House of Commons
Tuesday 6 March 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Broads Authority Bill (By Order)
Order for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Tuesday 13 March.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government plan to introduce a new performance regime to improve the reliability and punctuality of bus services. Our proposals, set out last December, will require both operators and local authorities to account for the performance of local bus services, and will include strengthened penalties where performance fails to improve.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and I welcome the increased powers, which will enable a better service for passengers following what was a disastrous privatisation. How will he ensure, however, that operators and local authorities perform effectively in the delivery of free national bus travel for pensioners?
I can assure my hon. Friend that a great deal of work is under way with local authorities, as the concessionary bodies, and with bus operators to ensure an effective start to the national concessionary bus travel system, which I am sure will be welcomed by many in the House.
The Secretary of State knows that the real way to hold authorities and operators to account is via traffic commissioners. However, in the north-west, for instance, from Liverpool all the way through to Leeds there is one traffic commissioner and two staff. The Government are not funding traffic commissioners. Will they pledge to do so today, so that there can be real accountability?
We are looking at traffic commissioners’ powers in the context of the “Putting Passengers First” document, which we published in December. One other principal inhibitor to their ability to do the job that we would wish has been the lack of effective performance data. Through addressing that issue, we are seeking to strengthen traffic commissioners’ ability to get a grip on these problems.
Owing to low car ownership, most of the constituents in the rural part of my constituency rely on the bus service. However, there is a single dominant operator that decides to make changes to the service as it sees fit, which causes a great deal of distress to my constituents. How will the changes that my right hon. Friend has introduced ensure that my constituents get a reliable service and do not experience the distress that they have suffered so far?
Having declined in the decade after 1986, bus subsidy in England has almost doubled in real terms since 1997-98. The “Putting Passengers First” document that we published in December recognised that, alongside the additional subsidy that has been put into bus services in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, there needs to be a strengthened governance regime, which is why we will introduce proposals in due course.
Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that if local authorities and passenger transport executives are to be accountable for the performance of local bus services, they will require not just extra powers but resources? To that end, will he, as part of his consultation, consider giving some or even all of the money that goes to operators through the fuel duty rebate to local authorities and PTEs?
We obviously keep such matters under review, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in discussions with the PTEs and the passenger transport authorities in the light of the document that we published. However, as I said, the strength of our commitment to subsidising the bus industry has been manifested by the scale of increase in recent years. The challenge is to make sure that that money is used effectively, and we are certainly giving consideration to that.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern at the fact that the leader of Chorley council is claiming that he, not the Government, is introducing free national bus travel? Will my right hon. Friend confirm who is funding and introducing it?
My hon. Friend brings to my attention something that I was not aware of before this Question Time. If the gentleman whom he describes is also willing to stump up the extra £250 million that the Government are putting into a national concessionary travel scheme, I should certainly be very happy to take forward that discussion.
If one looks back at the experience of far too many communities since the deregulation of bus services in 1986, one sees that the somewhat fundamentalist views of competition, which have been more prevalent among Opposition Members than Labour ones, have been defied by experience. We recognise that competitive bus services can be effective, but that is not being manifested in enough communities today. To judge by the bus services that are operating effectively—for example, in communities such as Nottingham, York and Brighton—such a service involves not simply the fresh gusts of competition but an effective partnership with local authorities. We are keen to make sure that the architecture for that partnership is extended across the country.
The renewable transport fuel obligation is due to come into effect in April 2008, providing a significant and secure market for biofuels in the UK. In advance of that, the Government continue to support biofuels mainly through fuel duty incentives. Sales of biofuels doubled between 2005 and 2006, reaching more than 250 million litres.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there has been a reversal in price differential between biodiesel and low sulphur diesel since the renewable transport fuel obligation was announced, and that it will take an increase in production of some 400 per cent. for the industry to meet the targets for 2008? Will he talk to colleagues in the Treasury to ensure both a supply and uptake of biofuels in time to ensure that those obligations can be met in 2008?
I can of course assure my hon. Friend that I talk to colleagues in the Treasury on those matters. As he rightly implies, incentives are a matter for the Chancellor. I am keen to see that the RTFO is a success and that we also support small renewable manufacturers. To that end, we have just published a consultation document that specifically asked some questions to which my hon. Friend might like to contribute some answers, so that we can inform the way in which the RTFO is developed to ensure that it is a success for everybody.
Is the Minister aware that throughout the country there are many micro-companies producing biofuels—or trying to—which are bamboozled by the tax regime that they suffer? Sad to say, they are often treated with a heavy hand by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will he please have a much more focused dialogue with his colleagues in the Treasury to stop them undermining the good work that his Department is doing?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are having good discussions with the Treasury. I do not believe that people are bamboozled by the rules and I am sure that the Revenue will do everything that it can to ensure that people are unbamboozled, if necessary. I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to respond to the consultation document, as it asks some specific questions about how we can best support micro-providers. It is important that we hear first-hand from them what they look to us to do.
As a supporter of the development of sustainable biofuels, I am sure that the Minister will be as aware as I am of the “Dispatches” programme last night, which pointed out that were the RTFO to be a success, the UK could end up importing biofuels in a way that was even more damaging than the polluting fuel base that we have now. Will he take a lead role in co-ordinating some of the major research establishments in the UK, especially those involved in marine research on the possibility of deriving biofuels from micro-algae, so that we can ensure that the UK demand for biofuels is met by UK sustainable supply?
The sustainability of the biomass used to produce renewable fuels is key to the success of the RTFO. If we do not produce the renewable fuels sustainably, there is no point doing it. There will be a reporting mechanism in the RTFO to ensure that biofuel is being derived from sustainable sources. We will also ensure that the RTFO is structured in a way that encourages the production ultimately of second generation biofuels and biofuels produced from other forms of biomass, as my hon. Friend has suggested. I also encourage him, and any contacts that he may have, to respond to the consultation document so that we may build those issues into the RTFO.
A 5 per cent. biofuel mix can, almost by definition, make only a small contribution to combating climate change. A year ago not a single car in the Government fleet had been converted to use an 85 per cent. biofuel blend. How many have been converted since then?
The Government car fleet does not use E85 technology. The hon. Gentleman says that 5 per cent. can make only a small contribution, but that 5 per cent. is over the entire country’s land transport network, and that is the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road. We have also said that we will go beyond 5 per cent. as soon as we can guarantee that it can be done from sustainable sources, because—as I said in answer to the previous question—if we cannot produce the biomass sustainably, there is no point doing it. So we will go as far and as fast as we can, commensurate with it being done sustainably.
Maritime Transport Policy
The European Commission has allowed a year-long consultation period for member states to consider the EU maritime Green Paper. The consultation period ends on 30 June 2007.
The UK public consultation exercise closed on 28 February. We are analysing the responses, alongside contributions made at the national stakeholder conference on 12 October 2006. Both sets of comments will inform the Government’s response to the Commission.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The Department’s letter of 11 December was sent to 96 public organisations, but for some reason not to any of the relevant Select Committees of this House. The European Scrutiny Committee has called for a debate on this matter to be held this month, but should not the Government between now and June ask the Select Committees to look at that policy document, which covers transport, the environment, and trade and industry? The European Scrutiny Committee deserves commendation, rather than condemnation, for our scrutiny of European business.
The appropriate process is for the Government to notify the European Scrutiny Committee that there is European legislation to be looked at, and the Committee then advises us on how that should be done. As my hon. Friend says, the Committee has arranged for the document to be debated in Standing Committee in a few weeks. I hear what he says, and I welcome contributions from other Select Committees and hon. Members about the development of our proposals. However, it is not for me to tell the Select Committees covering transport or the environment what they should be considering. I suspect that their Chairs might look askance at any interference by me with their autonomy.
The document contains proposals for a feasibility study for a European coastguard, talks about a common maritime space—a first step towards European territorial waters—and even goes back to the idea of a European register, which would be the first nail in the coffin of the red ensign. Does the Minister not regret that he welcomed last year’s Green Paper on preparing for future mobility, as to a large extent it paved the way for the current document? Is he really standing up for our interests in Europe?
