Defence owes it to the families concerned to provide them with as much information as possible as quickly as possible about the circumstances in which their loved ones were killed?
Yes, of course I agree that that is what the Ministry of Defence should do. We deeply regret the distress caused to Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull’s family by the delay in concluding the inquest into how he died. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will do everything we can to co-operate with the coroner and to make sure that the additional distress that is now being caused to the family is minimised.
I am grateful for that answer, but, specifically on the case of Matty Hull, the British board of inquiry three years ago saw a copy of the video that has now been released. The Ministry of Defence told the family at the time that some classified material had been withheld from them, but it did not tell them exactly what it was. The family thought that they were told that no tape existed. Is the Prime Minister entirely sure that in this specific case the Ministry of Defence did not in any way mislead the family?
I am satisfied of this: although it is true that the CD was not originally provided to the coroner or the family because it was of US origin, its existence was provided to the coroner in a list of exhibits supporting the UK board of inquiry. I can also say that it was an MOD witness at the inquest who advised the MOD legal team of the existence of the CD. The legal team then sought advice regarding disclosure, and as the US origin of the CD was not realised at that time, it was advised that the coroner could be made aware of its existence. What has happened subsequently is now well known. I deeply regret, as I said, any additional distress that has been caused to the family, but I do believe that the MOD acted in good faith throughout. Of course it is important that it makes sure that information is given to the families concerned.
I do not for one minute underestimate the difficulties and sensitivities of these cases. The Prime Minister will be aware that the bodies of those who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan are returned via Brize Norton, in my constituency, and that the coroner’s cases are held largely in Oxfordshire. It seems to me that there are several issues: the distance that the families have to travel to the coroner’s court; the backlogs and delays in the inquests; and, now, the clear need for agreement with our allies, so that information, where possible, can be shared with relatives in a timely manner. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the MOD and the Department for Constitutional Affairs work together to improve and reform the system, and to give timely reports back to the House of Commons?
Of course they should do that, and they will. Obviously, some of these situations are immensely difficult for the families concerned. Not merely have they lost their loved ones; they want to know, very properly, exactly what has happened. In addition, the whole purpose of the boards of inquiry that the UK forces undertake is to make sure that we learn the lessons of such incidents. Obviously, it is particularly distressing when a death occurs as a result of friendly fire. Unfortunately, in war, these things can happen, but in those circumstances it is particularly incumbent on us to make sure that we take into account very carefully and sensitively the concerns of the families involved. We will look again as a result of what has happened in the past few weeks to make sure that, in similar such circumstances—I hope that I can say this with some confidence—we can deal better with them.
In their dreams, Mr. Speaker. In the light of the publication last Friday of the intergovernmental panel on climate change’s fourth report on its assessment of climate change, which shows unequivocally that climate change is likely to be much worse than previously thought, does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to speed up the implementation of our policies and revise our targets, including that which might appear in the climate change Bill? In the light of all that and of what he told the Liaison Committee yesterday, will he agree to meet me and representatives of the renewable energy industry to discuss the faster implementation of those policies?
I certainly would be delighted to do that on behalf of my hon. Friend. This is an extremely important issue, and coming up in the next few weeks is an energy White Paper, which will address security of supply and the question of how we replace the existing generation of nuclear power stations. Then there will be the climate change Bill, which, as my hon. Friend indicates, will make sure that we have sensible targets that this country can live with, and that we face up to our responsibilities in giving leadership on this issue. I point out that this country is one of the few in the world that will meet its Kyoto target; indeed, we will double it. We are leading the way internationally through the G8-plus-five dialogue, and making sure that we are working in harmony with our European partners and others to find a global framework that can allow us to put in place an international agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions after the Kyoto protocol expires.
May I begin by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s earlier expressions of condolence and sympathy, and with his remarks about racism in all its forms? Does he believe that his successor should seek a mandate from the British people in an early general election?
That answer ignores one thing. At the last general election, the Prime Minister promised the British people that he would serve a full term. Now we know that he is going to serve only two years. Are not the British people entitled to their say about his successor?
As a matter of fact, I have discussed the super wind grid, as it is called, with Chancellor Merkel. It is potentially a very exciting project for a huge wind farm in the North sea, but—as my hon. Friend will recognise—many issues to do with cost and feasibility would have to be overcome. If we could increase significantly the amount of renewable energy that we get from wind sources, it would make a big difference to our ability to cut our CO2 emissions. My hon. Friend is right to say that such imaginative projects and the other measures that we will outline in the energy White Paper offer us the best way forward.
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what I have noticed. While we have been getting on with the pensions proposals for the future of the country, with producing the energy proposals that guarantee energy security and address climate change, with managing the huge investment in our schools, as a result of the strong economy that the Chancellor has produced, and with investing in the national health service, what has he been doing in the last few weeks?
We can take that as a no. I say to the Prime Minister that the Chancellor is not here, so we can have a frank chat about him. Does not the Prime Minister notice a bit of a pattern? In the rebellion over trust schools, the vote on the war in Iraq and now the row about cash for honours, every time the Prime Minister is in trouble, the Chancellor disappears. Why does he do it?
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what I have noticed in the past few weeks. At the self-same time as he has called for more spending on prisons, housing, schools, rehab places, the intelligence service and school leavers, he has said that he will cut tax. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has produced the strongest economy, the lowest interest rates, the lowest unemployment and the highest employment in our country’s history by taking a sensible view of investment and putting it before tax cuts. That is his position and my position: what is the right hon. Gentleman’s position?
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman the truth. The truth is that we have been producing the lowest waiting lists ever in the national health service, the best school results ever in the history of our school system and the strongest economy that this country has ever seen. While we have been facing up to the difficult decisions, he has been ducking them. That is the difference between a party that has leadership and a party that has none.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we will look closely at the proposals for the refurbishment of the metro, which would ensure that it continues to do its excellent work for the people of Newcastle and Gateshead. Fortunately, the proposals come in the context of the fact that we have been able to double investment in transport in the past 10 years, and further investments will come on line over the next few years. I cannot give him a definitive answer as yet, but we will look at the matter very closely.
For obvious reasons, I cannot give an answer on the individual case. I do not know anything about it, but I shall certainly ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to look into it. However, my usual experience is that the facts in such matters turn out to be a little more complicated than what is presented to me.
Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in condemning the letter bomb attack that occurred in the DVLA building in my constituency this morning? I am sure that he will want to send his best wishes to the employee who was injured, and to her colleagues. I am also sure that that contemptible act will receive the full attention of the police and all concerned.
I express my sympathy to all the people who have been caught up in the incidents that have taken place in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere. I am very sorry that they have been put through what has obviously been a very traumatic experience, and I hope that they recover from the injuries that they have sustained. There is nothing more that I can say at the moment, other than that we are investigating the incident very closely. As soon as we have some news that we can properly give her and the House, we will do so.
I point out to the hon. Lady that all local authorities, including Solihull, have received above-inflation increases in central Government funding over the past few years, and that that has been replicated in the funding for schools, law and order and the health service. The difficulty is that we have to measure how much each area gets according to an index that measures deprivation in particular. She will be aware that there is always going to be a limit on the amount of resources available. I understand that there are pockets of real deprivation in her constituency, but there are also immense pockets of deprivation in Birmingham. It is therefore important that we achieve a balanced outcome to the funding formula.
I entirely understand what my right hon. Friend says, and hope that we are now at a turning point. He is right to say that there has been a big fall in wholesale prices recently, and I understand that some of the biggest suppliers are planning to announce that they will cut their prices for domestic customers in the very near future. He will know too that the latest international comparison data show that domestic British customers still have the lowest gas bills in Europe, and that their electricity bills are below the European average. However, he is absolutely right to say that energy prices have risen substantially over the past couple of years and that that is putting pressure on people’s living standards. Therefore, I hope that companies will take the fall in wholesale prices on board and reduce prices for domestic customers.
The hon. Gentleman must forgive me but my experience of the Lib Dems is such that I would have to look into the facts before I took them up, but I will look into them and get in touch with the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). We have increased the funding available for Chesterfield, as we have for other councils, but as I said in answer to a point a moment or two ago, people have to live within their means.
Is the Prime Minister aware that yesterday the Scottish Affairs Committee cancelled a booking with Hilton Hotels in Dundee? Does he agree with the European Union and me that American laws—for example, on the boycott of Cuba—should not be applied to American subsidiaries in Britain, Europe or worldwide, and will he agree to raise that with George Bush when next he meets him?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on what must have been an acute emotional struggle between his views on America and his views on Europe. I am not sure that I can promise him that I will raise the matter with the President, but I am happy to look into it and, if I can be of any help, I will be.
