House of Commons
Thursday 28 June 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough Constituency of Ealing, Southall, in the room of Piara Singh Khabra, deceased.
That Mr. Speaker do his issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County Constituency of Sedgefield in the room of the Right Honourable Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, who since his election for the said County Constituency hath accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the County of Buckingham.—[Jacqui Smith.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Education and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
Academic Boycott (Israel)
We have made our position on this issue extremely clear in recent weeks, including during my recent visit to Israel, when I stated clearly that the Government fully support academic freedom and are firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics. While I appreciate the independence of the University and College Union, I am very disappointed that it has decided to pass a motion that encourages its members to consider boycotting Israeli academics and education institutions. I profoundly believe that that does nothing to promote the middle east peace process—in fact, it does the reverse.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will know from his visit to Israel that its academic institutions lead the world, especially in the fields of medicine, science, engineering and IT. Any boycott would damage higher education in the UK, as well as in Israel. What steps can he take as a Minister to ensure that there is co-operation and dialogue? Even Universities UK has said that such a boycott would be very damaging to us in Britain.
The fact that I undertook the visit to Israel very shortly after the boycott was announced, a visit on which I was very pleased to be accompanied by Professor Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool university, and president of Universities UK, sent out a very strong message on behalf of those institutions. Education must be a bridge between different peoples, and not a subject of conflict. We are currently working on an idea that I put forward during the visit—that we hold a seminar in London involving Palestinian, Israeli and British academics to demonstrate that education should bring people together.
I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, and applaud the fact that Professor Drummond Bone accompanied him on his visit to Israel. May I invite him to consider what it must be like for Jewish students on British campuses? They are facing a mean and nasty campaign by lecturers that could be described as anti-Semitic. Students of all religions and faiths—and none—should be welcomed on campuses. Such a campaign could damage Britain’s universities and students here, as well as our interests abroad.
I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend. The numbers of overseas students on our campuses has grown. At a time of international conflict, having students of all faiths, nationalities and belief systems working, studying and living together can only be a force for good. It is clear that Israeli academics and Jewish students feel that they have been picked out for special treatment by the boycott, whereas academics in countries without democratic institutions but with much weaker records in human rights are not proposed for boycott. We need to be steadfast on the matter, and this Government will be.
Does the Minister agree that, when so many Israeli universities are doing projects and programmes that benefit not only the Jewish people of Israel but the Druse, the Palestinians and people far beyond that, a boycott can only be detrimental and, far from bringing peace, will divide people?
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. During my visit to Jerusalem, I met Israeli academics at Hebrew university who were engaged in giving direct advice to the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The idea that we would want to stop that kind of co-operation bewilders me, and we should oppose it most strongly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with sweeping actions such as the boycott is that they affect individuals regardless of their personal views for or against the peace process? While we can understand people who take a critical view of one Government or another, they should not use a weapon that hurts individuals who might actually agree with them.
Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. I profoundly believe that in Israel and the occupied territories, there are both progressive and reactionary voices. The problem with an academic boycott is that it makes the job and the position of the progressives much more difficult and it entrenches and enhances the position of those who want to take a hard line.
I am announcing £75 million over the next three years so that 50,000 workless families can benefit from free child care, helping parents to gain access to training and move into work. This is in addition to a number of other schemes that help parents pay for child care while training, including care to learn for young parents, learner support funds for adult learners and the new deal for lone parents as well as special pilot schemes in London. Together with the existing schemes, this new funding will help to establish a more comprehensive and coherent system that reaches those in most need of support.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the answer and for the announcement of the extra funding. Will that help the small number of young women in particular who cannot claim working tax credit to support their apprenticeships because they are in non-employed apprenticeships and, if they are over 20, also cannot claim care to learn child care support? If that funding will not help them, can she consider how we can help them?
I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this matter. As she implies, people on apprenticeships that are classed as employment can apply for working tax credit and, contrary to popular belief, that applies to parents from age 16, not from age 25. She is right that young people on apprenticeships that are classed as non-employed are eligible for education maintenance allowance and, in some instances, care to learn funding. I will take on board my hon. Friend’s comments and make sure that we examine the small number of young people who may fall between those stools. We need to ensure that we have a comprehensive system as a result of the funding and that we can assist all those who need help with child care to get into training or work.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. What assistance is available to parents who are not seeking work or training, but whose children would particularly benefit from good early-years provision, which may help them to break out of the spiral of poverty within the family?
In addition to all the general Sure Start funding that the Government have put in, to the tune of £21 billion, a specific amount—£3 billion per annum—has been made available to fund free nursery entitlement for every three and four-year-old. That is of great benefit, especially for children from more disadvantaged families, in which parents may not be working but can use that entitlement to get into training or work. In addition, we have some special pilots focused on children over two but under three who do not necessarily qualify for the full entitlement. The pilots are focused in very disadvantaged areas to see whether, by getting those children into early education, we can assist their parents into training and work.
We are currently considering final advice on the new key stage 3 curriculum to be taught from September 2008. The advice specifies the holocaust, the slave trade and the two world wars as compulsory. British history will remain as a substantial element of the curriculum, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he agree that a firm grasp of our country’s history is vital for all our children and that teaching segments in isolation does nothing to improve the understanding of the glorious traditions of this country? What plans do the Government have to ensure that children are taught a well-rounded and comprehensive history of these islands?
I shall try to be as spontaneous as I can, Mr. Speaker.
British history is an important element at all key stages. Our review of key stage 3 will make a difference by ensuring that important elements of British history will be supported; in addition, GCSE and A-level courses will have a minimum content of 25 per cent. British history.
May I suggest another area that should be part of historical education in this country? The history of Parliament. Parliament has played a key role in establishing our liberties and freedoms, so will my hon. Friend make sure that we use all our resources here so that schools have proper access to this place? Will he also talk to the British Museum about using its resources so that people can understand not only British history but that of the wider world, too?
I should love the opportunity to talk to the British Museum, and if I get the chance I am sure I will. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about Parliament, which is, as many Members are aware, part of the citizenship curriculum. Many Members talk about Parliament and the benefits of parliamentary democracy to pupils who visit and tour this place. Long may that continue.
May I make a plea for room in the curriculum for the teaching of local history and local culture? It is important that young people have a sense of place and identity. I am struck by the fact that when I take children around the House and show them things that relate to the history of Somerset, their teachers tell me that they are never taught about that in history, which seems a great shame.
There is flexibility in the curriculum for that. Last week, I addressed a conference in Cheltenham where we talked about the city curriculum, which affects my constituency. At key stages 1 and 2 in particular, teachers talk about local landmarks and history and incorporate such work. We encourage schools to continue to do that.
