House of Commons
Monday 19 February 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government remain committed to the introduction of identity cards, which are essential in combating identity fraud and illegal immigration and in disrupting organised crime and the continued threat of terrorism. We shall start introducing biometric immigration documents for foreign nationals from 2008 and ID cards for British citizens from 2009.
How much do the Government intend to spend this year on the introduction of ID cards, and what is the latest estimate of the total cost of the scheme? Will the hon. Gentleman not accept even now that this enormously expensive and ineffectual scheme would be much better scrapped and the money spent on building prison places so that he does not have to go on releasing violent offenders to commit still more offences?
Three points are relevant. First, 70 per cent. of the costs of identity cards will be spent anyway on introducing biometric passports. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would want us to scrap biometric passports, because 53 of the 55 major passport-issuing countries propose to introduce those documents. I am sure that, like me, he would not want a British passport to become a second-class document in the world.
Secondly, we will present costs, as we are required to do, in April. We present an updated cost report every six months, as is required under the Identity Cards Act 2006. Finally, let us consider the alternative. If we cancelled the system that underpins ID cards, we would be cancelling the system that underpins biometric visas, ID cards for foreign nationals and biometric passports. That would render us defenceless in the war against illegal immigration.
I surveyed my constituents on the issue and received more than 700 responses. Of the people in East Dunbartonshire who responded, 87 per cent. said that they would rather the money was spent on more police in their community than on the Government’s ID cards project. When will the Government realise that their plans for ID cards are unnecessary, unwanted and undeniably a complete waste of money?
I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to a slightly wider-ranging survey than the survey that she conducted in her constituency—the British social attitudes survey. According to that survey, over the last couple of weeks, 71 per cent. of the British public have said that ID cards are a good idea. I am with them. I am one of those who think that if a person has nothing to hide, they will not be worried about ID cards.
The Government say that they believe that ID cards will help in the fight against terrorism. Spain has ID cards, yet it became the victim of the atrocious bombings that took place in Madrid. What is the compelling case for the use of ID cards in the fight against terrorism?
We have always been clear that the role of ID cards will be to disrupt terrorist activities. The hon. Gentleman will know, because it has been said in the House before, that al-Qaeda training manuals specifically encourage terrorists or would-be terrorists to adopt as many identities as possible to hide themselves from the security services and the law. Biometric ID cards carry a single important advantage, which is that they lock the individual down to a single identity, so that such fraud becomes harder, if not impossible, in the future.
The Minister said that 70 per cent. of the costs of ID cards would be covered by biometric passports. How is it possible to make that assertion when we still have no information from the Government on the technical costs of the ID cards project and when there is still a vast discrepancy between the cost estimates? The estimate from the Government is £5.4 billion and up to £19 billion is estimated by the London School of Economics. Does that not give rise to the suspicion that the costs of biometric passports are being artificially inflated to give an impression that the cost of the ID cards project is lower? When will the Minister publish a full comparative analysis of the costs of both projects?
The hon. Gentleman would be wise not to pray in aid the LSE report, which ignored research from the National Physical Laboratory, exaggerated the cost of verifying identity information and had some pretty basic problems with its maths. It overstated the number of people who might have problems giving biometric data by an extraordinary 1,800 per cent., so I am not sure that that is the report to pray in aid in support of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. We publish reports every six months. It is absolutely right that we bring such accountability and transparency to the project. We will publish the next report in April.
En passant, I notice that not a single Labour Member has stood to support the Minister, despite his comments about the support for his case.
In December, the Home Secretary announced that the ID card system was to be based on the Department for Work and Pensions customer information system database. That is the national insurance number system. There are in existence 76 million supposedly valid national insurance numbers—29 million more than there are eligible British citizens in the United Kingdom, which is more than the population of Romania and four times the population of Bulgaria. How does the Minister think that that flawed database is a suitable foundation for an ID card system, which is, after all, supposed to prevent identity fraud?
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman started with a survey of the support that there is for the scheme—[Interruption.] Well, let us talk about the support on each side of the House. Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who chairs the Conservative policy review group, said:
“Identity theft is a significant area of crime and the measures we have of establishing identity are inadequate. We should not be stupid about that.”
We will put in place two systems in order to underpin the national identity register. One is the DWP’s CIS index, which is a tried and tested system and operates at very high volumes. The second is the new biometric warehouse. The link between the two will establish one single record in both systems. That is the right approach because it is lower risk and will make it possible to bring in the project in a shorter time. The system will use tried and tested technology. I repeat: to shut down that system will render us defenceless against tackling illegal immigration. We will use the same system to process biometric visas, tougher checks for people abroad and ID cards for foreign nationals in the United Kingdom.
Answer was there none. The Minister described the database as tried and tested. The Government themselves have already admitted that they have issued up to 300,000 national insurance numbers to foreign nationals every year and that over 98 per cent. of those are issued without any check whatever on immigration status. That is part of the reason why, under that so-called tried and tested system, we wrongly spent £4.5 million in tax credits to immigrants in one year alone. Rather than protect against identity fraud, is not there a real risk that the ID card will legitimise existing identity fraud?
Absolutely not. What is clear is that the right hon. Gentleman has not looked at the report that we published before Christmas, which set out exactly how these matters would be addressed. It is tried and tested technology. It uses the same biometric technology that is going into passports, of which there are 2.5 million already in circulation. I come back to the point that, if we were to shut down those systems and cancel the contracts, as he proposes, we would render the country defenceless against illegal immigration just at the time when the pressure on our borders is going to grow, if anything.
I have regular conversations with the Scottish Executive about matters relating to the removal of families who are appeal rights exhausted. In addition, our regional director for Scotland has regular meetings with his officials.
I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome his recent acceptance that the practice of removals using dawn raids has a traumatising effect on children. When can we expect to see published a full agreement between the Scottish Executive and the Home Office on the practice of removals? Can he commit in principle to having as part of that agreement the appointment of a lead official, perhaps from social work or education, to ensure that the rights of children are always protected and heard in removal cases?
I am grateful for that question. Our immigration officers in Scotland do an extremely difficult job under very difficult circumstances. I am particularly grateful to Glasgow city council for its work to ensure that when people have broken the law and an independent judge has passed a verdict, it is possible to remove them in the most civilised fashion. We are proposing a number of changes in Scotland. One is to ensure that there are teams that are responsible for a case from the beginning to the end, so that the decision is made entirely in Scotland. I think that the First Minister was right to propose that. Agreement has now been established in principle on the appointment of a lead professional to ensure that there is the right liaison on matters that relate to health and education when children are to be removed.
I am sorry to be a dog with a bone, but the Minister has not answered the question that I asked on 5 February during the debate on the UK Borders Bill. Why do clauses 1 to 4 and, I think, 21 exempt Scotland? The hard-working immigration officers in Scotland, to whom he has just referred, will not have the power to detain, but that power will be extended to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Will he take this opportunity to explain the logic of that? What special arrangement has he reached with the Scottish Executive? Immigration officers in most of the United Kingdom have to be given in legislation powers to detain and powers on forfeiture, but apparently it is not necessary to apply that to Scotland. I simply do not understand the logic. Will he explain it to me now?
As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, as I was last week. As I promised him last week, I furnished him with the relevant advice that afternoon, and I have ensured that copies of it will be placed in the Library. I will happily review it with him if parts of the letter and the supporting advice are unclear.
As I am not at present entirely comfortable about the dependability of executives, can the Minister assure the House that we truly do have a uniform policy throughout the United Kingdom and that the Scottish Executive are doing precisely what they should be doing?
There is no doubt that the longer a family remains in Scotland, the harder it is to remove them if their application is unsuccessful, as roots are put down and children develop relationships at school. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that, in Scotland, removals, and decisions about them, are made as swiftly as possible? I understand that there are some quirks within the Scottish legal system that mean that certain kinds of decision are not made as quickly in Scotland as they are in England.
My hon. Friend is right that there are aspects of the Scottish judicial system that lead to decisions being made more slowly: for example, when there are judicial reviews, they are not processed at the same speed as in England. However, the First Minister made the crucial point that it is important to have teams that are based in Scotland that are responsible for decisions from the beginning to the end. It is important to make sure that decisions are both taken in Scotland and as swiftly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary last year set a target of ensuring that 90 per cent. of decisions to grant, or to remove and deport, are taken within six months. We are now able to move towards achieving that in Scotland, as faster decisions are often fairer decisions.
The capacity of the police service remains at an all-time high. At the end of September 2006, there were 140,005 police officers in England and Wales, an increase of 14,236 since 1997.
Of course I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply, but as there is increasing concern throughout the country about the funding that police forces might receive in future, not least in my county of Cheshire, and as—despite what the Home Secretary has just said—police officer numbers are falling for the first time since 2000, and also as the Government are scaling back on community support officers, is it not now clear that it is important that the Chancellor of the Exchequer reviews his decision to freeze the Home Office budget until 2011?
As I said, in fact there are 14,236 more police officers than there were in March 1997, just before this Government came to power. In Cheshire, there are 6 per cent. more police officers—124—in addition to which there are 77 extra police community support officers, which did not previously exist, and there are 437 additional support staff. That is because of the massive increase in resources that we put into policing in Cheshire and throughout England and Wales, all of which was opposed by the hon. Gentleman and his party.
On police numbers, the Home Secretary will be aware that one of the responses to the recent tragic wave of gun crime in London has been increased numbers of armed police patrolling the streets of south London. He will also be aware that gun crime is not just an issue for south London, but a huge issue for Hackney and Harlesden and even for the shire counties. Does he agree that stemming the tide of gun crime is not just a question of increased numbers of police patrols—although that is welcome—or even of changes in the law, but of doing more to stem the catastrophic educational failure of many of our young men, including black men, and more to support families and communities?
First, may I express my condolences and those, I am sure, of the whole House to the families and loved ones of those who so tragically died recently through gun crime? I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important issue, which is why so many of our London colleagues attended a meeting that we held last Friday on this very subject. I also agree that although extra police numbers and the roll-out of neighbourhood policing is of course an important issue, there are others that are important. We require more powers for the police, and we will review how we can do that. We obviously require an adoption and acceptance of personal responsibility, which we try to assist by intervening through parenting orders and the many other facilities that are provided to help parents. We also provide empowerment in a range of areas, including education, which is undoubtedly an important issue. Although I would argue that much has been done in all those areas—that is why crime and serious crime, including gun crime in London, has fallen—there is nevertheless a great deal left to be done. We have called together representatives of the communities, Ministers, the police and experts in a summit, which will be held this Thursday, in order to explore what further police action, powers and empowerment, or interventions in the local community, might be necessary to help tackle these awful crimes.
Because Milton Keynes is expanding so quickly, police numbers per head of population have actually fallen in recent years. Perhaps that is why crime went up in 2005 by 27 per cent., and by 23 per cent. last year, according to the Government’s own figures. Bearing that in mind, is the Secretary of State prepared to look again at funding formulae that seem to discriminate against areas with high population growth?
I do not know where the hon. Gentleman gets his figures from, but in fact there are now 223,061 police service personnel, of whom 140,000—approximately 14,500 more than when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power—are being devolved to neighbourhood policing, so it is not just a matter of more numbers: there are more police visible on the streets. Moreover, resources have extended considerably over that period. On the British crime survey, to which he referred, again, I do not know where he gets his figures from. There has in fact been a 34 per cent. reduction in violent crime, compared with the 100 per cent. increase that occurred under the previous Government. The most recent figures, from September last year, show that more serious violence is down by 19 per cent., other offences against the person involving injury are down by 7 per cent., and firearms offences have fallen by 14 per cent. None of that is a ground for complacency, but it shows that the provision of police and the reduction in crime is considerably better than anything that we saw under the last Government.
I congratulate the Home Secretary on the increased resources for the police that have undoubtedly been provided—not least the support officers, who work very effectively with the police in the Knowsley command area. However, I ask him to look forward to 2008, when Liverpool will be the capital of culture and extra demands will therefore be placed on policing in Liverpool. Will he make sure that he finds the formula to ensure that Merseyside is adequately policed to meet those demands?
My hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has already met Liverpool representatives and he has agreed to meet them again. In fact, only last Thursday or Friday night, I, too, met them. This matter was raised in the course of our discussions, and I referred them to my hon. Friend the Minister.
Is the Home Secretary aware, from his present job and his previous job, that the Ministry of Defence is cutting the number of its police officers, which is having an impact on the civilian police force? For example, Colchester garrison has seen a 40 per cent. cut in MOD police numbers. Will he investigate that?
Since 1997, Durham has had an increase of more than 300 police officers, but if the police authority precept increase is capped at 5 per cent. this year, it will mean a loss of 100 officers next year. I am told that when the police authority sets its budget this week it will consider breaching the cap to solve the structural problem with the precept in Durham. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider Durham as a special case when considering the precept increase.
Interim results from the Home Office review of the Plymouth police head camera project have shown encouraging results in obtaining earlier guilty pleas and providing irrefutable evidence for court cases where witnesses and victims are unwilling to attend. A final report on the Plymouth project will be available in the summer and further conclusions regarding the effectiveness of the technology will be made at that time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The early results appear to include drops of 8 per cent. in violent crime and 18 per cent. in wounding in the first three months, and that has resulted in police authorities and other enforcement authorities from across the country and abroad beating a path to Plymouth’s door. Will he therefore ensure that the resources are available to learn the early lessons, in terms of both training and equipment, for Plymouth and other police authorities?
