House of Commons
Thursday 8 March 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Publicly Procured Food
My Department does not hold that information, but I have commissioned work to determine the proportion of publicly procured food that is British. I am optimistic that it will be completed by the late autumn of this year, and I will place the information in the Library of the House.
How do the Government justify feeding hospital patients and service personnel so much food that does not meet British standards? In my area, the Bedfordshire food mark ensures that Bedfordshire schoolchildren eat the county’s food. Will the Government ensure that publicly procured food meets the red tractor assured food standard?
I am sure that, by his reference to standards, the hon. Gentleman would not want to suggest that unsafe food was somehow being fed to hospital patients. I am concerned that, inadvertently, some people listening might have got that impression, and it is certainly not the case. Obviously, I believe that it is important that we give British producers the maximum opportunity to ensure that their food is supplied to public services such as hospitals, schools and the Prison Service. That is what the public sector food procurement initiative is designed to do, and it is helping local producers around the country to get their produce into the public sector. That is good and is consistent with the trade rules that ensure that our producers are able to export overseas as well as supply domestically.
Given that we are in the middle of Fairtrade fortnight, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should use our purchasing power to support subsistence food farmers abroad, as well as home-grown produce? To that end, will he join my campaign to make Burnley a fair trade town?
I cannot save the football team, but I have heard a rumour that Mr. Alastair Campbell is going to be its next manager, and perhaps that will be the source of its salvation. That will be in addition to his memoirs, rather than as an alternative to them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) makes a good point. The best thing for fair trade around the world, and for a fair deal for British producers, is an open trading regime. I am sure that, like me, she will remember that there was a ban in the 1990s on British producers selling beef overseas. That was very dangerous. Now, 5,000 tonnes of beef are being exported every month, and that is a good thing. However, open trade is equally essential to people all around the world who have a right to develop in a way that means that they can support themselves. It is possible to achieve a balance. We are trying, rightly, to give every encouragement to British producers, but they will prosper best in an open and liberal trading environment.
I represent the constituency of Macclesfield in the county of Cheshire, which is heavily agricultural. Does the Secretary of State agree that the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is relevant? The best boost that he could give today’s hard-pressed farmers is to ensure that the food used in the public services, the Army and schools meets the red tractor standard and is purchased from British producers. Surely we should back our farmers, just as so many other countries in Europe and elsewhere back theirs.
We certainly should do that, and I can give the hon. Gentleman some happy tidings. Fresh from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs canteen, I can report that more than 80 per cent. of our fish is domestically sourced, as is more than 90 per cent. of our pork, nearly 100 per cent. of our dairy products and fully 100 per cent. of our eggs.
However, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) makes a serious point about backing British producers. There are two approaches, one of which is to say that we should have a protectionist regime and that we should force our public sector suppliers to buy British only. However, that would be damaging, because Governments around the world would retaliate against British producers. It is far better to say, alternatively, that British farmers will prosper best when theirs is the best produce available in an open and fair market, and that is what we are trying to achieve.
I urge the hon. Member for Macclesfield to back the public sector food procurement initiative, which tries to ensure that our farmers get into the retail and public sector chains that are so important. They can win on quality, and do not need special favours.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we want good local food chains and that there is no better way to provide them than by using county farm estates—smallholdings still owned by county councils and other authorities? Using those farmers to supply our schools and hospitals would be the best of all solutions.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I went to the Oxford farming conference in January I specifically pointed out that all our experience shows that the urge to buy local is growing fast. The red tractor has an important place as a mark of British standards, but, equally, local produce often has the provenance, quality and attachment that people look for, which is important. My hon. Friend’s point is important and I shall look into it.
I assure the Secretary of State that nobody seeks protectionism for British producers. The public sector procurement initiative was launched four years ago, yet in response to my questions to Departments, seven do not know how much of their food is British and three others, including Health and Education and Skills—two of the big ones—will not answer the question. Even the Prime Minister, who had the brass neck to front up the Country Land and Business Association’s “just ask” campaign a few weeks ago, does not know how much food served at No. 10 is British, so what sort of example is that? Is not it now clear that there is no way to judge whether the initiative is actually working and whether there has been any change after four years? There is no way of knowing how much of the £2 billion of taxpayers’ money is delivering the goods. The Secretary of State—
I am sure you agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is important that Opposition spokesmen actually listen to the answers given at the beginning. If the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) had bothered to listen he would know that in the course of this year we shall have the figures he seeks so zealously. I am sorry he seeks to run down projects that are helping British producers in every region of the country to supply the public sector. I am sorry he seeks to run down the English Farming and Food Partnership, which many people in the industry think has made an important contribution. I suggest that rather than bleating he should actually support some of those campaigns.
My ministerial colleagues and I have regular discussions with UK industry representatives about a wide range of environmental issues, including the role that environmental management systems can play in helping to reduce carbon emissions.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What conversations has he had with the construction industry and developers to promote a regulatory framework that in turn will promote geothermal and other energy-saving devices in the residential and commercial property sectors?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the potential for geothermal energy. If we are to move to zero carbon homes—as we must if we are to avoid dangerous climate change—we shall need a host of renewable technologies in our new housing stock. Geothermal energy, where appropriate, can work and provide a cost-effective solution. There are obviously other forms of renewable energy, such as ground source heat pumps, solar, voltaics, wind turbines and district heating systems, which also have a role to play. We are looking into how we can use regulation to encourage greater use of renewables through the planning system, as we think that is an important way forward.
I do not know how often the Minister goes shopping, but if he walked down the nation’s high streets he would notice that many shops leave their doors open to provide easy access for their customers, while keeping the heating at full blast to make customers comfortable inside the store. Does he agree that if we are to get the commercial sector to take climate change seriously, we urgently need a climate change Bill to provide a framework in which everyone has to make their contribution to dealing with the problem?
I certainly agree that we need a climate change Bill, which is why one was announced in the Queen’s Speech. The hon. Lady is probably aware that we are consulting on a proposal to introduce either a benchmarking system or an energy performance commitment, which would affect large energy-intensive users, including many supermarkets and other high street properties. This afternoon, I shall be visiting the Trade Association Forum, which covers 300 trade bodies and 500,000 companies that are signing a declaration on climate change, so I think our high streets are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint and want to do something about it.
When my hon. Friend talks to the private sector, will he take into account the fact that it has an enormous leadership role to play in meeting climate change? Does he agree that Government regulation and that sort of thing can go some way to putting ourselves in a position to meet the challenges, but that if we could harness and encourage some of the very innovative work going on in the private and the financial services sectors, we could do something serious about climate change?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the private sector has a vital role in avoiding dangerous climate change. Through the EU emissions trading scheme, some of our biggest companies are already actively involved in a cap and trade scheme. I have already mentioned the energy performance commitment and the proposal on benchmarking. There are other ways in which the UK Government can help support the private sector to avoid climate change. We have funded Envirowise, for example, which has helped business save about £1 billion through increasing resource efficiency and avoiding waste. We also fund the Carbon Trust, which works with companies that want to avoid climate change, and I think that business increasingly recognises that there is value and importance in reducing CO2.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food, Lord Rooker, regularly discuss the dairy industry with industry representatives and other interested parties.
The Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State recently visited the NFU conference and he will know that farmers are determined to play a part in producing a sustainable food chain, particularly in dairy products. However, Farmers Guardian, Country Living and Waitrose are launching a campaign, “fair trade for British farmers” so that agriculture can regain profitability and deliver those public goods that are so highly prized. What role does the Minister believe his Department and the Government can play in the campaign?
We certainly welcome the initiative. He might have heard that Sainsbury’s has today announced an increased price for milk, and I believe that Tesco did so yesterday. Those are moves in the right direction, as we have always said that there should be a sustainable industry and a fair price. However, that is a matter to be determined between the industry and retailers—under the auspices, of course, of the competition rules and so on—and not a matter for the Government.
I was in agreement with what my hon. Friend said until the end of his answer, but he must surely realise that in a competitive market environment, supermarkets are going to force the price down, even though they are making gestures now. They have no responsibility to provide food for this country, whereas the Government do have responsibility to ensure a continuation of the supply of provisions. Surely we do have an interest and we must be a stakeholder at those talks.
We are regularly involved in talks, as I have already pointed out. My hon. Friend is wrong to imply that the supermarkets do not have an interest in maintaining a sustainable dairy sector. I think that they do, and they have recognised that in the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, Lord Rooker and I have had with them. We are pretty much self-sufficient in raw milk, which shows that they do have an interest. I would not be churlish about the recent price increases. I also think it important to remember that there is a massive gap of about 12p a litre in the difference between some of the most and some of the least efficient milk producers. We want to ensure that some of the least efficient get up to the standards of the most efficient.
The Minister will understand that much of the future well-being of the dairy industry will depend on the resolution of problems connected with bovine TB and the EU dairy regime. May I raise with him the question I put to the Prime Minister yesterday? Will he have a word with the Secretary of State so that this House of Commons is given an opportunity to debate all these matters in a comprehensive discussion on agriculture, bearing in mind that we have not had such a debate since December 2002?
My hon. Friend is well aware that farm prices for farmers’ households have dropped to about £13,000. That figure has dropped by more than 60 per cent. in four years. That is a tragedy and it is not sustainable for dairy farmers to receive such low incomes. What will the Minister do to be an honest broker and to try to ensure that all supermarkets give a fair price to farmers, at the same time as ensuring better value for customers? Farm-gate prices are dropping, but at the same time prices are increasing for customers in the shops. We need to ensure that farming can survive and be sustainable.
I have already referred to some of the increases that have recently been announced. I do not think that my hon. Friend is right to say that farm incomes dropped again this year; I think that I am right in saying that average farm incomes increased this year, as they did last year. He is right about the dairy sector, which has been going through a particularly difficult time. As we are talking about farm incomes, it is worth pointing out that farm land prices rose again substantially last year and are now at record levels.