The Minister said that the abolition of slavery would be addressed, so in that spirit may I make a plea for the history of black and Asian people in this country? It is also part and parcel of our history, but has never been discussed. Young people would benefit from it in their education.
Those matters were considered recently as part of the Ajegbo report, of which my hon. Friend may be aware. He and I are very much part and parcel of British life these days, but he is right and, following our review, the slave trade, the British empire, the holocaust and the two world wars will all be essential elements of the key stage 3 curriculum. That is the right way forward: to learn about British life and our history, but also about migration and immigration in the context of the slave trade. It is important that we do so.
Literacy and Numeracy Standards
Last year 79 per cent. of pupils achieved the target level 4 or more in English and 76 per cent. did so in mathematics. This represents a significant improvement in the standards of literacy and numeracy in schools compared with, say, 1997 when fewer than two thirds of pupils reached the target level in either subject.
Under this Government, schools in Tewkesbury, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, have made a 14 percentage point improvement for 11-year-olds and a 16 percentage point increase in maths at the same level.
I thank the Minister for that response, which demonstrates how good teaching in Tewkesbury is. However, is it not the case that the increase in standards over the past few years has rather plateaued, and the children who are losing out are those from poorer backgrounds? Given that the previous Prime Minister was elected on the pledge of being tough on not only crime but the causes of crime, rather than looking to build more prisons, would it not be better to tackle the problems that are experienced by the poorest members of society who fail at 11, go on to play truant and then go on to prison? The prisons are full of people who are illiterate or innumerate so, after 10 years of Labour Government, should they not be doing rather better?
I am not the Prisons Minister—right now anyway. [Laughter.] I will therefore not comment on much of that.
The hon. Gentleman talked about plateauing, but he may not know that, in 1996, the National Foundation for Educational Research reported that there had been no improvement in primary standards for 50 years. We have seen significant improvements in the last 10 years that we should celebrate, and the new Prime Minister in his Mansion house speech last week talked about measures that he wants to see us implement in the future to attack some of the problems regarding the children who still need to improve and the narrowing of attainment gaps around income, ethnicity and gender. For example, he talked about the new learning credit that will mean that those on low income receive the support that they need.
Before my hon. Friend becomes Prisons Minister or something else, will he ensure that further research is done on not only the improved literacy and numeracy results, but on the really troubling problems in some areas of selective education where grammar schools exist and the overall package of education is not very good for the entirety of the population? In fact, many of the struggling young people mentioned by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) do very badly in those areas.
My hon. Friend hits upon a very interesting question. I know that it is the subject of much research in the academic community, and I looked at some from the university of York fairly recently that reinforces the point that he makes. Those in selective areas who are not selected into grammar schools suffer from poor outcomes and that is why the Government remain opposed to any new forms of selection and why some Members on the Opposition Front Bench agree with us.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills and, from his close analysis of statistics, he should be aware of the fact that, although we have concerns about the white working-class boys whose standards have improved but are still not good enough, their improvement is above the national average. We are starting to see the gap narrowed. With, for example, the measures outlined in Christine Gilbert’s review of personalised learning that we published at the beginning of the year and with some of the measures on personalisation and catch-up and stretch that the Prime Minister talked about in his Mansion house speech, we are confident that we will start to address the problem more effectively.
The Minister talked about narrowing gaps and we have seen a real and steady narrowing of the gap in key stage 2 achievement of boys and girls in writing. I am concerned, however, that the gap in reading is more variable from year to year; it seems to me that boys do better in years in which the books that they like to read are published. Does he have any proposals to do more to engage boys with reading so that they can properly compete towards the end of primary school?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the most persistent gender gap being that relating to boys’ reading. We have the national year of reading next year, the roll-out of the every child a reader programme and the success of the reading recovery programmes. We want to see those things expanded to address the persistence of that gap. Naturally, if people are struggling with their reading, in time they will be struggling with the whole of the curriculum, because it is difficult to learn without the ability to read well.
In spite of the moderate improvements in standards in primary schools over the last decade, which the Minister referred to and which I acknowledge, 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds still leave primary school without having mastered the basics of reading, writing and maths. Synthetic phonics—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] They expected me to say that. Synthetic phonics will clearly help to improve literacy, but the TIMSS—the trends in international mathematics and science study—survey, showed that only 5 per cent. of 14-year-olds in the UK achieved the advanced level in the TIMSS mathematics assessment compared with 44 per cent. of 14-year-olds in Singapore. Does the Minister share my view that, having started to roll back the failed progressive approaches to teaching reading, we need to look closely at how maths is taught in primary schools to ensure that it follows tried and tested methods and international best practice?
The Prime Minister is ahead of the hon. Gentleman. He has already announced the every child counts programme, which involves direct intervention to build on the sorts of things that we have learned have been successful with the every child a reader programme and to apply those same things to maths. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that even one of our harshest critics, Professor Alan Smithers, acknowledges that at primary school level our best improvement is in maths. The hon. Gentleman quoted some perhaps slightly misleading statistics. In maths, the figure is up 17 points, meaning that 76 per cent. are reaching the national standard at 11. That is an impressive improvement given the plateauing for 50 years that I talked about earlier.
I was delighted to see the progress made by Nottingham local authority in rolling out the primary SEAL programme when I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency with him earlier this year. It is holding a SEAL launch for all its secondary schools this week, and it has already selected four schools to become leading practice schools to support others to implement SEAL effectively. All local authorities were briefed last month on the implementation strategy for the programme and are currently selecting which schools to support in the first year.
Teaching the social and emotional aspects of learning at secondary level will help to break the intergenerational cycle of educational deprivation in places such as Nottingham by reducing teen pregnancies and helping youngsters to maintain personal and family relationships and responsibilities and to understand life choices. Will the Minister please underline the fact that local education authorities, especially in areas of chronic underachievement in education, do not need to wait for further guidance and instructions from his Department, but should crack on and implement secondary SEAL so that it can have an impact on the life chances of young people who need that opportunity?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his detailed work in this area and for relating that strongly to his constituency. He makes sure that I keep an eye on Nottingham and I will continue to do so in looking at the roll-out. I do think that we can just get on with implementing the SEAL programme in secondary schools. I have made sure that we have increased to 20 per cent. the number of secondary schools that will have support for SEAL in the first year starting in September and I want to see that accelerate as quickly as possible.