I went through this at length last year. However, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the most important thing for the country is that we continue with the policies that in 10 years have seen not just a strong economy but money flooding into areas such as his, which has meant, for example, that he has extra numbers of nurses and doctors, extra numbers of school buildings and that there are thousands of people—[Interruption.] That is what a strong economy has delivered. Pensioners and families in the hon. Gentleman’s area are better off thanks to a Labour Government, and what everyone will remember at the next election is what it was like under the Tory Government he used to support.
I assure my hon. Friend that the 20,000 jobs linked to defence in Scotland are safe if we continue with Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, but it would be a disaster for the Scottish defence industry and for people who work in defence services in Scotland if Scotland were wrenched out of the United Kingdom. Its economy would suffer and vital industries such as defence would be left without the security of being part of the United Kingdom.
With the Government’s policy to close more and more maternity units throughout the country—the Prime Minister is a father and knows about such things—what guarantees can he give women in my rural constituency who have to travel further and further that they will not find themselves giving birth in some far-flung motorway services area en route to a hospital?
I point out to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) that over the past few years not merely the number of midwives has increased, but that the number of consultants operating in that area has increased by 40 per cent. and that the number of midwives in training is more than 30 per cent. up. However, the advice we receive from clinicians and from those who actually deliver babies is that it is better to have a set of specialist services within maternity and midwife units. That is the best way to make sure that we save lives. What is absurd is for the Conservative party, which has opposed all the investment in the national health service, to oppose reforms that are absolutely vital to save patients’ lives.
Yes, of course I will. I have always expressed concern about a hybrid House. However, in our manifesto, because we were not able to resolve this issue in the last Parliament, we believed that it was right to try to seek consensus. I asked the Leader of the House to try to find that consensus. He has located it in the proposals that he has put forward. I will back those proposals. It is important that we try to resolve this issue once and for all. There are going to be different views right across the House, but it is sensible, if we can, to find a consensus so that this reform can be completed.
I do not agree that we have a loophole in the way in which we deal with terrorist finances. The most important thing—we have shown this in relation to the Abu Hamza case—is that we are prepared to take tough action against people who incite racism or extremism in our country. Let me just point out to the hon. Gentleman that every time we have introduced tougher measures on terrorism in the House—[Interruption.] Oh, yes, the Conservative party, while calling for tough measures in general, has voted against them in particular.
I define it as giving the best service to the user of that service. For example, I had a meeting with foundation hospitals just a short time ago, at which they showed how their business partners were able to help improve their procurement in their hospitals so that they saved money on procurement and put it into patient care. That seems to be the public service ethos in action. Public service is a set of values. Values remain constant; times do not—they change. That is why it is important that, as well as preserving those values of public service, we find new ways of implementing them for the new times in which we live.
The Prime Minister will know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made a bold and principled stand—[Interruption.]
He has made a bold and principled stand against multiculturalism, because, as he has argued, it too often emphasises the things that divide us, rather than those that unite us. Will the Prime Minister follow his lead by emphasising a better future based on social cohesion, social mobility and social justice, and acknowledge the damage that multiculturalism has done to people in this country of all races, religions and creeds?
Before the Leader of the Opposition made his speech, I had already made a speech—I am sorry that it obviously did not come across his desk—calling for multiculturalism to be balanced by a duty to integrate. However, let me just tell the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) something about multiculturalism. I do not think that the problem has ever been with the sense of multiculturalism celebrating diversity in our country. What it should not be is a source of division within our country. That is why I think that it is sensible to say to people that there are different faiths, different races and different cultures and that we are happy that we live together, but that what is essential is that there are certain values about tolerance and respect for other people, and about belief in democracy and freedom, which are essential British values that unite us all. I have to say to him that probably most sensible people in the House, on both sides, agree with that.
I am happy to support that campaign. As my hon. Friend knows, we have made a substantial investment in tackling domestic violence over the past few years. It is interesting to point out, since we often hear bad news about aspects of the Home Office, that convictions at court have gone up from 8 per cent. to 32 per cent. since the programme was put in place; and the number of victims reporting ongoing violence has gone down from more than 30 per cent. to 10 per cent. We now have 25 specialist domestic violence courts and we are going to expand the number to more than 60 by April this year. In this particular area, the problem was too long treated as though it were peripheral to the concerns of the Home Office and law and order; it is now right at the centre of our concerns.
House of Lords Reform
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on reform of the House of Lords. Accompanying this statement is a detailed White Paper, which is available in the Vote Office. The White Paper has been informed by the excellent report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which the other place and this House debated and approved on 16 and 17 January respectively.
The White Paper’s publication follows nine months of intensive discussion within Government and with the other parties. I have chaired cross-party talks—the first such Government-led talks to be held, I am told, for nearly 40 years. The cross-party group has met eight times since June. I am very grateful to those on the group for their work and constructive approach to this complex issue.
The starting point for the cross-party talks was that each of the three main parties was committed by its 2005 manifesto to seeking reform of the Lords. My party, as well as pledging, without qualification, to remove “the remaining hereditary peers”, said that a
“reformed upper chamber must be effective, legitimate and more representative without challenging the primacy of the House of Commons”.
The Conservatives promised
“to seek a cross-party consensus for a substantially elected House of Lords”
and the Liberal Democrats to “replace” the Lords with a “predominantly elected second chamber”.
In the cross-party talks, a significant degree of consensus has been found on several, but not all, the important issues. Where the Government have not agreed with the Opposition or the Liberal Democrats, they have done their best in the White Paper accurately to reflect the areas of disagreement.
All members of the group were of one mind on the fundamental primacy of the Commons and on the fact that the House of Lords should be a complement to this place, not a rival to it. There was agreement that a reformed House should be partly appointed, partly elected—a hybrid—consisting of at least 20 per cent. of non party political members, and that it was essential that no political party should have a majority of the whole House of Lords. It was agreed that membership of the reformed House should reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom and its people and the range of religious opinion in the country. It was also agreed that the special arrangements for membership of the upper House of a limited number of hereditary peers should come to an end.
The group decided that introducing reform over a long transitional period would be essential. But with opinion divided in all three parties, and each party committed to a free vote, we did not come to a view on the proportion of elected and appointed members, or on the precise method and timing of any elections, although all parties agreed that any elected element should be by a form of direct election.
It is palpable that Lords reform has been unfinished business for at least 100 years. This is not a criticism of the work of the Members of the other place, many of whom give the nation great service and the benefit of their expertise and experience, but it is our judgment—shared by the other parties, as their manifestos show—that the status quo is no longer an option. However, we all accept that moving forward is difficult. Great passion is aroused on this issue in both Houses and all parties.
Given that, the White Paper is self-evidently and unapologetically a compromise, both in terms of destination and of transition. I believe that the choice that we have is either to make progress on a scale and to a time scale of the kind indicated in the White Paper, or to see the whole exercise aborted altogether, in which case there would be no further progress on this matter for a generation.
Time and again, fundamental reform of the House of Lords has failed because, for some, the best has become the enemy of the good. Deadlock this time round would be easy to achieve. The prize of progress means moving forward gradually and by consensus. The basis for consensus on a hybrid House already exists. All recent inquiries into the future of the Lords—including the royal commission, chaired by the noble Lord Wakeham, the Public Administration Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and the cross-party Breaking the Deadlock group—have come to this conclusion.
The Government have used the White Paper to illustrate how a hybrid House might work, using a model in which 50 per cent. of the House is elected, and 50 per cent. is appointed: 30 per cent. from the political parties and 20 per cent. from those with no party political affiliation. In my view, this model would provide the most effective balance between election and appointment in a reformed House. However, there are myriad other views, and the free vote—including by Ministers—will enable those views properly to be expressed.
The White Paper proposes that the size of the House should be reduced to 540 Members. Elections would be held at the same time as elections to the European Parliament, and would use the same constituencies, but a different electoral system: that of the partially open list. One third would be elected at each election. The Church of England Bishops would continue to be represented.
Should Parliament opt for a system in which appointments to the second Chamber continue, all appointments would be made by a new statutory appointments commission, assessing both suitability and propriety. The commission would be independent and report directly to Parliament. The right of the Prime Minister of the day to make appointments would end.