Last March, the Minister announced a consultation on the question of badger culling and dealing with the wildlife reservoir. In answer to a question in the House, he told me that the time for a decision was nigh. When will the decision be taken to do something about bovine TB, to relieve the plight of hundreds of farmers in my constituency?
I am aware of the problem faced by farmers in the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituency. I have met him and representatives of his local farming community and the area is not far from my constituency. We are well aware that TB is a difficult problem. However, we also want to be careful to ensure that any decision on badger culling is guided by the science. We do not want to initiate any sort of action that could be counter-productive. As he well knows, one of the things that all the science says is that a piecemeal, patchy culling regime for badgers could make matters worse. One of the other myths that a number of people still repeat and that it is worth exploding while we are on the subject is that it would be possible to have a cull of sick badgers. That is not possible. One cannot tell whether a live badger has TB. One can tell only through a blood test. Any badger cull would have to include healthy badgers, as well as sick badgers.
Going back to the dairy industry, may I urge the Minister to do more? Currently, an average of three dairy farmers a day leave the industry altogether. Dairy farmers obtain about 17 to 18½p per litre. In the big supermarkets, the price is 50p-plus. There is a huge gap there. Somebody is ripping somebody off. My Friend the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) mentioned fair trade. It is high time that the supermarkets traded fairly with the dairy farmers.
The Competition Commission is looking into that very issue, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. One of the problems that it highlighted when it published its interim findings a short time ago was that it had not had many complaints from farmers. It is important that farmers who share his concern, or their representatives in the farming unions—either at a UK-wide level or in Wales—provide examples to the Competition Commission, which has made it quite clear that it would accept anonymous examples so that people do not need to be worried about any penalty that they may suffer as a result of giving that evidence. I appeal to farmers to do that.
This is an extremely complex area, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates. As I indicated in my answer to a previous question, there is a huge variation in the costs for dairy farmers. I am afraid to have to tell him that, according to the information that I have, many dairy farmers do not even know their own costs of production. That is a problem. Yes, there is a role for Government and for the supermarkets, but there is also a role for the industry, and particularly for farmers whose production costs are much higher than those of a number of others, who manage to operate profitably because their costs are much less.
We are working closely with the German presidency of both the EU and the G8—the group of eight leading industrialised countries—to keep climate change high on the international agenda in the run-up to the next UN conference of the parties to the 1992 convention, which will be held in Indonesia this December. We regularly discuss the issues with developing countries, including India and China, to strengthen bilateral co-operation and help to frame future action.
Has the Secretary of State considered whether a policy of isolation and alienation from our European partners would be a good way to build global consensus on matters such as climate change? Does he think that a Tory-style dose of little Englandism is the way to build the consensus that will enable developing countries to break the link between economic growth and pollution growth, as this country has done, under Labour, for the first time since the industrial revolution?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have considered whether we are more likely to achieve change in the European Union by making an alliance with France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain, and we decided that on balance it is far better to have an alliance with those countries. We have great respect for the Czech Republic and our bilateral relations with it, but I have to tell hon. Members that an Anglo-Czech alliance on its own would more resemble the Brothers Grimm than an effective coalition for change.
As the Secretary of State will remember, on Tuesday he attended the Press Gallery writing competition and met one of my constituents, Andrew Mason, the Scottish regional finalist, whose work encapsulates the challenges and difficulties that China and India pose to the issue of climate change. Does my right hon. Friend think that the climate change Bill will be a tool that we can use not only domestically, but internationally, to work with developed and developing nations?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, because when my colleagues and I meet our Indian and Chinese counterparts, the first question they ask is whether, as we are asking them to make changes, they can be sure that we will make changes to the way in which we live and work. They can see that over the past 10 years our economy has grown by 28 per cent., while our greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 8 per cent. They can see that that is possible, but they want to know whether we will go further. It should be a huge encouragement to Members right across the House to know that we will introduce a climate change Bill, with, I hope, cross-party support, that will make this country the first in the world to set itself on a clear path to becoming a low-carbon economy by 2050. That is an important point, which, as it happens, was raised by my hon. Friend and his constituent when we met on Tuesday, and I applaud him for the work that he is doing.
I know that the voice of the House was loud and clear yesterday, but we will not wait for the conclusion of House of Lords reform before publishing the climate change Bill. It will be published on Tuesday for pre-legislative scrutiny, which we planned to provide from the beginning. I applaud Conservative Front Benchers for recognising the maturity of an approach that considers pre-legislative scrutiny to be an essential part of building a national consensus on the issue. I hope that there will be real engagement with the Bill, not just in the House but in businesses and schools across the country. Accompanying the Bill, there will be a series of documents, which will be available for all Members of the House to use, with their constituents, to explain the issue, the choices that we face, and the way in which we can all make a difference, whether in government, in business, or as citizens, in helping to tackle the global problem of climate change.
Given the record levels of imports from China, does the Secretary of State agree that perhaps the best way to help stop climate change is to buy British? That would not only reduce the food miles and manufacturing miles that result from products coming in from China on ships and aircraft, but would be good for Britain and its manufacturing industry.
I am always happy to encourage people to buy British, but if underlying the hon. Gentleman’s question is the suggestion that if all global trade ceased, the environment would be better off, I will have to differ with him. It is possible to combine development with respect for the environment. The old choice was between development and the environment; the new choice is between whether development is high carbon or low carbon. It is essential that we take the right measures to reduce carbon emissions in our country and in the industrialised world, but we must also fulfil our responsibilities to ensure that developing countries—not just China and India but developing countries in Africa—can make that low-carbon choice. The hon. Gentleman suggests that switching off our lights is a good thing; so is changing to a renewable energy supplier, because if our electricity comes from wind we can have as many lights on as we like without fear of doing damage to the environment.
The Secretary of State has mentioned talks that he has had with other countries about the important issue of climate change, but has he had any words with other Government Departments, because ways to reduce energy include the use of smart metering and LED lighting? Should not such measures be brought into building regulations, particularly for new commercial and residential properties?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The era when the electricity meter was under the stairs and was looked at only once a quarter or once a month was an era that did not care about energy efficiency. The era when the smart meter or the real-time display is next to people’s light switch in the corner of the room and allows us to see not only how much energy we are using but the cost that we are incurring and the saving that we make through energy efficiency is the era of the future. Such matters will be at the heart of the energy White Paper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will publish in the next few months.
The international dimension in tackling climate change is crucial. I have heard the Secretary of State tell us that it is crucial to have moral authority and standing in what we are doing at home. In the light of that, what does he make of yesterday’s Sustainable Development Commission report showing that his own Department increased carbon emissions by 10.2 per cent. between 1999-2000 and 2005-06, which according to my calculations is more than three times as much as the country as a whole? Does he not believe that it is time for his Department to start practising what it preaches?
First, let me say that I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not use this occasion to apologise to the House for his absurd denunciation of the idea of pre-legislative scrutiny in his press release of a couple of weeks ago. For someone who bleats on about respect for Parliament to then denounce pre-legislative scrutiny is an example of precisely the double standards that one expects from the Liberal party.
In respect of the hon. Gentleman’ perfectly legitimate question, the obvious answer to the Sustainable Development Commission is that the Government must do better, and that is what we are determined to do.
Will my right hon. Friend add the Commonwealth to the list of international organisations that he has talks with on climate change? He might be aware that of all African Commonwealth countries, only South Africa has benefited under Kyoto with about six projects being approved under the clean development mechanism. None of the other poor Commonwealth countries in Africa has benefited at all. If we are to address the issue of equity as defined in the United Nations framework convention on climate change, surely my right hon. Friend will support initiatives to develop talks on climate change in the Commonwealth.
I am delighted to be able to say to my hon. Friend that I have agreed to speak at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting on climate change in London in November precisely to pick up the point that he makes. He will know from his work with GLOBE—the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment—that it is important not only to have Government to Government contacts and business to business contacts, but that parliamentarians around the world have a crucial role to play on this issue. His reference to the Commonwealth is well placed, and when one is thinking about how the Commonwealth can make itself increasingly relevant in the 21st century, this is a key issue.
I know that I am referring to comments of a couple of weeks ago, but may I congratulate the Secretary of State on his remarkably astute remarks about the likely unpopularity of the Chancellor once he becomes Prime Minister? May I also say that the Secretary of State is right to be cagey about taking on that job himself, not least on the basis of the hash he is making of his current responsibilities at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
To have any credibility on climate change with the G8, the European Union or the developing world, it is vital that we lead by example. Setting aside the target for CO2 cuts under the Kyoto treaty, which we are likely to meet because of actions taken under the previous Conservative Government, can the Secretary of State name a single climate change-related target set by this Government in the last 10 years that we are going to meet?
The Secretary of State is keen to talk about one-planet living, but given that answer, people will start asking what planet he is living on. The international community can look, as we can, at the Government’s record on meeting their own targets: CO2 emissions—failed; switch to green taxation—failed; energy efficiency targets—failed; renewable energy targets—failed. This week we hear from the Sustainable Development Commission that his own Department has increased energy consumption and waste, and that a drastic change in approach is needed. What right has he, his Department or the Government to lecture anyone internationally or in the United Kingdom about climate change?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has been taking lessons in opposition from his colleague on the Liberal Front Bench, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). He knows a lot about the topic and he could make a constructive contribution. As we are the only country in the world that is on track to more than double its Kyoto commitments, as this country has been leading the way on the economics of climate change through the Stern review, and as Al Gore, who most people would accept is an authentic figure in the campaign against climate change, says that this country should be proud of the leadership that it has offered over the past 10 years both domestically and internationally, the hon. Gentleman would be far better off thinking how he will fill the void in his own policies before he starts denouncing ours.