I know that my hon. Friend keeps in touch with her local borough command unit commander and is very supportive of her local police. She will be pleased that the head camera project is still ongoing and that the interim report shows encouraging results. However, it covers only the first 10 weeks of a six-month project. It is therefore too early to draw firm conclusions on which to commit funding resources before a final evaluation is made of the new technology. The early signs are encouraging, however, especially in areas such as domestic violence, in which victims and witnesses are often reluctant or completely unwilling to attend court. The project has some time to run yet and I cannot say how we will stand in advance of the outcome of the full trial, but so far, so good.
Antisocial Behaviour Orders
The effectiveness of the Government’s antisocial behaviour policies has been assessed in two key independent reports published just before the new year, by the National Audit Office and by the Youth Justice Board. Both confirmed that our twin-track approach of support and enforcement is effective in protecting our communities from antisocial behaviour.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Recent figures from the Youth Justice Board show that more than 50 per cent. of ASBOs have been breached, a third of which have been breached on five or more occasions. Is not that proof positive that ASBOs are just another political gimmick from this Government? Is it not time that we tackled the real long-term causes of antisocial behaviour?
That is not true and it simply will not do. If we are to tackle antisocial behaviour, we must tackle every aspect of it, including support for those who need it through to enforcement. To isolate breaches of ASBOs, which are just one spot on a continuum of assorted interventions that the Government are making on antisocial behaviour, undermines professionals who are working up and down the country to repair many of the dysfunctional aspects of our communities. That is not on: it does discredit to the hon. Gentleman and is a shame for those who are trying seriously to work with communities in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire and elsewhere.
As my hon. Friend knows, the press often describes how young people given ASBOs regard them as some sort of badge of honour. Will he tell me what more the Government can do to change the attitude of those young people and make them more socially responsible?
I thank my hon. Friend for the question, but I do not accept the starting premise that children up and down the country regard ASBOs as a badge of honour. I do not doubt that some do, but if they persist in their antisocial behaviour they can wear their badge of honour with pride while they are doing time for breaching their ASBO. However, the real issue—as my hon. Friend implies—is that there is much that we need to do at the other end of the process, in terms of supporting families and parents. The assorted interventions that we have made in our communities up and down the country, from Sure Start, nursery provision and children’s centres all the way through to parenting support and other elements, are vital in tackling antisocial behaviour. It is not just about ASBOs, so I thank my hon. Friend for his question, as I know that in general much good work is happening in Yorkshire.
Is the Minister aware that there has been a considerable number of ASBO breaches in my borough of Bexley? Residents have worked hard with the police and the community safety partnerships, but the breaches undermine the credibility of ASBOs, so what further reassurance can the Minister give my constituents who suffer increasing antisocial behaviour in our area?
I congratulate all in the London borough of Bexley, including the hon. Gentleman, who take the matter seriously. I take the point that when there is a breach it can undermine much of the work that communities have put in, but the hon. Gentleman, and the people of Bexley who are working so hard on the matter, should be under no illusion that when there are breaches and people persist in not taking the help and support afforded by antisocial behaviour interventions, and when a minority insist on damaging the cohesion of our communities in Bexley and elsewhere, they will be dealt with swiftly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that across the country more and more community safety partnerships are getting better at obtaining and enforcing ASBOs? Should not the message from the House be that if people behave at an acceptable standard there will be no action in court, but that if they misbehave there is the certainty of consequences?
That is absolutely right; I thank my hon. Friend. We also need to say clearly that, overwhelmingly, we are talking about only a minority of people in each of our communities—not about criminalising an entire generation through ASBOs, as it is sometimes erroneously put by commentators, or about ignoring antisocial behaviour. My hon. Friend is right: across the country, through crime reduction partnerships and community safety partnerships more and more communities are dealing both with the causes of antisocial behaviour and the support necessary to challenge them, as well as obtaining effective intervention that firmly gets people who would indulge in antisocial behaviour to desist.
Since ASBOs were introduced the failure rate has spiralled year after year. The National Audit Office report states that well over half of all orders are being broken, and in County Durham 74 per cent. of ASBOs are being breached. Recently, when the Government’s respect tsar, Louise Casey, responded to questioning from the Public Accounts Committee on the NAO findings, she was unable to confirm that a formal qualitative assessment of the use of the orders was being undertaken. When will Ministers publish a detailed evaluation of the use of ASBOs? Does the breach rate have to hit 80, 90 or even 100 per cent. before that information is made available?
Again, that question is not terribly helpful in terms of the discussion. If the hon. Gentleman wanted to quote the NAO report in full, he could have gone on to say that in terms of the whole continuum of interventions we have been talking about it showed clearly that about 65 per cent. of people desisted from antisocial behaviour after one intervention and 85 per cent. desisted after two. A whopping 93 per cent. of people desisted from antisocial behaviour after further intervention. In answer to the original question, I said that there had been authoritative responses and effective evaluations from both the Youth Justice Board and the NAO and before that there was a substantive report from Campbell, who I think was the key author. In March or April we will say in more detail how we want to build on the evaluation of the effectiveness of ASBOs, based on the Campbell report and what the NAO and the Youth Justice Board have said.
In the middle of the hon. Gentleman’s rather erroneous question, there was an entirely fair point about evaluation. As I said, in March or April we will announce how to take things forward, building on Campbell, the Youth Justice Board and the NAO report.
The composition of neighbourhood policing teams is an operational matter for the chief constable. Forces are making good progress towards recruiting 16,000 police and community support officers for neighbourhood policing by April 2007. The Home Office is spending more than £220 million in specific grants this year in support of PCSOs. That will increase by 41 per cent., to £315 million, in 2007-08.
The capacity of the police service remains at an all-time high. The latest available figures show that there are more than 14,000 more police officers than in March 1997.
The whole House will be aware of the huge challenge faced by Suffolk police as a result of the horrible events around Ipswich towards the end of last year. I hope that you will permit me, Mr. Speaker, to pay tribute to the tremendous work of Suffolk police in the course of their investigations.
Notwithstanding those horrible murders, is my hon. Friend aware that between April and December last year, overall crime in Suffolk reduced by a further 3 per cent? Will he confirm that, under the new neighbourhood policing arrangements, Suffolk can expect substantial increases in the number of community police officers and police community support officers from April to help us reduce crime even further?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and join him in congratulating Suffolk police and all the police forces that joined the investigation into the horrific murders in Suffolk recently. As he says, crime in Suffolk has fallen by 3 per cent., according to the latest figures. By April 2007, 142 police community support officers will be available to Suffolk police to tackle antisocial behaviour and other criminal activity in the area; those PCSOs are in addition to the 140 more police officers that there have been since 1997. There are more police staff and record numbers of police officers there.
That is certainly not Government policy, but it is Government policy to allow police authorities, with chief constables, to make the best operational decisions for their areas. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following the recent funding announcements, the Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers welcomed the additional local decision making and flexibility that we are making available to them. I thought that the Conservative party was in favour of local decision making; we certainly are.
I am sure that the Minister is a regular reader of The Birmingham Post, a very fine paper. Just in case he has not got round to reading today’s edition, I should tell him that the local police community support officers have asked for more powers. The West Midlands police force grants support officers only 19 of the 56 available powers. Will the Minister have a word with chief constables to say that if community support officers want more powers, they should be given them?
It is obvious that I shall have to read The Birmingham Post before questions, as well as the other things. Police community support officers make a fantastic contribution to tackling antisocial behaviour in their areas. I say to my hon. Friend that consultation is taking place on what those officers’ standard list of powers should be. We expect to publish on that in due course. Alongside that, there will be flexible powers that chief constables can use, and, should they wish to, give to police community support officers as well.
Since the debate on the police grant report for 2007-08 on 31 January, I have held meetings with a number of chief constables, police authorities and hon. Members specifically on the funding of police forces. I think that, during the course of the same debate, I made a number of commitments to continue to do so.
I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that over the last two years my local police force has seen a reduction in real terms of £681,000 in the specific security grant. With Fairford air base, GCHQ and a number of significant royal household protection duties, the specific security grant is a bigger share of Gloucestershire’s spending than that of any force outside the Metropolitan police. What will the Minister do to ensure that my constituents do not bear an increasing share of what should be national responsibilities?
I am not sure that I entirely agree with the latter point, but I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and the chief constable of Gloucestershire to discuss the matter further. I take the hon. Gentleman’s broad point about Gloucestershire having specific security responsibilities that are probably larger than those of many other police forces outside the Met, so I would be happy to meet him to discuss the issue further.
Slough basic command unit is in a crime family along with other units, all in the Metropolitan police area, that have many more police officers per head of population than Slough. Will the Minister comment on the fact that I have been informed by our local commander that, according to the total resource allocations formula, we are overmanned? Does that not suggest that the TRAF is actually wrong when it comes to high crime areas such as Slough?
My hon. Friend was one of the individual Members whom I promised to meet, following on from the debate on the police grant, and I am happy to discuss at such a meeting the TRAF and Slough BCU overstaffing—or otherwise—along with other matters relating to Thames Valley policing. [Interruption.] Yes, I am aware that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) is to be included in the meeting—sadly.
During the debate on the police grant, the Minister mentioned quite candidly that he believed that there was a case for a review of the whole police funding formula. I know that it is a huge issue, but when does the Minister believe that that work can commence? Does he believe that as a part of that work, it might be useful to set up a Special Standing Committee to take as much evidence as possible, which could help to produce a lasting, fair and equable funding formula?
I deliberately wanted to open up a wide-ranging debate on the issue, as I said in the debate on the police grant report, but I also want to get something done and to make sure that any changes that need to be made are for the better. I am not sure that Special Standing Committees have ever done that.
When the Minister reviews the process, will he ensure that civil servants are entirely aware of the fact that he has no intention of devolving the funding of police forces in Wales to the Welsh Assembly, not least because crimes do not always happen just in Wales or in England, but quite often across England and Wales, as the recent letter bombing campaign has shown?
I am strongly of the opinion that what my hon. Friend says is absolutely right, so I entirely endorse it. By the by, I had a very enjoyable time in Swansea and Bridgend last week, when this point was raised. On balance, people felt that there was a strong inter-relationship between what the Welsh Assembly Government do on policing and what the UK Government do on policing. Of course that is right, but it is certainly not our intention to devolve all or part of our policing powers to the Welsh Assembly.
The Minister will no doubt be aware that the first anti-terrorist unit to be established outside the Metropolitan police was in Greater Manchester police, but he is probably not aware that it was funded entirely by Manchester ratepayers’ money. Will the Minister tell me why that was and can he assure me that other local anti-terrorist units will not have to depend on local money in the battle against national and international terrorism?
What the hon. Gentleman says is certainly true, in part, in respect of the very early days of the establishment of the counter-terrorism unit in Manchester. I am sure that he will agree that Greater Manchester, West Midlands and West Yorkshire police are making varying degrees of progress in establishing their counter-terrorism units—if he has not had the chance to go around them, he should—but that they are doing work that is second to none and vital, given the pressures and threat that we face. Much of the funding will be carried out in the long term by the Association of Chief Police Officers terrorism and allied matters committee, which is doing much of the work now. It is a matter for local police authorities if they want to augment and supplement that with local money, specific to local counter-terrorism demands. But in the main, we are very strongly of the opinion that, through ACPO TAM, the frameworks at least should be funded from the centre. That is the right and proper way to go forward.
Throughout the first three quarters of 2006, more failed asylum seekers were removed than the number of unmeritorious claims made. Figures for the entire year will be published shortly.
I thank the Minister for that very illuminating answer. Hon. Members will be aware that local authorities have to pick up the bill for failed asylum seekers, so imagine my surprise when the London borough of Hillingdon asked the Home Office what it was doing to remove them and the Home Office replied, “We don’t know where they are. Could you let us know?” Is that acceptable?
I met representatives of Hillingdon quite recently, and that certainly was not the answer that was given to me. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is paraphrasing. But the way in which we have reduced the support costs, which are incumbent on a civilised society, for those who have failed in their asylum claim and are still here, because there are barriers against their going back home, is to remove them as quickly as possible. That is exactly why we have driven through the reform of the asylum system over the past few years. On numerous occasions, Opposition parties have had a chance to support those reforms and, by and large, they have refused to do so.
I have been trying to find out for quite some time just how many failed asylum seekers there are in my constituency and the wider Bristol area. So far, the only statistic that I have been able to uncover is that 260 people are claiming section 4 support in the whole of the south-west region, which is some way from giving a true picture of the situation. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is another reason to welcome the introduction of identity cards, particularly ID cards for foreign nationals from next year, so that we have a much clearer idea—
All hon. Members appreciate that these are very difficult issues, and we should not suggest that all that the Home Office is doing in this respect should necessarily be criticised. However, the Minister will be aware that, to ensure that we have proper social cohesion, particularly in our cities, it is essential that we have a fair immigration and asylum system that works swiftly in this regard. Will he give a categorical assurance to the House today that, under no circumstances, will there be any amnesty for failed asylum seekers?