The proposals in the White Paper would also break the link between the peerage and seats in Parliament. Members, including current Members of the House of Lords, would be able to resign their seats. Disqualification provisions for any Member of the Lords convicted of an offence would be brought into line with those in the Commons. All Members would be able to vote in general elections. The position of peers currently sitting in the House has been an important consideration, and we propose that no existing life peer should be forced to leave.
Let me now turn to the procedure that the Government propose for the free vote in this House. The whole House will recall that when the free votes took place four years ago, there were eight options before it: five of them—ranging from abolition through 100 per cent. appointed to 100 per cent. elected—were put to Divisions. Every single option was voted down.
Our system of voting in this House is well tried, and works to give a clear-cut decision on any straight yes/no choice. It is plainly essential that we use this system when it comes to determining the content of law. But the system is no good—it does not work—for indicating preferences. In mathematical terms, a binary system is not designed to elicit preferences and cannot do this job properly. Instead, the Government propose a system specifically designed to enable those voting in this House to come to a decision on the issue. Members will be invited to rank preferences in numerical order—[Interruption.]
The successful preference will be the one that gains at least half of all votes, after the successive elimination of the least successful choices. The Government propose three substantive votes, the first two of which will be held in the normal way. The first will be on whether there should be a second Chamber at all, and if the House decides that there should be a second Chamber, the second will be on whether there should be any further reform. If, and only if, there is an affirmative answer in both of those votes, the House will move to an alternative vote on preferences.
The detailed arrangements for the alternative vote ballot would come under your direction, Mr Speaker. It is for the other place to decide what procedure it adopts. Although the alternative vote procedure is an unusual method of voting, a broadly similar approach has already been agreed by this House and the other place for choosing the Speaker of each House. I am aware that, as will no doubt be reflected in the questions, the doctrine of the dangerous precedent says that nothing should ever be done for the first time, but every one of the traditions that we cherish in this House was once an innovation. To allow the House proper time to consider the procedure, a resolution to give it effect will be put to the House a week before the substantive debate on composition. It is intended that the debate on composition, in which there will be free votes, will last for two days.
I believe that, following the cross-party talks and the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, the White Paper represents the best opportunity to make progress that we have had for many decades. As our manifesto says, there are many reasons why we should move ahead with reform of the House of Lords—to increase its effectiveness, to make it more representative of the United Kingdom and to increase its legitimacy—but there is a wider issue, too. Through the process, we seek to strengthen Parliament by enhancing the way in which the Lords complement the work of the primary Chamber, and by doing that, our democracy as a whole will be better served. I commend the White Paper to the House.
May I begin by thanking the Leader of the House for giving me significant advance sight of his statement? Opposition Members approached discussions in the cross-party working group constructively, looking for consensus. We have always made it clear that we would support reforms that create an upper Chamber that is capable of challenging and revising legislation, that is democratic and accountable, and that is expert and independent. I note that in his list of reasons for reform, the Leader of the House did not mention democracy and independence.
The upper House has been a thorn in the Government’s side, in protecting ancient liberties such as the right to trial by jury. It is crucial that any change leaves it even more capable of acting as a check on the power of the Executive. Opposition Members want reform that strengthens Parliament, but the proposal does not do that. It puts political parties even more in control of the upper House, which risks losing the independence that has seen it defeat this Government 415 times. The right hon. Gentleman entered cross-party discussions looking for consensus. He has not achieved that, but will he confirm that, not for the first time, there is not even consensus in the Cabinet, and does he not agree that that loss of collective responsibility is a reflection of the Prime Minister’s lost authority?
The proposal is for a hybrid House, but when the House last voted on Lords reform, the Prime Minister said:
“a hybrid between the two is wrong and will not work.” —[Official Report, 29 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 877.]
What has made the Prime Minister change his mind, and what makes the Leader of the House think it will work this time?
The Government propose that the political parties nominate 30 per cent. of the upper House, and that 50 per cent. be elected using a list system. Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that a list system would encourage expert and independent candidates? With 80 per cent. of the House effectively appointed by the political parties, will the reforms not leave the House of Lords less independent and more under the control of political parties than it is today? Does not party patronage simply mean party control?
The Leader of the House said that the reforms would need a long transitional period—long, indeed. On these proposals, reform will not be complete until 2050—quite an admission, given that the last White Paper was called “Completing the Reform”.
Talking of long transitions, since 1997, on 21 separate Divisions on Lords reform, the Chancellor has never voted. Will the Leader of the House reassure us that the Chancellor’s coronation will not be yet another block to reforming the other place?
It is not just the reforms themselves that raise important constitutional questions, but the process of voting on them. The right hon. Gentleman recommends preferential voting. Why has he not referred this unprecedented proposal to the Procedure Committee or the Modernisation Committee? In his statement he said that a broadly similar approach had nevertheless been agreed for choosing the Speakers of both Houses. It has not. In the House the next Speaker will be elected by exhaustive ballots.
Introducing a preferential voting system will create a dangerous precedent. Are Ministers willing to accept preferential votes on matters like tax rates or the replacement of Trident? Will Members’ individual preferential votes be published? If, after the ballot, the House passes an option without a majority of first preferences, should there not be a confirmatory vote, otherwise how could the Government claim that the proposals reflected the will of the House? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in such circumstances, the Government would not be justified in resorting to the Parliament Act?
This proposal does not—[Interruption.]
This proposal does not strengthen Parliament. We want a House of Lords elected by the many. The House as proposed would be selected by the few. Far from making the Lords more independent, the proposal puts it in the gift of political parties. Far from strengthening Parliament, it risks losing the present benefits of the Lords. Far from removing cronyism, it perpetuates it. It is a lowest common denominator solution that will satisfy no one.
I can sum up the right hon. Lady’s comments by saying that she wants consensus and she wants reform, but not yet. She has no conceivable proposals for securing that reform. I said in my statement that the issue was difficult and complex, and that if the House wants reform, it will require compromise and it will take time. I am not suggesting that the proposals made in the White Paper are the last word on the matter—certainly not. It will be the subject of a free vote by all parties.
My suggestion—it is just my suggestion, and because the Cabinet has a free vote as well, it is not endorsed by the Cabinet and I never suggested that it was—for 50 per cent. is my suggestion, and I am happy to argue it through. However, if we have a preferential vote so that the House can come to a decision, and not end up with a train wreck as we did last time, it may well come to a different decision. On the basis of that different decision, we can introduce legislation which, I hope, can be the subject of the kind of constructive cross-party talks in which the right hon. Lady has happily engaged, although there was little reflection of that in the course of her comments.
The right hon. Lady said that I did not mention democracy, but I did. One of the difficulties about the Lords at the moment is that, although it does a reasonable job, it is difficult for it to claim any kind of democratic mandate.
It cannot claim any democratic mandate at all. We must take account of where the public are on the issue. An opinion poll published yesterday by the Hansard Society with a very large sample suggested that just 6 per cent. of the public support a wholly appointed Chamber and that more than 90 per cent. support an elected or partially elected Chamber. Even allowing for the normal margins of error, that poll suggests that the public are in one place, while some Members of this House and the other place are somewhere else.
I do not accept for a second that the consequences of the suggestions that we make in our paper for a partially open list system will lead to what the right hon. Lady described as “cronyism”. One of the reasons why I happen to support a partially elected, partially appointed—
I am not suggesting a closed list system; we have listened and moved on. I can see the objections to a closed list system, which is why we have not suggested it. The shadow Chief Whip should at least accept that concession with good grace.
I believe that more than 20 per cent. of Members should be appointed and that some of those appointments should be party political appointments, because all parties contain people of great expertise who are not part of the party machines, but who, subject to consideration as to both suitability and propriety, could make a good contribution in the other place.
There will be a full debate on the voting proposal. [Interruption.] This is a Government proposal, because the Government are responsible for ensuring good order in this House. The simple fact is that because the House was invited to say yes or no on seven choices last time, the House ended up looking very stupid and the matter ended in a train wreck. [Interruption.] I realise that views are held with great passion on both sides of the House, which is fine. Those who oppose any change will have the opportunity to vote for no change. [Interruption.] However, they are not entitled to vote for an electoral system that will wreck the possibility of reaching a decision. [Interruption.]