My right hon. Friend is aware that the UK takes over the presidency of the UN Security Council in April this year. He will agree, I am sure, that global warming is a matter of international security. Will he therefore repeat the leadership role that we played when we held the presidency of the EU and G8 in 2005, and ensure that climate change becomes an agenda item for the UN Security Council for the first time in its history, which will demonstrate the urgency that the issue deserves?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The Foreign Secretary and I had dinner with the new Secretary-General of the UN in December, before he took up his post. It was extremely encouraging to hear the new UN Secretary-General pick up the mantle from Kofi Annan. One of the last things that Kofi Annan said as Secretary-General of the UN was that one of his biggest regrets was that in his 10 years in office, he had not put the main UN machinery at the heart of the battle against climate change. The suggestion that my hon. Friend makes is important. It is only through the UN and United Nations framework convention that we can have legally binding treaty obligations. All the work that is being done through the European Union, the Group of Eight and the Gleneagles dialogue is vital preparatory work, but in the end it must be in the UN forum that we make progress. My hon. Friend’s call is an important one.
Warm Home Zone Scheme
Warm zones is an initiative designed to reduce fuel poverty and promote energy efficiency on a local area basis. Warm zone schemes are a private enterprise managed by Warm Zones Ltd. Contractors are appointed by the warm zones in accordance with relevant procurement processes.
It is important that we tackle climate change though energy efficiency measures at home. I welcome the two schemes operating in Stoke-on-Trent, the warm zone front and the warm homes scheme. It is now possible for people to get grants of up to £2,700 for central heating through the Warm Front scheme, but because there are contractors outside the area, some people are having difficulty finding the extra matching cost. As part of the work that is being done in the warm zone in Stoke-on-Trent, will he consider how we can get more local contractors, in the light of the sustainable procurement policy introduced by the Government this week?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to tackling climate change through local area-based initiatives such as warm zones. We need more warm zones or even low or zero carbon zones for the future. Putting together the Government’s Warm Front programme with the energy efficiency commitment on a local basis, we can make real improvements on a house-to-house basis. On the level of financial assistance provided, the current maximum is £2,700, as my hon. Friend mentioned, or £4,000 where it is necessary to fit an oil-fired central heating system. We are reviewing the grant maximum because one in seven or one in eight people who require central heating systems are being asked to make a financial contribution. In many cases that can be found from elsewhere, but it is right that we consider carefully whether we need to raise the grant maximum, because we are dealing with vulnerable households that would find it difficult to pay the extra amount.
In support of the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley), the grant maxima is adequate in many cases. The problem is that approved contractors have charged £1,000 more than local contractors in some cases in Warwickshire. If the scheme were extended to those local contractors, the grant would not only go further for the individual client, but the scheme as a whole would help more people.
I assure the House that the process of selecting contractors for the Warm Front programme is open and transparent. The process is competitive, and it is the basis on which contractors are appointed. The programme is being independently evaluated by a firm of accountants called White Young Green, which I have met. I have also looked at the vendor-rating system, which is operated by the Eaga partnership, and the process of selecting contractors. I know that people have compared Warm Front installers with other contractors in the local area. Such comparisons are not always fair, because the Warm Front process includes the programme costs and the additional benefit of an annual service check, so some of the criticisms do not compare like with like. However, I am open to any evidence that hon. Members want to submit about pricing, and we are currently reviewing the issue.
Will my hon. Friend examine the competence of some of the contractors employed within those schemes throughout the country? I have been alarmed by recent reports of pure incompetence by some contractors employed on those schemes, which may be symptomatic of a fall in standards across the gas-fitting industry. For example, when an elderly lady had her boiler repaired by a contractor through the Warm Front scheme, the contractor made a basic mistake and left the flame at such a poor level that the boiler simply emitted carbon monoxide whenever it was operating. That is an example of the poor standards among some of the contractors employed by the Warm Front scheme, and I urge my hon. Friend to look into the matter.
Nobody should accept poor standards, and this Government do not. However, let me set that in the context of the Warm Front programme. From 2000 to 2008, the Government will have spent some £1.6 billion on the Warm Front programme. Some 230,000 jobs a year are undertaken through the Warm Front programme, so it is not surprising that performance is not satisfactory in some cases. However, less than 1 per cent. of jobs result in a complaint to the Warm Front programme, and 96 per cent. of those complaints are resolved satisfactorily. As I have said, the installers are rated by a vendor-rating system, and poor performance leads to reduced work or no work in the future. I am happy to examine specific cases, and if my hon. Friend wants to contact me, I will be happy to talk to him.
Despite the excellent work of warm home zones and the Warm Front scheme, why after 10 long years is energy efficiency per se still not being deployed with sufficient ambition and scale to drive down carbon emissions? One third of new homes fail to meet the Government’s unambitious existing targets, yet no one is ever prosecuted. A new British home uses 65 per cent. more energy than a Swedish one, and the Environmental Audit Committee reckons that housing emissions are set to double by 2050. What hope is there of a real step change in energy efficiency, when the great clunking fist, which has been such a brake on progress for a decade, is now a shoo-in for Prime Minister?
It is simply not true to say that we have not made progress in making our homes more energy efficient. We have consistently ratcheted up building standards, so that the new homes that are being built nowadays are far more energy efficient than those that were built just a few years ago. As for our existing housing stock, the Warm Front programme and the energy efficiency commitment—EEC—are making significant progress in terms of helping to improve the thermal efficiency of our existing houses. The EEC has been increased from EEC1 to EEC2. We are currently discussing how we move further with the EEC3 programme for 2008 to 2011, and I expect it to be double that of EEC2. That shows the great strides that we have made, and our ambition as a Government to make our homes far more energy efficient for the future.
The UK has had six months of above average rainfall. The outlook for water supply is much improved and the likelihood of drought orders this summer is therefore low. However, we will continue to monitor the situation closely.
Coming from the infamously rainy Greater Manchester, we often wonder about the need for drought orders at all.
One of the main factors in these problems is that of water leaks. What pressure is my hon. Friend’s Department putting on the water companies to ensure that they tackle that issue by reaching their water leakage targets and improving the infrastructure so that in future years we do not have the same problems?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the issue of leakage, which is the system’s Achilles heel. Most water companies are meeting the leakage targets that have been set by Ofwat; some, however, are not, and that is simply unacceptable. We expect Ofwat, as the regulator, to take a robust approach with companies that successively fail to meet their leakage targets. I have also asked it to undertake a review of the system of setting leakage targets, which does not command the confidence or understanding of the general public. In future, issues of sustainable water use must be clearly built into that system. I expect Ofwat to report later this year about sustainable leakage levels.
I am even further north than the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), and we are more interested in building arks than in introducing drought orders.
The Minister will know that there has been a significant increase in population in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. Has he made any assessment of the extra pressure that that has put on demand for water?
I am also the Minister for floods, so I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
On new housing, I assure the hon. Gentleman that new housing development is taken into account by water companies as part of their planning process. Water companies produce 25-year water resource management plans. That process is being put on a statutory basis from the beginning of next month. The public will have an opportunity to comment on those plans, which will be available and transparent, as well as on new housing development. We must ensure not only that we move to zero-carbon homes within 10 years but that we have homes that are far more water efficient. That is one of the key Government objectives for the future.
Yet again, we have had a series of questions and answers on climate change dealing with only half the equation. We have talked about the causes of climate change but said almost nothing, until this question, about addressing its effects, such as wetter winters and drier summers. I salute my hon. Friend’s comments about water leakage and sustainable water supplies. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that more reservoirs are built in southern England to deal with the droughts that have already started and will get considerably worse as the effects of climate change, inevitable as they are, bite upon us?
My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of adaptation to climate change. Even if we succeed in our objective of avoiding dangerous climate change through gaining international agreement, a certain amount of it is already built into the system and needs to be taken into account for planning purposes. The 25-year water resources plans are designed to encourage water companies to take a long-term view and examine the balance of water supply and demand. We expect them to introduce proposals for new reservoirs when that is appropriate, but we also expect them to take action on leakage and consider other demand reduction options as well as to increase supply. Water companies’ current plans include constructing several reservoirs in the future. Those plans will be subject to consultation, and the Government will take a view on them.
Common Agricultural Policy Schemes
During my regular meetings with the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, I have discussed the administration of the single payment scheme in England on several occasions. Should the Commission auditors make any proposals for financial corrections, the Government will continue to defend the UK’s interests vigorously.
The Secretary of State knows that we pay nearly £2 into the EU budget for every £1 we get back. Why should the general taxpayer face an estimated fine of more than £300 million—the figure comes from the Government—to pay for the Department’s inefficiencies in administering the single farm payments? Would not it be much better for the taxpayer, farmers and rural areas if incompetence on such a scale were met with ministerial resignations rather than foreign fines?
First, the Government and the preceding Government believed that it was important to ensure that proper accounting was put in place to administer the common agricultural policy. That has benefited this country enormously.
Secondly, we have rightly made provision in the figures that were published in the spring estimates, but that should not be taken as a sign that we are ready for that level of fine. As I said at the National Farmers Union conference last week, we shall vigorously fight proposals to fine the UK and we will try to minimise any fines. That should command consensus in the House.
In any discussions with the Commission, will the Secretary of State talk about not only penalties but the continued need to transfer payments to provide environmental benefits and create new jobs, new opportunities and new futures for rural communities?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The direction of change in the common agricultural policy is patent, moving away from direct payments so that they are no longer coupled with production. That British agenda is increasingly becoming a European agenda.
It is right that some of the money is transferred into the second element of the common agricultural policy to support rural development. To make that work, it is vital to remove the blockages that the European Parliament has created and which are absurdly supported by the Opposition. Farmers throughout the country are waiting for their rural payments. It is about time they got them. The Government are doing everything possible to remove the blockage, but Conservative Front Benchers are failing to support us.