It is a bit rich for a representative of the party that left the red ensign almost non-existent to come to the Dispatch Box and criticise this Government, who have been responsible for that flag’s resurgence. The red ensign now flies over a very significant fleet. Shipping is this country’s third biggest export earner, but it disappeared almost entirely under the Conservatives.
The Government support some of the Green Paper’s recommendations, but not others. We do not support the EU coastguard idea and we need to know what the term “maritime space” means, as it is not well defined. We need to engage properly in the discussions and stand up for British interests, but this Government have rebuilt the red ensign and will take no lectures from the Conservatives about how we should do that.
Belford Rail Station
I currently have no plans to visit Belford. It is up to the relevant regional and local authorities to develop a business case with Network Rail for proposals of this nature. I am not aware that any detailed proposals have been put forward to reopen the station at Belford.
But they have been, twice. If the Minister tried to come to Belford, he would not be able to get off the train. It stops there twice a day, but the building of a platform has been obstructed by bureaucracy. One element of that is that Network Rail has refused to submit the safety case to the Health and Safety Executive. The Minister is relatively new, but cannot he knock some heads together and secure some progress so that Belford people can start raising money—as they have done before—to get the platform built? When that happens, they can leave the car and take the train.
I am always eager to knock heads together, but local stakeholders must put a business case together and raise the money that is needed. They do not need my permission to do that. The first Northumberland local transport plan included reopening Belford station, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that that proposal is missing from the current LTP.
If the Minister does get off his backside and look at Belford, will he pop into Blyth Valley to see the rail link from Blyth to the Tyne and Wear metro system? That link has been disused for a long time, but we are trying to open it up again.
The Government's proposals for a modernised framework for improving bus services have been widely welcomed by bus operators, passengers and local authorities alike. We are working closely with stakeholders to take forward our proposals, in preparation for a draft road transport Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. If we are to persuade people in Greater Manchester and Stockport to make better use of public transport, we need to improve bus services. Will she confirm that in the forthcoming review of the bus service operating grants she will look at ways of tying that grant more into improved bus performance, including better reliability?
I am glad that my hon. Friend, who is a longstanding champion of better bus services for local people, welcomes the Government improvements to bus services. I can indeed confirm that we are talking to key stakeholders about how we can better focus bus subsidy money, which has just about doubled in England since 1997, so that we can see improvements in performance as well as in the environment.
Local authorities such as Salisbury district council are keen to put passengers first, but the present regime militates against that. The council does not have sufficient money to subsidise deserving routes on behalf of scattered rural communities and at the same time pay for the free transport by bus service that has been ordained by central Government. It simply does not add up. Will the Minister please make sure that the Treasury understands that, if it is sincere about putting passengers first, it has to put its money where its mouth is?
Over the past 10 years we have indeed been putting our money where our mouth is: some £2.5 billion of revenue funding goes to support the bus industry through a wide variety of measures. As for the quality of local bus services, “Putting Passengers First” will enable it to get better. In the meantime, it is down to bus operators and local authorities to work closely together.
As my hon. Friend moves towards 2008 and offers a free bus service throughout England for people who are retired, will she have discussions with those in Wales and Scotland to ensure a transport service that allows free travel throughout the United Kingdom?
What extra help will the Minister be giving to areas such as Kettering borough, which will see the number of houses increase by a third in the next 14 years? What extra help can the Minister provide to increase bus services in areas such as Kettering?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the provisions in “Putting Passengers First”, which give local authorities a far greater say and a greater ability to work closely with local operators to get the right schemes. We are looking for local solutions to local needs. Of course, innovative funding such as the transport innovation fund is also available for congestion-beating plans.
May I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, echoing my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), that the relationship at the moment is wrong? The power is with the monopoly supplier, certainly in my county of Durham, and more power needs to be given to the local authorities. What is happening in Durham is an absolute disgrace. Go North East, formerly Go-Ahead Northern, is stripping out routes and concentrating on the profitable routes in anticipation of powers coming forward.
I understand that the situation that my hon. Friend describes is the case in certain places up and down the country. That is why we have talked to all the key people involved and we have received such a good response from all the main stakeholders, who are keen to put passengers first and achieve the right bus services. I emphasise that in the meantime, before the legislation comes in, I am aware that already bus operators, local communities and local authorities are coming together to serve people better.
As with all franchising competitions, employees are protected under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981.
The re-franchising process creates uncertainty for railway employees and, indeed, for the travelling public, who have been used to a high quality service from Great North Eastern Railway on the east coast main line and do not know what the future will hold. Will my hon. Friend do everything he can to bring the uncertainty to an end as quickly as possible? Is he able to tell us when the end will be and the new franchisee will be announced?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his persistent campaigning on behalf of GNER employees in his constituency. I know that he takes a great interest in the matter. I can reassure him about the time scale; the Department for Transport expects to announce the winning bidder this summer, with the franchisee taking over before the end of the year.
The Minister knows how important the upgrade of the east coast main line is to the regeneration of urban centres in the east of England, whether in York or my area—Peterborough. Will he update the House on the meeting about the east coast main line upgrade held yesterday between his officials and Network Rail and tell us whether any progress has been made on that important issue?
One way in which employees of any of the railway franchises could be protected would be to establish one franchise that was not owned by a company and could be used as a benchmark against which all other efforts could be judged. Will the Minister seriously consider whether that can be done, as at present taxpayers have no guarantee that what they are being offered by a muddled franchise system is good value or even workable?
I listen closely when my hon. Friend speaks on these matters, since she knows a great deal about the rail industry. However, the European Foundation for Quality Management system, which is used to assess all franchise bids, is a robust measure and I am absolutely confident that continuing to use it will ensure that we obtain the best possible deal for the taxpayer in terms both of value for money and, particularly, of reliability.
I am happy to repeat what I told the hon. Gentleman when we discussed the matter at the Dispatch Box in December. The Department for Transport does not specify levels of premium from bidders for new franchises; it is entirely up to the franchisee or potential bidders to decide how much of a premium they may want to pay.
The Minister did not answer my question. I asked him about the Department’s budgeting. Several of the other new franchises have budgeted on the basis that there will be a shift from subsidy in the current franchise period to a quite substantial premium to the Government in the next franchise period. Has the Minister made contingency plans for the reduction in revenue that could result from both the situation at GNER and similar situations arising for some of the other franchises that may have over-bid?
Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman should understand that I have no intention of trying to speculate about the levels of premium or subsidy that future bidders may propose. The price of any new franchise is an important consideration, as it should be—we have a responsibility to the taxpayer to get the best deal we can—but deliverability, not price, remains our primary consideration.
On behalf of my constituents who are employed by GNER, I thank the Minister for that response. Will similar consideration be given to workers throughout the transport industry, such as those currently facing an uncertain future with British Airways?
As the Minister is aware, York is an important railway town and GNER has brought huge numbers of jobs to the city and surrounding villages in the Vale of York and elsewhere; but the collapse in the franchise arrangements, as other Members have pointed out, has huge ramifications for the whole franchising process. Is there no end to the taxpayer’s largesse? Will other companies be bailed out if their franchise arrangements fail?
I think that, with respect, the hon. Lady is getting the wrong end of the stick. The franchise was taken away from GNER specifically because we refused to renegotiate it, which was exactly the right decision for the Government to take. If we sent out a message that these franchises could be renegotiated, it would simply encourage any bidders to bid well above what they could afford, knowing that the Government would then come in and bail them out. The Government have not renegotiated this contract: we took away the franchise because GNER was unable to meet its franchise commitments.
The industry-standard public performance measure, or PPM, is a measure of performance of train operating companies rather than individual services. The current PPM of the train operating company “one” expressed as a moving annual average is 87.1 per cent., which represents an improvement of 0.6 per cent. in the last year.
Passengers using Manningtree have suffered unreliable and overcrowded trains for the last three years. Insult was added to injury with the recent hefty increases in both fares and car parking charges. Does the Minister believe that adding £100 a month to the cost of commuting from Suffolk to London on a sub-standard service is a good way to encourage people to use the train?