The right hon. Lady said that we have agreed to change the system for electing the Speaker, and I am glad that she accepts that. She also said that we will have a series of exhaustive ballots, which means that she does not understand our proposal. By the way, if the House wants exhaustive ballots where over time—it will probably take three or four hours—we reduce the number of preferences from seven or eight to two before having a final vote, it is fine by me, but hon. Members must be willing to sit in their places for three or four hours while the process is conducted. By endorsing the new system for electing the Speaker, the right hon. Lady has accepted that the old system, by which hon. Members were invited to say yes or no to a number of choices, was highly defective.
Finally, the right hon. Lady asked me to rule out the use of the Parliament Act. The issue of the Parliament Act does not arise in respect of these debates, because we are talking about the House indicating where the centre of gravity lies on reform of the Lords. Once we know that, we will be able to do something that I thought that she was in favour of, which is to implement not only our manifesto and the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto, but her manifesto.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will succeed with these proposals, but I know that he deserves to. He has listened to the arguments; he has altered his position; and he has sought to produce a package that is designed to maximise agreement. It is now up to the House to decide whether we respond to that package. I particularly welcome the proposal that we finally separate out service in the second Chamber from the receipt of honours. If we had done that a long time ago, we would not be experiencing some of our present difficulties.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the consultations that I have had with him and for the important report, which influenced me, by the Select Committee that he chaired. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House who say that they are committed to reform reflect on that report, which was published a couple of years ago.
Unlike the rather grudging response from the Conservative party, which is trying to pretend to be modernised and new, Liberal Democrat Members, as I hope that the Government know, welcome this serious attempt to complete a process of reform that began nearly 100 years ago—nobody can say that the completion of the task is not seriously overdue. We welcome the constructive and serious talks and the way in which the Leader of the House has sought to engage all those with an interest at all stages in proceedings.
Liberal Democrats have always been committed to a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber.
That is the way in which we will vote. Perhaps there are one or two unreconstructed colleagues, and I anticipate that their views will be reflected in contributions by Members from other parties later today.
In a modern democracy in the 21st century, both Houses of Parliament must have elected people. The only position that we think is justifiable is that both Houses must have predominantly elected people—Members should all be elected in this House, and at least 80 per cent. of Members should be elected in the second Chamber.
We have been willing to compromise in the interests of reaching an agreement. I think that we agree that there should be a two-Chamber Parliament, that there should be a stronger House of Commons and a strong House of Lords, that we must legislate and scrutinise better and that the primacy of the Commons will never be challenged by the Lords. That is where Governments stand and fall. We pay tribute to the fact that the House of Lords has done a good job up to now, but reform does not mean that it will do any less well—we believe that it will do better.
I have some brief questions for the Leader of the House. Does the Leader of the House accept that the proposal to have three in 10 of the new Members of the House of Lords as party political nominees flies in the face of current public opinion, which is that we should reduce patronage and not increase it? Does he accept that the proposal to keep prime ministerial nominations absolutely flies in the face of recent views about the rights of Prime Ministers? It would be better if that patronage were removed, so that everybody goes through the same appointment process. Labour’s commitment to get rid of hereditary peers should be stuck to, because the existence of hereditary peers after we have had elections would be a clear anomaly. Finally, when we have elections—as we will—everybody should be entitled to express a preference anywhere in the United Kingdom for the candidate of their choice in the place of their choice. The list system is not a way to enhance democracy, but a way to reduce it.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comment about the cross-party talks. People outside this House might be forgiven for thinking that there were two sets of cross-party talks, but there was only one in which the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and her colleagues participated constructively and in which we were clear about where there is agreement and where there is disagreement. The Conservative party needs to make up its mind about whether it was serious at the last election in committing itself to a substantially elected second Chamber and reform of the Lords. It needs to embrace this process or something like it, if it wants to move forward. Otherwise the public will conclude that this is a charade, because the Conservative party is so divided that it does not have the bottle to move forward.
The right hon. Lady says that 50:50 is not substantially elected. This is only my view, not necessarily that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I want to be able to have a system whereby their views can be expressed and have some effect. What was profoundly unfair about the last system was that although it looked as though there was a greater level of support for an 80 per cent. or a 100 per cent. elected Chamber than for the alternatives, that bit the dust along with all the other proposals, including those which were the direct opposite. That was a result of the absurdity of using that system.
On the question of whether there is to be any appointed party element, we have all agreed that there should be a transition period, although there is a debate about how long it should be. There are likely to be some appointments of a party nature during that transition period, so we have to accept that there will be such appointments. The important thing is that they should take place in a manner that commands public confidence. That is why we have agreed with the Wakeham commission proposal that the statutory appointments commission should determine issues of suitability as well as those of propriety. Of course the Prime Minister would have the right to make nominations, but without any guarantee that they would be accepted by the commission.
The hon. Gentleman’s most important point concerned strengthening our democracy and strengthening Parliament. There are those who argue for no change on the grounds that any increase in activity or assertiveness by the other place is bound to diminish the activity, assertiveness and powers of this place. I do not buy that. The longer I am in government, the more I believe in a strong Parliament. We have strong government in this country and across the western world. Strong government is better government the more that Parliament—both Chambers—can exercise proper scrutiny over what the Government are doing.
May I remind my right hon. Friend that when the manifesto on which he and I were elected to this House two years ago said
“we will … allow a free vote on the composition of the House”,
it did not go on to say that we will impose a three-line Whip to force Labour Members to accept an option that they do not wish to accept. Will he give me a categorical assurance that when this matter comes before the House of Commons, Labour Members will not have to choose, by voting for the manifesto, to vote against the Whip?
The manifesto was clear in saying that
“we will … allow a free vote on the composition of the House”
but it was silent on the issue of procedure. Given the farce—the train wreck—that was produced on the last occasion, it is the duty of a Government commanding a majority in this House to ensure that a procedure by which it can come to a decision is achieved. That is the sole purpose of the alternative vote procedure. It is used inside the Labour party; I gather that it is even used inside the Conservative party for selecting candidates.
The right hon. Lady is shaking her head; we can exchange billets-doux about that. Certainly, the exhaustive ballot is used. If the House wants an exhaustive ballot, we can have cross-party talks about that and achieve it, but it would take a very long time and produce almost an identical result to an alternative vote, because, for those who understand these systems, an alternative vote is simply a compressed version of an exhaustive ballot.
One of the documents that very much informed me was the report of the royal commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord Wakeham. My right hon. Friend, who played a distinguished part in that, will know that recommendation 69 proposed, to different degrees, a hybrid House.
Speaking for the largest cross-party group in both Houses, which includes a sizeable number of Liberal Democrats from the upper House and Liberal Democrats from this House, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that what he proposes is a constitutional outrage? Will he think again about his answer to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), and, given that we are to have a free vote on everything else, will he give all Labour Members a free vote on this monstrous proposal for a football coupon ballot?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying, in traditionally extravagant language, and as he said in the papers today, that he regards my proposal as a dangerous precedent. It may not have occurred to him, but this House is about change—that is what we are here for. [Interruption.] Well, not all the time, but what is the purpose of laws if not sometimes to change things? I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the Cambridge philosopher said about the principle of the dangerous precedent:
“you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one.”
He goes on to say:
“Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.”
I note that none of those who have raised objections to the use of the alternative vote are raising objections as regards its merits—all they are saying is that they do not like it because it is something new and/or it could lead to the House making a decision. However, all three parties are committed to the House coming to a decision, and there will be not one but two opportunities, on the Divisions that will be put before the House, for the hon. Gentleman and his friends on both sides of the House to exercise their choice, through a straight yes/no ballot, on whether there should be any reform at all. He can vote yes or no, and if he wins, that is the end of the matter. If the vote were in favour of reform, then, yes, we would proceed to an alternative vote. At the top of the ballot, as is shown in the appendix to the White Paper, is the option of an all-appointed Chamber. I think that that is the hon. Gentleman’s opinion. If he wins, that is what we will do; if he loses, that is called democracy.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
The Leader of the House knows from previous exchanges that I oppose a fully elected House of Lords because I believe that at some stage it will inevitably flex its democratic muscles and challenge this House. However, that leads us into a quandary, because it is exactly what the Government have recognised but are not willing to say. They have therefore retreated into hybridity. Hybridity may be the start of a process but it is not sustainable in itself. Whatever the mix at the start—20 per cent., 50 per cent. or 80 per cent.—at some time, and then again, the elected majority in that House will be defeated by the votes of the non-elected, and inevitably the pressure will then be on to take the next step. Hybridity means a fully elected House of Lords, but not just yet.