I am happy to give that assurance. As the House knows, I approached this issue with an open mind when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asked me to take over this brief. I see no evidence to support an amnesty; it would act as a pull factor in drawing illegal immigrants to this country. We need to put in place a number of protections over the next few years. We need to increase the number of enforcement staff that we have available. We need to increase the amount of resources. We need to ensure that those staff have the right powers, which is why the UK Borders Bill is so important, and where technology, such as identity technology, can help, we should exploit it, not shut it down.
Although I welcome the Minister’s commitment to try to sort out these matters, does he not think it a little odd that failed asylum seekers are allowed to remain, whereas those on the highly skilled migrant programme, whom we invited into this country, have been asked to leave immediately? Will that work be affected by the 8 per cent. cut in his budget?
My right hon. Friend knows that I agree with him on many matters, but I am afraid that I must dispute many of the grounds that he puts forward in this instance. When people have failed in their asylum claim, it is incumbent on us to seek to remove them from this country as quickly as possible. Equally, where there are other individuals who have come to this country to benefit from opportunities to work, but there are questions about the continued contribution that they can make, we are right to toughen the rules where we need to. If that means that sometimes people have to go home, so be it, I am afraid.
It may have escaped the Minister’s attention, but the Government have been operating an amnesty on asylum seekers since 2003 in the shape of the indefinite leave to remain programme. Will he explain why, last June, without telling the House, the Government implemented a change to that amnesty policy and allowed asylum seekers whose cases had yet to be determined, or whose cases had failed, to make a second application for an amnesty? Will he tell us how many people have been granted such an amnesty since last June?
I am happy to look into the hon. Gentleman’s question and write to him with the detail that he requests. The point that I would make to him is this: because of the reforms that we have put through over the last few years, the number of asylum applicants is now at its lowest level, not since 1997, but since 1993, and the number of failed asylum seekers who are being removed from the country is at a record high. The Opposition had a chance to support those reforms in 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2005 and they declined to do so at every opportunity.
In his response to the original question from my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), the Minister confirmed the startling reply that he gave me on 29 January, when he said:
“Information on the number of asylum seekers who have exhausted all appeals and registered with local authorities…is not collected by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2007; Vol. 456, c. 124W.]
Is he aware that if he really does not know the basic figure for how many failed asylum seekers are being supported by taxpayers, we cannot trust any of his figures? Will he confirm that the reason he is taking no steps to find out how many failed asylum seekers are being supported is that he does not want the British people to know that figure?
That is a quite extraordinary question. I come back to this point: this Government have delivered reform to the asylum system, and have produced the lowest number of asylum seekers since 1993 and the highest number of deportations on record. It is true that it is difficult to know about those who remain in the country, because exit controls were dismantled by the last Conservative Administration. Every time that we have brought forward asylum reform, the Opposition have decided to oppose it. Will they change their tune and confirm that they are dropping the James review target of axing £900 million from the immigration and nationality directorate budget, and will they give their unequivocal support to the UK Borders Bill and the powers therein to strengthen deportation still further?
Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme
The maximum award payable under the criminal injuries compensation scheme has been £500,000 since the current, tariff-based scheme was introduced by the previous Administration in April 1996.
Given that there is agreement across all parties that we need to look after victims and that clearly, whereas we have seen increases in damages for severely injured people in the civil courts, that is not the case with the criminal injuries compensation scheme—we are talking about people with the worst brain injuries and the worst physical injuries—will the Minister be kind and consider at least uprating, to keep pace with inflation and the real cost of living, the damages that we give to sufferers from crime? Will he also look at the speed withwhich those payments are made, which is often far too slow?
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we do a lot for victims. In addition to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, there is work with victim support and we have introduced victim care unit pilots. A great deal of work is going on. He will also know that money is given to victims from sources other than the criminal injuries compensation scheme—in relation to benefits and support from the national health service. We are going to respond shortly to “Rebuilding Lives”, the Green Paper that we published earlier, and that matter will be a consideration. He will know that, over the years, the tariffs have been looked at. There are 25 tariffs. If we were to increase the highest tariff, we would have to do something at the other end. We have to keep that balance in mind. I can assure him that we will always keep the matter under review.
Corporate Manslaughter Bill
The Home Secretary, the Attorney-General and I are consulting on how we should take the Bill forward. The House will have a further opportunity to consider the Bill when it has completed all its stages in the House of Lords.
I do not feel that we are in a pit at all. There is complete disagreement about how we should take the Bill forward. The Bill came about due to a health and safety issue and the corporate manslaughter aspect of it was to apply to incidents such as train crashes. I understand that people are concerned about deaths in custody. However, there are opportunities for the Independent Police Complaints Commission and a variety of bodies and agencies to examine such matters and thus separate the question of deaths in custody. We, as the first Government ever to examine the issue of Crown immunity, will clearly have to examine the impact of the situation on other services, whether regarding the Ministry of Defence or others. I will consult and listen to what is said, but we are very worried that major advances on corporate manslaughter might be lost.
The Minister will know, following the meetings that I have had with him about my constituent, Paul Day, that I am especially interested in segregation units. Will he consider examining liability in the Prison Service in the context of different types of prisons? For example, there is a material difference between introducing liability for an open prison and doing so for a segregation unit.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point and the way in which he has handled the case of Mr. Day on behalf of his family. He highlights the point of concern: how do we deal with deaths in custody in different types of prisons and police custody? That matter should be seen differently from the way in which we approach corporate manslaughter in the context of health and safety. I am happy to examine what we are doing in open and closed prisons and to consider the impact of deaths in custody and the way in which we can work more closely on safer custody. However, we need to examine corporate manslaughter in terms of health and safety, which is why there is a difference regarding the Bill.
May I urge my hon. Friend to examine closely the case of young Gareth Myatt, who died in Rainsbrook? Will he consider the lessons coming out of the inquest and reflect on the need to achieve proper legislation to deal with deaths in custody through the kind of amendment about which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has talked?
We are not arguing that there does not need to be a look at deaths in custody. As I explained, existing inspectorates are involved. Independent reports are also written and we know of coroners’ views on deaths in custody. However, we argue that a consideration of the matter is not appropriate for the Corporate Manslaughter Bill and that other vehicles might be needed to deal with it. We are clearly concerned that we are in a position in which it is said that Crown immunity should be removed so that the situation is as it would be for the private sector when dealing with such issues as employers or owners of property, with deaths in custody thus being seen differently. I am sure that we will return to the matter and discuss it further when we receive the Bill from the other place.
As a result of the effective use of detention, we have been able to deliver record removals of failed asylum seekers and deportations. Detention will always be for as short a time as possible and no longer than necessary.
Because of overcrowding in prisons, the Minister has adopted a policy of moving foreign national criminals from prisons into detention centres, which has caused tensions such as those that we saw at the time of the riots at Harmondsworth. Will she now openly admit that that failed policy has been a complete disaster?
May I tell the hon. Gentleman that delivering additional detention capacity will help us to manage better the overall speed with which we can deal with all types of immigration detainees? It is important to remember that the vast majority of detainees pass through detention in a matter of weeks, if not days. However, detention is often prolonged by individuals with no right to be here refusing to leave voluntarily and frustrating our attempts to remove them. They can leave voluntarily at any point.
There are no plans to develop specific programmes to address gambling addiction. However, we constantly review provision across the range of offender needs with a view to identifying gaps. Factors likely to be relevant to gambling problems are addressed within general offending behaviour programmes such as enhanced thinking skills. Use is also made of specialist organisations such as Gamblers Anonymous.
One of my constituents has now been in prison for six months without receiving any treatment. Given the increase in online gambling, the proposed new casinos and the fact that a proportion of compulsive gamblers are likely to commit crimes to feed their habit, should there not be a coherent plan in place before the problems become any greater?
It is a question of proportionality. Less than 1 per cent. of the prison population have gambling problems, but that is not to say that we should not tackle those problems, and Gamblers Anonymous is present in 50 per cent. of our prisons. I hope that the hon. Lady and other Opposition Members support the Offender Management Bill, which will deal with those issues by looking at the requirements of individual offenders. Rather than talk about the problem, I hope that the Opposition parties will support us in our efforts to deliver offender management programmes that rehabilitate offenders.
House of Lords Reform
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement—
No. Listen to what is coming. I should like to make a statement on the procedure for the free votes on the composition of the House of Lords.
In my statement on 7 February, I set out the Government's proposal for using an alternative vote ballot to establish the House's preferences on composition. I told the House that I believed that that would be the most effective way of the House being able to come to a decision on the issue, and I outlined the difficulties posed in the use of our traditional Division system in eliciting multiple preferences.
I took the view, and I still do, that the new system had many advantages. [Hon. Members: “Had.”] However, it became evident during the exchanges in the House on my 7 February statement and the next day during business questions that my own enthusiasm for the new system is not as widely shared as I had anticipated—[Laughter.] Indeed, there was vocal opposition to it from many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.
As Leader of the House, I have listened carefully to those views and reflected on them over the recess. I do not want discussions about procedure to overshadow the important substantive debate that we will have on the future of the House of Lords itself. I think we all agree that we must not let process get in the way of a reform to which all parties are committed.
I therefore wish to tell the House that we shall not proceed with the alternative vote proposal. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Instead, we shall revert for all votes to the traditional Division system. That will mean that a series of resolutions will be put to the House for separate votes at the close of the promised two-day debate on Lords reform. We will consult the usual channels and interested Members on the exact form of the resolutions and the order in which they should be put. I hope what I have said is for the convenience of the House.
I would like to thank the Leader of the House for giving me significant advance sight of his statement. He has indeed listened to the concerns of the whole House and scrapped his proposal for a preferential ballot. That would have been a dangerous constitutional precedent and I am delighted that he has changed his mind—and that he has done so so quickly. After all, today’s statement comes less than two weeks—in parliamentary terms, only one full parliamentary day—after he first put his proposal to the House.
A preferential ballot would have taken us into murky constitutional waters. It is a fundamental right of Parliament to reject Government proposals should it wish to do so, and the preferential system of voting would have removed that right. The Leader of the House said that he proposed it to break the deadlock, but is not the reason for the deadlock a lack of consensus caused by the Government’s unwillingness to relinquish party political patronage?
The right hon. Gentleman said that we shall revert, for all votes, to the traditional Division system. Will he confirm that that will not mean voting in exhaustive ballots, as happens in the case of the election of the Speaker? Will he confirm that the only debate held will be the substantive two-day debate on the White Paper, and will he undertake to publish the motions that we will vote on in good time, allowing Members a chance to give them full and proper consideration? Today’s statement is a victory for Parliament and for common sense. I thank the Leader of the House for coming to his decision, and for making his statement with such good grace.
I think that I can reciprocate by thanking the right hon. Lady for her generosity. The—[Hon. Members: “He is lost for words!”] I am rarely lost for words. The right hon. Lady mentioned murky constitutional waters. I made the case for the alternative vote, and I thought—and still think—that it had many merits, but it was perfectly obvious that that view was not widely shared. I told the House a week ago on Thursday that I was listening. She asked why I changed my mind so quickly; it became apparent after two days of exchanges in the House that we did not need many more exchanges for it to be perfectly obvious that although we had a perfectly formed aeroplane, it would be denied fuel, and would not fly. I therefore thought that it would be for the convenience of the House if I announced a change at the first possible opportunity.
The right hon. Lady makes a rather silly point about our lack of consensus. The simple fact of the matter is that all parties in both Houses are split two or three ways on the issue, and there is no point pretending otherwise. What we have tried to do, not least in the all-party discussions, in which she played such a constructive part in private, but which she subsequently sought to rubbish, is find a way through. There will be no exhaustive ballot, and the Divisions will be absolutely straightforward, but of course there could be up to eight Divisions.
We will put the motions on the Order Paper as early as possible. As I said, we will consult the usual channels and, subject to those consultations, I would like to put the motions on the Order Paper either late this week or early next week, so that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have a chance to digest them. If there seems to be consensus behind one amendment or another, we may be able to turn them into Government motions, and we may be able to drop some others; we will see. The only debate that we are now planning—it will follow absolutely standard procedure—is the two-day debate, which will take place in due course.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and thank him for his good grace and good sense in making his announcement? He said that his statement was on the procedure for the free votes on the composition of the House of Lords, so will he confirm, in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, that all the votes on reform of the House of Lords will be free votes, in accordance with the manifesto on which the Leader of the House and I were elected?
We on the Liberal Democrat Benches have always welcomed the constructive approach that the Leader of the House has taken to the reform of the House of Lords, and that is why I regret today’s statement. Will he accept that he was absolutely right in proposing, on 7 February, a way of discerning the clear will of the House, and that his change of position is disappointing, as it responds to those who spoke the loudest, rather than to the majority of the House?