I am aware of some of the performance issues that “one” has suffered in recent months. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that with car parking at Manningtree being oversubscribed, “one” is currently working on proposals to deck over the car park and make it a double-deck one. As far as rail fares are concerned, increases in regulated fares are restricted to inflation plus 1 per cent., while with non-regulated fares, it is up to the train operating companies to decide by how much they need to go up. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that more fares should be regulated, he will also have to suggest where that money is going to come from. If it is not to come from the rail payer, the only other source is the taxpayer.
My constituents also use this line and they were shocked by the death at Swainsthorpe last Thursday—the third death there in 16 months. I have written to the Secretary of State about that. Will the Minister tell us whether there will be a full review of automatic half-barrier crossings, which are thought to be a risk factor in the accidents that have occurred?
Local Transport Funding
As part of the local transport plan process, which includes assessment by the Department, funding for smaller schemes is generally decided by local authorities, which receive block grant funding to enable them to identify and fund local priorities. For larger schemes, decisions are made on the advice from the particular region and met by either regional funding allocation or, potentially, the transport innovation fund.
As the Minister knows, Reading is one of the local authorities currently piloting road charging. Can she confirm press reports that the Department for Transport will fund local transport schemes only for those authorities that actively pursue road pricing? Has that been the case in Reading, and will it be the case in future for other local authorities?
Virtually all the discretionary expenditure for local transport plans is within the transport innovation fund. I understand from talking to leaders of local authorities in Greater Manchester that the Secretary of State has made it quite clear that, to access those funds, the people of Greater Manchester will have to pay a special and extra tax for using the roads. That unpleasant news has been communicated well, but the other side of the package has not been so well communicated. Will the Minister clarify whether, if that tax were to be imposed on people in Manchester, the Government would guarantee to fund the full metrolink extension and give back control of local buses and trains to local authorities?
That is quite a shopping list and I would expect no less from my hon. Friend. I refer him to the guidance that is issued in respect of the transport innovation fund. I can confirm to the House that the fund is available for innovative solutions to tackling congestion. It is not the case that the Secretary of State is imposing solutions to local problems; the Secretary of State has set out a requirement that local solutions are found to meet local needs. That is the right way forward.
The dualling programme for the section of the A30 in mid-Cornwall is nearing completion. However, further east, from Temple to Higher Carblake, there is a section of single-carriageway road on which we might see further delays, particularly in peak summer months. The regional assembly has dumped that from the programme, although it has been in there for many years. Local people will be lobbying at the regional level, but will the Minister consent to meet some of my constituents so that they can press upon her the problems with that piece of road?
Now for the good news. Does my hon. Friend agree that, with infrastructure improvements, come jobs? There is no better example than the 10-year campaign that I have waged for junction 29A, which will lead straight into Markham pit yard, in order to provide up to 8,000 jobs. It will transform the unemployment situation in the whole of north Derbyshire, affecting six constituencies. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on providing me with a £14.5 million cheque. The diggers have started and the job is now moving towards completion.
Does the Minister accept that some local authorities—I refer to Cheshire and Macclesfield in particular—are somewhat concerned that the funding of local projects is not as transparent as the Government may seek to make out? There appears to be prejudice and, I am sorry to say this, because I am not generally very political—[Interruption.] There is prejudice against Conservative authorities. Will the Minister indicate whether there are any grounds for my concern, which is widely shared in both the borough of Macclesfield and the county of Cheshire?
This is an operational matter for Network Rail, which advises that there are more than 4,000 sets of similar points on the national network. The Office of Rail Regulation, as safety regulator for the railway, is satisfied with the actions taken by Network Rail, following the derailment, to ensure that the railway is safe to operate. In particular, the ORR supports Network Rail’s precautionary visual sample inspection of similar points across the network.
Trains are running across the network, so there is no design flaw in the points themselves, but I was reflecting on the signalling. At the Carlisle control centre the signal was at green. Why did that happen? Is any work being done to make sure that signalling systems are more sensitive to the condition of the track?
In light of the Grayrigg derailment, and the apparent similarities between that and the Potters Bar derailment, is there not a need for more than a precautionary inspection of 900 points? Is there not a need for a thorough inspection of the maintenance system and the inspection system for points, and indeed of the whole safety culture surrounding the points, so as to avoid this type of derailment?
The hon. Gentleman is getting rather ahead of himself. First, we have to take forward the continuing work of the rail accident investigation branch in clarifying exactly what happened at Grayrigg and the reasons for that particular tragedy. I understand that that will take some months. I am sure that we should allow the rail accident investigation branch the opportunity to do that work. In addition, however, it obviously continues to be an option for the ORR, the safety regulator, to set down conditions for Network Rail. My understanding is that, post the tragedy at Grayrigg, the ORR is satisfied with the steps that Network Rail has taken.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will confirm that the west coast main line will open again on 12 March.
Following the Potters Bar derailment, when there was a failure involving the points, the Rail Safety and Standards Board made 16 recommendations specifically on rail maintenance. Have those recommendations been implemented?
West Coast Main Line
Expenditure on the west coast main line upgrade to date is £7.225 billion out of a total expected cost of £8.125 billion.
I appreciate that a huge amount has been spent on upgrading the west coast main line. However, following the recent derailment, our thoughts are with the family of the bereaved and the survivors. I appreciate that the investigation is continuing, but if it becomes clear that further resources need to be invested in health and safety, does my hon. Friend agree that that funding must be provided?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made clear the Government’s willingness to act in light of recommendations received from the rail accident investigation branch. My hon. Friend will also know that investment is running at a historical high, with £88 million being invested in the railway network every week by the Government.
The Minister of State was asked—
All authorised businesses will be required to comply with the regulatory rules by 6 April 2007. The regulatory regime will come fully into force in late April 2007, when we plan to commence the statutory prohibition on providing regulated claims management services without authorisation.
Two claims handlers are responding to my constituents’ consumer complaints by sending them threatening solicitors’ letters. What will be the process through which my constituents can object to the inclusion of those claims handlers on the official register?
When the regulator assesses applications, he will be able to take into account the views of anyone who has concerns about a particular claims handler. Comprehensive and detailed questions will be asked of all people who apply for authorisation. I recommend that my hon. Friend and his constituents make the regulator aware of the concerns that he has raised on several occasions.
The answer that the Minister has just given will be of some relief to people who have been approached by these claims handlers, who have not merely handled their claims inadequately and charged them money when they should not have done, but transferred their claims by selling them on, often to poorly qualified solicitors who have done an extraordinarily poor job of handling claims for mining injuries. I hope that this process will be able to put that matter to bed. Does the Minister share my hope?
I certainly do share my hon. Friend’s hope. There have been recent incidents of claims handlers touting for business with a variety of people, including physiotherapists, and we are ensuring that we get the message across that claims handlers should be very careful before acting in such a way. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will ensure that their constituents are aware that the Compensation Act 2006 will be coming into force in a month. I should also say that people will get their claims dealt with more quickly and successfully if they proceed with them themselves, rather than by going through a middle agent.
What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the regulator about the inclusion on the register of organisations such as the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and the Durham area National Union of Mineworkers? They are acting wholly as claims handlers and are still, in some cases, refusing to identify who has had money deducted and to repay that money. Will she speak to the regulator as a matter of urgency and ensure that he looks into those organisations in detail?
I am aware that the organisations to which my hon. Friend refers have both applied for authorisation, but although I can confirm that, I obviously cannot give any information on the progress of the applications that the regulator is assessing. However, if they were authorised, they would have to be listed in the same way as other organisations, and they would have to comply with all the regulations set down in the Act.
Advice Services (London)
From October 2007, the Legal Services Commission will pay advice services in London fixed fees for various types of standard social welfare work, with payment by the hour retained only for exceptional cases. That approach will help to ensure the optimal delivery of effective advice to clients in greatest need.
May I raise just one of the concerns of Barnet law service in my constituency? It works as a second-tier advice agency, primarily on cases that need specialist caseworking and representation referred to it by bodies such as citizens advice bureaux. For that reason, it does not have smaller and easier cases to balance against the more complicated ones. How will it fare under the Minister’s cuts? Surely it is a higher spending priority than judges’ lodgings, on which her Department wastes £5 million a year.