That was an incredible statement. I have two constituents who are still waiting for payment on 2005. When will the Secretary of State get a grip on that monstrous incompetence, set an absolute deadline by which 2005 payments will be settled and tell us when 2006 payments will be settled?
I totally understand and share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration but I wish that he had followed the changes that have been made and the progress that the Rural Payments Agency has achieved in the past nine to 10 months under the new leadership of Mr. Tony Cooper.
The hon. Gentleman will know from my written statement on 22 February that 200 to 300 cases remain from 2005. Some of them—I do not say that it applies to those that he mentioned—remain because of probate issues. Those cases from 2005 are, of course, a priority.
On the 2006 payments, anyone who has not received a full payment for a claim of more than €1,000 is receiving a partial payment, as promised, of more or less 50 per cent. That has gone smoothly. The hon. Gentleman will also know from my statement on 22 February that we are trying to improve on that performance significantly. We are not in the least complacent.
I have referred twice to my statement on 22 February. For the most difficult cases, there has always been a system to give them priority in subsequent years, but to work through the details. If the hon. Gentleman has two specific cases that he says are not being tackled properly, I will look into them. I do not know whether he has contacted my office yet but he is more than capable of doing that. I shall ensure that the cases are examined. However, he knows from my statements that any outstanding claim is tackled on a one-to-one basis by a representative of the Rural Payments Agency.
Although we have confidence in the Secretary of State’s good intentions, the problem is that while he talks about progress achieved and things having gone smoothly for 2006, even my humble cheque for £73.10 is wrong—it has been made out to my address. The Rural Payments Agency must have known that I would raise that issue. If it cannot get my cheque right, what hope is there for the rest of England’s farmers? Will the Secretary of State put the matter right?
My ministerial colleagues and I have discussed environmental taxation, and a range of other subjects, in various meetings with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Treasury colleagues.
The Treasury’s statement of intent on environmental taxation of 2 July said that it would
“shift the burden of tax from ‘goods’ to ‘bads’”.
According to the Office for National Statistics, however, environmental tax as a share of GDP has fallen under the Chancellor’s stewardship from 3.4 per cent. to 2.9 per cent. Does the Minister agree that Brown is not green?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that. I accept that there is a case for doing more on fiscal measures, but one should remember what the Government have done already, such as the climate change levy, the reform of vehicle excise duty to encourage the take-up of low-polluting cars, the introduction of air passenger duty, differentials in fuel duties and the landfill tax. We are a green Government, but one cannot measure environmental performance solely by the amount of money raised in green taxes. We are trying to change behaviour. We would therefore like to see less money coming from green taxes because we have changed behaviour.
The difference between the Government and the Opposition on environmental taxation is that we have a clear and coherent policy framework. In relation to taxation, regulation, carbon trading and other policy instruments, we have a programme designed to ensure that we avoid dangerous climate change and that we show international leadership. As my hon. Friend knows, the climate change Bill will be an important part of that framework. I am delighted that we will get—I hope—cross-party support for the climate change Bill, which will be published, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, on Tuesday.
The Minister will be aware that Nordic countries raise a greater proportion of their taxation from green taxes than we do. From his answer, however, he is obviously not aware that those countries have managed to change behaviour through fiscal measures and increase revenue from green taxation at the same time. Will he try to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer that if more revenue were to be raised in that way in this country, it would be not a tax grab but offset by reductions in other taxes? That will help to ensure public support for green taxation and defend us against the opponents of green taxation on the Conservative Benches.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that environmental taxation can help to change behaviour, and it is doing exactly that in the United Kingdom. He is also right to identify the need to offset environmental taxation and to spend the revenue raised from it on environmental goods, and we are doing just that.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the climate change levy directly offsets taxation of goods with taxation of bads, recycling it through reduced national insurance contributions and enhanced capital allowances. That is a clear example of our use of environmental taxation in a neutral way to encourage and improve business performance.
Environmental taxation is obviously an important instrument, but, faced with these taxes, how can we ensure that it is not just poor people and ordinary working people who modify their behaviour while very rich people carry on polluting the planet regardless?
My hon. Friend is right to observe that there is a social justice argument when it comes to tackling climate change. It is important for us all to do our bit. Businesses must take action to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions—and a great deal of work is being done in that regard—while individuals at all income levels must take action to reduce their carbon footprints.
As my hon. Friend knows, there is a relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and household income, and it is true that some of the wealthiest households are responsible for the highest emissions. They too must take action, as must we all if we are to have energy-efficient homes that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and help the climate.
Business of the House
Would the Deputy Leader of the House kindly inform the House of the forthcoming business?
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 12 March—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on National Health Service deficits, followed by a debate on local transport planning and funding. Details will be given in the Official Report.
Tuesday 13 March—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill.
Wednesday 14 March—A debate on Trident on a Government motion.
Thursday 15 March—A debate on widening participation in higher education on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 16 March—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 19 March will be as follows:
Monday 19 March—Second Reading of the Consumer, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 20 March—A debate on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Wednesday 21 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
Thursday 22 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 23 March—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 15 and 22 March will be:
Thursday 15 March—A debate on the report from the Treasury Committee on the administration of tax credits.
Thursday 22 March—A debate on the report from the International Development Committee on conflict and development: peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction.
The information is as follows:
Health: in so far as they relate to national health service deficits (First Report from the Health Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 73-I, on National Health Service Deficits, and the Government response thereto, Cm 7028; and the Department of Health Departmental Report 2006, Cm 6814).
Transport: in so far as they relate to local transport planning and funding (Twelfth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2005-06, on Local Transport Planning and Funding, HC 1120, and the Government’s response thereto, Fourth Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 334).
The House of Commons expressed a clear view last night. It was indeed an historic moment for the House, but we must of course respect the right of the other House both to debate and to vote on reform next week. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said last night that he believed that a cross-party working group should reconvene in the near future, and expressed a willingness to talk to minority parties. Once we have taken stock of the decisions of both this House and the other place, my right hon. Friend will come to the House to make a detailed statement on the way forward, following reflection.
Finally, let me welcome the shadow Deputy Leader of the House to our proceedings.
My thanks to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I understand that the Leader of the House is unable to be with us today because he is on an awayday with the rest of the Cabinet. The idea of the Prime Minister, along with the Chancellor and the rest of the Cabinet engaging in team-building exercises is somewhat breathtaking. Perhaps on their return the Prime Minister could give us a statement as to who were the team players—or perhaps more importantly, who was not.
As the Deputy Leader of the House has said, last night was a truly historic occasion. I welcome his preliminary comments. However, there are some detailed issues that need to be addressed. This House voted for a substantially or wholly elected upper Chamber, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Leader of the House, said afterwards, it is only a first step and raises further questions. Indeed, two options were approved, there was obvious tactical voting by some hon. Members and there were reports of Government Whips encouraging Members to vote for a wholly elected Chamber in order to wreck the reform. Will the hon. Gentleman make a statement on how the Government interpret what is the settled view of the House?
The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that he just has. If she were listening carefully, she would have noted that there were warm words but nothing specific. I am asking for specific responses.
Last night, the Leader of the House gave us his immediate thoughts on the next steps and I am grateful for that, but the next steps for reform of the other place will be complex, controversial and undoubtedly will take time. Will the Leader of the House come to this place and set out a clear timetable for the next steps? Is the expectation of the Government to fulfil their manifesto pledge and to legislate in this Parliament? Now that the Chancellor has finally expressed his views, will he confirm that the Chancellor will drive forward these reforms?
Last night, this House clearly voted against the 50:50 proposal put forward by the Leader of the House and as such the House rejected the White Paper. Will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that the White Paper is now scrapped? Will there, following the cross-party talks that he referred to, be a statement from the Leader of the House saying that there will be a new White Paper based on the votes of last night? When any legislation is put forward, will he undertake that all stages of the legislative process will take place on the Floor of this House, and not in Committee?
As I said, last night was a momentous occasion but, given the complexity and controversy inherent in this constitutional reform, we must do all we can, working together, to ensure that reform does indeed go ahead. I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House would enlighten us with his thoughts.
I congratulate the hon. Member. I realise that he has a difficult job to do. He has to reconcile the very diverse opinions on his side after the late conversion to the cause of reforming the House of Lords, and he has to overcome the difficulty of this being, in the words of his leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), a third-term priority. For us, it is a priority. Having sat through most of the 40 plus speeches that we had on the issue, it is clear that the overwhelming will of the House of Commons is for change in the upper Chamber. That is what was decisively voted on last night. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has given us an undertaking that this subject will be considered again by, I hope, the cross-party working group on House of Lords reform, which sat eight times to deliberate on the matter in the lead-up to the White Paper. The time for White Papers is, I believe, over. Indeed, after 98 years considering the issue, the time for talking is over. Now it is time for us to take action. We await the House of Lords’ consideration of the issue next week. Then will be the time when we decide the way forward to achieve what are clearly the wishes of the vast majority of Members of this House from both sides, as well as, of course, the wishes of the people of the country.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just announced that he will be publishing a climate change Bill next Tuesday. This will be a ground-breaking piece of legislation, and it will have a period of pre-legislative scrutiny, which means that Second Reading is some way off. Will it be possible for a statement to be made in the House on publication so that Back Benchers will have an opportunity to question the Secretary of State?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just sat down after answering questions on this matter. I welcome the support that my hon. Friend is giving to the statement that will be made next week. It will undoubtedly be the subject of debate in this House. I hope that it will also be the subject of consensus among hon. Members from all parties. Climate change is an issue that is exercising everyone. It is time that even more action was taken; drastic action is necessary. I am sure that a vision will be set out next week to which most—I hope all—hon. Members can subscribe. I assure my hon. Friend that that will be the subject of proper consideration and debate by the House.