The White Paper that was published last week, “Care Matters: Time for Change”, sets out an ambitious agenda for improving the lives of children in care, with an additional investment of more than £305 million. Its proposals include improving the education of children in care through a £500 educational allowance for each child in care falling behind at school, putting the designated teacher on a statutory footing to improve provision in schools, appointing virtual school heads to oversee the children’s education, and a £2,000 university bursary. In relation to individual tutoring, aside from the progression pilot that is taking place in 10 local authority areas, the HSBC Global Education Trust announced a £1 million allocation for one-to-one tutoring for children in care as part of the White Paper launch.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate him on the work that he is doing in this respect. I know that he is aware that many children in care say that no one turns up to their parents evenings or goes to their school plays and sports days. What can he do so that those children get the individual care and attention that they need to attain educationally?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the problems for children in care is that the state is not a very good parent. The state ought to be acting more as if it were a natural parent. As we discovered through the most extensive consultation, including with children in care and young people—often in prison—who had passed through the care system, such children did not have a champion. Having a designated teacher and lead professional at every level is key to solving the problem. The production of the White Paper was an extremely important step, but until we actually deliver by changing a situation in which the most vulnerable in our society are treated appallingly, we cannot truly say that we are a civilised society.
I agree, but the White Paper identifies the problem that we allow children to slip into care too easily when there are often friends and family who could look after them. Once children slip into care, they are moved around too much. None of these problems is the fault of the fabulous people on the front line who foster children. It is key that the first placement is the right placement so that children are not moved around too often. If they move around too often, they move school too often, which means, especially if they move during their GCSE years, that they fail at education. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. I hope that he accepts that the White Paper includes a way forward.
I welcome very much what the Secretary of State says. However, many children in care suffer from speech, language and communication impairments and have special educational needs. What is he doing to ensure not only that such children who have statements of special educational needs receive the appropriate therapy, but that such children on school action and school action-plus receive speech and language therapy on the scale and with the intensity required so that they are not at the mercy of cash-strapped primary care trusts?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue, as he has done before. When he reads the White Paper, I hope that he agrees with the focus on a care strategy for each individual child in care, including those with such specific difficulties. Things are difficult enough for children with those problems who are in a settled family. Children in care do not have the same support as them and the same champions who can go to school to argue their case. That is why the care strategy and the lead professional are key to resolving that problem for children in care, as well as many others.
Further to the answer that the Secretary of State gave a moment ago to the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) about kinship carers, when the Green Paper was published, the Secretary of State suggested that he would be examining improving the allowances and support for such carers. However, although the White Paper acknowledges the financial pressures on grandparents especially, it is rather vague about giving a commitment to improving allowances and on any specifics of the support that he would recommend. Is he still committed to improving that package and, if so, how will he do that?
Yes, I am. I am sorry that that is a bit vague in the White Paper. I hope that it will become clearer as we take the policy through because it is important. Grandparents in particular have a huge role to play. As, thankfully, people are healthier and living longer, there is a question of how we can use grandparents to greater effect.
None of these problems is really to do with money. As Martin Narey, the head of Barnardo’s says, this is one of the few areas in which the problem is not cash and finance, but the system. We have put in another £305 million. We will put more money in place to help kinship carers through local authorities so that we get this right. We are spending £2 billion already. The problem is the system, so if extra finance is required, we need to provide that.
The White Paper says that nearly 10 per cent. of children in care over the age of 10 are cautioned or convicted of a criminal offence in an average year. Given that, will he tell me what discussions Ministers in the Department have had with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about ensuring continuity of education for children who end up spending a period in custody?
As is the case for so many other issues in the White Paper, local authorities have to accept responsibility right the way through. We propose—this will take legislation—that children should remain in care for longer, instead of being pushed out at 16, and that they should be able to stay with adoptive parents until they are 21. In addition, they will have an individual counsellor looking after them until they are 25. On children who are unfortunate enough to go through the criminal justice system, we are talking to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about how we can co-ordinate action, but it needs to be joined up at local authority level. That is why I say that we could not have taken any of those measures without “Every Child Matters”; it provides the foundation for us to build on, so that we can properly tackle the issue.
I am sure that the whole House will wish the Secretary of State well, whatever today holds for him. May I say that I, personally, have always appreciated the courtesy and consideration that he has shown to me? I am sure that the White Paper on children in care will be one of the achievements in which he takes greatest pride. Indeed, its words on looked-after children may have a particular relevance to some Ministers present today. I remind the Secretary of State that it says:
“Far too many find themselves in placements which do not meet their needs, resulting in a high level of instability.”
It is also important to them to know
“details about the placements in advance, in order that they can be more meaningfully involved in deciding where they will live.”
May I invite the Secretary of State warmly to endorse those sentiments, and does he perhaps regret that he has spent only 13 months in his most recent placement?
I cannot speculate on what announcements might be made later, but the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know—this is absolutely true—that there was a power failure at the Department for Education and Skills this morning. All the lifts and the lights are out, so the power seems to be seeping away. The hon. Gentleman is very kind. I think that he is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful Members of Parliament anywhere in the House. I see that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who was in the Chamber, has now disappeared, but I think that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) was absolutely right in what he said on selection in his speech to the CBI a couple of weeks ago. All I can say about where we might go is that I have been in three Cabinet positions, and my shadow on every occasion has been the hon. Gentleman, so wherever I am going, I am pretty sure that he is coming with me.
Some 4,400 young people have started an apprenticeship in the city of Hull since 2001. Figures are not available at local authority level for the years before that. Nationally, the apprenticeship programme goes from strength to strength. We have trebled the numbers in learning since 1997, and 100,000 people a year complete an apprenticeship. The completion rate now stands at almost 60 per cent. We want to expand the programme further so that by 2013 any suitably qualified young person will be entitled to an apprenticeship place.
I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging reply, and I ask him to join me in congratulating Shaun Anderson from Hull, who was the runner-up in the personal achiever section of the apprenticeship awards. Will he confirm that the investment in our young people and the commitment made to them through apprenticeships is in marked contrast to the sniping and negative comments of the Opposition?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I attended the apprenticeship awards gala evening last Wednesday at which Shaun’s achievements and those of many other young people were recognised and celebrated. It was not only apprentices who attended but the people who trained them, employers from Hull and across the country, and sponsoring companies such as British Gas, BAE Systems, City and Guilds, BT and many others. It is good that we can celebrate success not only in the number of young people taking up apprenticeships but in the commitment and hard work that they and their supporters demonstrate. It would be helpful if the Opposition, instead of running down that successful system, could for once start to show support and celebrate the apprenticeship system.