As it happens, I have the figures for Barnet law service in front of me. It is the only not-for-profit provider in my hon. Friend’s constituency that the Legal Services Commission pays. The figures show clearly that if the fixed fee scheme had come into play last year, Barnet law service would have made 8.4 per cent. more money, with its current case load. Of course, we want to encourage efficient suppliers such as Barnet law service, so we are open to suggestions that such suppliers might start doing more work.
When the Lord Chancellor was asked about the subject in the public evidence session held by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, he said that he thought that any reduction in the number of suppliers of legal advice in London, which is relatively well provided for in that respect, might be compensated for by an increase in supply in areas where there is a shortage of providers of legal advice, such as the north-east. Does the Minister share his confidence that that will happen?
I do; there is a considerable over-supply of some, but not all, kinds of legal advice in London, and it is rational that the cash now going into that over-supply should be moved to areas where there is under-supply, and where we have been criticised for allowing advice deserts to continue. Certainly, that is the drive, and the economics suggest that that is what will happen.
One of the many concerns expressed by legal and advice agencies in my constituency relates to the abolition of the level 1, or very basic, advice service. How many Londoners who had access to level 1 advice last year will in future be turned away from that simple signposting, and what does the Minister expect will happen to them?
I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact numbers now, but I will write to her, if she will find that information of assistance. Level 1 is general advice, which is gate-keeping and triaging advice. It is not legal advice, and the Legal Services Commission pays only for legal advice. Our target and our achievements in that direction, which are increasing, are to merge our funding with that from local authorities, so that the local authorities’ funding can be used for simpler, straightforward advice, while our resources are reserved for organisations such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) talked about.
Is the Minister aware that a recent survey revealed that 95 per cent. of civil legal aid practitioners believe that the changes will make their work non-viable? That puts a huge amount of extra pressure on community law firms and advice centres in London that may well be unable to cope. Shelter, Mind and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children all predict that the legal aid system will soon reach breaking point. Whom should the public trust: world-class charities that help the vulnerable day in and day out, or Ministers?
Interestingly, I had e-mail correspondence with the chief executive of Shelter, who is confidently moving his team of legal advisers into that future framework of supply. I do not doubt that in past months there has been a great deal of anxiety and concern about the size of the change necessary to take on the challenges of that Carter-type proposal, but people have grasped the fact that it is profitable to make those transitions, which will enable them to deliver a good service. I am holding meetings practically daily with suppliers, who are coming round to the notion that they should look to the future. It is time the Tory spokesmen did the same.
“Legal Aid Reform: the Way Ahead”, published on 28 November 2006, set out our plans for reforming the procurement of legal aid services by moving towards a market-based system. The first phase of the reforms will come into effect next month. More will follow in October and afterwards, subject to the outcome of current consultations on some of the detail.
Solicitors practising in the unglamorous, indifferently paid world of legal aid criminal defence generally do so because they care about giving disadvantaged people access to justice, which is surely a cornerstone of any decent society. Does the Minister think that turning legal aid procurement into a single-buyer market with fixed fees and competitive tendering risks forcing many law firms out of such work, creating legal aid deserts in parts of the country, thus denying vulnerable clients, often with mental health or social problems, any hope of effective representation?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend regards legal aid criminal work as unglamorous; I will try harder. I have spent my life in such practice, and I can assure him that it is very satisfying and rewarding, even though we cannot rise to the levels of pulchritude that he expects. The hallmark of a decent society is good legal advice and representation for the community. That is far more important than particular lawyers’ practices. The proposals will improve a legal aid system that is already the best in the world. Fixed fees for standard cases will ensure that the best, most efficient quality-controlled firms bid to undertake more and more cases. They will provide top-quality advice to more and more people, thus ensuring that high standards are spread more effectively and are available to my hon. Friend’s constituents.
Constituents at my advice surgeries consistently tell me that there is little or no legal aid provision in Wellingborough and the surrounding area. Have the Government carried out a countrywide assessment to determine where legal aid is, and is not, available?
Yes. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives the details of what we resource in Wellingborough. I accept that about two years ago, there were significant gaps in provision, particularly of social welfare law services across the country, but since then we have paid 20 per cent. more into those services to try to fill the gap, and we have advised 30 per cent. more people. In fact, we are on an upward trajectory, but I would be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman if he has specific constituency concerns.
When I met Wrexham legal aid practitioners last Friday, criminal legal aid practitioners were concerned about the rates under the new fixed fees. In particular, there appears to be a disparity between payment in the Wrexham area and in other areas, so can my hon. and learned Friend help by explaining the basis on which those calculations are made? Is it historical or geographical? Can she give us a little more information?
Yes, I can. The fixed fees proposed for the new police station duty rota areas, which will apply to my hon. Friend’s criminal suppliers, are the average fees claimed over the preceding year in those police stations. The purpose of going down to the local level and consulting on each duty rota area is to try to thrash out any problems. For instance, if we have got things slightly wrong in cross-border areas, we need local knowledge to straighten that out.
The concern that we have on the Back Benches is that the number of specialist contracts that the Government have issued has declined considerably in the past few years. If my hon. and learned Friend looks at the answer she gave me on 6 February, she will see that in areas such as family law they have gone down from 4,200 to 2,800, so how can she possibly say that a decline in the number of specialist contracts will result in better access to services for our constituents?
By analogy, when we introduced contracting, the total number of legal aid suppliers declined from around 6,000 to around 3,000, but service quality and coverage of supply increased. Those contract numbers have gone down. Let me repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), though: over the same period, the amount of money that we have put into family and civil legal aid has gone up by 20 per cent., and we are serving 30 per cent. more people. That means that we have rightly kept in play the suppliers who do the job well and do it efficiently.
We are introducing a range of new measures at the May 2007 local elections that are designed to strengthen the security of postal voting. They will build on the measures successfully introduced in May 2006, including the introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters, which will help to ensure that postal voting is both safe and secure.
The Minister knows that I am not a big fan of head of household registration. Does she agree that postal voting for all can lead to head of household voting? There is a concern, especially among certain minority communities, that people are coerced into voting for particular candidates through hierarchical pressures. Will she consider restricting access to postal votes, to make sure that all votes are cast fairly and freely?
The identifiers introduced in the postal voting system this year will show that everyone can vote as they wish. I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the way postal votes are handled in a household. I notice that in the 2005 general election, which he won with a majority of 422, 9,392 postal votes were returned. I wonder how many of those he considers were handled purely by the head of household.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that although the verifiers of signature and date of birth are probably about right as guarantees, there is a concern that many people who genuinely need a postal vote may not fill in the forms that have been provided because it is another form and they do not like bureaucracy, or they simply do not get round to it? Will she therefore commend the electoral registration officer in Sheffield, who has not merely sent out one form, but has sent a second form as a reminder to those who have not returned the first one? Will she encourage all registration officers to do that, and even to go beyond that and send out a third and fourth form, if necessary, to ensure that people who need a postal vote do not lose out?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. It is good to see that electoral registration officers are being proactive in encouraging people not just to register—the register has gone up this year by some 500,000 or thereabouts—but to take part in postal voting, particularly where people were used to being on the postal vote register in the past. We have had to start with a clean new register and I hope other electoral returning officers will follow Sheffield’s example.
Given that a staggering one in seven postal votes in last year’s local elections in Tower Hamlets may have been fraudulent, does the Minister support Sir Alistair Graham’s call for the Government to abandon next May’s internet and telephone voting trials? Are not Ministers ignoring one hard truth: once ballot papers are allowed to leave polling stations, the opportunities for fraud multiply and the secrecy of the ballot is compromised? Is it any wonder that the Council of Europe, better known for investigating elections in Belarus and Albania, is threatening to send monitors to the UK?