After last night’s votes, I can fully understand why the Leader of the House wants time away to think. To mark what was clearly an historic vote, whatever its consequences in this place—I hope that there is not now a queue of noble Lords asking for a refund—there is a need for a statement, as the Deputy Leader of the House suggested, from his right hon. Friend after the Lords have had their debate and vote. Such a statement will need to set out the Government’s intentions, but must not hide behind the normal conventions regarding the Queen’s Speech. We want now not a White Paper but legislation to be put before this House in the next Session of Parliament so that we can resolve this matter once and for all.
To show that I believe that some good work does happen in the other place, may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether he will find time properly to debate two private Member’s Bills that emanate from the Lords? The first is the Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill in the name of Lord Dubs, which builds on the intergovernmental conference on cluster munitions and the Oslo declaration. Many of us feel that it is time that cluster munitions were banned. The Bill will provide the opportunity to do so.
The other Bill is the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill, in the name of my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) yesterday. Those excellent measures should be given proper time for debate in this House.
May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the future of the medical training application service? It is in complete disarray. Many junior doctors find it impossible to make proper applications for the jobs that they should be pursuing in order to further their careers. The Secretary of State has said in a statement that the service is to be reviewed, but the appointment process is continuing. Can she be brought to the House to explain why she is not suspending the process until such time as proper arrangements can be made before irreparable damage is done to the careers of many young doctors and some of them are lost to the country?
A lot of play was made in the debates of the past two days about the importance that the House attaches to its right to vote on Supply. Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why on Monday we will have an estimates day, but we will not consider the estimates that are put before us? We will not have a debate on those estimates. We will not have any real opportunity to amend them, and many of us would like to have the opportunity, for instance, to look at the supplementary estimate of £587,000 extra to go to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office for functions that, frankly, elude most of us in this House.
The Ministry of Defence obviously keeps the effectiveness of, and the consequences of the use of, munitions under constant review and acts accordingly. The Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday was supported then by the Prime Minister, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he was there. I am sure that it will also be incorporated in today’s discussions on the important issue of equality that will be before us later. Health questions are on Tuesday, so the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to put his points directly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health then. However, I should tell the hon. Gentleman that his proposal to suspend the application process is absolutely cuckoo. Many dozens—indeed, hundreds—of young doctors are going through that process, so to suspend it without replacing it would be absolute folly. My right hon. Friend is revising the procedures to take on board the criticisms that have been made, and the British Medical Association and other organisations are very much part of that process.
The Liaison Committee of this House can examine the estimates issue, as can its other Committees; it is less a Government matter than a Committee one. On the Lords, I recognise that the hon. Gentleman, who had problems with some of his Back Benchers concerning the definition of predominance, is on very weak ground. It is not the Government whom he must persuade to have this issue debated here; he will have to go 300 yd away to the other House and persuade some of his noble Friends, such as his former leader, Lord Steel, who said that the minute that there was an elected second Chamber, it would destroy the relationship between the two Houses. Does the hon. Gentleman subscribe to what his former leader is saying, and how will he persuade him to take a constructive part in endorsing the present Liberal Democrat policy—for as long as that lasts?
I am a strong supporter of that, which I understand has been achieved by the Scottish Parliament and, I think, the Welsh Assembly. Ministers are endeavouring to ensure that gender-neutral language is used where possible. I can see no cases where it cannot be used, so I will ensure that they are aware of my hon. Friend’s strong feelings on this issue; I think that she speaks for many in this place.
In 2004, the Secretary of State for Health announced an annual £40 million to go towards the treatment of incarcerated drug offenders, yet recent meetings seem to suggest that only half the prison estate is being covered. It certainly will not be covered by 2008 if the funding carries on at the same rate. Can the Secretary of State make a statement to the House on where we are in rolling out the programme to ensure that we get the integrated drug treatment that we agreed on?
I will ensure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns. He will be grateful that there is support and encouragement in all parts of the House for tackling some of these tricky issues, and I am sure that doing so is already on his list. Although I cannot promise a debate on the Floor of the House, there are many opportunities for the hon. Lady to raise this issue, have it debated and have a Minister respond.
Will my hon. Friend consider setting aside time for a discussion on the capping of the police precept in Wales? Police budgets in Wales have gone up by 33 per cent. over the past 10 years and include a 273 per cent. increase in the police precept in north Wales. Those increases would be understandable if the funding was going to frontline services, but the North Wales police authority is spending £300,000 on police horses and £3.5 million on refurbishing and redecorating its headquarters. Other expenses include baseball caps for police officers, electric bikes so that police constables do not have to pedal and blogs and websites. Yesterday, the Tories and the other opposition parties in Wales decided to vote against capping the North Wales police authority. Does that decision run contrary to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—
Obviously, the spending of local police budgets is a matter for the chief constable in conjunction with the accountable police authorities and—I would hope—in consultation with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly. I note that my hon. Friend has highlighted a few anomalies and doubtless he will want to press the chief constable for an explanation of each of those spending categories and priorities.
May I invite the Deputy Leader of the House to address the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) about how last night’s result should be interpreted? Has the Deputy Leader done an analysis of the voting figures to determine how many right hon. and hon. Members voted for an appointed House or even for a unicameral Parliament and then subsequently voted for a 100 per cent. elected upper Chamber? Does not that suggest that a number of Members voted for a 100 per cent. election simply to embarrass the Government and frustrate their policy? Those Members voted for what amounts to not a revising Chamber, but a rogue Chamber, about which the Government’s White Paper says hardly anything.
They should also ask for a debate, and I am not sure that the last question did so. We seem to be having the debate now. Let me be frank with the hon. Gentleman and say that I do not think that there was any inconsistency. Some hon. Members are unicameralists and wanted to abolish the House of Lords. That was the first vote. After that vote was disposed of and they did not get their first choice, they then firmly believed that the House of Lords should be fully elected. Other hon. Members will have gone through similar thought processes in the votes. Some decided to vote, as I did myself, for each of the elected options as they came up, although some votes were not called. That is the honest explanation. The end result was that the vast majority of the House who voted did so for at least the 80 per cent. option and even more voted for the 100 per cent. option. Each individual Member of Parliament must of course explain that to his or her constituents.
I voted for up to 80 per cent. last night, and that had a large majority in favour. If there is to be a statement next week to tell us that talks and negotiations are continuing or will take place arising from those historic decisions, would it not be useful to making progress—bearing in mind one of the important votes last night in which there was a clear majority—for a brief Bill to be introduced to amend the House of Lords Act 1999 and remove the remaining 92 hereditaries who sit in the Lords solely because they are hereditaries? Would it not be useful to make progress in that direction as quickly as possible?
After 98 years, I am reluctant to advise my hon. Friend that we could bring in a fast Bill, and act in haste and repent at leisure. I apologise if my hon. Friend has inadvertently misinterpreted what I said about a statement. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House does not intend to make a statement next week, but to wait for the House of Lords to deliberate on the decisions of this House, to reflect on them and then make a statement on the way forward. My hon. Friend and everyone else will then have a chance to question him and make their point of view clear.
May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House about a point of procedure? If and when legislation is introduced to deal with the other place, will it be exempt from the programming regime because it is a constitutional matter? Secondly, to pick up a question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), which the Deputy Leader of the House did not answer, will it also have all its stages taken on the Floor of the House, including the Committee stage?
Order. I am going to stop this here. These questions should be about the business for next week. This is more like proceedings on a statement on the reform of the other place. The Deputy Leader of the House has already said that a statement on that will come, and that is when such questions may be put. Unless questions are on the business for next week, I shall stop them dead.
Following the clear success of the huge number of Downing street online petitions, will the Deputy Leader of the House persuade a Cabinet Office Minister to come to the Dispatch Box next week to make a statement giving us a categorical assurance that all the data and information will not be passed on to the Labour party for electoral advantage, which would be in breach of the data protection legislation?
It is usual for any political party to target supporters with mailings. I gather that among the petitions he mentions there were not too many people supporting the Government’s position on matters, so I would caution my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office against coming to the House and explaining how it might be useful to spend money targeting those people. On a more serious point, all the information is of course covered by data protection legislation, but I think that the House welcomes the use of petition procedures—as has also happened in devolved Administrations. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is considering recommendations for how the House may more effectively use the petitions procedure, as happens in the Scottish Parliament.
What progress may we expect on the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill in the next week or weeks? Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the sinking of the channel ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise, which claimed 193 lives and was the worst peacetime maritime disaster since the loss of the Titanic. It resulted in P&O European Ferries being charged with, but not convicted of, corporate manslaughter.
The emergency services were heroic on that night, but the support provided by the ship’s crew has never been fully acknowledged. Will my hon. Friend make every effort to progress the Bill, but will he also join me in paying tribute to the bravery of the crew on that terrible night in 1987 and to the Dover counselling service, which to this day is still dealing with the aftermath of that awful night?
I certainly do pay tribute to those heroic people and their efforts. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend for being a tireless champion of that cause. As he knows, ministerial colleagues have introduced a Bill to ensure that, whatever the circumstances, never again can those at the top of a company avoid the responsibility for their actions, whether for reasons of cost-cutting or not. I make no reference to previous cases that have resulted in the deaths of people. There must be some level of personal responsibility at the top of the company and the Government are determined to ensure that we have a practical Bill that will bring that about.
What progress has been made towards having a debate on the Act of Union? The Leader of the House has said that he wants to have that debate. The other place is able to debate the Act of Union, so why cannot we have a debate in here?
The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that his party is winning that debate, but he deludes himself. As far as I know, his party has not managed to persuade the people of Scotland of the value of what some comparable smaller states have achieved—that is, value added tax at 25 per cent., an income tax rate of 50p and a pint of beer costing £8. However, I wish him all the best in his attempts to spread that message to as many people as possible. If he does not do that, I certainly will.