The complete destruction of the apprenticeship system during the dark ages of the Tory years was an act of wanton vandalism, and it is a great tribute to the Government that there has been a huge increase in numbers. Does my hon. Friend accept, however, that there is still more work to be done to improve completion rates and that part of the solution is to increase the portability of apprenticeships? What plans does he have to do precisely that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have trebled the numbers. Five or six years ago, the completion rate was as low as 24 per cent., but I am delighted that a focus on the problem means that 60 per cent. of young people are now completing their apprenticeships. That is an amazing step forward, and it aligns us with our competitors in France, Germany and other parts of the European Union. We have to do even better, however, so we will continue to drive the programme forward, using innovations such as those that he has described to run the apprenticeships system, to ensure that more young people complete apprenticeships. Indeed, we have a target of 400,000 young people a year undertaking apprenticeships by 2020. That is the Leitch ambition, and it is one that we share.
An evaluation strategy for children’s centres is being developed, and the rigorous and independent national evaluation of Sure Start is monitoring Sure Start local programmes as they transform into children’s centres. In 2005, emerging findings highlighted the fact that there were already positive overall effects on parenting and on child outcomes for most families in those very disadvantaged areas. They also identified the need to work harder to reach and support the most disadvantaged families. We have taken steps to ensure that children’s centres do so.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and I am glad that a proper evaluation of the impact of children’s centres on families is under way. May I probe her a little further specifically on child inequality? Is there any evidence that areas with children’s centres have greater or less child inequality than similar areas that do not have children’s centres?
As part of the series of reports in the national evaluation of Sure Start, four further reports will be published today. Research in one report shows faster reductions in child poverty in Sure Start areas compared with England as a whole. That research looked at local programmes over five years, and identified improvements which, however, we cannot correlate directly with Sure Start, because a number of other factors in those areas need to be taken into account. None the less, that is encouraging because in Sure Start areas, as I have said, there are greater decreases in the percentage of children living in workless households, and improvements in child health, with fewer respiratory illnesses and severe injuries, which reflects the better integration of services in Sure Start areas.
While it is undoubtedly true that Sure Start education centres are popular and successful, does the Minister acknowledge the Birkbeck research in that evaluation programme, which clearly shows that the centres do not reduce inequality, because they do not address the differing language skills of different social classes?
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a high level of satisfaction with children’s centres. In another piece of research, 90 per cent. of parents were very satisfied, and 9 per cent. were quite satisfied with them. Parents certainly believe that they are getting what they need for their children from children’s centres. Language acquisition is an important part of the redevelopment of the early years foundation stage which, as he will know, will be delivered in any setting for an early-years child from nought to five. That focus on communication, literacy and language is a vital part of ensuring that children develop those skills and it will enhance their well-being as a whole.
Although the evaluation is important, I am sure that, like me, my right hon. Friend has talked to parents who think those centres have changed their lives completely. However, I wish to pursue the point about those who are most disadvantaged. While the children’s centres in my Loughborough constituency have reached many of the disadvantaged, the most disadvantaged are probably still not being targeted and extra work is being done to bring them in. Can she explain in a little more detail what measures are being taken to reach out even further to those who would benefit most from the vast array of services provided through the children’s centres in Loughborough?
My hon. Friend is right. In tackling inequality, which is the next big challenge for all public services, not just children’s centres, the crucial question for us is how those public service professionals, health visitors and so on can reach the people who are the most disadvantaged, who will not find their way to services voluntarily or easily for all kinds of reasons. With reference to children’s centres, we have issued clear guidance on how that outreach work needs to be done. Universal services such as health visitors, which are non-stigmatising and go to every household when a child is born, have a key role to play. Building on that role, we have funded the nurse-led family partnerships, which are using specialist health visitors with first-time very young parents, often teenage parents, to work with them not just for the first few weeks, but from pregnancy right through until children are two years old and more. They, too, will work through children’s centres and provide a strong lead as to how we can develop this important outreach approach.
The Minister will be aware of a number of reports out in recent weeks showing that social mobility in the United Kingdom has declined to the point that it is the worst of any developed country where it is measured. Given that there are many advantages to the Sure Start programme, but that a great deal of public money is spent on it, is she prepared to make any claim as to how the Sure Start programme might improve social mobility for our fellow citizens in the future?
First, it is important to put the record straight. In fact, social mobility started to decline in the 1980s and 1990s under the Conservative Government. What we have managed to do so far, which is not enough for this Government, is to halt that decline. That is the first stage in reversing the decline in social mobility, which is our objective. Secondly, the focus on early years, which this—
Local Liberal Democrat councillors have welcomed children’s centres as a part of tackling child poverty, but Tory councillors have said that they would close children’s centres unless they were a proven success. That has caused concern for local parents. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House on what basis councillors would be able to close children’s centres, and give my constituents some reassurance?
Just in case any councils in the future thought they might be able to reverse the trend, we have enshrined the integration of services for the early years though children’s centres in legislation in the Childcare Act 2006, which received Royal Assent in July last year.
Without commenting on the right hon. Lady’s potential for upward mobility later today, may I ask how she responds to the conclusions of the Sutton Trust report, which found that social mobility has declined to its lowest level in the UK for 20 years, and the National Audit Office’s report in December last year, which found that of the children’s centres visited, only nine out of 30 actively targeted the harder to reach? Does she agree that her end of term report will read, “The Government must try harder”?
We made it clear from the outset, which is why we have put all the phase 1 children’s centres in the most disadvantaged areas, that we see that as an essential long-term programme focusing on the youngest children, directly reducing child poverty and improving social mobility. We also know that what happens in practice depends very much on the actions of people in those children’s centres. We have made it clear in subsequent guidance that outreach must remain a fundamental element of the children’s centre programme, and that it must be strengthened. Our consultants are working to ensure that that happens in practice.
Eventually all schools and colleges will offer an entitlement to the diplomas. We will start in September 2008 on a small scale. On 28 March, we announced the first 145 consortiums across the 97 local authorities that have been given approval to offer one or more of the first five 14-19 diplomas from September 2008. Within those consortiums, 800 secondary schools have said that they will be either feeder institutions to other consortium partners or offer diplomas themselves.
In a recent YouGov poll, 65 per cent. of secondary schoolteachers said that they believe that the new diplomas will simply be training programmes leading to low-paid jobs for non-academic students. Will the Minister dispel that view, and does he agree that the prime objective of diplomas must be to bring about a parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications?
My hon. Friend is right that that myth is completely erroneous. I agree with the Edge Foundation, which conducted the survey. It said that
“diplomas should be highly attractive to students of all aptitudes and abilities, including the most able. They should offer a genuine alternative to existing GCSEs and A levels.”
We are investing a lot of money in the new diplomas to allow young people to choose a vocational route that will take them through either to higher education—for example, an engineering degree—or to work. The diplomas will attract talented young people from across the system.
The Edge Foundation also said that
“The current time-scales are unrealistic—some would say dishonest”.