The hon. Gentleman is usually such a charming man. I can see that he was having difficulty trying to manufacture anger in his question. May I say two things to him? No, I do not agree with Sir Alistair Graham that we should stop doing pilots. The whole point of piloting is to ensure that we get the system right. Secondly, I am disappointed that the Council of Europe motion, concocted mostly by some of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, took no account of the action that we had already taken and the strengthening of the security of postal voting that is in place.
Community Courts (Nottingham)
Community court sittings dealing with cases from the Aspley and St. Ann’s areas of Nottingham will commence within a community building when the right building is found.
I welcome again the Government’s community court initiative on reuniting communities and the justice system that is meant to serve them. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet senior judiciary to clarify a couple of matters: first, communities’ involvement in the possible appointment of judges in community courts; and secondly, relaxation of the very stringent accommodation criteria that are necessary for magistrates courts so that they can be located in the neighbourhoods that they are intended to serve?
I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing commitment to ensuring that there is effective community justice in his area of Nottingham. It is absolutely right that everybody involved in the justice system has to do things slightly differently if that connection between the community and their local court is to be re-established. That means looking again at the criteria for the kinds of buildings that could be used as courts, and it raises the question of how the local judiciary could be chosen. One of the strongest points in favour of the Liverpool community justice centre was that community representatives from local tenants associations had the opportunity to be part of choosing the judge, David Fletcher, whom they now regard as their judge for their local community.
The average time from the date of death to the conclusion of the inquest is estimated to be 23 weeks. That is based on the information returned by coroners for 2005. Information about the duration of inquest hearings is not recorded separately.
That is a bit of a shame, because it often takes a very long time for an inquest to be heard. Families who are grieving and want closure on the situation that they have had to face find that very difficult. In places where there are logjams, such as Oxfordshire, would not it make more sense if some cases were not dealt with by the Oxfordshire coroner just because they have come through Brize Norton, but went through the individual areas where people come from?
When I said that information is not centrally recorded, I was talking about the duration of each inquest—how long each one takes to hear. We do keep information about the average time that it takes from the death to get to the hearing.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about needing greater flexibility so that various coroners can help other coroners who have built up a backlog of inquests. That is particularly so in the context of inquests into armed forces deaths that are encountering delays in Oxfordshire. We are trying to sort out the situation as best we can within the current legal framework, which is very rigid and archaic. The coroners reform in our forthcoming Bill will make that much easier to do.
Will the Minister give an undertaking that in future there will not have to be a nearly 10-year delay for an inquest as important as that into the death of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and delays of years for people killed in the service of their country, costing a fortune, as she knows? Can we have a guarantee that there will be a limit to the time that it takes for an inquest to be opened and the answers given?
One problem is that each coroner’s jurisdiction is entirely self-contained. There are no central performance standards, there is no central monitoring, and there is no chief coroner to provide leadership such as the Lord Chief Justice provides to judges. As a result, while some areas are conducting inquests very promptly, in others there are delays that nobody in this House would regard as acceptable. We will be able to deal with that when we have our legislation on coroners. However, we are not simply waiting until that happens—we are trying to ensure that we get a much better picture of where the delays are and that we work with our colleagues in local government to ensure that there are no such delays. I think that the inquest into the death of Princess Diana was unprecedented; certainly, the length of time taken has been exceptional.
Retail Packaging Recycling
Andrew Stunell, supported by Chris Huhne, Martin Horwood, David Howarth, Norman Baker, Tom Brake and Mr. Dan Rogerson, presented a Bill to require that certain retailers shall provide free of charge a collection point for any packaging materials sold or supplied by them; and to require them to recycle or safely dispose of such materials: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed. [Bill 71].
Private Parking (Regulation) Bill
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision about penalties relating to parking on private land; to make provision about compliance with notices concerning parking for disabled people on private land; and for connected purposes.
I want to make it clear from the outset that people who provide private parking spaces on their land should be able to protect them. Many businesses are affected by people who park vehicles on their land and create problems. Pubs, shops and businesses in town centres want to ensure that their customers can park, and we need to make sure that they have the right to do that. It is important for businesses to protect their parking spaces for their customers and employees.
Many organisations use private security companies to enforce parking regulations on their land. The Private Security Industry Act 2001 provides for the regulation of such matters. It also provides for the security industry authority to license organisations that undertake immobilising and clamping activity in private car parks.
In addition to holding a valid security industry authority licence, vehicle immobilisers must observe specific requirements. First, a vehicle must not be clamped, blocked or towed if it displays a valid disabled badge or if it is a marked as an emergency services vehicle that is in use as such. Secondly, any licence holder who collects a release fee must provide a receipt, which must include: the location of the clamping or towing; the name and signature of the person who clamped the vehicle; the licence number of the organisation that carried out the clamping, and the date on which it happened. The immobiliser must wear a licence. Those who work without a licence commit a criminal offence, which is punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £5,000, six months’ imprisonment or both.
The problem is that there is no clarity about the sort of signage that private clamping companies have to provide on sites before clamping is undertaken. There is no standard process. The fees are also a problem. The legislation simply states that fees should be “reasonable”. That causes several difficulties.
The BBC in the midlands has recently undertaken some work in Birmingham to examine the operation of private clamping in the city. It got a woman driver to park a vehicle on a privately owned space and leave the scene. Almost immediately, the clampers from a private company emerged and began to tow away the vehicle. The woman returned to be told that she had to pay hundreds of pounds in cash to the company to release the vehicle and that she would be escorted to a cash machine to make the payment. When she said that she could not pay, she was left to make her own way home alone late at night. The company’s behaviour was clearly unacceptable. However, people will pay almost anything to get their car released.
My constituent, Paul Watling from Telford, was also caught out on an area of land in Birmingham. He fully acknowledged that he was parking in a private space. However, the signage on the site was poor and he had to pay £350 to get his car released from clamping. He was virtually frogmarched to the cash machine by some fairly aggressive and intimidating clamping agents.
The Bill proposes that clamping companies must inform the local authority in their area of activity of the scope, style and location of signs to be used on private land. I am trying to drive towards some standardisation of the signage in local authority areas. The Bill also proposes giving the local authority the power to set a range in which penalty fees should be set. Clearly, that may vary between different towns and cities, depending on the market and the scarcity of parking spaces. I believe that the decision should be made locally by the local authority. However, we should consider setting a maximum amount for such fees—£350 in cash is extortionate.
The second element of the Bill concerns the provision of disabled parking spaces on private land. The Department for Transport provides advice on the provision of spaces for disabled drivers. The Disability Discrimination Act requires service providers to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled people can enjoy services. Department for Transport leaflet 5/95 suggests:
“For car parks associated with shopping areas, leisure or recreational facilities, and places open to the general public: A minimum of one space for each employee who is a disabled motorist, plus 6 per cent. of the total capacity for visiting disabled motorists. The numbers of designated spaces may need to be greater at hotels and sports stadia that specialise in accommodating groups of disabled people.”
Most disabled persons’ parking bays in off-street car parks, such as supermarket car parks, are not covered by blue badge scheme regulations. Such car parks and parking bays are likely to be privately owned and managed by the individual business: the agreement, and any cost to use them, will be between the owner and the motorist or customer.
If a disabled motorist or passenger complains to, for example, a supermarket that a non-disabled motorist has parked in a disabled bay, an employee of the store can ask the driver to move their car but cannot legally insist on it. In some instances, the owners of private car parks are reluctant to take action against people, because they think that it is bad for business. In my view, not providing bays for people with disabilities and mobility problems is bad for business. One of the problems is that spaces tend to be close to the store and people feel that they can park briefly in one of those spaces when they use a cash machine or pick up friends or family who have been shopping. Such behaviour is not acceptable.
A number of surveys have been conducted on the use and abuse of disabled parking bays in recent years. In 2005, a survey carried out by Baywatch found that one in five bays were being abused on supermarket sites. The Bill would require all owners of private car parks with disabled parking bays to have a clear written strategy on enforcement, which is available to the public on request. It would also require owners to submit an annual report on their enforcement activity to the local authority and the Disability Rights Commission or its successor bodies.