It is easy to understand why progress might be hindered by those in another place, who may be influenced by self-interest, or whose last, flickering radical instincts may be overburdened by the view that the system that appointed persons of their calibre is inevitably a very good system. It is harder to understand why, in this House, where Members of all parties were elected on manifesto commitments to reform, there should be such resistance to common sense, why the Conservatives should simultaneously profess a purpose of ensuring substantial reform and do all in their power to frustrate the means of ensuring it, and why the Jurassic elements on the right hon. Gentleman’s own Benches are so determined to obstruct progress.
In putting forward his alternative proposals, which are notably less flexible and more ponderous, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the suggested sequence does not allow hon. Members a view of the best option to prevent them from voting for the good, thus avoiding the train wreck that he memorably described last time. Lastly, is it not increasingly apparent that what needs reform is not only the House of Lords but antediluvian processes and attitudes in the Commons, too?
I made my view clear about the merits of the proposal, which was the subject of great discussion both in government and in the working party. For the record, the Liberal Democrats always supported the proposal for alternative voting, but the Conservatives were consistent in not doing so. My view about its merits remains the same, but the voices of the people who shout the loudest are an indication of where they stand, and the proposal did not command the support that I thought that it would. It may well have gone through—who knows?—but a huge amount of time and effort would have been expended, which would have been a diversion from reform. I regret that, but, as I told the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), given the scale of opposition, it was important to come to the House as quickly as possible to make clear the system that we would use in future.
On the issue of the order of consideration, I was concerned about the high level of gamesmanship that was evident in early February 2003. Notwithstanding the fact that I have complied with sentiment on both sides, it is inherently difficult to elicit preferences with yes/no votes. However, that is the system that we must use. My own instinct is to keep broadly to the range of options with some additions that were set out on the Order Paper on the last occasion. We should simply start at one end of the spectrum and work to the other, as that will leave the least bad taste in people’s mouths.
May I thank my right hon. Friend? He said that he would listen, and he has done so. In particular, may I congratulate him on not listening to the Liberal Democrats?
The right hon. Gentleman deployed all the grace and humour that I well remember is necessary when a Minister surrenders and makes a U-turn at the Dispatch Box. As someone who supported the alternative vote system, I accept his decision on the basis that he is trying to achieve the best atmosphere on procedure before we start. However, as he is embarking on a voyage of discovery in which there will be a great deal of cross-party controversy before we conclude will he assure me that he will not retreat at the next round of gunfire? Otherwise, we might as well as not embark on the process at all—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—because we will conclude with an outcome that is satisfactory to some of my colleagues: absolutely no reform at all and another train wreck.
Everything that I ever learned about the ways of government I learned at the feet of a maestro—namely, the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I observed him with great interest and learned a great deal from him when I was in opposition. I have no intention of retreating on the substance, but he knows that sometimes one has to make what one might delicately describe as a tactical retreat. There was no point in proceeding, given the extent of feeling about the fact that it was a new procedure, although I believe that that was one of its merits. It had not been before the Procedure Committee, which was my responsibility, but if there had been a broad consensus it would not have needed to go before it. In the circumstances, however, that alternative procedure was going to arouse great controversy, so we would not have been able to concentrate on the key issue—the way in which we implement the manifestos of all three parties that are committed to reform of the House of Lords.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on today’s statement, and I thank him for listening to those of us who had grave concerns about his proposals. As he is in a listening mood, has he had the opportunity to reflect on the point that I put to him in business questions last week? Given that the introduction of elected mayors, regional government and devolved assemblies were all preceded by referendums, if the House votes for a substantial elected element in the House of Lords, that ought to be put to the people in a referendum.
I have indeed reflected on that, but I ask my hon. Friend to spare me. It is hard enough getting the House to reach a decision on a preferred alternative for the future of the House of Lords. For myself, I happen to believe that this is the kind of change that is the responsibility of Parliament, and we have adequate procedures. We are, after all, a representative democracy.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the statement and advance notice. He is right that procedure should not overshadow the substantive debate. I am pleased that he has determined quickly the means of voting, and that he will consult on the form of the resolutions and their order. Can the resolutions be published early—weeks, if not days, in advance—to facilitate Back-Bench discussion, in particular, within and between parties before any decision on the order of voting?
I realise that my support last week for his process was not much good to my right hon. Friend—it rarely is for poor old Ministers. As so many Members of the House have historically supported a wholly or predominantly elected second Chamber, would it not make sense to include on the Order Paper a question about whether they supported 60 per cent. or more elected?
Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend’s support was of the highest possible quality, but he did not necessarily have the battalions with him. On the alternatives, after they have been discussed with the usual channels, we will table the resolutions, all of which it will be possible to vote on, irrespective of the fact that they are incompatible with each other, so that we can have a clear view of the House’s position. One does not negate the other, so to speak, under standard procedure. My instinct is to follow broadly the options that were before the House four years ago, because the House is more attached to precedent than I am, and that may be the safest option. However, it is open to my hon. Friend, as it is to any Member of the House, to table amendments once the motions appear on the Order Paper.
The Leader of the House is to be congratulated on the flexibility that he has shown. May I ask him, however, to show equal flexibility with regard to those parts of his proposals that will reinforce party control in the second Chamber, if implemented? Those of us who support a wholly or largely elected House of Lords—second Chamber—would do so only on the basis that the membership was selected by genuine associations representing distinct constituencies, for example, the old Euro constituencies, and we will not support party lists for large areas.
I note what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says. First, the proposal that the Government are provisionally supporting is in any event not the European electoral list system. It is the semi-open list system, which would provide for a much higher level of discretion by individual voters than the current list system, where people have to vote for a list and take it or leave it. Secondly—and I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman very much for what he said—this will be the first in a series of votes. If the House can come to a consensus around, for example, a predominantly elected Chamber, that in itself would be a huge advance. There will then be a long process of consultation, probably a draft Bill—that is for my colleagues to determine—and then great debate not about detail, but about very important points of principle, including the electoral system. But we will not be able to do any of that if we have not made a clear decision on the issue of principle.
I congratulate the Leader of the House on his gracious capitulation. May I ask him for an assurance that if the House produces the sort of answer that we had last time, he will concentrate on the sort of sensible reforms to the current second Chamber that our group has suggested?
Although I appreciate the necessity of what the Leader of the House has had to do today, I slightly regret the prospect of ending up in the same situation we had three or four years ago, when there was no agreed solution. In view of what the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) said earlier, in addition to having an option to abolish the House of Lords, will there also be an option to bring back the House of Lords as it was pre-1999?
The Leader of the House is one of the very few Government Members who would have had the decency and the grace to come to the House in the way that he has today, and I commend him for that.
In reply to one or two of the supplementary questions put to him, the right hon. Gentleman has talked about the parties being in favour of reform. Would he confirm that the votes are free votes and that, therefore, every Member in this House is as important as any other? Those of us who hold dear both this place and the reforming and amending role of the House of Lords may have views that put us out of line with our party. I hope that he will listen to non-party lines as well as party lines.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said, but I think that any Leader of the House from my party would have done this. I simply say to him—what was his point? [Laughter.] [Hon. Members: “Free votes.”] Oh yes, free votes. I was looking for the holy text. From my recollection, it was the Labour party that was committed to a free vote. I do not believe that the phrase “free vote” appeared in the manifesto of either his party—
For the benefit of the Hansard writers, the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, sotto voce, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not say that when he was a Whip. Be that as it may, I am delighted that along with this small pas de deux, the Conservative party has changed its mind and will participate in the free vote.
When I received my pager message summoning me here, I assumed it would be in order to rough up the Government. Unfortunately, like the Leader of the House, I am rather lost for words in relation to that task. I simply thank him for giving the House such a wonderful demonstration of the skill needed to do a good U-turn, and I ask him to tell the rest of the Cabinet to come and do the same thing, following his example. I also ask him to accept my thanks—and, I suspect, those of everyone else—for giving this House a much needed opportunity to put one over on an over-mighty Government.
I think that the hon. Gentleman’s last point is pushing it. After all, one of the things that persuaded me that this was a wise move, notwithstanding the intrinsic merits of my proposal, was that the issue was a procedural one, and it would be hard to persuade people into the Lobby on the basis that it was a matter of high principle, or one of our aims and objectives.
As so often is the case, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was absolutely right. Given that none of us who cares about the reputation of the House should want a repetition of the fiasco of February 2003, may I tell the Leader of the House that I strongly supported his decision to go for a mechanism that would allow us to break the deadlock, and although I understand the reasons for his dignified and graceful capitulation, I rue it? I think that it is unfortunate. I think that he would have done better to stand firm, resist the pressure and proceed. We would have got to a solution. [Interruption.]
Now I hear the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) say, “Oh, to be a democrat.”
I do not know whether we would have got to the position described by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). It is hard to persuade colleagues who disagree with one’s argument to go into the Lobby on a procedural issue. That is the problem. I have been perfectly frank with the House. I thought that there were many intrinsic merits to my proposal. Others supported it and it was supported by Government colleagues but, in the event, it ran into far greater opposition than I anticipated. It seems to me, for reasons that I have stated, better to make a graceful withdrawal or at least to make a withdrawal—it is a matter for others what adjective they attach to this—but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Buckingham for his support.
As a radical and fervent supporter of the status quo, I congratulate the Leader of the House both on his courage and on demonstrating yet again what a good House of Commons man he is by listening to the opinions of the House. May I put it to him that if he joins those of us who believe in and support the maintenance of the status quo, a glittering future beckons him as a wonderful House of Lords man in the fullness of time?
I would rather like to have moved that the House sat in camera for that little discussion, because my constituents might find out about that faint praise. I understand the support espoused by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for the status quo. I do not happen to support it. I believe that there ought to be reform and I have come to hold that view very strongly, but I think that there is measured reform of the kind spelled out in the White Paper. I hope—I say this to the hon. Member for Buckingham—that those who wish for reform are, frankly, slightly better organised than they were in February 2003.
Although we are all grateful for the courtesy that the Leader of the House has shown today, he will know that the largest vote against the four proposals for reform of the House of Lords in 2003 was that against the 60 per cent. elected second Chamber. Why, therefore, is he so wedded now to recommending and putting before the House again in the new voting procedures a proposal that is so similar to that?
This is a free vote. My view is not necessarily shared by all my Cabinet colleagues; it is shared by some of them. There are various options and my personal view, as set out in the White Paper, is that a 50:50 House is the most appropriate way forward. Others take a different view. It will be for me to make my own judgment, if the proposal fails to command adequate support in the House, about what option I vote for next.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on developments over the last two weeks in respect of the outbreak of avian influenza, or bird flu, in Suffolk. I reported to the House on 5 February the initial scientific findings and the planned response, and I can now set out developments in three areas: containment and eradication of the disease, investigation of its causes, and public information and public health.
First, containment of the outbreak required the culling and disposal of all turkeys on the site, preventive measures in a wider restricted area of more than 2,000 sq km, and extensive surveillance. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing my gratitude to public servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, other Departments and agencies, local government, the police and health authorities, as well as farmers and business people, for the efficiency, co-ordination and rigour of that operation.
Clinical signs of the infection emerge quickly and I am pleased to report that there have been no further outbreaks. Twenty-five wild bird locations, comprising 73 sites in the area, are regularly being patrolled. Tests have been completed on 12 dead wild birds in the area, as well as on live wild bird droppings from the infected premises. All results are negative. Domestic poultry in the protection zone have been located and clinically inspected by vets for signs of disease, as have the poultry premises considered most at risk in the surveillance zone. Tests have been completed on poultry samples from 21 premises in the protection zone. In all cases there has been no evidence of infection. The experts say that a period of two weeks from an outbreak is the time of greatest risk, but it is vital, as I will say at the end, that we do not in any way relax our guard.
The House will remember that the outbreak took place in one of 22 turkey sheds. Further analysis revealed that, although there had been no visible signs of disease, the virus was present in culled turkeys from three further sheds. Birds from all 22 sheds have been culled and the sheds have undergone preliminary cleansing and disinfection. Restocking can only take place 21 days after completion of secondary cleansing and disinfection, which is yet to take place. The part of the slaughterhouse where the turkeys were culled has been thoroughly cleansed and disinfected. Following assessment by the State Veterinary Service and confirmation by the Meat Hygiene Service that it was ready to slaughter animals intended for human consumption, the slaughterhouse was reinstated and designated on 11 February and reopened on 12 February.
Following scientific advice, restrictions in respect of shooting in the protection and surveillance zones as well as the national gatherings ban were lifted on 16 February. In accordance with the legislation, the earliest we would be able to lift the restriction zones in Suffolk is in the second week in March, provided there are no further outbreaks or suspect cases under investigation in the area.
Our second area of work has been to find the likely cause of the outbreak. I reported to the House on 5 February that the most likely cause involved wild birds, but that all avenues were being explored. That was consistent with the record of all past outbreaks and the scientific advice at the time.
Further genetic analysis took place during the week of 5 February, and on 8 February the deputy chief vet informed Ministers that the UK case came not just from the same family of bird flu as the Hungarian case, but that the genetic match was effectively identical. On 13 February, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency confirmed that the genetic match was 99.96 per cent. These genetic findings were significant because, if wild birds had transmitted the disease, the virus would have mutated and thereby changed its genetic make-up. It is for that reason that, since 8 February, our working hypothesis has been that the spread of the virus was associated with the import of poultry products from Hungary. It is important to emphasise again that that working hypothesis is not being pursued to the exclusion of other possibilities.