May we have a statement from the Attorney-General next week about the remarkable headline on the front page of this morning’s Daily Mail? It finds a Member of the other place guilty of charges in connection with a current inquiry. Every time there is a leak from the inquiry, MPs of the Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist parties release highly prejudicial statements, so how on earth can a judge for the case be found—let alone jurors—who will not have had his mind made up by the press and politicians?
The judiciary takes very seriously issues of prejudicial comment and contempt of court. I am sure that editors will be aware of that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for issuing that reminder, but it is very much a matter for the courts and the judiciary, and not for the Government at this stage.
May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether we can have a statement shortly from a Treasury Minister about that Department’s policy in respect of answering written parliamentary questions? Last week, I tabled a question for answer today about the Treasury’s estimate of the public cost of meeting the ombudsman’s judgment on the failure of occupational pension schemes. I was told that it was a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions, not the Treasury. However, I put the question to the Treasury on purpose, as I want it to answer, not another Department. Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why I cannot have an answer from the Department to which I directed the question?
The hon. and learned Member should seek an explanation from the Table Office. Its staff are highly qualified and give advice about which Departments are responsible for answering questions. It is not uncommon for Members of Parliament to fail to seek that advice, or to ignore it, and as a result put a question to the wrong Department—
Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why a request from the Defence Committee for an extension to Wednesday’s debate on Trident was not granted? Is it too late to extend the debate from 7 pm to 10 pm, as that would give more Back Benchers a chance to contribute? We have just had two days of debate on a subject that is not of great importance to people outside the House, and it therefore seems wrong to devote only one day to the Trident debate.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend, as I think that such a major constitutional change merited two days of debate. There are tremendous pressures on the House’s time, but I believe that there will be adequate time on Wednesday for as many Members as possible to express their views. Moreover, all Members of the House will have an opportunity to vote on the matter. The debate will be the first of its kind to be held in advance of a decision on such an issue, and it shows the Government’s commitment to making sure that that decision is subject to the fullest and frankest discussion. In the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question, I accept that the matter is one of the most serious currently facing the House.
Two years after it was commissioned, the report on the terms and conditions of service of Gurkhas in the British Army has been released. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), today issued a written statement to the effect that Gurkhas who left the service after 1 July 1997 would get the same pensions as those offered to other Army personnel. However, those Gurkhas who left before that date still live in poverty in Nepal, and often depend on charity for survival. Will the Deputy Leader of the House tell the Minister that it was entirely inadequate to announce that important change in a written statement, and that he should come to the House to make an oral statement so that hon. Members can question him about it?
I think that the whole House welcomes the action being taken by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to ensure justice for serving Gurkhas, but applying the change retrospectively would be a completely different matter. I am sure that hon. Members will have opportunities to raise the issue, if not on the Floor of the House, then in Westminster Hall and in Adjournment debates. They will be able to put the case about which the hon. Member feels so strongly, and to secure an explanation from a Minister in the Ministry of Defence of exactly what is being done, and why. I hope that such an explanation will wipe the slate clean.
When can we discuss the report published today about the abject failure of drug policy in Britain since 1971, when harsh prohibition was first introduced? At that time, there were fewer than 1,000 addicts in this country, and virtually no drug crimes or deaths. Now, however, 36 years later, we have 280,000 addicts and the worst levels of drug crimes and deaths in our continent. Should we not turn away from the years in which we pursued policies based on the criminal justice system? They were popular and appeared to be tough, but they failed. Should we not adopt the bold policies based on health solutions that have succeeded in other countries?
I hear what the hon. Member says from a sedentary position. Of course, legalising drug use means that no crime is committed, but this Government do not intend to introduce any such measures. Action has been taken, and the Government’s drug strategy has been successful in cutting the use of non-class A illegal drugs. The amount of crime related to those drugs is also down. Part of the explosion in drugs use, as I think that my hon. Friend for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) will acknowledge, is due to affluence and people’s ability to buy illegal drugs, and to the fall in their price. A number of my constituents have suffered tragedies, and I am sure that all hon. Members could say the same. I know that there is an overwhelming resistance outside the House to any softer line on drugs. The Government must reach an informed judgment, and I will make sure that my hon. Friend’s comments are passed on to the Ministers responsible for drugs policy.
Last night, this House voted decisively for reform of the upper House. The Deputy Leader of the House has made clear his views as to what business is appropriate for next week, but does he agree that we should have a debate on reform of this House as well, given its woeful failure to hold the Executive to account? Would not our deliberations on reforming the other place have much greater credibility if we were prepared not just to think about removing the speck from our neighbour’s eyes, but about removing the beam from our own?
After the unseemly manoeuvring we witnessed last Friday over two popular and well supported private Members’ Bills, in particular the Temporary and Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill, is there any prospect of either the Deputy Leader of the House or the Leader of the House introducing a saner and more rational method of debating and deciding on the worth of private Members’ Bills?
The House has considered, and indeed reviewed, how private Members’ Bills should be dealt with during my time in Parliament. The issue is kept under review by Back-Bench colleagues on the appropriate Committees. If the Modernisation or Procedure Committees make proposals, I hope they will be available for debate and deliberation. We all support improvements, but when the matter was last considered suggestions about changing the day and times would have brought consequential changes that would not, I believe, command the support of the House. However, the process is not set in aspic and is worthy of consideration at any appropriate stage.
I notice that no statement on immigration policy was announced in next week’s business, but if there is one in the future, will the Deputy Leader of the House reflect on the sort of language used by the Home Secretary, when he talked about foreigners coming to this country and “stealing” services such as the NHS? Will the hon. Gentleman explain how someone who is unconscious or has HIV can steal treatment from the NHS? Given the Labour party’s previously proud history of promoting race relations, is he surprised that Members on the Government Benches, as well as on the Opposition Benches, express concern about language from a Home Secretary that can do nothing to improve race relations?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is forthright in his language at all times. Quite frankly, anyone entering this country illegally—and there is no reason why anyone should—who then uses services to which they have not contributed and to which they have no entitlement, deserves no comfort from the House or from the hon. Gentleman. The advice that he and his party should give is that people should come to Britain only legally; they should not cross other countries to come to Britain, make legally unfounded claims and take resources that should go to other people. If the hon. Gentleman wants to defend pushing his constituents to the end of a queue because treatment is being given to someone who has entered the country illegally, he can do so. I will not; nor will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
Next week, may we have an urgent statement from a Health Minister about waiting times for patients needing operations in Leicestershire? My constituent, Mark Golding, has been waiting four months for a hernia operation and is in absolute agony. His surgeon and his GP suggested that he write to me to get the matter brought before the House, so may we have a debate on the subject? I realise that the Government have put a huge amount of money into the local health service, but examples such as I described are very depressing indeed.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s warm words about the huge steps that have been taken to cut waiting lists by 383,000 to record lows, which stops people waiting between 18 months and a year for operations. I hope that he will have the chance to put his question to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health at Health questions on Tuesday, to draw her attention to the matter and to explain why he believes that category should be the Government’s next priority.
Can the Deputy Leader of the House give us an assurance that the wording of the motion on Trident next Wednesday will not be watered down from a clear commitment to continuing to possess, after Trident, a nuclear deterrent based on submarines and Trident missile systems? As the Government are apparently worried about a revolt on their Back Benches, such a watering down of the terminology of the motion would, first, be ineffective in heading off such a revolt and, secondly, be unnecessary given the solid support for the White Paper that they can expect from those on the Conservative Benches?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to congratulate the Government on actually tabling a motion at all. That certainly did not happen under the Conservative Government whom he supported. A motion will be tabled this week and I am sure that it will be clear and that it will allow people to vote accordingly.
In a spirit of cross-party unity, may I express my complete agreement with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) in his request for a debate on the Act of Union? It would be an excellent idea to hold such a debate next week, or at least before 3 May, to allow us to focus on the consequences to Scottish jobs of setting up barriers between Scotland and its main market. It would be pointless to set up a Scottish central bank that had no control over the currency. There will be consequences to England and Scotland from tearing up an economic union that has served both countries well for 300 years.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Such a debate would be welcome, and I am sorry that it is not in next week’s programme. The debate would of course be held in a spirit of persuasion, not in the spirit of bullying Scottish businesses as the leader of the Scottish National party is alleged to have done by Sir David Murray. It is important that there is debate, and even though there may not be detailed debate in the House, it is certainly taking place in Scotland.
The Ministry of Defence has made it clear that unarmoured, so-called soft-skin vehicles are no longer being used on patrolling duties in southern Iraq, yet on the front page of the Hull Daily Mail on Monday the 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment was pictured using just such a vehicle. May I ask that the Secretary of State for Defence comes to the House this week to explain why our soldiers are being exposed to that sort of danger, and whether there will be a quick resolution about armoured vehicles in those theatres?
The hon. Gentleman should have had a chance to ask an urgent question on that matter—I do not know whether he did so and it was rejected. There is no time for such a statement in the House this week, but I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to the issue and ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a response to the legitimate concern that he has raised. I cannot comment on the accuracy of the report, but doubtless my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to give the hon. Gentleman an answer.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on the excellent Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill, introduced by Lord Dubs. I hope it finds it way to this place.
While we are still in the throes of radical reform, can we look at the last great anachronism of Parliament—the Lobby? Is not it about time that we put a searchlight on how the Lobby works? We should call for greater transparency, end unattributable briefings and make sure that Parliament is properly reported. Is not that something the Government could bring forward either in a debate or a White Paper?