I have considered proposals to extend the blue badge scheme on to private land and, for example, supermarket car parks. My main concern about an extension of that scheme is that many authorities already find it difficult to enforce the provision on public car parks. The Bill does not therefore include such proposals. Supermarkets and other car park owners who provide disabled places are, however, drinking in the last chance saloon: they need to act more effectively, or we will have to bring in more draconian legislation.
In closing, may I thank Douglas Campbell, chairman of Mobilise, and John Pring of Disability Now for their help on this issue? I also thank the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), whose support for the Bill has been especially helpful. I am conscious that the House is fairly full this afternoon. To ensure that the next speaker can make his points, perhaps Members will leave the Chamber quietly once they have listened to the presentation of my Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by David Wright, John Mann, Mr. Iain Wright, Mr. Dai Havard, Chris Mole, Mike Penning, Philip Davies, Mr. Robert Flello, Martin Salter, Helen Jones and Ann Coffey.
Private Parking (regulation)
David Wright accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision about penalties relating to parking on private land; to make provision about compliance with notices concerning parking for disabled people on private land; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed [Bill 72].
I have a statement to make relating to the main business.
In the debate on House of Lords reform, I have selected amendment (c) to the motion on hereditary places.
For the benefit of the House, I will set out the procedure to be followed at the end of the debate tomorrow. Under the Order of the House of 27 February, at 5.30 pm tomorrow I shall put the Question on the first motion, on retention of a bicameral Parliament. Thereafter, the Questions will be put successively on each of the remaining motions until the last. On that motion, on hereditary places, as I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, I shall put the Question on that amendment first. I shall then put the Question on the main Question in the usual way.
I also inform the House that I have decided to apply a 10-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches on both days of the debate. When the opening speeches have been made, in the exceptional circumstances of this debate I am prepared to give an indication to those wishing to speak of whether they will be called today or tomorrow. I do not expect any Member to approach the Chair before the opening speeches have concluded: Members will have to listen to all three. [Interruption.] I must always give Members fair warning when it comes to these matters.
House of Lords Reform
I beg to move,
That this House supports the principle of a bicameral Parliament.
With this we may take the following motions: Options for Reform of Composition: No.1—
That this House is of the opinion that a reformed House of Lords should be fully appointed.
Options for Reform of Composition: No.2—
That this House is of the opinion that a reformed House of Lords should be composed of 20 per cent. elected members and 80 per cent. appointed members.
Options for Reform of Composition: No.3—
That this House is of the opinion that a reformed House of Lords should be composed of 40 per cent. elected members and 60 per cent. appointed members.
Options for Reform of Composition: No.4—
That this House is of the opinion that a reformed House of Lords should be composed of 50 per cent. elected members and 50 per cent. appointed members.
Options for Reform of Composition: No.5—
That this House is of the opinion that a reformed House of Lords should be composed of 60 per cent. elected members and 40 per cent. appointed members.
Options for Reform of Composition: No.6—
That this House is of the opinion that a reformed House of Lords should be composed of 80 per cent. elected members and 20 per cent. appointed members.
Options for Reform of Composition: No.7—
That this House is of the opinion that a reformed House of Lords should be fully elected.
That this House is of the opinion that the remaining retained places for peers whose membership is based on the hereditary principle should be removed.
Amendment (c) thereto: in line 2, at end add
‘once elected members have taken their places in a reformed House of Lords.’’
It is 98 years sincere a wholly hereditary House of Lords plunged the nation into one of its worst ever constitutional crises as it vetoed the right of a democratically elected Government to set a Budget. It took two general elections in a single year and the Parliament Act 1911 to resolve the crisis.
In 1999 the House of Lords underwent the most significant reform since the 1911 Act, with the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers and the establishment of a second Chamber in which no single party should command an overall majority. Those changes have produced a more independent and active House of Lords. It has been a major advance, but as a reform it is far from complete.
Those who believe that the United Kingdom should have a unicameral Parliament will have the opportunity to express that view in the votes tomorrow night. It is not a view that I support. Strong government must be balanced by a strong Parliament, and that means, among many other things, an effective, revising second Chamber, subordinate to but complementary to the House of Commons.
Almost all countries the size of ours or larger have bicameral Parliaments, because of the weight and complexity of the business before them. This House already sits for longer and for more days than most comparable legislatures. If it were serious about doing the work of two Houses combined, it would mean—besides many other things—much shorter recesses, no light Thursdays and many fewer constituency Fridays. I suggest to Members on both sides of the House that that is a sure-fire recipe for detaching Members of Parliament from their voters.
My preference, and that of the main Opposition parties, is for a reformed House of Lords containing a substantial proportion of elected Members alongside appointed Members with special expertise and experience. I believe that by such means we can create a more representative, effective and legitimate second Chamber without challenging the primacy of this House.
Despite the 1999 reforms and other changes to the House of Lords since 1911, such as the introduction of women Members and life peers, this House has so far found it impossible to reach a substantive conclusion on the most appropriate membership and framework for a reformed second Chamber. There are those who say, even now, that what we need to do is pause and reflect “maturely” on the next step. I rather think that 98 years is long enough for such reflection.
We have not been short of debate over the past 98 years, just results. All-party talks in the late 1940s fell away. All-party talks in the late 1960s were thwarted first by a Lords decision to block sanctions against what was then Southern Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, and following that by an extraordinary alliance—a kind of Faustian pact—between the late Enoch Powell and Michael Foot. More recently, after a royal commission with a distinguished membership had presented a thorough and wide-ranging report in 2000, and after a White Paper in 2001 and a comprehensive inquiry by the Public Administration Committee and a Joint Committee of the Commons and Lords in 2002, the House in early February 2003 managed to vote down every possibility for reform, from doing nothing to having an all-elected House and every alternative in between. It was not a good day for the reputation of this House or of Parliament.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how, under his proposals, a serving Prime Minister could be completely detached from the selection procedure in his party for peers, and might it not cause tensions if there were disagreement on the general attitude?
On legitimacy, did my right hon. Friend read the remarks made by Lord Kingsland on 7 November 2006? In his concluding comments in a debate on the Police and Justice Bill, which had ping-ponged a couple of times between the Lords and Commons, he said:
“We have concluded that, in our judgment, it would be wrong for us as an unelected House, having faced two repudiations from the elected House, to send this back one more time…If we were an elected House, I am sure that our decision would be different.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 November 2006; Vol. 686, c. 654.]
Is that not the nub of the problem? An elected House or a part-elected House would be used to undermine the legitimacy of this House.
Given that the Government’s model still leaves enormous powers of patronage with party managers, would not the second Chamber better represent society if an independent commission were instructed to fill the Lords with representatives of organisations that best reflect society—in other words, if we were to create a second Chamber of the country’s talents in which individuals could represent such organisations?
My right hon. Friend has already moved on to the composition of the House. Should we not be spending more time on what the functions of the other Chamber should be, and then consider whether the current composition matches what we want from those functions—and if it does not then consider what changes we require?
I have moved on to the composition of the House because I took interventions. The composition and the functions run together, and some Members of this House and the other place take the view that if the other place is simply a revising Chamber it follows as clearly as night follows day that it must be an appointed Chamber. That view is not shared across the world in almost any other country, and it is not a view that I accept. I shall now make progress.
When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked me to take on the issue of Lords reform 10 months ago, he encouraged me to—[Interruption.] No, the phrase was “hospital pass” and not “legacy”, actually. My right hon. Friend encouraged me to search for a consensus with the other parties and to make proposals. This two-day debate and tomorrow’s votes are the culmination of the first stage of that process.
Four years ago, when the House last debated this issue, I voted for an all-appointed House and against the alternatives. I did so for several reasons, one of which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I feared the impact of introducing an elected element into the other place. I had concerns that that could impinge on the primacy of this House, and that it could create a new breed of politician, rivalling the role of Members of this House both here and in their constituencies. I am well aware, of course, that some Members still have these concerns.
However, I have to tell the House that, having thought deeply about this subject, I am now convinced that my fears of 2003 were misplaced, and that there is a very solid case for a part-elected, part-appointed House.
No, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me.