We are examining all possible routes of transmission, but our investigation of the cause of the incident has focused on transport links between Hungary and the site in Holton, and on biosecurity at the site. Our current understanding is summarised in two reports, involving the Food Standards Agency, the Health Protection Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service, as well as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, published on 16 February. Copies of those reports are available in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office.
Those reports found that there is no evidence that meat from the restricted areas in Hungary has entered the UK food chain. They also state that the risk to workers at the site was very low indeed. However, they show a number of ways in which infection could have entered the turkey sheds, carried from waste products by birds or rodents, or on footwear or clothing. Those possible pathways for infection make clear the importance of excellent biosecurity practices by all poultry keepers, whether large or small. I am assured that waste products on the site are currently being dealt with in a satisfactory way.
There remain restrictions on trade from restricted areas of the British and Hungarian outbreaks, but outside those zones, intra-Community trade is now normal. It is important that I record my thanks to the Hungarian ambassador to this country and to my Hungarian opposite number for their help and co-operation in the inquiry. Complex cases such as this depend on close international co-operation, and that has been forthcoming. I can also report that, last week, the first of a programme of three-way discussions involving UK and Hungarian vets and the European Commission took place. Tomorrow, I will be in Brussels for the Environment Council and I am seeking a meeting with the commissioner responsible for health and consumer protection.
The third part of our work has focused on public health and public information. In that, we are much helped by the role of the Food Standards Agency, which has been able to provide independent advice from the outset. That advice has been consistent: properly cooked meat poses no risk to consumer safety.
Our response to this serious outbreak is far from over. Preventive measures remain in place and our epidemiological investigation continues. We will have decisions to take about any legal or financial consequences of the investigations currently under way. I am also determined that we try to learn any and all lessons following this outbreak. That includes all aspects of the regulatory regime, domestic and international. Consistent with past practice, work is already being done to learn the lessons of the outbreak, and when it is concluded it will be published for public scrutiny.
The expert advice available to me is that there is a constant low risk of bird flu to the UK and higher risk during migration seasons. There can be no guarantee against further outbreaks; in fact the only guarantee is that there is a continual risk. That is why it is important that I reiterate my appeal to all poultry keepers to register with the poultry register and to maintain the highest standards of biosecurity. I am grateful to the British Poultry Council and other trade associations and professional bodies for their support in promulgating that message.
During the last 18 days, I have stuck to two clear requirements: to be guided by scientific evidence and to enforce and follow carefully established rules. Scientific evidence is important because the only basis for public confidence is that Ministers are guided by expert and—where possible—independent advice. The rules for controlling and stamping out disease are important because they represent the best thinking at international level on what is sensible. I believe that my approach has so far delivered the right results in this case, and I will continue with it in the future.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for giving advance notice of it, and I thank him and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare for having kept the Opposition briefed on unfolding events during the recent brief recess. I also join again with the Secretary of State in congratulating those on the ground in Suffolk who have dealt so professionally with the outbreak since it was discovered.
Does the Secretary of State now regret that he did not take the opportunity provided by his statement of 5 February to draw attention to the regular imports of semi-processed poultry meat from Hungary to Holton? Was he aware at that time that such shipments were taking place and, if he was, why did he not take the opportunity of referring to them? If he was not aware of them, did someone at Bernard Matthews simply fail to mention their existence?
Is the Secretary of State concerned that an impression was given that Ministers have not at all times been in control either of relevant information or of decisions relating to the trade with Hungary? It might have been legal to have continued to permit the trade in turkey products between Holton and Hungary after the discovery of the outbreak, but was it wise, particularly in view of the possible reputational risk to the industry? Do not the relevant European Union rules preclude prohibitions or restrictions on imports, exports or goods in transit when they can be justified on the grounds of protecting the health of humans, animals or plants? Did he discuss that issue with the European Commission?
The Food Standards Agency report states that no turkey meat imported from Hungary came from within the restricted zones. That being the case, does it not give rise to some serious concerns about the adequacy of the EU rules? We are now told that the most likely source of the outbreak was Hungary, yet there is no evidence of a contact with the restricted zones in Hungary. Does that not imply either that the disease might be elsewhere or that the restricted zones are in the wrong place? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the EU and the Hungarian authorities about that? Will he comment on reports that some packaging linked to one of the restricted zones was found at Holton?
Whatever else might emerge as a result of the continuing inquiries, there was clearly a major failure in biosecurity at the Bernard Matthews plant in Holton. I do not expect the Secretary of State to comment on the possibility of legal proceedings, but will the taxpayer have to foot a bill for compensating Bernard Matthews?
The chance that infected material has been spread by birds and rodents is worrying. The Secretary of State said that surveillance of the wild bird population has been stepped up, and rightly so, but what are we to make of reports that no testing of live birds has been undertaken in Suffolk? If that is true, is it not evidence of astonishing complacency? How many live birds have been tested within the restricted zone in East Anglia?
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the FSA report concerns the possible route of infection. Until now, it has been widely stated that the only route of infection is inhalation. We have all been careful to stress that there is no risk of catching avian flu from eating poultry meat, yet the FSA report’s hypothesis implies precisely the opposite. If a bird or rodent either itself ate the infected meat or carried it into the shed where turkeys pecked at it, does that not mean that the disease was transmitted through eating? If it were transmitted through eating, would not the virus have mutated, which we know that it did not? I am sorry if I sound confused about this, but I am, and I am not entirely sure that it is my fault that I am. I urge the Secretary of State to clear up these matters with precision and urgency.
On sales of poultry meat, what are the Government doing to monitor poultry consumption? On 5 February, the Secretary of State completely dodged—no doubt inadvertently—my question about EU compensation. At what point would he consider that the trade had been sufficiently damaged for him to claim compensation?
Finally, what is the thinking behind DEFRA’s advice that the public need only report findings of 10 or more dead birds? Would not the discovery of nine dead birds—or even fewer—that might be exhibiting some symptoms of bird flu warrant a call to the DEFRA helpline?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his keenness to engage with Department in the past two weeks and his remaining in contact, which has not in any way affected his ability to ask probing and serious questions.
On Bernard Matthews’s links with Hungary, when I answered questions in this House on 5 February, I reported, correctly, that the outbreak in Hungary had not taken place at a Bernard Matthews plant. It had a plant some 250 km away, in the north-west of the country, and at that stage we did not know about the Bernard Matthews processing operation outside the restricted zone but none the less close to it; that became clear later in the week.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be better to be wise, rather than legal, in our approach, but my view is that it is generally wise to be legal in the operations that take place. He rightly referred to EU legislation that says that, in conditions of danger to human or animal health, it is possible to suspend the rules to which we are party. At no stage did I have any such advice. Obviously, if there had been advice about a risk to human or animal health, we would have taken different decisions, but in this case, the absolutely clear advice was that there was no such risk. The matter certainly was discussed—one obviously asks questions about it—and the answer was forthcoming very clearly.
On engagement with the EU, I make two points. First, and as I said in my statement, there were meetings and telephone calls last week on a trilateral basis with the EU and the Hungarian authorities. I will seek a meeting tomorrow, but discussions go on in that context. Secondly, he asked how this happened, and that is precisely what we are discussing; no possibilities are being ruled out. He also asked about packaging, and that issue is addressed in the reports that were published on Friday.
Biosecurity and related compensation is dealt with under the Animal Health Act 1981, which requires that compensation be paid in cases where healthy animals are slaughtered. No compensation has yet been paid in this case and, as I said in my statement, we want to take forward all aspects of our investigation before that question is addressed.
The hon. Gentleman said that he is worried about complacency in the investigation of wild birds close to the area. I will write to him about the number of tests in the immediate area. He asked specifically about Suffolk, but the figures that I gave referred to 73 sites in 25 or 23 locations. As I confirmed at my lunchtime meeting with the deputy chief vet and others, all the scientific advice is that we have one of the most effective surveillance and testing schemes anywhere in Europe.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the confusion that exists. I readily understand that this is a technical area and, if he is at all confused, my offer of a meeting between him and the deputy chief vet or other officials remains open. I am very happy for him to have that technical briefing.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we are monitoring the purchase and consumption of poultry meat. Such figures have obviously been published, and we are following, rather than monitoring, them. On compensation, he will know that, like previous Governments, we do not compensate for market impacts. We will, however, follow existing rules and legal advice. Advice on what we would like the public to report has been set out extensively on the DEFRA website and elsewhere, and I urge people to follow it.
I understand that the virus will not survive outside a living organism for more than six hours. If that is the case, it automatically rules out transmission by meat products from Hungary, probably transmission by lorry and almost undoubtedly transmission on shoes. Is my right hon. Friend convinced that no live birds have been imported from Hungary that could have carried the live virus?
My scientific advisers are clear that the virus can live for longer than the six hours that my hon. Friend mentioned. I am happy to write to her with the details of our scientific knowledge in that area, but no such limitation has been explained to me. In respect of the imports from Hungary, there has been no evidence of imports from within the restricted areas, which would have been illegal and extremely serious.
Will the Minister accept my support for his comments about the way in which the various authorities have co-operated on the site, especially the connection between the police, the local authorities and the Government? I also thank him for the way in which he and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare have kept us all well informed and in touch with what is happening.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one notable difference between this and previous occasions is that we have been able to carry on reasonably normally our trade with the rest of the European Union, which would not have been possible had it not been both for our membership and our continued association with the way in which the system works? Does not that also mean that we will have to consider carefully some of the concerns that people have raised about the way in which the rules work? In other words, I wonder whether public acceptability should be considered as well as the “wisdom” and “legality”. Sometimes some of the decisions that we make that are safe may not seem so to the public and it might be worth being more stringent so that the public universally feel that we have their interests in mind.
Finally, my constituents are of course the most affected by these events. As the Secretary of State knows, there are many other poultry producers in the area. Will he ensure that all of them continue to be kept in touch, because they feel isolated by the effects on their businesses? If they are kept fully informed at all times, it will help to continue their strong support for his measures.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the work of staff and I will ensure that it is conveyed. In respect of stringency, we have extremely stringent rules and we apply them very stringently. It is important that we have had consistency of message in this case, and that has come from the Food Standards Agency and it has been repeated by Ministers and, to be fair, it has been repeated by Opposition spokespeople and other hon. Members. That consistent message has been about the safety of properly cooked poultry meat.
The point about keeping in touch with local poultry owners gives me the chance to reiterate the importance of the British poultry register, about which the right hon. Gentleman will know. If people are on the register, it is easy to remain in contact with them. Although 95 per cent. of the flock is covered by the register, that does not mean that 95 per cent. of owners are on it. Anything that any hon. Member can do to encourage registration—which is compulsory for flocks of more than 50 birds—would help us to stay in touch.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about learning lessons. The important point is that this has so far been a unique case in the European Union. There is no previous case in which wild birds have not been the carriers. After any case one has to learn lessons, but after a unique case it is especially important to consider whether the regulations are right.
No European country has taken retaliation against the United Kingdom in the past two and a half weeks. Although there have been calls that we should do things that are not legal, I remind the House that last year one swan was found dead in Cellardyke and that did not lead to retaliation either. It is enormously in the interests of public safety and confidence, and the poultry industry, that that remains the case. As I said two weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman’s continuing desire to point out to his colleagues the importance of the European Union for the future of this country is very welcome.
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in letting us have early sight of the statement and for keeping us informed through the recess.
May I pick up on something that the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) asked? The Secretary of State said clearly that he had been informed later in the week about the extent of the Hungarian trade. We now know that 5 per cent. of all the turkey meat processed at the plant came from Hungary. When exactly did the Secretary of State become aware of that? Was it due to the finding of the wrapper in the Holton plant? It is important to clear that up.
The evidence of irresponsible biosecurity lapses at Holton, including gulls feeding on uncovered waste meat, is now compelling. The DEFRA summary report states that pest control reports in January made that clear and that
“similar comments had been made following previous visits of the pest control company in 2006”.
In the light of that finding—in other words, of repeated problems of the same sort that could infect the wild fowl population—how can the other report, from the FSA, DEFRA and the Health Protection Agency, assert that
“verbal advice about deficiencies and non-compliance was given. In each case the deficiency was addressed and no further enforcement action was taken”.
Which is it? Was Bernard Matthews acting on advice or ignoring the problem?
The Secretary of State says that he is assured that waste products on the site are currently being dealt with in a satisfactory way, but given the evident dangers, and the contradictions in the two reports he has presented, can he assure the House that there is now no risk of contamination of wild fowl? How does he know? When specifically did the Meat Hygiene Service last inspect the premises? How frequently does it attend to make such inspections?
Given the potential dangers were the virus to mutate into a form contagious between humans, does the Secretary of State agree that human health must be the first and foremost consideration in this case and that there must be no compromise in undertaking every possible measure necessary to guarantee it? If so, why did the FSA not test the imports of poultry meat from Hungary, as it tested the poultry in the shed after the discovery, so that we can rely on more than a mere paper trial to ensure that the meat did not come from the affected area around the H5N1-afflicted goose farm in Hungary?