Obviously, various institutions in the House have undergone reform and the Lobby is no longer subject to the contempt proceedings that would bring its members on bended knee before the House to apologise for inaccurate or misleading reports. Doubtless, the Lobby will have heard my hon. Friend’s words, so I am sorry to disappoint him by saying that the Government have no plans to investigate the matter. Indeed, it would not be appropriate for the Government to do so—it would be very much a House matter.
TV Licensing has just announced a change in policy, and is now saying that anyone who says that they do not have a television set will be inspected. That means that a Government inspector will knock on the door, demand to go in and look in every room to see whether there is a television set in it. Can we have a statement next week on this change of Government policy?
I cannot promise the hon. Member a statement, but the vast majority of people are very honest about stumping up for their television licences. I am very pleased that the over-75s now get free television licences—a great achievement by the Government. Those who do pay expect everyone else to pay. As long as there is a reasonable suspicion that someone is evading paying for a TV licence, I certainly see no problem with people being checked to establish whether they have a television. I do not think that a burden should fall on honest people because of the actions of dishonest people.
I wonder whether time can be set aside in next week’s Government business to discuss the state of Scottish politics in the light of a report on the front page of this morning’s Daily Record, in which a major political party is described as lacking strategy, lacking initiative and lacking direction. It further argues that the chair of the party should be removed immediately. Apparently, the report was written by the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and it made reference to his Conservative MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.
I have seen the report by the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and I read it with some interest. He did say that there was
“a simple lack of thinkers”
on the Tory Benches at Holyrood. I think that he is being far too generous and that the lack of thinking stems from here, just as the lack of policy comes from here. It is wrong to blame colleagues in the Scottish Parliament for their weak and ineffective opposition up there. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is on his way to Scotland. Doubtless he will leave the airport tomorrow morning, pull up at headquarters and, in the immortal words of Winston Churchill, an empty taxi will draw up and Mr. Cameron will get out.
May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the debacle under which so many of our constituents have had their bodies contaminated by tainted blood products? When the Secretary of State for Health comes to debate the issue or perhaps to give the House a statement, can we have the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) present, as she was the Minister with responsibility for public health at the time? Perhaps she could advise the House whether she sought clarification from the permanent secretary about whether there was a conflict of interest by virtue of the fact that her husband was working for one of the companies implicated in the scandal?
I reject such slurs against my right hon. Friend. I do not need to remind the House that the problem originated under a previous Government, not the present Government, and it is yet another rather tragic mess that we were left to sort out. I would have hoped for some humility on the part of the hon. Member and his colleagues over the role played by the previous Government and that we might reach a cross-party consensus on how to sort out the problem rather than cast aspersions against individuals that have absolutely no foundation in fact and are merely designed to smear someone. I deprecate such behaviour.
May we please have a debate next week on brain tumours, given that they account for 2 per cent. of all cancers, but receive a disproportionately small share of research funding? They are the biggest single disease killing children and, sadly, survival rates have not risen in line with those for childhood leukaemia or a significant number of other cancers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we urgently need a debate about how to tackle this scourge, which has caused far too much suffering to far too many people for far too long?
I respect the hon. Member far too much to make a political point about this and he has quite rightly paid tribute to success in other areas of cancer treatment. I cannot promise a debate, but I hope that he has a chance to raise the matter at Health questions on Tuesday. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of the issue and provides a response to a question that concerns many people.
May we have a debate next week on how the Government respond to public petitions? Last July, I presented to the House a petition signed by 15,000 of my constituents who were concerned about the future of hospital services in Banbury. This week, the Clerk of Public Petitions informs me that the Government intend to make absolutely no observations whatever on that petition. Does not the Deputy Leader of the House think it disgraceful that Ministers in the Department of Health cannot even bestir themselves to draft a two-paragraph response to a petition signed by some 15,000 of my constituents? In this instance, does not the fact of silence indicate contempt?
No, it does not. The procedure for dealing with petitions is no different under this Government as under previous Governments, but I do not say that as an excuse. The Procedure Committee examined the matter and I think that there is a strong case for looking at it again. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has already said, in the light of the use of petitions by No. 10 and the Prime Minister, how they may be more effectively vetted and considered by the House so that a response can be given. The hon. Member, who is a very experienced Member and a former Minister, will realise that a massive volume of petitions come before the House. That is not to devalue any of them, but there must be a way of prioritising them. The Procedure Committee may find a means of allowing us better to consider them in a way that neither swamps us nor gives any feeling of a dismissive response. I think that petitions could be handled better and I hope that we can find a way of doing so in the near future.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few moments ago, the Deputy Leader of the House was unhappy with my asking questions about the previous role of a Minister in connection with the tainted blood debacle. I seek your advice. When Back Benchers write to Ministers and get no reply whatever and the question is passed on to other Departments, what alternative do we have other than raising the matter on the Floor of the House?
Women, Justice and Gender Equality
Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
I am very proud to be here today with colleagues, male and female, from all parties to open the debate on women, justice and gender equality in the United Kingdom and to celebrate international women’s day 2007. The first international women’s day was observed in 1909 in the United States: it is nearly 100 years old, so we must have a big do in a couple of years’ time. I cannot find any trace in the modern era of international women’s day debates in this, the mother of Parliaments, until 1997, but now we have them. On this day, women all over the world reflect on the role that they play in the world, and they come together—actually, virtually or simply in spirit—to rediscover their aspirations. From Alaska to Zanzibar and from Rotaruha to Redcar, women celebrate a sort of female new year’s day, the resolution being that they will work together again for another year with yet more energy and in solidarity towards an equal future.
I welcome our male colleagues from all parties. I mentioned this event to a male this morning and I told him that I expected some men to be here. He said over breakfast that that was surprising and I told him that it seemed likely to me that, by 2020, women would rule the world. He said to me, “What, still?” I told him that the only difference that I could see between him—a man—and a battery was that batteries usually have a positive side. Those are, of course, reversible jokes and so they are gender neutral.
A lady? I support gender-balanced leadership.
Gender equality should have a good year in the UK in 2007. In October, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights will come on stream. Historically, a lot of our effort in Britain in trying to make things fairer has been geared towards stopping discrimination. We saw, and wanted to stop, race discrimination, gender discrimination and disability discrimination. Later, we realised that age, sexual orientation and religion could make people equally vulnerable to being victimised. Soon, the disadvantages faced by other groups, such as carers, may present those people as in need of fair protection. However, it is difficult to change a whole culture to a culture of equalities with tools that are intended for blocking piecemeal acts of discrimination. Court cases require the coincidence of a person who is wronged also being a person who has the stamina and perhaps the cash to see a case through. The result may be an arcane precedent of which not a lot of shop-floor people see the relevance. More recently, we have moved the law towards promoting equality. Promoting equality will be a major task for the new commission.
Does my hon. and learned Friend—the Minister for Women and Equality is sitting on her left on the Front Bench—share my concern about the appointments that have been made so far to the new commission? There appears to be no ethnic minority woman sitting on that commission, apart from the transition commissioner, who is currently the acting head of the Commission for Racial Equality. There are four more vacancies. Does she hope, as I do, that some of the people who fill those vacancies will be ethnic minority women?
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. There is another round of recruitment going on at the moment and I hope that we can do as he suggests.
The new commission is buttressed by the introduction of positive duties on public authorities to promote—currently—gender, race and disability rights. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and we helped to get the human rights element put into the commission. The human rights approach deepens the concept of equality to that of equal respect for the dignity of any individual, whoever they are, by setting minimum standards to which all individuals are entitled. The discrimination law review, led by the Department for Communities and Local Government, is looking at simplification and modernisation of the whole of discrimination law. We intend to consult shortly, ahead of a single equality Bill.
We need these measures. Women need these measures. We have made great progress, but our gains are partial and slow-growing. Let us take Parliament: there have been 100 women MPs for 10 years now, the total having shot up thanks to the decisions Labour took about all-women shortlists in the 1990s. However, at the current rate of progress, it will not be my daughter, or my granddaughter, or my great-granddaughter, but my great-great-great-great-granddaughter—at the earliest—who may see a House of Commons with equal numbers of men and women. That is to say, in royal succession terms, it will happen during the reign not of the Queen—or Helen Mirren—Prince Charles, or Prince William, but of Prince William’s children’s children, who will presumably be called something like George IX, Charles VI, or William VII and who might see that equality in their Parliaments. At about the same time, at current rates of progress, there will be equal pay for women.
My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the only democracy in the world that has 50 per cent. representation of women is the Welsh Assembly. We led the way in the Welsh Assembly to have a 50:50 House. Is that not the future that we should all be working towards?
I want to stress the point that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) has illustrated, a new legislature offers the opportunity to come forward with a process of selecting—as opposed to electing—candidates on a gender-balanced basis. All women in the House should press for that in the reform of the upper House.
Order. I appreciate that the Minister might not want to reply at length to the intervention, but it is customary to say a little something, for the simple reason that, otherwise, technically we have an intervention on an intervention. It is nice to have something in between.
I hope that the hon. and learned Lady understands why I hesitated momentarily just now.
The 10-year strategy entitled “Choice for parents”, which addresses the important subject of child care, had pledged, in a sense, a renewed focus on the availability of child care. In that context, are Ministers at the hon. and learned Lady’s Department talking to Ministers in other Departments about the rigidities of the planning process? One of the consequences of those rigidities is that there is often an insufficient supply at local level. That is damaging. The nimbys win and the interests of mothers and children lose. That has to change.
In relation to the intervention that the Minister responded to about gender balance in the political field, will she undertake to discuss with Stockholm city council how it achieved its 50 per cent. gender balance without any discriminatory means at all? The status of women in Sweden is equal to that of men in the field of employment and in all other areas of society.
I am glad that the Tory party visits Stockholm whenever it thinks that it needs to learn—and it does need to learn. We have done what we have done and we will carry on ensuring that women grow in their power and influence.