The Education and Skills Committee has considered the matter in detail. It said that
“the development work has sometimes been uncomfortably compressed”,
and it doubted whether those in charge have a clear sense of the diploma’s purpose.
The Minister must know that the doubts referred to by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) are widespread. The House expects him today to give an absolute assurance on the consistency, rigour and capacity of schools to deliver the diplomas—or does he still share the Secretary of State’s chilling view that the diplomas may go horribly wrong?
The hon. Gentleman has moved from slagging off the apprenticeship system to running down the diploma system. He must learn that he is not doing himself or his party any favours by running down the education system and the young people within it. We have implemented a gateway of quality: 38,000 students will start those diplomas, and an extra £50 million will go into work force development. Those young people will study towards high-quality diplomas involving a combination of practical and academic learning, which will be the envy of countries across the world.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
Questions 21 and 23 are identical, and I can imagine why they were tabled, although I think that today is a little bit early.
The future of the Law Officers will no doubt be decided by the new Prime Minister, and in so far as the Law Officers’ advice to Parliament is concerned, by this House. I understand that the Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently considering those issues, and we will read its report with interest.
The Solicitor-General will be aware that in his letter of resignation to the outgoing Prime Minister, the Attorney-General referred to “the host of challenges” that he had faced in that office. Does the Solicitor-General agree that those challenges are and have for centuries been inherent in that role and that the best way to deal with them is to meet them head on and not to use them as excuses for changing the nature of that office? If so, will he communicate that view to the new Prime Minister?
My noble Friend Lord Goldsmith has performed those duties by facing some of the difficult decisions that he has had to make on a series of issues head on. He has dealt with those decisions with a great deal of integrity. He has taken a lot of flak, particularly from those in certain galleries, about those issues, but he has done so with a level of integrity. In future, Law Officers will continue to display seriousness about the law, respect for the law and integrity in dealing with the law.
The Solicitor-General believes, rightly, that Law Officers should be accountable to the Houses of Parliament, particularly to the House of Commons, whereas the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has taken a somewhat different view. We have discussed collective responsibility with the right hon. and learned Lady in the past—she was of course the Solicitor-General’s predecessor—and had disagreements. Now that she is deputy leader of the Labour party, chairman of the Labour party and reportedly going to be Leader of the House, whose view does he think may prevail?
As I have already said, we are looking forward with interest to the report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee. I think that my right hon. and learned Friend made some interesting and weighty contributions to the debate about the future of the Law Officers. We should remember that the Law Officers have a role in advising this House, and we will look to see what view the House and the new Prime Minister take on what their future should be.
There is not really a convention about that—it is a matter of how the Prime Minister decides that he wishes to deal with these matters. I suppose that there are certain advantages in having one of the Law Officers in each House, but that has not always been the case. I remember that when I came into the House in the 1990s both Law Officers were in this House.
Will the Solicitor-General advise the new Attorney-General to give up the seemingly new practice of attending Cabinet as a matter of course? Does not that appear to put the Attorney-General in the position of being too close to the Government to advise objectively on matters such as the war in Iraq and the dropping of the prosecution of BAE?
That will be a matter for the new Attorney-General to consider. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Goldsmith took the view that there were certain advantages in his attending Cabinet because he was then aware of what was happening as it was happening and was able to use the opportunity to talk to other Cabinet members. However, the new Attorney-General will no doubt consider the issues and take a view on whether he should attend.
May I thank the Solicitor-General and the outgoing Attorney-General for their courtesy at all times during the previous Administration, whatever our differences of view on certain issues? Will he accept, and perhaps pass on, a couple of suggestions? First, if, in future, Law Officers give advice that is then prayed in aid in order to influence a vote here, that should become public, not be kept private. Secondly, while responsibility for prosecutions should of course remain with somebody accountable to Parliament, there should be an exemption if the prosecutions are of other parliamentarians or civil servants, because that requires an independent decision, not a political one.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which I will certainly pass on to my right hon. and noble Friend. Ministers who go to a lawyer for legal advice want to know that that advice will be frank, accurate and confidential, as indeed does anyone. It becomes very difficult for people to go to their lawyer if they think that that advice will be immediately made public. In certain circumstances, it can be made public, but we need to consider that with a great deal of care. As for the role of Law Officers in relation to certain prosecutions, the safeguards in the way in which such decisions are taken will, I hope, prove in due course to be adequate.
May I first echo the Solicitor-General’s words about the Attorney-General and extend my thanks to him for the way in which he has communicated with me? I have always taken the view that the Attorney-General discharged his duties with integrity and fortitude. I thank the Solicitor-General, too, for what he has done and I hope that we may continue to see him at the Dispatch Box.
Let me consider the future role of the Law Officers. In response to questions on 26 April, the Solicitor-General made it clear that he believed that the Law Officers must be accountable to their several Houses of Parliament, whether they are in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Does not it follow that, if there were any suggestion that that accountability should be removed, the Solicitor-General, if he is still in post, would oppose it and that, if it were forced through, his position would be untenable and he would have to resign?
The Constitutional Affairs Committee is examining those matters and we will consider its views with great care and listen to the arguments that its members present. Doubtless the new Prime Minister will take a view on the matter in due course. Those views will have to be given a great deal of weight and regard.
Media Reporting (Criminal Cases)
The Attorney-General has in the past issued advice to the media about reporting proceedings, including specific advice on coverage of individual cases, to help to avoid potential prejudice of fair trials. The right to a fair trial has to be balanced with the qualified right to freedom of expression under the European convention on human rights. The public have a right to be kept informed of developments in cases and there must be a substantial risk of serious prejudice to proceedings for there to be any interference with that right.
The Fawcett Society estimates that less than 15 per cent. of rape is reported, and a major influence on whether someone—especially a woman—proceeds with her case is believed to be the prospect of adverse reporting and the naming, and almost shaming, of her past life. What further steps can my hon. and learned Friend take to guarantee anonymity in those cases?
Protecting the anonymity of complainants in rape cases is enormously important. More women—and, indeed, men—who are victims of rape are reporting the incidents, and that is positive. However, rape is difficult to prove, especially in cases in which those involved knew each other and the central issue is consent. It is therefore important that the Law Officers respond cautiously to requests to enable the courts to publish names. Indeed, such a request has been made in the Warren Blackwell case. We are anxious to ensure that those who are considering reporting rape can know that they retain an appropriate level of anonymity and that their names will not be published in newspapers unnecessarily.
Does the Solicitor-General agree that one of the problems that we have experienced with applying the European convention on human rights is associated with the role of the Attorney-General? In the past few years, we have relied far too much on questions relating to the interpretation of the law on human rights. If we are to have a new Attorney-General, he should not only be in the House of Commons, but he should not be totally committed to the European convention on human rights in all its shapes and forms.