In respect of the now infamous wrapper, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that obviously the figure that just over 5 per cent. of the meat processed was from Hungary did not come from the wrapper. That figure came from investigation of all the shipments. If not quite deriding our reliance on the shipments, he at least cast doubt on whether we should rely on them—I think he called them a paper trail. However, it is important to look at the shipments. There has been no suggestion either from the European Commission or anyone else that they are not a reliable record. Indeed, the EC carries out investigations and inspections to make sure that such records are undertaken on a serious basis. Obviously, the full extent of the shipments emerged only when the transport logs were handed over, which was Wednesday 7 February or Thursday 8 February. They were then investigated in some detail, which yielded the 5 per cent. figure published last Friday.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman rightly asked about the previous lapses and the advice that had been given. Our clear evidence from the work of the MHS and others is that the advice was acted on, but clearly if the problems recurred there would be an issue. The report says clearly that the premises were placed in the second highest category by the Meat Hygiene Service. That means that they are inspected once every five months. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that someone is on the site of a slaughterhouse whenever slaughter takes place; however, the rest of the premises were on a five-monthly schedule. The regime for any premises placed in the highest category is for an inspection to take place once every eight months. Given the events, the Meat Hygiene Service will no doubt want to consider the frequency of the inspection regime in the light of the most recent evidence.
I have it in my head that the last inspections of the slaughterhouse and the processing plant were in December and January respectively, but I shall confirm that just in case it was the other way round and the last inspection of the processing plant was in December and that of the slaughterhouse was in January. However, the last inspections took place in the months of December and January.
Subsequent to the outbreak, the inspections are set out in the report. Obviously, a lot of staff are on site at the moment, not least in the slaughterhouse.
I want to finish on one point. The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the danger to human health. I am sure, or at least hope, that it was inadvertent, but this morning he talked on the radio about the further infection of humans. One has to be very careful in using such language; he has used it again in the House. Although tough and probing questions should be asked, it is very important that one should not in any way allow the impression to get abroad that somehow a human catastrophe is already under way. It is very important that we should be vigilant and that we never say that there is no risk. There is an ongoing risk of bird flu, but it is incumbent on us to choose our words very carefully when talking about transmission to humans.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his staff on the prompt and thorough response to the outbreak. I welcome the fact that efforts to find its precise cause have not yet been abandoned.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on reports that, after the outbreak, a number of lorry loads of raw turkey meat continued to go from the Bernard Matthews plant to Hungary, and that that was a source of considerable irritation to the chief vet in Hungary?
My right hon. Friend speaks with authority on these matters. I think that I can assure him that there have been no complaints from the Hungarian side about what he mentioned. There are clear European rules about the transmission of birds reared in, and poultry meat processed in, a restricted area. Those rules have been carefully followed, and I assure him that there has been no complaint from the Hungarians in that regard.
I apologise to the Secretary of State for having missed the first minute of his statement. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) have been very careful with their use of language when talking about possible breaches of biosecurity at the plant. Is the Secretary of State yet able to say whether, in the opinion of his experts, there have been breaches of biosecurity there? If, at the end of the day, the audit trail proves that there was no breach of biosecurity and that that Bernard Matthews plant was not responsible for the outbreak, what conclusion will he be able to draw?
Let me choose my words carefully. I do not think that there is any doubt that there have been biosecurity breaches; that is evident from the report about the treatment of the waste products. However, we always have to say “a possible route of transmission” in respect of how the disease got into the turkey sheds. The reports published last week established a possible route of transmission. We cannot now say that we have evidence of a transmission; what we have is a possible route of transmission.
That is one reason why our investigations are continuing. Only when they are concluded can we come to a calculation or assessment of the right steps forward. I should like to draw a distinction between breaches or lapses on the one hand, and routes of transmission on the other.
My right hon. Friend will know that Hungary’s prowess in science far exceeds the size of the nation. Will he assure the House that everything possible is being done to share the genetic data that have emerged with our colleagues in Hungary and, indeed, with other countries that are involved in tracking down this very interesting and complex trail?
“Interesting” is a good word to use to describe the last two weeks. My hon. Friend makes an important point. I did not go into detail in my statement about my discussions with the Hungarian ambassador when she came to see me, or with my Hungarian opposite number. It is obviously important to take every opportunity to explain and set out on record the fact that the Hungarian commitment to the containment and eradication of bird flu is very strong. Its scientific commitment is well known and there is no evidence that Hungary has not followed the rules with the same rigour that we have.
The continuation of the wider restriction zone into the second week in March, which I believe is a requirement under the agreed EU procedures, is causing some difficulties for poultry farmers—regardless of what is happening to retail sales. Will my right hon. Friend make clear what possible help might be available to such farmers? Secondly, will he say a little more about reports of open containers of turkey waste material? Were they lapses, or is that regular practice at the factory? What is the view of the Meat Hygiene Service, the Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency on that particular practice?
In respect of organic and free-range status, I am happy to confirm that the rules that I set out two weeks ago remain in force and that those producers should keep that status, which is obviously valued. It certainly should not be described as regular practice to have waste open to the elements or open to wild birds or anything else. There are very clear rules about that, which is one reason the advice was given and, we were told, followed. It is very important that we learn the lesson from this outbreak that although the chances of transmission may be small, as long as they exist, real efforts must be made to reduce them to as close to zero as possible. That is the responsibility of every poultry owner, large or small.
My main concern is human health in the event of the virus mutating to threaten a human pandemic. We know that we cannot design a specific vaccine until we can analyse the virus that has mutated, but we also know that we can now put in place the production capacity to ensure that when the vaccine has been designed—it would only take a few weeks—we can go ahead with the massive production of the new specific vaccines that will be needed to protect human health and life. What are the Government doing to provide such production capacity and make it ready now?
That is a very large question, making it difficult for me to summarise an answer. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in co-ordination with the Department of Health, extensive preparations are being made. He summarised the difficulty of the vaccine issue in that any pandemic would result from a mutation between human flu on the one hand and bird flu on the other. That causes particular difficulties when it comes to vaccination. What I can say is that all appropriate and scientifically robust preparations are being made, including in respect of vaccine stocks. I would be happy to send the hon. Gentleman the detailed contingency plan.
Given that the virus came—or may have come—from Hungary and that, according to the Secretary of State, there has been no breach of the regulations by the Hungarian authorities, does that not suggest that there is a gap in the precautions afforded by the regulations? If that is the case, what is the Secretary of State doing with regard to the European Community, officials, the Council and, indeed, the Hungarian authorities to explore the nature of that gap in precautions and to guard against it?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important issue, which has been touched on by hon. Members, and it may help if I try to encapsulate two aspects of what I have said. First, there is something of a mystery still to be solved, and it is important that no one is under any illusion about that. The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) raised two hypotheses. They must be investigated. Those hon. Members who have read the reports published on Friday will have seen the reference to the fact that turkeys can have the disease before it shows. The turkeys in three of the sheds that were discovered to have the virus did not show any outward sign of that virus. So there is a line of inquiry that must be pursued in that respect.
Secondly, the very important word that the right hon. and learned Gentleman used was “if”. If any gaps are found, we must close them as soon as possible. I have repeatedly referred to the work that we are doing both domestically and with European colleagues. That work is designed precisely to find out whether there is a gap. If there is a gap, I can assure him that it will be shown up and published, and intensive measures will be taken to close that gap. Obviously, we cannot allow our defences to have those sorts of weaknesses in them if they are shown to exist.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, a few years ago, under the auspices of the predecessor Department—the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—studies were carried out to show the potential spread of avian pathogens in poultry sheds and that they demonstrated very clearly that droplets applied to unrelated stuff were quickly transmitted to poultry sheds via their ventilation systems? If so, was any further advice on the biosecurity of ventilation systems issued to poultry farmers? Has that route of transmission been fully investigated?
The short answer is no; I do not know whether new evidence about the ventilation issue has been sent. That is not one of the routes of transmission that has been suggested. Under the rules of the House, I am not allowed to look at the civil service bench to see whether officials are nodding or shaking their heads about whether or not ventilation is an issue. [Hon. Members: “They are all nodding.”] Indeed, they are doing so. However, perhaps I can advertise my ignorance to the hon. Gentleman by saying that that ventilation issue—in other words, airborne transmission—has not been raised as a possibility, but I am happy to send him some details about that.
The Secretary of State confirmed in answer to an earlier question that the virus can live for longer than six hours on dead meat. Why therefore were the dead birds transported all the way from Suffolk to Staffordshire, when the lessons that we learned from foot and mouth and BSE outbreaks were that animals or birds, once dead, should be destroyed as close to that point as possible?
There is a very straightforward answer to that; the lessons are that the birds must be killed not just as fast as possible, but as securely and safely as possible. The Staffordshire rendering plant offered the most safe and secure way not just to destroy but to eliminate those carcases. It is worth pointing out that that operation was extremely effective and that there was certainly no question that the transport of those 160,000 dead turkeys posed any risk to anyone on the route of that transit.
The Secretary of State made reference to his meetings with the European Union. Although all hon. Members would recognise that it is right and proper that everything necessary be done to deal with the outbreak, will he give an assurance that if the EU proposes extra and additional burdens beyond those that our scientists and poultry farmers recognise as necessary to deal with the outbreak he will not cave in to its demands and will effectively stand up for the interests of British farmers? I emphasise that we must do whatever is necessary but nothing that the EU wants above that which our scientists recognise as necessary.
The hon. Gentleman speaks as a Member of the House, but I know that he also holds an exalted position as shadow Deputy Leader of the House. His question might be better directed at Members on his own Front Bench, because there seems to be some dispute among them about exactly whose scientific standards we should be—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman holds on, I am happy to answer his question. I would say two things. First, it is important that our scientific advice helps to lead the European debate in this area. That is why our epidemiological work does so. Interestingly enough, the Weybridge laboratory, which does a lot of this work, is recognised around Europe as leading much of it. Secondly, it is not in the interests of British farmers, or anyone else, for there to be any doubts in the public mind that public and animal health is the absolute priority guiding the Department, the Government and all parties in the House. That must be addressed in a way that does not pretend that risk can be eliminated, but that minimises that risk. That is what we will seek to do.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I seek your guidance on a narrow point of procedure? At Home Office questions, Question 20 on the Order Paper stated:
“Which Questions for oral answer by”
the Home Secretary
“on today’s Order Paper were drafted wholly, or in part, by a member of the ministerial team, special adviser, civil servant, or, on his behalf, by a parliamentary private secretary or Government whip; and if he will make a statement.”
As you may be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before Home Office questions started at 2.30 pm, that question was withdrawn. As you are aware, when a question is withdrawn—rather than not reached—no automatic written answer is given. Question 20 had been withdrawn, so there will be no written answer. Given that that question was on the Order Paper for answer today, but was withdrawn, would it be permissible for me to table an identical written question to seek an answer to a question that is of considerable interest to many hon. Members in the House?
First, the reason hon. Members withdraw questions is entirely a matter for them and not for the Chair. Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman chooses to put down a question framed in whatever way he chooses, that is entirely a matter for him.
I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following motion:
That the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 24th January, be approved.
I am satisfied that the orders are compatible with the European convention on human rights. The uprating order will, as usual, increase most national insurance benefits by the retail prices index, which is 3.6 per cent, and increase most income-related benefits by the Rossi index, which as the House will know, excludes rent, mortgage interest, council tax and depreciation, and is 3 per cent. The guaranteed minimum pensions increase order sets out the amount by which contracted-out occupational pension schemes must increase members’ guaranteed minimum pensions that accrued between 1988 and 1997.
Where the annual increase in the retail prices index exceeds 3 per cent., the guaranteed minimum pensions indexation requirement is capped at that level under the primary legislation. This year’s order therefore provides for an increase of 3 per cent. This year’s uprating adds more than £3.5 billion to Government spending and reinforces our commitment to build an active welfare state and to tackle poverty by helping those most in need. The order provides an extra £2.48 billion to pensioners, of which £300 million is above inflation, and an extra £560 million to disabled people and carers.
When we came to power, one in four pensioners suffered the indignity of living below the poverty line. The poorest pensioners were expected to live on just £68.80 a week. This year’s uprating of the pension credit minimum guarantee means that from April no single pensioner need live on less than £119.05 a week and no couple on less than £181.70 a week. The basic state pension will have seen a real-terms rise of 9 per cent. since 1997.
From memory, the number is 17 per cent., which is down from its peak of about 39 per cent. under the previous Conservative Government. There has thus been a significant reduction in the number.
I am looking forward to the speech from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) because I know that he is burning to answer the question of which premium in pension credit he would abolish. Would that be the extra money for disabled pensioners on pension credit, or that for those who care for people? He did not answer that question when it was put to him during a Committee sitting, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will know. Perhaps he was waiting until today so that he could tell the whole House which of those vulnerable groups he would take money off through his citizens pension. Alternatively, perhaps he has found the 5p increase in income tax that would be needed to fund that pension—
When the hon. Gentleman gives me answers to my questions, I will stop using them.