I am sorry—I have only one more point to make.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s suggested change in the appointments system, but I find it utterly bizarre that he can put to the House as a fait accompli this strange new voting system. Voting is a decision for the House of Commons, and if one is going to introduce a precedent in decision making—the election of the Speaker is not a suitable precedent—then it should be on a free vote of the House of Commons.
On the last point, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to reflect on what is proposed in the time between now and the main vote. This system is proposed because we had a train wreck last time. I do not think that my right hon. Friend was one of those who was trying to secure that, but there were certainly some who were trying to ensure that no decision whatsoever was made, and they got what they wanted. That is not what this House is for; nor did it enhance its reputation one iota. All that is proposed is a system with which all of us are familiar in other circumstances, whereby we are offered options and list them in order of preference. That is because we must not find ourselves in a situation whereby the best becomes the enemy of the good. We could have an eliminating ballot but that would take hours.
Is not it better for us to indicate our preference? We opt for our first preference and, if that does not command a majority, we go for our second preference and so on. After all, the old system sought to achieve that but it was profoundly unfair—indeed, it was fixed so that people could not exercise a second or third preference properly because gamesmanship applied. The order in which the ballots were put determined the outcome of the result. That is unfair and all hon. Members should reflect on whether they wish to produce a farce like that again.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern. All those of us who have been in the House for a long time do not move away from established procedures except with care. However, I believe that, in this very specific and particular circumstance, we must adopt the system that I have outlined or something remarkably similar.
My right hon. Friend objects to a fully elected House—I, too, am not in favour of that. However, he claimed that a hybrid House would automatically lead to a fully elected House over time. I do not accept that. Powers are central to the issue. Chapter 5, page 22 of the White Paper provides much information about international comparisons, which show that there is no necessary connection between the composition of a House and the powers that it exercises. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats cited the Canadian Senate this morning. The Canadian Senate is all-appointed but very powerful. Equally, there are all-elected Chambers that lack power. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said that we could legislate to cement the powers over, for example, money, supply and taxation at the same time as we changed composition.
May I congratulate the Leader of the House on having the courage to take up the subject again and giving the House the opportunity of resolving the matter at last? However, will he ensure that the Government do not pull the plug on the whole exercise again if a majority, on a free vote, votes for some detail of which the Prime Minister or the Government do not approve? Does he accept that we need to resolve the matter in this Parliament if possible? Does he also accept that, in any other European democracy, it would be regarded as absurd that a substantial number of legislators in the upper House of a Parliament were there through appointment by the Prime Minister, appointment by political parties, sale by political parties or anybody else, or appointment by an establishment quango secretly discussing who is suitable? Does he agree that the British are ready for more democracy in their political system?
The answer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question is yes. I am grateful for his support and his recognition that the exercise is tricky. Its purpose is to enable the House to reach a conclusion, after which the Government can legislate. I say to other Conservative Members that I would have thought that it was wise for them to recognise that the exercise is an important opportunity for the Conservative party, if it wishes to get into government, to get the matter out of the way.
We have had the debate about functions and composition. Some Labour Members—perhaps my hon. Friend is one—believe that we should end up in a logical trap, whereby we cannot discuss composition until we have discussed powers and we cannot discuss powers until we have discussed composition. We are acting in the manner that our manifesto laid down.
I welcome and encourage the Leader of the House’s resistance to the siren voices—whether old Conservative, old Labour or even old Liberal Democrat—that say, “Don’t do anything because the House of Lords might acquire some greater moral authority.” Is he aware that I meet few—if any—people who are worried about the House of Lords becoming more powerful, but many who are worried that the Executive are already powerful and may become more so? They welcome a second Chamber that forces the House of Commons to think again about issues such as civil liberty and personal freedom.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I have said previously that although, when I was Home Secretary and sponsored a large amount of legislation, I was irritated by the other place rejecting my proposals, the result of that process was, on the whole, improved legislation.
Will the Leader of the House explain why we have such an incredibly long run-in period to any improved version of the House of Lords? Why cannot we simply move to a fully democratically elected second Chamber, if that is what we are to have, instead of the dog’s breakfast of appointments, bishops and election on a party list system?
This is an opportunity to do what my hon. Friend suggests. I hope that he will support the process that enables us to reach a conclusion. He will then have the opportunity to vote for a House that is 100 per cent. elected. When legislation is introduced, he can push for a much quicker transition period.
I fully share the views of the Father of the House and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). The Leader of the House was unconstitutional when he said that the Government must order the procedures of the House. It is not up to the Government to do that—it is up to the House of Commons. I hope that he agrees that the abominable procedure for voting that he proposes should be put to the Procedure Committee or even the Modernisation Committee, which he chairs. It would better go to the Procedure Committee so that the matter can be properly considered. Is not he presenting a proposal to manipulate the House of Commons to achieve a Government objective?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise that the House must make a decision. Would not we fail in our duty as a House if we did not agree a procedure that ensured that we reached a decision? If we do not do that, will not we play into the hands of those who posture about being in favour of radical reform but secretly want no change?
The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru have recently taken a close interest in the complexion of the House of Lords. Is the Leader of the House aware that the television game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” has a 50:50 option? With all the assembled talents of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties, how can the Leader of the House believe that he has reached consensus on such a concoction of nonsense? Will he answer a few simple questions about the hybrid House that he proposes? Why call it the House of Lords? Will the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 still apply to nominated Members? Why is there a guaranteed place for Church of England bishops as opposed to people of any other denomination or religion? At any point in the discussions, did anybody present the intellectually rigorous arguments for a fully elected House of Lords or, indeed, for its abolition?
There will be a free vote by three of the parties. I hope that the SNP and Plaid will also have a free vote. We can then reach a decision.
We have decided, since we will not know the composition of the House unless and until we reach a decision about that, to leave the name until we know the nature of the House.
We propose that there should be a greater facility for wider representation of religious and faith groups. If there is a movement for the disestablishment of the Church of England, that is fine. I do not regard that as a priority. Meanwhile, we should accept that it is a second-order issue. If those of us who believe in reform reach the stage that I have outlined, we will have gone a long way.
The Leader of the House pointed out that, on the last occasion when we considered the matter, an unholy alliance formed between those who felt that their perfect options had not been accepted and therefore voted against all others, and those who wanted no change, which delivered no result. I perceive the development of another unholy alliance. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) claims that the proposal does not fulfil her demand for greater democracy, and my hon. Friends who do not want an elected House of Lords claim that it does not meet their demands. Will he try to demonstrate that the proposal is the only mechanism whereby we can achieve the result that most Members of this House want? It will enable us to achieve the reform, which successive Governments of all parties since 1908, have failed to deliver.
I will do my best, and I would be grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. It is entirely legitimate for those who want no change at all to vote for that. It is unacceptable, however, for those in that position to seek to use a wholly defective voting system to ensure that those who want some change are denied the opportunity to come to a decision.
As the Leader of the House knows, I am generally regarded as a standard bearer for reform and in the white heat of modernisation. It is a mark of good government, however, to know when to leave things alone. There is absolutely no demand for this change or reform anywhere in the country. The House of Lords fulfils its tasks extremely well. What is the point of proceeding with this arrant nonsense?
The point of proceeding with it is that the British public are not in quite the same position as the hon. Gentleman. More to the point, his party does not share his view either; he stood at the last election on a manifesto proposal that happens to be even more radical than ours.
I welcome the White Paper, and congratulate my right hon. Friend on its terms, which need to be debated in the House. After the appalling introduction to that report by Her Majesty’s official Opposition, may I plead for the House to have a reasonable time to debate the issues? My right hon. Friend talked about finding the centre of gravity, which everyone recognises is incredibly important. We will only be able to do that, however, if we have proper and effective debate before coming to a decision.
The preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 held out a better prospect than anything offered by the Leader of the House today—[Interruption.] I am just anticipating a situation that will come about. My point is that the demand for primacy of the Commons does not wash if the House of Lords is elected. The central proposition of a democratic system is that those who make the laws should be accountable to those who bear the laws. His proposals, and his extraordinary voting system, defeat that. Some Members of this House will welcome another House that can bring to check the dreams and ambitions of the Crown in Downing street and the Executive here.
I was not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in favour of or against a fully elected Chamber. That is his opinion, however, and he is fully entitled to exercise it and, under the voting system suggested by the Government, gain the maximum support. The House would then come to a decision.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on his clear set of proposals but on having the courage to recommend a way of taking the decision that will lead to a clear outcome. Does he agree that opposition to a preferential vote is a disguised way of blocking reform and lacks candour, given that all parties in the House select their candidates and leaders through various forms of preferential voting?