As one of the Ministers who took through the Human Rights Act 1998 and introduced the convention to law, may I defend it, especially in the context of the question, which is, to some extent, about the freedom of the press? The Human Rights Act enshrines some of those freedoms. Before the hon. Gentleman starts to say that he wishes to remove them from people like those who sit in the Press Gallery, he should exercise a great deal of caution. There are protections that we want to keep.
I have to tell the House that yesterday I received a letter from Sir Philip Mawer, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, informing me that he wishes to step down from the appointment on 31 December 2007. By that date, Sir Philip will have served for almost six years. He records in his letter that he counts it a great privilege to have been able to serve the House in such a worthwhile capacity. There will be an opportunity for Members to express their appreciation at a future date. I shall arrange for a copy of his letter to be placed in the Library.
Business of the House
I am the Leader of the House; it is absolutely true. I said last week that I was ready to go on and on and on, and here I am.
The business for the week commencing 2 July will be as follows:
Monday 2 July—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003 (Commencement No. 2) Order 2007, followed by a motion to approve a European Document relating to global navigation systems.
Tuesday 3 July—Opposition day [15th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Access to NHS Services”, followed by a debate entitled “Crisis in Pensions”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 4 July—Second Reading of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 5 July—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [Lords].
Friday 6 July—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 9 July will include:
Monday 9 July—Estimates [3rd allotted day]. At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Tuesday 10 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2007, followed by Second Reading of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 11 July—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 12 July—Remaining stages of the Further Education and Training Bill [Lords].
Friday 13 July—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on 12 and 19 July will be:
Thursday 12 July—A debate on the report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee on the implementation of the Carter review of legal aid.
Thursday 19 July—A debate on the Government response to the all-party parliamentary group report on anti-Semitism.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business for what I am now confident will be the last time. He has always been courteous in his dealing with me, and he has always been prepared to stand above party politics in the interest of the House. According to the BBC, his successor as Leader of the House is likely to be the deputy leader and chairman of the Labour party. I know that we women can multi-task, but “three-hats Harman” is perhaps taking it a bit too far! The new Prime Minister says that he wants to strengthen Parliament, yet he is appointing a part-time Leader of the House whose two other jobs are party political positions. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is acceptable in the interests of the House?
Picking up on the statement that the Speaker has just made, I should like to thank Sir Philip Mawer for all the work that he has done as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It is an important role. Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will not be an interregnum before his successor is appointed, as there has been with the chairmanship of the Committee on Standards in Public Life?
According to Sky News, there will be a ministerial statement to the House on Monday on one of the Prime Minister’s big ideas, yet the Leader of the House did not mention it when he announced the forthcoming business. The Prime Minister says that he will respect Parliament. Will the Leader of the House assure us that the media are not being informed of House business before hon. Members?
This week, the Ministry of Justice published the 54th criminal justice Bill since Labour came to power. With only four weeks until the House rises, the Bill has little chance of proper scrutiny before the end of this Session, and it was published just days before the Home and Justice Secretaries left their jobs. Delivering a Bill written by Lord Falconer must be the ultimate hospital pass. As it appears that the Leader of the House will be the next Justice Secretary, will he make a statement on the Bill’s timetable?
The Government have created 3,000 new criminal offences, but have not expanded prison capacity to match. The criminal justice Bill will therefore introduce greater use of cautions, end suspended sentences in magistrates courts and limit jail terms for repeat offenders. After five Home Secretaries, 54 criminal justice Bills and 3,000 new criminal offences, the Government still do not have a clue. So much for being “tough on crime”. Can we have a debate on the crisis in the criminal justice system?
According to research published this week, Home Office police targets and performance management have increased bureaucracy and stifled innovation. At any one time, one fifth of officers are not available for operational duties. Nearly three quarters of superintendents believe that Home Office reporting requirements have damaged the quality of policing. So much for trusting front-line professionals. Can we have a debate on the role of Home Office targets in policing?
Official figures released this week show that more and more schools are being forced to take back unruly pupils after deciding to exclude them. Almost a quarter of excluded pupils successfully challenged their exclusions. That is a 20 per cent. increase since Labour came to power. So much for trusting teachers. Can we have a debate on school discipline?
The Minister for Schools has said that the Government will raise £80 million by imposing a 5 per cent. levy on schools with budget surpluses. The levy will apply whether or not the money is earmarked for future projects. So much for trusting head teachers. Can we have a debate on trusting schools to run themselves, free from Government interference?
After 10 years of Labour, surely those examples tell their own story. The new Prime Minister might spin that he is a change, that he respects Parliament and that he trusts the people. He still believes, however, that the man in Whitehall knows best. That is not a “new kind of politics”; it is just same old Labour.
No, I think that it might be longer. As I said, I really enjoy this job, so I am happy to go on and on and on. I know enough about reshuffles to know that they are not over till they are over. I shall certainly not comment on any dispositions that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is recommending to Her Majesty the Queen.
In the normal ecumenical spirit that I have sought to adopt during these proceedings, may I say that I was looking forward very much to some jokes at the end of the right hon. Lady’s speech? I thought that she had got the jokes up to speed in the previous two business questions. I am really sorry to have missed them on this occasion, but if I come back next week, she can do them then.
May I join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute to Sir Philip Mawer, who has conducted himself, in a position of some great challenge, with considerable dignity, integrity and skill? I knew Sir Philip before he took the job on, and he has been a fine person to fulfil the duties. On the issue of the appointment, I will do my best to ensure that there is no interregnum, as the right hon. Lady puts it.
The right hon. Lady made some pejorative remarks about some reports on the television news, which, I am afraid, I have not seen; I was busy preparing for business questions. I, too, have a party card and I, too, am a partisan politician, as is everybody in the House, and successive Leaders of the House, on both sides, have shown that it is perfectly possible to acknowledge and follow the twin duties of Leader of the House—to represent the Government to the House, and the House to the Government, as well as separately fulfilling their other duties. As she well knows, I have had other Government duties, including House of Lords reform, party funding and the chairmanship of many Cabinet Committees, so such things are possible.
On the issue of statements, we will follow the provisions that I have introduced to give as early notice as possible of statements, which is a further indication of the way in which the Government have sought better to respect Parliament and to ensure that the House is the first to know of major, and indeed minor, announcements.
The right hon. Lady then went on to discuss the 54th criminal justice Bill. Well, it is a nice line. We know which Bills the Conservatives rubbished as gimmicks at the time, including the first major criminal justice Bill, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which contained measures that have made a huge difference to constituents, such as the reforms of youth justice, the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders and much else. The question for the Conservative party is whether it would repeal those measures in the unlikely event that it returned to power.