Tomorrow night, I shall vote for a 50 per cent. elected, 50 per cent. appointed hybrid House—my personal first preference, and where I think consensus might lie— and then for a 60 per cent. and 80 per cent. elected House, as well. I shall vote against the other alternatives.
As I have just mentioned, the principal reason I previously supported a wholly appointed House was that I considered that the introduction of any elected element into the Lords could, by virtue of that fact, inevitably challenge the primacy of this House, which is fundamental to our democracy. However, as I read the royal commission report, the associated research evidence and much other material, I was presented with facts about other countries’ experience that simply did not support my view of an automatic link between an elected element in the Lords and an erosion of the primacy of this place. The evidence shows instead that a country can have a powerful elected second Chamber—the United States, for example—or a weak elected second Chamber, four examples being Japan, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic. A nation may have an appointed second Chamber with relatively limited powers, or an appointed second Chamber with relatively substantial powers. There are, in truth, no iron rules linking composition and power, except the rule that allows self-confident democracies to set their own rules—their constitutions—and to change them when they judge it right to do so.
Having considered the evidence, I was struck by two other things. First, after extensive deliberation the royal commission, the Public Administration Committee and the unofficial but authoritative Breaking the Deadlock group each came down in favour of a hybrid House of part-elected, part-appointed membership—albeit of different proportions. Each of these all-party committees had thought long and hard about how a hybrid second Chamber could be established in such a way as to avoid competition with this House. They made recommendations to that end, which have greatly informed the conclusions of the Government and of the cross-party group.
I will deal with that point. I know that my hon. Friend has read the royal commission report and the other two reports, so he will recognise that a great deal of effort and work was put into ensuring that, by the means of election and by the fact that such individuals would sit for a single term, without the prospect of re-election for a long term, their relationship with those who had elected them and with their peers—literally—would be a different one. The truth is that there are partly appointed, partly elected Chambers elsewhere in the world, and the evidence suggests that whether or not they work satisfactorily depends on the other ground rules that are established alongside them. In the end, it will be for this House, because it does have primacy, to decide those ground rules. I do not think that we have anything to fear in that regard.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He has looked at the evidence from around the world and spoke of the United States as a having a strong second House. The relationship between a Member of Congress and their constituents is inevitably influenced by the fact that they are elected from a constituency of more than 500,000 electors. We have a very much closer and more precious relationship with our constituents, in my opinion. Could we not look closer to home and learn from the experience of Scotland? Having extra Members of Parliament in Scotland has created a degree of uncertainty and confusion that a lot of Labour Members certainly would not welcome here.
I agree that we should learn from that experience and we have done so, because there are no proposals in those three reports or in the White Paper that have any parallel with the overlaying representation in the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, with people elected through different methods to representation in the same Assembly.
I wish to make some progress, but I will give way to the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen shortly, if time allows. I have given way eight times already.
When the Government brought forth their previous White Paper on Lords reform in 2001, they proposed a limited elected element of just 20 per cent. But, as the latest White Paper delicately puts it, that 2001 proposal
“failed to command widespread support”.
In fact, 89 per cent. of the more than 900 respondents to the 2001 White Paper wanted a House that was 50 per cent. or more elected. That level of public rejection of the principle of an all-appointed or mainly appointed House in favour of a significantly or wholly elected House is a consistent feature of recent tests of public opinion. A thorough opinion survey last month for the Hansard Society, which itself has no axe to grind on this issue, showed that just 6 per cent. favoured an all-appointed House, and 82 per cent. a wholly or partly elected House.
In the end, on this issue as on any other, this House has to make its own decisions, and answer for them. But I think there is one reason above all why the instinct of the public is so clearly against a wholly appointed second Chamber, and that is because they doubt the legitimacy of a key institution of a democratic Parliament if they are denied any say through the ballot box over who should sit in that second Chamber.
The Leader of the House knows full well that that Hansard Society survey also showed that more than 50 per cent. of the respondents had very little idea of what the House of Lords did. That is an important point. What would his reaction be if, in a keenly contested vote in the other place, the day was carried by the non-elected?
My view is that we can establish the rules about the nature of the operation of the other place. Every other Parliament with a second chamber has done that, and all parties are agreed—as Wakeham recommended—that regardless of any change in composition, the primacy of this House should be maintained. I shall come on to that point. I also point out that it is dangerous to suggest that we should dismiss the public’s view on the grounds of ignorance. That was the view that was taken by our predecessors in opposing any extension of the franchise in 1832. Leaving that aside, the hon. Gentleman quoted the Hansard poll at me, but it also shows that of those who have a grasp of the issues—the poll’s words, not mine—many more people support the proposal that the Government make today.
If this House votes for a House of Lords that is substantially elected and that takes the form of legislation, at some stage the British electorate will be invited to vote for a third of a proportion of the House of Lords. What does the Leader of the House think will be at stake in those elections to motivate the electorate to turn out and vote?
What I think will be at stake in those elections is representation of part of the second legislative Chamber. Everybody in this House agrees that the other place performs a very important function, regardless of its composition, and I think that those elections will generate considerable interest.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that under any of the models that include elected members for the House of Lords, he is talking about a single election for a 15-year period? While that would give the legitimacy of being elected, how on earth would it ensure the accountability of those members?
I do confirm that. My hon. Friend is right to say that it would give legitimacy to their position in the other place, and change the relationship between them and their “constituencies”. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, that is the whole point. Those who know the US system will be aware that the different relationship between Congressmen and their constituents is due not to the size of the constituency but to the intensity of elections. The fact that they have elections to the House of Representatives every two years means that Congressmen never stop electioneering and are more attached to their constituents than any of us are.
Straw: I need to make progress, as many other hon. Members want to get in.
It is the issue of legitimacy that was the second factor behind my change of mind. Society has changed dramatically in recent decades, and Parliament must keep up with those changes. I simply do not believe that in this less deferential, more assertive age the public will tolerate a wholly appointed chamber for much longer. The choice in my judgement is stark: it is change or wither away.
Will the Leader of the House give way?
Does the Leader of the House agree that the House of Lords has perfectly good powers at present? Its Members can revise and delay legislation, but the primacy of this House means that they cannot veto it. Earlier, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) quoted Lord Kingsland. Does not that quotation show that, even when dealing with very important questions of human liberty, Members of the House of Lords refrain from exercising their full power of veto because they are not elected and so cannot challenge the more legitimate lower House? Does not that quotation confirm in full the point that a reformed upper House would have more courage and confidence to use its powers?
It might, and I shall develop the point in a moment. Such a House might indeed be more assertive, and the House of Lords has already become more active since the changes of 1999. I have gone on record as saying that I do not mind that at all: I think it is a good thing, as long as it does not challenge the primacy of this House. We can protect that primacy by convention and by the use of law.
I am going to make some more progress.
Two parallel processes have been undertaken over the past year towards establishing a consensus on this issue. One has been the Joint Committee on Conventions under the Chairmanship of my noble Friend Lord Cunningham of Felling, and the other has been the cross-party group on Lords reform that I have chaired. Good progress has been made in both groups.
The Cunningham Committee reported last November. Its conclusions are an invaluable template, setting out very clearly its current understanding of the powers of this place that established its primacy, and the conventions that ensure that that primacy is delivered. The Committee’s conclusions were unanimous, and were subsequently endorsed by both the Houses without Division.
In shorthand, the primacy of this House depends on three key elements: first, the exclusive right of this House to determine who forms a Government; secondly, this House’s exclusive right to raise taxation and to allocate public spending; thirdly, the right of this House to the final—and pretty prompt—say over any legislation that is the subject of dispute between the two Houses.
The Cunningham Committee made it clear that its conclusions—not on those powers, which were a given, but on the conventions underpinning them—related to the Lords as it is currently constituted. However, the House will be reassured that all members of the cross-party group that I chaired were agreed on the fundamental principle of the primacy of the Commons, and that any reformed Lords should be a complement to this House, and not a rival to it. That echoes similar key conclusions of the royal commission, the Public Administration Select Committee, and the Breaking the Deadlock reports.