May I welcome in general the progress made by the Leader of the House? My preference has always been for a wholly or predominantly elected House, but I would accept a lesser number of elected to make progress. Does he agree that the critical issue is to get the mechanics of the election right, and particularly to have regionally-biased constituencies to complement the population bias of this House?
I hesitate to contradict my right hon. and dear Friend, but the House is entitled to reject all the options, which was what happened last time. It was not a train wreck or an unholy alliance. The fact is that there was not a majority for any one of the proposals made. Trying to change the voting procedure to bring about a decision smacks of not liking the original set of decisions taken by the House. He knows that I have the highest regard for him, but could he please divert his prodigious talents and enormous energies to some other subject?
My right hon. and dear Friend—the admiration is mutual—is right in some respects, particularly towards the end of her remarks. If she wants to vote against all the options, however, there will be an opportunity, on a traditional yes/no vote, to vote for no change. The voting system is entirely different from last time. If the House wants change, however, it must indicate which preference commands a majority. There are only two ways of doing that: through an exhaustive ballot, which I do not mind but which would take far too long; or through its equivalent, which is the alternative vote.
As someone who has been in favour of a directly elected Chamber for about a decade, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he accepts that basing that on a change of functions and different constituencies is legitimate, but that going for a system that is intrinsically undemocratic—not only in the procedure adopted for voting in this House but in the party list system to which he has referred with respect to voting outside—is not legitimate and fatally undermines his case?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is agreeing in part with the proposals, but exercising some disagreement about the electoral system. Incidentally, I congratulate him on not mentioning Europe in his question for the first time in a very long while. I look forward to his support for the process that we propose, as he can then exercise his vote and, say, support 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. elected.
Out of affection for the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), I will mention Europe. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that although 48 of the 67 second chambers in the world are largely or wholly elected, including in advanced democracies such as Australia, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland and the Netherlands, their powers are almost wholly subordinate to those of the primary chambers concerned? Does not history and experience expose the flaws in the argument that a more democratic House of Lords, as promised in our and other parties’ manifestos, would automatically challenge the primacy of the Commons?
Does the Leader of the House agree that there is no point in having clones of MPs in the other place: people who climb the greasy pole in order to become Under-Secretary for paperclips, and never vote against their own party? I know that he does not agree with me on elected Members, but does he at least agree that there is some merit in making those people like congressmen—not MPs—who serve in a kind of senate, cannot become Ministers and therefore maintain their independence of spirit?
I agree with almost all that the hon. Gentleman said. The cross-party group has agreed to reflect the recommendations of the Wakeham commission precisely to ensure that new Members, whether elected or appointed, do not become “clones of MPs”, that they are elected for a single term that runs for a long time—we suggest 15 years—and that there is a quarantine period after the expiry of their normal 15-year term of, say, five years, before such individuals could stand for election to this place. By that time, I think, their ambition will have been exhausted.
May I caution my right hon. Friend against turning the voting procedure into “the issue”? He seems to be suggesting that a vote against what he is proposing is a vote against any form of reform. He should put an option for a voting procedure to the House.
There is one issue on which there is unanimity among Labour Members, and that is that the remaining hereditary peers should be removed. Any procedure that my right hon. Friend puts to the House must allow a separate vote on that issue.
I welcome what I perceive to be a genuine attempt by the Leader of the House to unblock the logjam and give the House an opportunity to resolve the issue one way or another quite soon. Will he confirm that when we last discussed it, the proposal that commanded the least support was for a wholly appointed Chamber, which is where we are now? If the views of this House are to have primacy, it must be right for us to consider that again.
Order. We must move to the next business.
Health and Safety (offences)
Mr. Wayne David presented a Bill to amend section 33 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed. [Bill 58.]
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Impact on Carers)
Before I call the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), I have a statement to make. The hon. Gentleman has asked me to exercise my discretion to allow him to present his motion, in view of the forthcoming judicial review of the process by which the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence developed guidance on the use of drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease. I have agreed to exercise my discretion to allow him to present his motion, but he should be sparing in any direct reference to the specific matter that is subject to judicial review.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to consider the impact of proposed drugs and treatments on carers and patients when assessing their cost effectiveness; and for connected purposes.
I am pleased to see that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) is present. It was very kind of her to come.
This is a simple Bill to correct what I regard as a serious flaw in the way in which NICE evaluates proposed new drugs. At present it is required to balance the benefits to the patient against the costs to the national health service and the personal social services budget. On the face of it that would seem an extremely reasonable way of operating, until we consider that the benefits of many new treatments fall as much on carers as on the patients themselves. The requirement under which NICE operates is too restrictive in that regard.
Let me make clear at the outset that I am not saying NICE should be allowed to breach the public-expenditure constraints under which it operates. Rightly, NICE is there to take a view, given the current level of resources for the NHS. I think, however, that if it were able to take account of the costs and the benefits to the quality of life of carers, a more sensible and rational balance could be achieved.
I have no objection at all to the existence of NICE. I think it essential for the national health service to benefit from an independent body that is able properly to consider and weigh up the costs and benefits of different treatments. But NICE operates under directions from the Secretary of State, and those directions are very clear: it is required to take into account the clinical costs and benefits of proposed treatments. I think we could change that definition, and I think the Secretary of State for Health could change the directions that she gives to NICE.
Let me give an example of an application of the guidance. Consideration was given to licensing a new class of drugs that can treat Alzheimer's disease. The drugs were assessed by NICE, and the most recent judgment was given in November this year in response to various appeals. The clinical effectiveness of the drugs is not in doubt, but they were withheld, and the recommendation is that they should continue to be withheld from people displaying the symptoms of mild Alzheimer's disease. That is not because they were not effective in slowing the progression of the disease, alleviating some of the symptoms and allowing people to have more self-confidence and to engage in everyday tasks. They were held not to be cost-effective, although the cost is about £2.50 a day.
The key part of the appraisal that is missing relates to the impact on the cost of carers. The final appraisal document leading to the most recent NICE judgment states:
“The Committee noted that the relevant NICE guidance on performing economic evaluations states that ‘the evaluation should be conducted from the perspective of the NHS and PSS decision maker… The Committee therefore concluded that it would not be appropriate to include carer costs’.”
One of the principal effects of Alzheimer's disease is on carers for sufferers from that dreadful disease. The evidence is overwhelming. According to a recent survey, 72 per cent. of carers and sufferers felt that their symptoms were improved by the application of these drugs. It is also the case, crucially, that on average an hour a day of hands-on caring time was saved if the drugs were administered.
I believe that the minimum wage is currently £5.35 an hour. If the value of an hour’s caring time were valued at the same rate as the national minimum wage, the benefit to carers would be twice the daily cost of the drugs—and that is leaving aside the effect on patients themselves. It is at least arguable that an evaluation that was allowed to consider the effects on carers might come up with a different conclusion.
I said that the evaluation did not take into account the effect on the quality of life of carers. Of course, that is significant too. In his recent review of social care for the King’s Fund, Sir Derek Wanless described the extra caring burden as producing
“anxiety, depression and psychiatric illness, increased susceptibility to physical illness, lowered social functioning, increased rates of chronic diseases during episodes of caring and general negative impacts on physical well-being”.
The effects on carers deserve to be taken into account, and could well make a difference to the evaluation.
I am not alone in concluding that we need to broaden the scope within which NICE is constrained to operate. As part of its consideration of the appeal, NICE asked five independent experts to comment on the evaluation process. Professor John O’Brien, of the Institute of Ageing and Health at Newcastle university, told NICE:
“The economic model fails to take into account many significant benefits of the drugs, for example reduced carer time in supervising patients with dementia… to use this as the sole basis for decision making in this case remains a fundamental flaw”.
All five experts were of the same view: that the current NICE methodology was flawed.
In his review, Sir Derek Wanless said:
“the burden on informal carers is particularly acute with dementia care”.
That cost, he said, required greater attention. During the last Parliament, the House’s own Health Committee concluded in one of its reports:
“we recommend that NICE should consider the wider societal costs and advantages of particular treatments.”
There are 290,000 people with Alzheimer's disease in England and Wales, more than 500 in each of our constituencies. Everyone knows a family with a member who suffers from that cruel disease, and everyone knows that, devastating though the consequences are for the sufferer, the effects on carers are even more distressing. It is painful enough for people to go through the process of seeing a loved one such as a father, a mother, a husband or a close friend suffering and, before their eyes, becoming a different person from the person they had known all their lives. That is a harrowing experience, the like of which most of us will never go through. However, for the carers of those people there is also a practical effect: their lives are transformed, as they become, effectively, full-time carers.