As for our record on crime and disorder, I would be delighted to debate it at any time. We have 14,000 extra police officers and police officer numbers are going up, when they went down under the Conservatives. Crime has fallen by more than 30 per cent. when it doubled under the Conservatives. It is a record of which we shall be proud.
The right hon. Lady asked about exclusions and school discipline. Of course, it is up to her if she wants to have a debate. I have given her a lot of comradely advice about how she can make better use of Opposition days: there is one suggestion.
As for respect for Parliament, let it be said that in the past 10 years we have introduced many measures, some of them recited in the latest Modernisation Committee report, better to strengthen the role of this House. I hope that the Committee’s report will be implemented.
Will my right hon. Friend find time urgently to debate the abuse of the privilege of press passes? He will no doubt be aware that I had to go to the High Court two weeks ago to obtain redress for an article in The Mail on Sunday by Simon Walters, the holder of a press pass. It is an abuse of privilege for a journalist—if one may go so far as to call him that—to use a press pass to get tittle-tattle from security guards, police and other employees in the House to print lies about Members of Parliament.
As a former member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I also pay tribute to Sir Philip Mawer and the excellent work that he has done in recent years. The Steward of the Chiltern hundreds yesterday said that it was the end, but of course it is only the closing of one chapter and the opening of another, although some of us think that it is odd that we have gone from “Great Expectations” to “Bleak House” in just 10 years.
There are still several items on the agenda, and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) mentioned the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. I notice that the Leader of the House did not give us the timetable for that. The right hon. Lady did not mention the scale of the Bill, which has 235 pages, 152 pages of explanatory notes and 14 pages of regulatory impact assessment. How on earth is the House intended to give proper scrutiny to another criminal justice Bill when it will not be introduced until the second half of July for Second Reading? If all of this criminal justice legislation is so good, can the Leader of the House please explain why it needs amending within the year?
I have not finished.
We had a valuable statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on flooding, although since then, he has left for warmer climates. I know that there has been increased investment, but the cuts in flood defence spending have been disastrous. The result for many people has been personal catastrophe. May we have a statement from the new Secretary of State on the implications for the once-in-100-years assessments, because they are clearly not correct and we need to revise our flood defences in the light of recent events?
May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on his position on Iraq? It is important that we know where he stands on that.
Lastly, I tried to co-operate with the Government last week—I always do, and I am still mulling over the offer of the Wales Office—but does the Leader of the House seriously believe that it is sensible to ignore the request from the outgoing Secretary of State for International Development for a corruption Bill, when the outgoing Attorney-General has said that there is a need for a change in the offences and when we have one on the Order Paper tomorrow? The Corruption Bill is No. 17 on the list of private Members’ Bills, has come through the House of Lords and would satisfy the Government’s intentions. Will the Leader of the House instruct his colleagues and the Whips not to shout “Object” tomorrow so that we can make progress on enacting proper anti-corruption legislation in this country?
And I’ll plead guilty—I was worried about my hon. Friend for a second—because I think the hon. Gentleman may be after a job. I made it clear last week that we are a broad church, and I am always happy to co-operate with the hon. Gentleman or anyone else on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I look forward to their seeing the light in due course—[Interruption.] I am trying to be nice to them.
I apologise to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for not responding to her question about the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. She should stop worrying about it. It is a large Bill. It will be properly examined by the House. If it gets its Second Reading, it will go upstairs to be subject to the full Public Bill scrutiny procedure that the House agreed following the Modernisation Committee report—in other words, it has a Select Committee-style hearing for its opening stages. It is also a carry-over Bill. There has been no suggestion whatever within the Government that we are trying to get it through by Prorogation in late October or early November.
On flooding, I put on the record again our condolences and sorrow in respect of those people who have lost their lives as a result of the flooding, and our huge admiration for those in the fire and rescue services, the armed forces and the police, and the many, many local government and public sector civilian workers, as well as citizens in those areas, who have been working fantastically hard to alleviate the effect of the floods. These floods were literally a once in a century or more event. We do our very best to ensure that there is proper preparation for such events. That has been part of the work of the upgraded civil contingencies secretariat, which was set up a few years ago by one of my successor Home Secretaries.
Let me deal with funding. Yes, there was a reduction for 2006-07 of £15 million in the Environment Agency’s overall flood-risk budget. That was applied to the agency’s resource budget, which funds such items as staff costs, operational activities and maintenance. I have been assured that the agency capital budget was not cut, that funding for capital projects for new and improved defences to reduce risk was not affected, and that no current or planned improvement projects were delayed as a result. The reduction has been more than reinstated in the agency’s funding for 2007.
On the Corruption Bill, we have already strengthened anti-corruption measures. We always consider private Members’ Bills on their merits, but it does not lie in the mouth of the hon. Gentleman on the one hand to criticise the fact that we have now reached a 54th Bill on criminal law and on the other hand to propose a 55th.
May we have an urgent debate on the railways, with particular reference to rail safety and continuity? Despite the best efforts of the British Transport police, the east coast main line, on which Wakefield station sits, has been plagued by theft of copper cable. I have now been contacted by constituents in the Bell Vue area who have a defunct railway bridge—scheduled for demolition in 2015—that is a magnet for antisocial behaviour both from the train-spotters, who gather there to look at trains and who urinate in people’s back gardens, and from thieves, who use it as an escape route; I have seen pictures of patio heaters being taken down the railway track. We need to get that sorted out as quickly as possible and to see action from Network Rail.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s campaign to improve rail safety and protect her constituents, railway staff and passengers. I understand the force of her point—indeed, I share it—and I will ensure that the chief executive of Network Rail is made fully aware of her concerns and the need urgently to consider the earlier demolition of that railway bridge.
I very much doubt that. The report has not yet been received by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We are not entirely clear when it will be, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman, as chairman of the 1922 committee, and those who represent other parties in the House are kept informed about progress.
May we have a debate on the operation of the Judicial Appointments Commission? When the chief executive gave evidence to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, she was unable to tell the Committee how many recommendations had been made to the Lord Chancellor for new judges. There is also a very large number of former civil servants from the Department for Constitutional Affairs now working at that body. It is very important that we have an independent Judicial Appointments Commission. May we have either a statement from the next Justice Secretary or a debate in the House about this important matter?
In your statement, Mr. Speaker, you indicated that there would be an opportunity at a later date to pay tribute to Sir Philip Mawer. As the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I would like to do that in a handsome way at the appropriate time.