We now spend over £10 billion a year more on pensioners than we would have been doing if we had simply continued the policies that we inherited in 1997. Pensioners’ incomes have risen across the board, with the poorest benefiting the most. We have lifted 2 million pensioners out of absolute poverty and 1 million out of relative poverty. On average, pensioner households are about £1,400 a year better off in real terms than they would have been under the 1997 system. The poorest third are about £2,000 a year better off, which represents a significant increase in people’s average incomes.
We have now reached a position in which pensioners are no more likely to be poor than the population as a whole. We have broken the historical correlation between being old and being poor. It is genuinely remarkable that that has been achieved at a time of economic prosperity when the wages of the population in work have been increasing significantly. We now need to maintain that achievement, and through the Pensions Bill, which has completed its Committee stage, we will legislate to ensure that the progress that we have made for today’s pensioners is locked in for future generations.
The Bill provides an enduring pensions settlement and a solid platform on which people can save for their retirement in the form of a basic state pension that will be wider in coverage and more generous than previously because it will be uprated in line with earnings. The link to earnings will result in a pension that, by 2050, will be worth more than twice as much as it would have been without reform.
We are also tackling inequalities in the current system, especially those faced by women and carers, through the introduction of a modernised contributory principle that recognises and rewards social contributions alongside work. Today, about 30 per cent. of women reaching state pension age receive a full basic state pension. Our reforms will mean that that figure will increase to about 75 per cent. in 2010, and to 90 per cent. by 2025.
We are tackling the problem of complexity in the current system through a radical simplification of the state pension and by streamlining the private pension regulatory environment, thus making it easier for people to plan and save. Additionally, because it is crucial that we do not burden our children and grandchildren with the cost of a population spending longer and longer in retirement, we will gradually raise the state pension age to 68 by 2046, thus ensuring fairness between the generations and helping to secure the long-term financial stability of the system.
The Bill will eliminate the existing gender gap in the state pension system. It will lock in the reduction in pensioner poverty. However, we will truly eliminate inequality in retirement only when we tackle inequality in working life. That is why our welfare reform programme and our aspiration for an 80 per cent. employment rate are so important.
Ten years ago, nearly 6 million adults in this country were dependent on benefits, and with that dependency came poverty. Over a period of 20 years, the proportion of children in low-income households more than doubled. One in five families had no one in work, one in every three children was living in poverty, and in the late 1990s, the UK had one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialised world. Today, that rate is falling faster in the UK than anywhere else in the EU. Since 1997, 800,000 children have been lifted out of relative poverty and 2 million out of absolute poverty. Tax credits now benefit nearly 6 million families and 10 million children. From April, families with children will be, on average, £1,550 a year better off in real terms than in 1997, and those in the poorest fifth will be £3,450 a year better off—a truly remarkable increase.
That support goes hand in hand with the other measures that are designed to give working families the support they need. In 1997, the standard rate of maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay was only £55 a week; this year, it will be increased to £112.75 a week, as will statutory paternity pay. In 1997, paid maternity leave lasted for 18 weeks; from April, it will increase from six to nine months, and by the end of this Parliament we aim to extend both statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance to a full year. It used to last for 18 weeks; it is now to last for a full year, which will make a genuinely significant difference to working parents. At the same time, we intend to introduce an additional period of paternity leave for employed fathers and we shall offer all parents unprecedented flexibility in dividing maternity and paternity leave between them, allowing both parents to play a greater role in the first year of a child’s life.
Of course, there is more to do if we are to eradicate child poverty. We shall continue to consider what more the Government can do to help those who are most in need, but ultimately it is the opportunity to work that provides the only long-term sustainable anti-poverty strategy. That is why the Government’s approach has always been about maximising opportunities to work. It is why we have created a national minimum wage and tax credits, invested in Jobcentre Plus and the new deal, and maintained a strong economy in which everyone shares in the benefits of record economic growth.
Today, more people than ever before are in work: employment has increased by more than 2.5 million since 1997. It has increased in every region and every country of the UK, with the biggest increases in the neighbourhoods and cities that started in the worst position. We have had real success in extending employment opportunities to those who were previously left behind. For example, since 1997 the employment rate for lone parents has increased from 45 per cent. to 57 per cent., and there have been significant increases in the rates for disabled people, ethnic minorities and older workers. Nearly 1 million fewer people are on benefits, and the number on incapacity benefits is falling, not rising.
The UK has one of the strongest labour markets in the world and has the highest employment in the G8, ahead of Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Russia and the United States. The contrast with the situation that we inherited is stark: claimant unemployment has decreased by 43 per cent. in the past 10 years, long-term unemployment has decreased by 73 per cent., and youth long-term unemployment has almost been eradicated.
Pathways to work now covers more than 40 per cent. of the country and we shall roll it out nationwide by April 2008, in time for the new employment and support allowance. Pathways is a success: independent evaluation carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that pathways reduces the percentage of new claimants still receiving an incapacity benefit after 10 and a half months by more than eight percentage points and increases the percentage in employment by more than nine percentage points. No other programme in the world has delivered results on that scale for that client group. Our Welfare Reform Bill will build on that success, delivering on our commitment to reform incapacity benefit while ensuring security for those who cannot work. Together with our city strategy, it will offer a new approach to delivering employment services to some of our most disadvantaged communities.
The Minister mentioned the pathways to work pilot schemes being rolled out nationwide and the new welfare to work aspects of the Bill, but will he confirm whether people will receive the same amount under the employment and support allowance as they do under the pathways to work pilot schemes?
I think that the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Standing Committee, which considered that point, and he will know that it is still being considered. Ministers made the position clear: the ESA will be set at a higher level than the current long-term rate for incapacity benefit. As I think he knows, a decision on that subject will be announced in due course.
Our disability rights legislation, which is the most comprehensive of any European country to date, and our age discrimination legislation are breaking down the cultural and discriminatory barriers facing disabled people and older workers, but we have further to go if we are to meet the challenges of rapid economic, social and demographic change. The Leitch review highlighted the fact that the shape of our work force needs to change rapidly to fit the needs of our future economy. The demand for low-skilled workers is falling rapidly, and it is skills that employers now seek. We want British workers to be equipped for jobs, yet there are currently 4.6 million people without any qualifications. We need to build on programmes such as Train to Gain, which help employers to identify the skills that their businesses need and to contribute to the costs of training, so that they can help many previously unqualified workers.
Order. Many of the points that the Minister is touching on do relate to the motions before the House, but occasionally he strays wide of the mark. This debate is not a general review of the financial situation.
I have reached the last page of my speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so there is not much that I can do to correct that, but I take your guidance.
As I was saying, an active welfare state is crucial to provide people with opportunity and security. This year’s uprating statement continues the progress that has been made since 1997, and I commend it to the House.
We welcome the debate, and recognise its importance for welfare and social justice, and I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the Government’s proposals on uprating social security benefits and the basic state pension. The level of benefits, which is the subject of the order before us, is just part of the national debate about poverty in the UK. It is a debate that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has helped to open up in the past 12 months, through a refreshed and renewed commitment to social justice on the part of Conservative Members. Recently, the Department has responded to the policy challenge delivered by the Leader of the Opposition and other Conservative Members with a series of ministerial briefings, and sometimes even with speeches, on the record, on the subject of welfare reform. We await with interest the fruits of the short inquiry led by the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who is not in the Chamber today, and Mr. David Freud. I understand that that report may be published as early as this week.
The order will deliver an increase in benefits, and we Opposition Members support that. It provides for most of the increases to take effect in the week commencing 9 April this year. However, the order specifies that, for statutory sick pay, maternity pay, paternity pay, and adoption pay, and for housing benefit, council tax benefit and the earnings limits in respect of child dependency, the increased rates will take effect at an earlier date in April. The increases take effect on different dates because of the difference in the prescribed pay days of the benefits, but we have no difficulty with those procedures.
I would like to talk about how the rate of the increases is determined. Depending on the benefit, either the retail prices index or the Rossi index is used. Before we decide on the order’s merit, it is worth trying to understand which inflation measure is applied to each benefit and why. It is important to air those issues because they open up important questions about whether different groups in our society suffer from different inflationary pressures. The benefits that people will access, as a result of the order being made, will differ depending on the inflation measure that is applied to the benefit. The question that we have to ask when considering the merits of the order is whether the uprating will cover the increased cost of living which any particular group drawing that benefit is subject to.
The retail prices index is applied to uprate contribution-based jobseeker’s allowance, child benefit, incapacity benefit, carer’s allowance and disability living allowance. Those are the main benefits. The RPI is calculated by the Office for National Statistics each month by collecting about 110,000 prices of about 650 goods and services in about 150 locations and on the internet. These goods include the obvious ones—bread, cereal, furniture and clothing, as well as water, gas and electricity. With that information, the ONS uses data from the Department’s family expenditure survey and other detailed expenditure analyses put together by market research companies and trade reports, and arrives at a representative shopping basket. The changes in prices of the goods in the basket are used to produce a headline figure that is intended to be broadly representative of the cost of living.
With reference to the RPI, which is the subject of the order, it is worth pointing out that the patterns of pensioner expenditure are not explicitly factored into the representative shopping basket. The ONS explains that that pattern of demand is probably atypical and would distort the average. Pensioner households, which on average derive about three quarters of their income from the state one way or the other, are having some of their benefits uprated by the order according to an inflation index that does not explicitly acknowledge or comprehend how they spend their money. That is worth considering.
I am not for a moment suggesting to the Minister that previous Governments made the calculations in any other way—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), is always quick to make a sneering party political point, but I will not be tempted. In a spirit of honest inquiry, I am not suggesting that the matter was fully considered by any Conservative Administration in the past. I simply wondered what the Minister’s views were.
I ask that because the question is endlessly put by so many of the hard-working lobby and interest groups that work on behalf of their customers, those who are of pensionable age. The Minister knows as well as I do who I am talking about. They make some very good points, and it would be useful to get an idea of the Minister’s thinking about why no Government have so far explicitly recognised the much higher inflation levels that pensioners experience—much higher than the RPI measure that is the subject of the order.
The other index that is the subject of the order is the Rossi index, which is used to uprate different allowances and benefits listed in the order—jobseeker’s allowance, council tax benefit, housing benefit and income support. It is compiled in the same way as the RPI, except that it excludes rent, mortgage interest payments and housing depreciation costs.
Parenthetically, and to provide context for the two separate inflation measures that are the subject of the order, it is worth reminding ourselves that both those indices are different from the consumer price index, which is the measure now used by the Bank of England to calculate bank rate. The CPI is similar to the RPI in so far as it uses a basket of allegedly everyday goods to compare how prices have changed over the period, but it also excludes council tax, mortgage interest payments and other major housing costs.
With the RPI in September 2006 standing at 3.6 per cent. and the Rossi at 3 per cent., these represent nine-year September highs, and the order contains one of the biggest upratings since 1997. With the exception of contribution-based jobseeker’s allowance, non-income-related benefits, including incapacity benefit, child benefit and disability living allowance, all will be uprated by 3.6 per cent., which was the RPI figure in the year to September 2006. To demonstrate the magnitude of the proposals, the long-term rate for incapacity benefit will rise from £78.50 to £81.35. The highest level of care component in the DLA will increase on average from £62.25 to £64.50. We support those increases. Housing benefit, income support and other income-related benefits to which I have referred will be uprated not by RPI but by the Rossi figure of 3 per cent. To give an example from the real world, housing benefit for a single 25-year-old, all things being equal, will rise from an average of £57.45 to £59.15. Income support will rise from £57.45 to £59.15. We welcome those modest increases—[Interruption.] Yes, we welcome them.
The September 2006 RPI is used, too, to calculate the annual increase in the basic state pension. The minimum guaranteed pension credit is linked to the higher level of earnings. But the 2004 Budget report specified that the basic state pension would continue to rise each April by 2.5 per cent., or the increase in RPI in the 12 months to the preceding September, whichever is higher. In September 2006, RPI was 3.6 per cent., and thus higher than 2.5 per cent., so it forms the basis for the uprating of the basic state pension, which will rise by just over £3 for a single pensioner, to £87.30. Again, we welcome that increase, but I urge the Minister not only to reflect on the nature of those increases but to comment on them. The representative basket of goods for the RPI and the Rossi methodology contains an incredible array—
If my hon. Friend had been in the Chamber throughout my speech he would have heard an analysis bordering on the tedious of the number of items that are included and the way in which the Office for National Statistics obtains that information not just from 150 shop locations but from the internet. However, he can read that at his leisure tomorrow in Hansard, which he looks at first thing in the morning over his café latte as he attends to his two charming children at the breakfast table. There is a treat in store for him tomorrow.
Indeed, it will be an even bigger treat for the two young Bercow offspring.