We owe it to such people, who do heroic work on behalf of all of us by looking after their loved ones, to make sure that their role is recognised and respected in the evaluation of new treatments that come before NICE which can make a difference to Alzheimer’s and many other diseases.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Greg Clark, Mike Penning, Mr. Jeremy Hunt. Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Mr. Mark Field and Mr. Adam Holloway.
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (impact on Carers)
Greg Clark accordingly presented a Bill to require the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to consider the impact of proposed drugs and treatments on carers and patients when assessing their cost effectiveness; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed [Bill 59].
[5th allotted day]
Al-Yamamah Arms Agreement
I beg to move,
That this House notes the Serious Fraud Office’s (SFO) ongoing investigation into the sale by BAE Systems plc of a military air traffic control system to Tanzania and other arms-related inquiries; further notes that the SFO has ceased its investigation into BAE Systems plc and Saudi Arabia; calls for an independent inquiry into the reasons for the ending of the SFO investigation of the Saudi Arabian export sales; requests that there be laid before this House any papers or reports held by the Comptroller and Auditor General relating to the Al Yamamah arms agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that have been prepared for committees of this House but not yet laid before it or published; and reaffirms the obligations of the United Kingdom under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.
I think that this will be a wide-ranging debate on the whole al-Yamamah saga, but that it will focus specifically on the Government’s decision to discontinue the investigation into BAE Systems last month.
The position of the Liberal Democrat party is that the Government’s decision has done enormous damage, which has undermined the rule of law and Britain’s reputation within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as a country that applies international law. It has also undermined both our reputation in the developing world—where the Government, through the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development in particular, lecture on corruption—and that of honest, good British companies which are trying to apply the law, whether in relation to financial services or manufacturing. It has also undermined the position of the House because of the anomalous situation in respect of the unpublished Public Accounts Committee report of 15 years ago, which, I understand, no Member present—including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Chairman of the Committee—has ever read.
The hon. Gentleman is right; I have not read it, but let me explain the history. My predecessor as Chairman of the Committee—who was, of course, in the minority Labour party—had a private hearing with the senior Conservative member and the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Comptroller and Auditor General has told me that during that private hearing no evidence whatsoever of corruption on the part of the Ministry of Defence was found. [Interruption.] Well, because the National Audit Office is concerned with the Government and not private companies, there was no discussion of any corruption or alleged corruption by anybody else. Therefore, there is nothing in that report that should alarm the House or lead it to believe that any aspect of the British Government was corrupt.
As my hon. Friends just commented from a sedentary position, in that case there is absolutely nothing to be lost from publishing it. Moreover, I understand that—The Daily Telegraph has reported this—there was a second report in 1997, which updated the previous one and is more relevant to the account the hon. Gentleman describes, so why cannot that be published either?
In proceeding with my argument, I wish first to pay tribute to some of the non-governmental organisations that have brought this issue to the light of day, particularly Transparency International, the Campaign Against Arms Trade and The Corner House. I also pay tribute to Members of all parties who have tried to open up this debate. In that regard, I shall start by mentioning the debate in the other place last week led by Baroness Williams. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) has made a major contribution in his role on the PAC and through his ten-minute Bill. An excellent Adjournment debate was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). Over the years, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has persistently pursued the issue of corruption and BAE Systems. Pertinent questions have also been asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).
There has been consistent interest in this issue among not only Liberal Democrat Members, but Labour Members. I can refer back as far as the late Robin Cook who in his attempt to introduce an ethical foreign policy repeatedly ran into a brick wall called BAE Systems. He recorded with some frustration in his diaries that:
“The Chairman of BAe Systems appeared to have the key to the garden door of No. 10”.
Other Members have also pursued the matter. I single out the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who has tried to do so on a multi-party basis, and the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), among others.
I hope that we can also draw the Conservatives into this big tent because they frequently argue their belief in the rule of law. We know that there is some embarrassment over this matter—and events of the past few weeks have reminded us why that is so. It was revealed in the Financial Times that one of the names on the Swiss bank accounts that were being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office was Wafiq Said, who is well known. He is a long-standing, loyal and committed supporter of Oxford university and the Conservative party, and in his time he was, I believe, a close business associate of Mr. Jonathan Aitken, who played a key role in the al-Yamamah affair—as people remember—as a Defence Minister, sandwiched between periods when I believe that he was a paid servant of the Saudi Government with an association with Prince Mohammed bin Fahd.
A few weeks ago, there was a little reported piece of news that the authorities in Gibraltar had decided to grant residency status to Sir Mark Thatcher, waiving their normal rules about people with criminal records. He is now able to enjoy his retirement unmolested by the Inland Revenue, which might otherwise have been particularly interested in how he acquired his personal fortune. We know from the testimony of Mohammed Khilewi and from the large amount of documentation that he brought from Saudi Arabia, and from a deposition in this House made by Tam Dalyell when he was a Member which was based on American and BAE sources, that that fortune was acquired when he was resident at No. 10 Downing street on the basis of the al-Yamamah contract.
However, those documents are small fry. There is an even more important set of documents that briefly appeared in the National Archives, after it had been been unintentionally deposited there by the Department of Trade and Industry. Fortunately, it was copied by the Campaign Against Arms Trade before it was retrieved by the Government. It described the bitter battle that raged in Whitehall in the mid to late 1980s when the then Prime Minister and Michael Heseltine were fighting to ensure that there should be a taxpayers’ loan guarantee of the al-Yamamah contract worth something in the order of £1.5 billion—or £2.8 billion at present prices. That was ferociously opposed by the Treasury, the Bank of England and the then Department of Energy as being wholly contrary to British interests and as putting seriously at risk British taxpayers’ money. We do not know because none of us has read it, but I suspect that that was one of the elements addressed in the PAC report that we are not allowed to see.
Let me bring the arguments up to date by dealing with the two big sets of unresolved issues that have emerged since the Attorney-General’s statement of 14 December. There are two groups of questions that we need to pursue. First, was there a secure basis for investigation by the SFO? We need to remember that the investigation was pursued by, I think, 18 officers over several years, and that it had at last identified two sets of key bank accounts leading to the sources of the inquiry. The inquiry, led by a professional prosecutor, had been advised that it could proceed by its silk, Mr. Tim Langdale QC. The head of the SFO has publicly stated that he believed that there were very good grounds for proceeding with the inquiry.
On the strength of reading the papers for several hours, the Attorney-General came to the conclusion that the case was unlikely to succeed. How is that reconciled with the Attorney-General’s acknowledgement toward the end of the debate last week in the other place that
“the SFO contemplated inviting BAE and certain BAE executives to plead guilty to certain charges?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 February 2007; Vol. 689, c. 380.]
Can the Ministers deconstruct the phrase “contemplated inviting”? My understanding is that BAE and certain of its executives were so invited. Were they, or were they not? Was a plea bargain offered, or not? If there was a plea bargain, what is the basis for arguing that there was no legal case? What is the precise position of the Ministry of Defence police, who were separately pursuing an inquiry into the role of MOD officials, who apparently were aware of the offences being committed, and apparently supported them? Has that inquiry been discontinued? Finally on the broad issue of the investigation, it is reported in the press today that the Attorney-General has launched an inquiry into the SFO’s effectiveness in pursuing bribery cases. Is that correct? That is a little like somebody who has just escaped from Dartmoor demanding an inquiry into prison security.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way in his usual, gracious way. Has it occurred to him that an alternative explanation might be that the SFO was delighted to be let off the hook by the Government’s decision because it was being very slow and inefficient, and in two and a half years it got absolutely nowhere in pursuing this case—possibly because there was nowhere to get?
The hon. Gentleman is rather clutching at straws. If there were any hint that that was the problem, the head of the SFO would surely have indicated that he did not have reservations about the eventual decision.
Let me move on to the other issue, which, in many ways, is more serious: national security. I am one of those Members of the House who, in an earlier incarnation—
Can the hon. Gentleman, who has been speaking for some 11 minutes, tell us whether he thinks it a good or a bad idea to sell planes to Saudi Arabia? Secondly, not once has he mentioned all the jobs that the contract has created for ordinary workers in this country. Does he have no interest in or concern about that issue?