The cross-party working group met eight times between July 2006 and January this year. I hope very much that, if we reach clear conclusions tomorrow, it can be reconstituted.
Paragraph 4.11 of the White Paper states that
“current conventions are the right ones for a reformed House to deal with, certainly early in its life”.
If the upper Chamber is primarily or significantly elected, how “early in its life” does the Leader of the House expect there to be pressure for a change in those conventions? Would not it be more appropriate to ensure that they are enshrined in law before he rushes headlong into the process of determining how the upper House should be composed?
The hon. Gentleman may be right about that. I said at paragraph 22 of the Government’s response to the Cunningham 2 report “Conventions of the UK Parliament”:
“The extent to which there needs to be additional steps to secure that”—
in other words, these conventions—
“would need to be addressed if there was any suggestion that the major parties did not support this approach in the context of a new House.”
But these things are perfectly possible. The crucial thing is that no one is arguing about the current practice of the powers of the two Chambers. There may be a debate about whether the conventions which in part underpin those powers—they are also in part underpinned by the resolutions of this House and by the Parliament Acts—are sufficient. I am very happy that we should have that debate. Indeed, I hope that we can because I hope that we can reach a result tomorrow night for the first time in 98 years.
In a recent interview in The House Magazine the right hon. Gentleman said that, assuming that there was a clear outcome in the votes tomorrow night, we would inevitably return to the issue of the powers of a reformed second Chamber. As far as I am aware, he has not made that so explicit before. Is it his intention after tomorrow night, if there is a clear outcome, to set up cross-party talks about the powers of the second Chamber?
That was a shorthand way of saying what we said in respect of the Cunningham 2 report—that we would need to deal with this issue. I am happy to say today—indeed, it was my very next sentence—that I hope that, if we reach clear conclusions tomorrow, the cross-party group can be reconstituted. I want to try to work by consensus here, as the right hon. Lady knows that we have been seeking to do, and we have been pretty successful over the past 10 months.
Is not the difficulty that our constitutional settlement is of course unwritten and my right hon. Friend supposes that the position at the end of the process that we are going through will be fixed? The lesson from devolution in the United Kingdom is that there is immediate pressure from the institution to change the constitutional arrangements again. If there is an elected element, that pressure will be immediate and constant, and we will be coming back every year to have this debate.
I agree with part of what my hon. Friend says. I do not agree with the implication that we have something to fear from a partly elected second Chamber. Other countries manage very well with having one House which has primacy and a partially or wholly elected second Chamber. I said in my evidence to the Cunningham Committee a few months ago that if we have a partly or wholly elected second Chamber—I do not support a wholly elected second Chamber—the appetite to challenge the power of this place will increase. We have to anticipate that when we are drawing up the framework in which a partly elected House should operate, but we have the ultimate say because of the Parliament Acts.
We are not in the position of some other first Chambers in other countries; we can decide. My view is that we ought to decide. It comes back to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for St. Ives. No one is arguing; everyone is agreed that the current powers of this place in relation to the powers of the Lords or any second Chamber should remain the same. The only issue is the means by which they are delivered, because in part they are delivered by conventions. If we believe that those conventions are likely to be too weak, we can supplement them by resolutions and underpin them by statute.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Conventions, I think that it is important that the House be aware that the Joint Committee stated clearly that, if the composition of the Lords were changed, the Committee or another joint committee would have to review the conventions, because the conventions apply to the present House of Lords and the composition of the present House of Lords. It is quite wrong that this House should assume that that Committee, which sat at great length and considered the matter in great depth, had any other view than that the current conventions covered the current House of Lords.
I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but he will also recognise that at paragraph 61, which discusses how or whether the conventions could operate in a changed House, his Committee said that the matter was “outside the remit” of the Committee. The predecessor Cunningham Committee said that, even with elections, it envisaged
“a continuation of the present role of the House of Lords, and of the existing conventions governing its relations with the House of Commons.”
If we make a decision for a partly elected element, there will of course be cross-party talks, because all three main parties will have agreed on the direction in which we should move and, to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), we will be able to do a better job than was done on devolution, which happened much more rapidly, not in 98 years—or even in 98 months. As someone who took part, in opposition and then in government, in the discussions on devolution, I realise that speed was necessary because of the pent-up feeling for devolution, but if we had had more time, we could have done a better job.
In view of my right hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), does he still stand by paragraph 21 of the Government’s response to the Joint Committee?
I need to make progress, because I have already given way about a dozen times.
There was agreement among all in the group in favour of a hybrid House, with a significant elected element, although the precise level was left to free votes. There was agreement within the cross-party group that a reformed House should consist of at least 20 per cent. non party-political Members, and that no political party should be able to hold a majority of the whole House or of the party political Members of it.
I will give way in a second. I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to ask me about the bishops—[Interruption]—or at least that is my guess. Whatever it is, I am happy to take his question, but perhaps he will let me catch my breath before I take the next intervention.
There was agreement, too, about the need to ensure that membership of the reformed House reflected the gender and racial diversity of the United Kingdom, and the range of religious opinion. All agreed that the special arrangements for membership of the House by a limited number of hereditary peers should come to an end. The group agreed that a long transition, with new Members phased in, would be essential to the success of any reform, and that Members should serve a lengthy, single term of office. Restricting the period of office to one term with no prospect of re-election was a key royal commission recommendation to ensure that elected Members of the second Chamber played a different role from that of MPs, and to prevent them from becoming rivals competing for popular support.
I am sorry to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman, but my question is not about bishops. I want to take him back a few sentences in his speech. In this round of House of Lords reform, is not the elephant in the room cash for peerages and the public’s great concern that the House of Commons can put people into the other legislature on ability to pay? What recommendations on party political appointments will the right hon. Gentleman make to ensure that the upper House is not full of cronies and funders?
The hon. Gentleman has a particular view on that matter, although I do not think the point was a particularly worthy one, but there is an issue—[Interruption.] There is an issue and I shall deal with it in a second.
There was also agreement on many other issues.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to make progress?
There was agreement on issues such as breaking the link between the peerage and a seat in Parliament, disqualification and resignation, and having a quarantine period to restrict former members of the upper Chamber standing as Members of Parliament.
To answer the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), a central recommendation to which all are agreed is that there should be a statutory Appointments Commission. The current commission, with Lord Stevenson of Coddenham and his colleagues, has done an excellent job; but its remit is limited. In our view, its independence should be guaranteed by statute, and it should have the duty to assess the merits as well as the probity of nominees who are members of political parties, as it does for those who are of no party allegiance.
I ask my question from a genuine desire to know the answer. As someone who would like to abolish the House of Lords—although I realise that the first motion may pass—I am concerned that if I vote for a wholly elected House I will tie myself to accepting a particular form of election. Can my right hon. Friend clarify that point, and confirm that whatever the arguments or discussions about the composition of the House, the form of election is still to be decided and will be fully discussed and debated in this place?
No, I want to make some progress, if I may.
The current House of Lords is justifiably commended for the distinction of some of its Members, but there is sometimes an implication that distinction and the holding of a party card are incompatible. That is palpably untrue. I favour a hybrid House partly because I want to see those without party affiliation continue to make an important contribution to the House of Lords, but also because I want to see in the other place some of those expert and experienced in their field who have a party affiliation but whose profession or career make it difficult for them to take part in the electoral process. I am satisfied that with a statutory appointments commission in place, that could be achieved without charges of cronyism.
I am going to make some more progress.
An additional reason why my preference is for a 50 per cent. elected House is that it will ensure the widest diversity. With list systems, it is possible, for example, to require that half those elected are women, but it is virtually impossible to make similar provision for ethnic and other minority representation. In practice, for a long time, fair representation of minorities in the second Chamber could be achieved only by appointments.
I want to deal with the issue of election.
There was no agreement in the cross-party group about the method of election. The Conservatives favoured large, first-past-the-post constituencies on the old European election model and the Liberal Democrats favoured multi-member single transferable vote constituencies. The Government said that we favoured
“a partially open regional list system”.
That system was favoured by a majority of the Wakeham royal commission.