The representative basket of goods that forms the basis for the methodology of RPI and Rossi calculations contains an incredible array of items, weighted in a way that is supposed to be representative of the average spending patterns of the man or woman in the street. People on very low incomes, however, who receive the benefits that are the subject of the uprating order, face much higher levels of inflation, because of the nature of their daily expenditure patterns. For example, the price inflation of gas, electricity and council tax is an important consideration, because there is a systematic tendency for people on low incomes to spend a higher proportion of their incomes than other income groups on necessities that are subject to higher inflation. Many of them do not face an RPI of 3.6 per cent.—the increase in major benefits proposed by the uprating order—but a far higher inflation rate in their daily lives. An increase in their benefit of 3.6 per cent. could therefore amount to a real-terms reduction in their income. This may seem a rather technical point and, because a smile plays on the Minister’s face, I am happy to acknowledge that it is no different a set of propositions than could have been levelled at Conservative Ministers before 1997. However, it now bears on the poverty debate, which has taken on a new lease of life in the past year or so. Ministers and shadow Ministers are talking more intelligently about how we tackle relative poverty, not just absolute poverty. We have an identity of interest in having a full and frank debate about those policy issues. Our solutions may be different in tackling poverty, but at least we have the same goal in mind.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments. He might like to tell us about the new personal inflation calculator introduced last month by the Office for National Statistics, which gave rise to some interesting media coverage. The calculator is a basic tool designed to allow an individual man or woman to calculate the rate of inflation that they personally face—not a bad initiative for a Government body to undertake. It works on the following principle: a person goes to the personal inflation calculator website and enters his or her weekly expenditure for a given set of 23 items, such as tobacco, petrol and food. They can also enter their mortgage payments, their annual expenditure on house insurance, DIY and other items. Using the inflation rates and levels of expenditure on each of those goods, the calculator will produce for an individual his or her own personal RPI.
The only reason there was a smile playing on my lips was that I was wondering whether, in their policy review, the Conservatives are considering having different inflation rates for different population groups. How far would that process go? Would they have different inflation rates for people in the north or the south? Would they have different inflation rates for people in their 20s or 40s, or for those with more, or less, inflationary tastes? Where are they going to stop?
The Minister’s imagination is running riot. I do not think that we have ever indicated that there should be different regional inflation rates or anything else. All I can say to him is that the policy group on social justice is at arm’s length from Front Benchers. It is not due to deliver the second phase of its policy prescriptions until June of this year. The Minister, like me, will have to hold his excitement in reserve, and perhaps we can have a grown-up debate on the matter when the group publishes its independent findings. I look forward to that.
I am extraordinarily grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because he is addressing the House with the intellect of Einstein and the eloquence of Demosthenes, and I would expect nothing less.
I put it to my hon. Friend, who is making an extremely cogent and powerful speech, that there is a certain otherworldliness about the Government’s approach in expecting, in all cases, people to use a ready reckoner that is accessible through the website. I chair the all-party group on speech and language difficulties, and this is a serious point: the Minister must understand that there are many disadvantaged people, notably those with speech, language and communication impairments, who are statistically much less likely to use such a mechanism to find out what they are entitled to.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not wish to be churlish; the Government put the website together and it is something that has not been done before. I hope that they will reflect on what he said and write to me, or to him, to give some indication of how wider access for those with learning and other disabilities can be delivered in the calculation of one’s personal inflation rate. As usual, he makes a trenchant point, to which I hope Ministers will respond with the good grace for which they are universally popular.
The calculator presumes to come up with an individualised RPI, but of course an individual punching in the data today would be inputting especially high figures for utilities. According to Ofgem—the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets—gas bills have risen by 71 per cent. and electricity bills by 45 per cent. since 2003. Ministers may want to quibble about what Ofgem is saying. I am not too worried about that, but the major thrust of its argument and, indeed, my argument is that those are astronomically high increases in utility bills far exceeding the level of RPI or the Rossi index in this order. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, the average council tax bill is about one third higher than it was in 2003, while average water and sewerage rates have increased by just over one quarter.
The average man or woman in the street will have been hit by those increases. Let us assume for a moment that they do not have to access many or, indeed, any of the benefits that are subject to this measure. They could equally say, when they are calculating their own level of inflation, that they have seen tiny RPI increases in things that they buy a lot of. For instance, I think that the average figure for a year in relation to inflation for compact discs would be about 0.8 per cent.—less than 1 per cent. We are talking about a 10 per cent. reduction in real terms in the cost of audio-visual equipment. That is good news. There are examples of deflationary pressures. There are falls in the prices of goods such as clothing. Any of us who potter down our local high street see that there are not inflation increases higher than Rossi or RPI in respect of those goods.
We understand that, but we also know about the representative basket as regards inflation for all goods. Taken together, those inflationary and deflationary forces have led to an average RPI of 3.6 per cent, but not for pensioners. It is fair to say that if all that pensioners spent their money on was CDs and audio-visual equipment, all would be well, but they do not. A large proportion of their monthly income goes on utility bills and council tax, so for pensioners the reality of inflation is very different from Rossi or RPI, which is the subject of this order. Shona Dobbie of the Alliance Trust summed the situation up when she said:
“The impact of price increases on basic goods and services falls most heavily on the elderly, who spend a higher proportion of their monthly budget on necessities.”
There is no exact science to this, as Ministers well know and as I well know, but there are some decent estimates of the personal inflation levels faced by pensioners in our community today. Last December, Capital Economics did a short study of how inflation affects different groups in society and it concluded that some pensioners face a personal consumer prices index inflation rate of more than 9 per cent.—9.1 per cent., to be exact. Similarly, using the Department for Work and Pensions family expenditure survey, the Alliance Trust has sliced and diced some numbers and examined pensioner expenditure on 85 different items to construct a CPI inflation rate of more than 4 per cent. for the over-75s.
There are two points to be made in taking those studies on board. First, both the organisations to which I referred based their workings on a CPI method, rather than RPI. The CPI of course excludes housing costs, council tax and mortgage payments, but in so doing it tends to underestimate the cost of living for pensioners by about 1 per cent., according to the ONS. The second point about those estimates of the level of inflation a pensioner household will experience in the real world is that, although we are uprating the main pensioner benefits in line with RPI, pensioners are facing in some cases a decline in real terms in their weekly income.
A regular claim made by the Government—we heard it from the Minister a few moments ago—is that they have moved up to 2 million pensioners out of poverty. However, let us not forget the context. Help the Aged has calculated that there are 1.3 million pensioners with incomes just 10 per cent. above the poverty threshold of 60 per cent. of median income.
I hope that the Minister, while no doubt wanting to claim credit for the work done by the Government in the past nine years, will accept that there is much more to do to tackle pensioner poverty. In that spirit of working harder and doing more in future to fight pensioner poverty, does he agree that moving some pensioners from just below the poverty threshold to just above it is not really what this is about? It may hit a narrow target, but we need to cast our minds towards some depressing statistics about pensioner fuel poverty. Would the Minister like to comment on the fact that the number of people in pensioner households living in fuel poverty—that is, where the household spends more than 10 per cent. of income on fuel to maintain a satisfactory temperature, which is usually defined as 21° C for the main living area and 18° C for other occupied rooms—will have doubled since 2004? Whatever we talk about in terms of improving the outlook for pensioners trying to get out of poverty, those are some fairly damning statistics, which simply are not good enough.
My hon. Friend is making some worthwhile points about retail price inflation, the Rossi measurement and the CPI measurement, and how a particular group such as the elderly may not have their household bills reflected by that. Does he share my concern that council tax has risen at such a tremendous rate that, where council tax benefit has not kept up, it is creating a huge trap for some of the least well-off?
I thank my hon. Friend. His power to anticipate what I am going to say is legendary. He will be happy to know that I am about to turn to council tax benefit, but it may be useful for the record to reconfirm the respect that I had for him in the Standing Committee that considered the Welfare Reform Bill, where he brought together a wealth of excellent real world examples from his constituency of Windsor about the impact that benefit dependency has on his constituents. He was able to throw an interesting sidelight on how Government changes, which are sometimes dry, complicated and boring to many people, affect people at the sharp end, so I am grateful to him, as ever.
The doubling in fuel poverty among pensioners since 2004 is something that the Minister would, I think, like to comment on. In the interests of balance, he can wheel out the statistics about improvements made, but what about the rather unfortunate record on fuel poverty?
Tackling pensioner poverty must continue to be a top priority for any Government: the current Government and, I trust, a future Conservative Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney—who, as I said, has done a fantastic job in raising awareness about social justice and welfare issues in the 12 months since he took up his position. In 2004-05 there were 1.8 million pensioners living in poverty. Let us not forget—this is a critical new point—that there were 1.6 million pensioners not claiming the pension credit to which they were entitled. I do not wish to stray out of order in any way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but one cannot have a sensible discussion about the uprating of these benefits, particularly as they relate to pensioners, without understanding that the other part of the equation is the take-up of the benefits that are the subject of the order. It may interest the House to know that in November 2004 the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said:
“The Government still has a take-up problem on pension credit.”
Although that was over two years ago, nothing has been said or done to suggest that the problem has gone away or otherwise been dealt with.
The new estimates for benefit take-up were announced in October 2006. The figures do not extend beyond 2004-05, but according to the 2006 Department for Work and Pensions reports “Income Related Benefits—Estimates of Take-Up in 2003/2004” and “Pension Credit—Estimates of Take-Up in 2004/2005” the percentage of pensioner couples entitled to just the guaranteed pension credit who received it fell from a range of 61 to 75 per cent. in 2003-04 to a range of 55 to 68 per cent. in 2004-05. In 2003-04, 53 per cent. of pensioners entitled to pension credit but not claiming it were below the poverty line as set by the Government. According to the National Audit Office report “Progress in Tackling Pensioner Poverty: Encouraging Take-Up of Entitlements”, if pension credit take-up were increased by just under a third—30 per cent.—to a level similar to that for housing benefit, about 320,000 pensioners could be lifted out of poverty according to the Government’s own measure of that. Almost a third of a million pensioners would be lifted out of poverty if the take-up of that benefit, which is a subject of this order, were increased.
The order also refers to council tax benefit, which my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) mentioned. There are pensioners who are eligible for council tax benefit but who will not get it; they will not be able to access the upratings under this order, because they are not claiming the benefit. Will the Minister comment not only on the astonishingly low take-up of council tax benefit for pensioners, but on the fact that the rate of take-up is apparently declining? Using the DWP’s tax benefit model tables, since 1997 average council tax has risen by 75 per cent., and over the same period there has been a decrease of about 11 per cent. in the take-up of council tax benefit for pensioners. Currently, only about 56 per cent. of pensioners are claiming this benefit to which they are entitled. In 2003-04, 41 per cent. of pensioners entitled to council tax benefit but not claiming it were below the Government’s own poverty line.
According to the previously mentioned NAO report “Progress in Tackling Pensioner Poverty”, if the council tax benefit take-up rate were improved to about 95 per cent., 160,000 pensioners would be lifted out of poverty, according to the Government’s own poverty measure. Those are significant statistics; they show that if there were better take-up of the last two benefits mentioned—pension credit and council tax benefit—we would get more pensioners out of poverty more quickly than is currently projected.
For owner-occupiers, many of whom are pensioners, the council tax benefit take-up is in the range of 36 to 41 per cent. That proportion has fallen, and the poor level of take-up damages the prospects of pensioners on low incomes. Will the Minister tell us what steps he is taking, and will take, to improve take-up? That is not a party political point; I know that he has been working on this, and that outside groups want him to work on it, and the Opposition have a duty to ask about it. We look forward to hearing his comments.
The story that the statistics tell is ultimately one of a benefit system that is too complex and too bureaucratic. So that the Minister understands that I am being balanced, I repeat that I do not believe for one second that benefit complexity was invented by Ministers some time after 1997. What I am suggesting is that there has been a problem for a long time, and that during the last 10 years, although well-meaning attempts have been made to reduce benefit complexity and bureaucracy—I do not doubt the bona fides of Ministers in that regard—the problem persists. The answers given to the questions that many Members, particularly me, have tabled on underpayment and overpayment in relation to a raft of benefits—not only pension credit, income support and jobseeker’s allowance, which are the big-ticket benefits—reveal that there is still a very high level of inaccuracy, whether in terms of customer error, customer fraud or official error.
This is not a “policy wonk” debate; it is important for a much better reason. Support is not getting to those who need it most: those at the bottom end of the income scale. Of course, that is ultimately what this motion is about—delivering more support and help to those who need it.
The NAO report to which I referred earlier underlines the fact that complexity is part of the problem in delivering support to those who need it. It states:
“Many pensioners and those that advise them”—
let us not forget the lobby groups and support groups that advise pensioners—
“consider the systems and administrative procedures for claiming benefits to be too complex. In all there are 23 potential entitlements for pensioners, with 36 linkages between 16 of them.”
The 17th report of the Social Security Advisory Committee, published in 2004, says that
“complexity characterises the entire benefits system…the size, complexity and dispersion of the benefits system, and the blurring of the boundaries over what should constitute its proper role has led to a pervading sense of a loss of cohesion”.
Bodies do not get much more independent than the Social Security Advisory Committee. Help the Aged tells us the following in its campaign on benefit complexity:
“The (benefits for pensioners) system is so muddled and poorly advertised that even Pension Credit, a widely advertised benefit aimed at some of the poorest older people, is only claimed by just over half of those entitled to it.”
My hon. Friend might like to know that at a recent lunch at the Age Concern office in my constituency, I asked the 20 to 30 elderly people there whether they were taking up their full benefits, and not one of them said that they were. When I asked why, they said that the system was too complicated and involved too much of an intrusion.