Yes, the issue of jobs is of course important, and it does concern me and I will return to it. However and as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is not relevant to the anti-bribery case and is specifically precluded by the convention. There is another issue, which I hope that he will face: whether he believes, however important employment is, that a situation in which jobs are subsidised or underwritten by the taxpayer, underpinned by corruption and subject to blackmail by the customer is sustainable. That said, jobs are clearly important and I will return to that theme.
Let me turn, as I said, to national security. I am one of those Members who have signed the Official Secrets Act and who worked alongside the security services in an earlier job, so I have a great deal of respect for that Act and those services, and we should take very seriously any advice on national security that they give us. The problem here is not the security services, but how their advice has been used. The Attorney-General said in his original statement that
“the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Defence Secretaries … have expressed the clear view that continuation of the investigation would cause serious damage to UK/Saudi security, intelligence and diplomatic co-operation”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 December 2006; Vol. 687, c. 1712.]
The following day, three broadsheets were briefed, apparently by the head of the Secret Intelligence Service himself, who rejected the assertion that the Saudis would sever links and said that he had refused to sign a dossier stating that MI6 endorsed this assertion in advance. Subsequently, and understandably in view of that, the Government diluted their argument—so much so that, at the end of the debate in the other place last week, the Attorney-General was reduced to producing the following, utterly anodyne comment:
“The SIS has authorised me to say that it is clear about the importance of the Saudi counterterrorist effort to the UK.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 February 2006; Vol. 689, c. 379.]
Well, we can all agree with that.
One of two conclusions must emerge. The Prime Minister has done what he did in the case of Iraq, which was to exaggerate and distort the advice received from the security services; alternatively and much more alarmingly, he was right, and the Saudi authorities, who are supposed to be our allies, are threatening us with terrorism.
My hon. Friend has kindly acknowledged the debate that took place on 24 January, in which I questioned the plausibility of the claim regarding the national security context in which the decision was taken. Surely Ministers need to demonstrate the plausibility of the view that the Saudis would not wish to co-operate, given that al-Qaeda sees them as one of its main targets.
One practical way in which the Minister for the Middle East, who I think will be speaking next, could help us is by giving some indication of how the advice from the Saudi Government was received. If it was a formal demarche from the Saudi authorities, that is of a very different order from the British ambassador’s having tea with one of his contacts and passing on his impression of what might be the case. It would help if the Minister clarified how we were briefed by the Saudis.
Let me turn to the history of this issue. The al-Yamamah contract originated in the mid-1980s, and the context is often forgotten. It was not achieved primarily as a result of competition and British technological excellence; the context at that time was the very close relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which both sides wished to perpetuate. However, the problem was that, as President Reagan provided Saudi Arabia with more and more sophisticated equipment, there were objections from Israel. Perfectly understandably, the Israelis were concerned about one of their potential adversaries acquiring sophisticated technology. The situation was not helped, of course, by the tirade of anti-Semitic abuse that often comes from the Saudi authorities. Israel protested, and friends of Israel in the United States Congress blocked the F-15 deal, which was in turn passed on to Britain and Mrs. Thatcher.
The Reagan Administration were very anxious to bless this arrangement. They owed the Saudis various favours. They were supporting the Nicaraguan Contras and helping gallant freedom fighters in Afghanistan—such as Osama bin Laden. Reagan was perfectly happy to support this British arrangement, which proved to be one of the largest arms deals in history. It has been worth about £40 billion to date, and could be worth something of the same magnitude again in the future. It is not merely an arms deal, but one of extraordinary complexity that involves two major subsidiary features. One is an offset agreement, which, essentially, is a joint venture set of arrangements under which British companies put in capital and expertise, and their Saudi partners take their cut. There is also an oil element. There was an oil barter arrangement whereby oil was marketed, initially by Shell and BP, and the proceeds were routed through the MOD to BAE Systems.
There was much criticism of these arrangements in the Treasury. Of course, the British taxpayer was taking the risk of oil price fluctuations. One consequence of the deal was that Saudi over-produced and drove down the price of oil, damaged the British North sea oil industry—among other things—and contributed to the lack of capacity that we are experiencing.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am conscious of his experience in the oil industry. Bearing in mind not only the question of trade and the £40 billion deal that he mentioned, but the security implications of our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the important question of Iraq, is he suggesting that, if the SFO had continued its investigations, Anglo-Saudi relations would not have been tarnished at all?
They would not necessarily have been tarnished in the way that has been portrayed by the Government. I am merely echoing the judgments that were made by, for example, the Treasury, the ECGD and the Bank of England, which all considered that that deal was extremely bad for Britain. That was the key point.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I am interested in trying to understand whether with the benefit of hindsight he still considers that the deal was bad for Britain. That was not quite the impression that I had of a deal that had apparently delivered £40 billion-worth of commercial benefits. If we look at the matter commercially, is he now saying that those opinions were right and that the deal was wrong? Or is he actually, as he develops his speech, pointing out how wrong some people were back in the 1980s about whether the deal would endure and confer benefits on the country?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should consult his former colleague, John MacGregor, who has exceptionally strong views about the abuse of taxpayers’ money in that context.
At the heart of the controversy is the way in which that complex contract led to corruption. Nobody has ever denied that large commission payments and corruption were involved in this case. Prince Bandar, who was the Saudi ambassador to the United States, fully acknowledged that over three decades roughly £50 million of the £40 billion spent by the Saudis was creamed off in the form of commissions to the royal family, adding, “So what?”
We know—from people who have left the service of BAE Systems and sources such as Charles Freeman, who was the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and the CIA, whose material has been published—the way in which the slush funds operated. It is a long story, so I shall give the House a flavour of what happened through one or two vignettes. For example, in 1995, Prince Turki bin Nasr, who was head of the air force and one of the main recipients of commissions, went on a shopping trip. At some point, he and his party must have run out of plastic bags, because they ordered a cargo plane to take the shopping back to Saudi Arabia. They then billed BAE Systems for £165,000. In 2000, the same Minister paid a visit to the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), and was sufficiently stressed by the experience to need to clock into a health clinic for a couple of days, for which he billed BAE Systems £30,327. We know from the same sources that that Minister was paid roughly £3 million a year. His monthly credit card bill of £100,000 was routinely accepted.
All that was justified—it has just been justified again by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), a former Defence Minister—in the interest of jobs. As a constituency MP who frequently defends jobs in his constituency, I think that it is proper and appropriate for Members to advance that argument, but the issue is whether those jobs were justified by the way in which this matter proceeded. As I pointed out to the right hon. Member for Warley, those jobs were heavily subsidised and underwritten by the taxpayer, underpinned by corruption and eventually made us subject to blackmail. However, I accept that jobs were created by the project, and my final points centre on that issue. Employment was of course created in that industry and that company. The question is whether the price was worth paying and we need also to ask what that price was.
The hon. Gentleman may have misconstrued my intervention. I had noted that at an earlier stage in his speech he had suggested that at the time the deals were set up he thought that they would be financially disadvantageous to this country. He left up in the air whether he still held that view. He may have other reasons to object to the agreement, but I wanted to understand his position, especially as he is his party’s Treasury spokesman. Does he consider that the deal has been financially disadvantageous to the UK and if so, why?
I think that it has been financially and economically highly questionable. It is a future issue as well as a past issue, because the ECGD still needs to make a judgment on export credit for the current negotiations. Among other things, it will need to produce a warrant attesting to the fact that no corruption is involved. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are therefore highly relevant, not matters of history.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has reached his final comments, but he has not yet addressed the issue of whether in the rare circumstances in which national security could have been endangered it is legitimate not to pursue a prosecution. Is he saying that, even if he were satisfied that national security might have been significantly endangered by the continuation of the work of the Serious Fraud Office and the bringing of charges, it would still have been wrong to, terminate the prosecution?
National security considerations must of course be at the centre of decisions of this kind. The point that I made earlier was that all the evidence that has emerged shows that that was not the advice of the intelligence services. Had it been, the story would have been a very different one.
My final points are about the price that we are paying as a country. As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) suggested, we are paying a price in terms of our respect in the developed world. Britain was admonished several months ago, even before the decision, for being the least compliant country, alongside Italy, in respect of the anti-bribery convention. People may say that such things happen everywhere, and what about the French? But the French have launched 11 prosecutions and initiated a major inquiry into corruption in Elf, which was looting Gabon. Everybody up to the French Foreign Minister was brought before the court. The French judicial prosecutor has commented on the British decision:
“The UK dec