I am pleased that, under the gender equality duty, public bodies will address the causes of the gender pay gap. That is part of what they have to do. It is right that they should take proactive steps in their roles as employers and service providers positively to promote equality of opportunity, rather than just taking steps to prevent discrimination. When Trevor Phillips launched “Fairness and Freedom”, the equalities review, the headlines were that, notwithstanding the biggest package of rights ever for working mothers—let us imagine what it was like in the Tory days, when there was not any of that—with extended and better-paid maternity leave, new paternity rights, the right to request flexible working to help parents balance their family responsibilities with work, child care provision and child care support, the most discriminated against people in the workplace were still working mothers. That was not a surprise to any of us.
We are about to do a women and work commission one-year-on programme for progress. Privately, it seems to me that all jobs should be available on a part-time basis unless it is impossible. The low status of part-time work, which many mothers in my constituency will choose to do for some part of their lives, will always result in discrimination while it is seen as a subsidiary way of working. It is seen as an employment B road travelled by people—we call them women—who are deemed to have no ambition, no interest in a career, and few training needs. The common view is that their pay need only be low, as it is a second wage to top up the earnings of the standard two-child family, to take them from Asda clothes and pale ale to Benetton and Beaujolais. Part-time work is viewed not as necessary, but as extra. That treatment of, and attitude towards, part-timers is still firmly in place in work situations, and it alone almost justifies a separate strand of positive duty.
Perhaps the hon. Lady missed it—if so, I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who will sum up, will tell her more about it—but there is a whole strategy to support women through career breaks. This debate is about justice; that is what my Department is concerned with, and we are committed to promoting equality. We must publish a gender equality strategy by the end of April. We already have race and disability strategies, but the Department for Constitutional Affairs intends to go further and produce an overall equality strategy as soon as we can to promote equality in the Department holistically.
Does my hon. and learned Friend think that it advances the cause of women if lone parents who take a positive decision to stay at home and look after their children of ages 11 or 12 face sanctions? Would it not be much better to pursue a voluntary approach that gives women opportunities to enter the workplace, if that is what they choose to do?
I sympathise with my hon. Friend, but it is bad for children to be brought up in workless households. When I had just entered Parliament, I was lucky enough to do a short internship with one-parent families, and it is clear that in most one-parent families the parent wants to go out to work.
Let me come back to the subject of my Department for what will no doubt be a pretty brief interlude. The DCA has a good foundation of supportive networks to help staff achieve their potential, including the DCA’s women’s issues network, which I have just had the terrific pleasure of addressing. Strong staff foundations are important, and we have them, so we can now look outwards and ensure that our services are delivered fairly.
To turn to the justice system, we are making progress in the number of women appointed to judicial office. Year on year, the statistics show that the figures are going up. In 1999, women represented only 24 per cent. of judicial appointments to courts and tribunals. I am pleased to say that figures published by the Department today show that overall, by 2005-06, the figures for the appointment of women had increased to 41 per cent. That is a result of initiatives to encourage greater flexibility and ensure that a wider range of candidates apply. Those initiatives have included a career break scheme for salaried judiciary at below High Court level, and the extension of part-time working to the majority of salaried members of the judiciary.
Interestingly, there is a tradition of part-time working in the courts. Practitioners, from deputy district judges at the bottom of the system to recorders and deputy High Court judges, sit for days or weeks, while continuing to practise the rest of the time. As court lawyers earn reasonable pay, the rates for such part-timers have had to be good to attract people to do work that is in the public interest, instead of otherwise more profitable work. It is ironic that, contrary to its reputation for conservatism, the judiciary might help my Department to lead on, and demonstrate success in, promoting flexible working patterns. My guess is that some of the new women judges are at the junior end of the judiciary, but that might be apt for younger women anyway. There is increasingly a career structure within the judiciary, in which people are promoted from district judge to circuit judge, and from circuit judge to High Court judge. It is important to get women into that career structure, to kindle their ambition for promotion, and to provide flexibility in movement up the chain.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady, who has been generous in giving way. She predicted that the interlude in which she could focus on matters that were exclusively her responsibility might be brief, and I fear that it has been. Given that the gender pay gap among part-time employees is sharply higher in the public sector than in the private sector, does she agree that it is important that the introduction of the new public sector duty is focused on the achievement of an outcome, namely the narrowing and eventual removal of that gap within a relatively short time frame? Can she offer us some information about when that will be achieved?
My hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who will wind up the debate, is better placed to talk about the time frame, but the hon. Gentleman perceives the issue correctly. An interesting question—again, this is my own private view—is what impact the public gender duty will have on the procurement systems of public authorities.
In April 2006, the independent judicial appointment commission was launched, and it is now responsible for the selection of candidates for judicial appointments in England and Wales. The commission has a statutory duty to encourage a wider range of applicants for judicial office, while maintaining the principle that selection for appointment is on merit. Justice is key in a thriving society and it is important that the public have confidence in our justice system.
How are women treated by our justice system? It seems that women have sometimes been disadvantaged by it. We have looked to improve the experiences of women and vulnerable people in many ways, and we are slowly but surely starting to succeed. There are some cheering figures, which I shall relay in a moment. The greatest victories have had to do with domestic violence, and let me make it clear once, and only once in this essentially non-party political debate, that that is down to Labour. It is down to the impact of 100 Labour women coming into the House. In the 30 years after Jo Richardson’s private Member’s Bill was taken on by the Labour Government of the day, there was no mention of the words “domestic violence” under the superintendence of the Opposition.
Jo Richardson’s Bill was to provide a private law remedy for domestic violence, but now we prosecute it as a crime, and we do so in specialist courts. There are domestic violence advisers and specialist domestic violence courts that aim to make victims and witnesses feel safe and well informed. They drive the case for women who, if they did not have independent advisers supporting them, would feel far too undermined by what they had gone through at the hands of the perpetrator to drive the case themselves. From April 2007 there will be 64 specialist domestic violence courts across England and Wales. Some £1.85 million in funding has been allocated for next year to fund access to training for independent domestic violence advisers who support victims throughout their case.
The IDVAs—it is an unhappy acronym—are key. They provide the support and help that the woman needs. They work virtually hand in hand with her, and help from the time that the complaint is made. The adviser will drive the case and help with benefits changes, the need for a new home, the need to move a child to a different school, child care and so on. She will have her fingers in public authority pies, and that will help her to provide those services for women who are otherwise totally on their own. IDVAs come from the voluntary sector, are independent and can be trusted.
Specialist domestic violence courts, with which IDVAs are linked, provide specialised personnel—prosecutors, officers and magistrates—who have been trained out of the still all-too-prevalent notions about domestic violence. They identify, fast-track and risk-assess domestic violence cases. They group them together, enhance information sharing and provide support.
I said that I would give some cheering figures. Successful prosecutions for domestic violence cases have gone up from 46 to 65.4 per cent. between 2003 and 2006, by which time the specialist courts were on stream. Guilty pleas have increased from 45 to 58 per cent. In domestic violence specialist courts, 71 per cent. of cases have successful outcomes. It is good to add that domestic violence itself seems to have gone down by 60 per cent. in less than 10 years. It remains an appalling statistic that two women a week are killed by their violent partners, but the figure used to be getting on for three, so we are making some progress, albeit incrementally.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), yesterday provided a written answer to a question of mine on domestic violence. I asked him to look into the number of offender programmes; it is important that the probation service gets involved in the area under discussion. My hon. Friend said that there is a national target for the number of offenders being coped with of 1,200, but there is very high demand for the service. Is there not a great need to deal with domestic abuse offenders by ensuring that there is an appropriate programme, because the only way that we can ensure that there is any family co-operation is if it is certain that the offender will serve on such a programme? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to do more in this area?
I agree. Effective perpetrator programmes can play a role after conviction. They can also play a role before a case ever goes to court. I think that there are now two—and certainly at least one and a half—perpetrator schemes in my constituency. They are aimed at perpetrators—whose partners might have gone to Women’s Aid for help—who indicate a willingness to try to resolve the matter and to try to remedy their ways before things get out of hand. That is a very good model, but there clearly must also be courses available for when people have gone too far and have been imprisoned.
Last September I spent a day with the domestic violence support unit at Wakefield police. It has doubled its arrest rate in a period of about six months, and it has a fantastic domestic violence support co-ordinator. Also, my hon. and learned Friend mentioned independent advisers playing a role, and that was being done in a voluntary capacity by a domestic violence survivor who had been almost killed by her husband on the day that she announced that she was finally going to leave him after 20 years of abuse.
However, in Wakefield the courts have steadfastly resisted introducing a domestic violence court and have organised the court system so that each specific solicitor department has a morning or an afternoon instead of the domestic violence cases being grouped together. I ask my hon. and learned Friend to look carefully into that situation in Wakefield, where we have been pushing for a specialist court for the best part of two years.
First, let me compliment my hon. Friend on her work in the domestic violence arena by serving on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. She obviously also exhibits powerful local leadership and intervenes where that is necessary. If she would like to come to talk to me, we shall try to unblock the jam she describes. It is not right that courts should operate in that way; they should operate around the interests of the victim.
There are now multi-agency risk assessments—they have been operating since 2003—which are triggered by the independent domestic violence advisers. They engage the police, probation services, local authorities, health agencies, housing agencies and the refuges and women’s safety units, and they share information to reduce harm to very high risk victims and children. Audit shows that, 12 months later, four out of 10 former victims suffer no recurrence of domestic violence. They are repeat sufferers, many having suffered for years, they are at high risk, and the most dangerous time is when someone leaves. Therefore, the results are very promising. I am delighted that Redcar and Cleveland Women’s Aid has a trained IDVA. Ingrid Salomonsen, who runs that Women’s Aid, tells me that the multi-agency meetings make agencies sit up and take notice when they hear the reality of a survivor’s experience, and the protection put in place really works.