Reverting to the subject of next week’s business, I seek an assurance from the Leader of the House about next Thursday’s business statement. By tradition, the Leader of the House has been less partisan and more broad-minded than his colleagues because of his responsibilities to the House as a whole. Apart from the occasional lapse, the current Leader of the House has performed that responsibility with enormous distinction. Does he agree that it will be far more difficult for that convention to be upheld if his successor is also chairman of the Labour party?
I am not going to speculate until a formal announcement is approved by Her Majesty the Queen. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has occasional lapses from the distinguished all-party positions that he holds in the House to being a partisan politician. [Hon. Members: “Never.”] I hope he does, and I applaud him for that, because we combine a variety of roles. It is perfectly possible for anyone filling these shoes to combine the very important role of Leader of the House, representing this House inside the Government and ensuring that it is paid proper respect in a practical way, with the fact that all of us here, bar, I think, one Member, came into the House because we were members of a political party and support the partisan causes of that party.
Rats! Will my right hon. Friend take action in respect of the water company in Luton which has been responsible for a persistent plague of rats in the Stopsley ward over many years, despite representations from myself and Luton borough council, with which it has failed to co-operate? It refuses to take action to deal with the matter. Will he allow an urgent debate on the responsibilities of water companies on this serious issue?
I certainly understand the real anxiety and even anger about this problem among my hon. Friend’s constituents. She has expressed it today, and I shall look for an opportunity for her to raise the matter in debate, either here or in Westminster Hall. I shall also ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the head of Ofwat are made fully conscious of her concerns.
I very much share—[Hon. Members: “En francais! Auf deutsch, bitte!”] I very much share the view expressed by the shadow Leader of the House and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who chairs the Standards and Privileges Committee, that there must be some doubt about how the roles of Labour party chairman, deputy party leader and Leader of the House can be balanced. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the Leader of the House should represent the House as a whole—and all of its Members, not just Labour members? As an associated point, is he prepared to make a statement at this time about the possible merging of the Procedure and Modernisation Committees?
Je ne sais pas; peut-être. The specific matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is something that must be considered by both the Government and the House. My view is that it may be unusual for the Leader of the House to be a Select Committee Chairman, but that the arrangement has many advantages as well as disadvantages.
I shall let the House into a secret. The hon. and distinguished Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) will know that we have been trying to spot potential defectors—and over the past year in particular, I have found myself in a great deal of agreement with him, and I know that he shares almost entirely the forensic and incendiary views of his former hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) about the leadership of the Conservative party. I therefore hope very much that he might come over and join us in a closer union.
It is fair to say that my right hon. Friend has never been in the Leninist vanguard of the movement to modernise the House’s creaking and archaic procedures. I hope that the recent report from the Modernisation Committee will be debated shortly, if not next week, as it shows promising signs that he may have embarked on a political journey. Is that the case?
May we have a debate, led by whoever is the leader of the proposed new department for business and enterprise, about the future of the motor industry, especially in the west midlands? Ford is considering selling Land Rover and Jaguar, two world-class marques. What will the Government do to ensure that those brands do not suffer the fate that Rover suffered at the hands of the Phoenix four?
Of course I understand the anxiety felt by many people about the future of the car industry in the west midlands, not least in the constituencies represented by the Deputy Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who has the Longbridge plant in his area. However, the Government have been working extraordinarily hard: after the Rover collapse, for example, we pumped millions of pounds of investment into skills and training for people in the area. I understand that 85 per cent. of those who lost their jobs now have gainful employment.
The picture in respect of the motor industry is very mixed. Question marks hang over some parts of it, but I very much hope that that is not true of Jaguar, as it produces very fine world-beating motor cars. At the same time, at well over 1.5 million units, British motor industry production as a whole is almost at the level that it was in the 1970s. In addition, 75 per cent, of that production is exported.
Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an urgent debate in Government time to discuss the need for new legislation on the way in which English Heritage confers simple grade II listings on buildings, and on the agency’s relationship with climate change? The listing of the Plymouth civic building is incomprehensible, as most of my constituents consider it an eyesore. Moreover, its carbon footprint must be one of the biggest in the city, and in the whole south-west of England.
I happen to know the building, and I entirely share my hon. Friend’s surprise—to say the least—that it should have been listed. When I was chairman of Pimlico school, a glass and concrete monstrosity that failed to work about a year after it was erected, I found myself on the same side as Westminster city council. We had the most extraordinary battle with English Heritage, which wanted to list the building rather than allow it to be knocked down. I am on my hon. Friend’s side, and think that she has raised a really important issue. I shall do my best to ensure that there is a debate about it.
Yesterday, former Prime Minister Blair said that the Government had invested a huge amount of money on flood alleviation measures in coastal areas, but what about inland areas such as Shropshire? Is the Leader of the House aware that last week’s flooding in places such as Shifnal, Wellington and Kettley has blighted hundreds of lives? May we have a statement in the House covering inland counties, and not just coastal areas?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I happen to know a little about the fine county that he represents, and we are well aware that the flooding damage has mainly been to inland rather than coastal areas. It is the responsibility of the Government and the Environment Agency to ensure that there are adequate defences across the country, and we are seeking to fulfil that duty. Of course I appreciate the request for a further statement, and promise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will come to the House as soon as there is a need to do so. I suspect that that may be next week.
Last week, the Law Lords ruled that the protections in the Human Rights Act 1998 did not apply to residents of private care homes who had been placed there by local authorities. The Human Rights Act 1998 (Meaning of Local Authority) Bill would put right that appalling decision, and it resumes its Second Reading tomorrow. If the rumours about my right hon. Friend’s future position turn out to be true, will he have a word with himself later this afternoon to see whether he can consider allowing the Bill to go through to Committee stage, so that it might have an opportunity to put right that appalling decision?
As my hon. Friend knows—and as I know from the very lengthy discussions in 1997 and 1998 about the construction of the Human Rights Act—this is a very complicated area. I commend him on his assiduity in bringing his Bill forward, and I have been involved for some weeks in discussions with him about whether it is an appropriate or adequate vehicle for progress on this matter. The problem is not to do with the Bill’s fundamental principle, but with its construction, and for the moment we are not convinced that it is suitable. However, I assure my hon. Friend that I will of course be ready to discuss the matter further, whatever capacity I am in.
Will the Leader of the House reconsider his refusal last week to allow an early debate on the Scottish block vote? A Minister needs to answer questions about the fact that, from next year, English students will be the only ones in the entire EU who will have to pay the graduate tax if they attend Scottish universities. The right hon. Gentleman did not offer a response last week, but the decision is based on discrimination.
Without sounding entirely self-serving, I must say that thought that I gave a more than adequate answer last week. The Conservative party opposed devolution in 1997 and 1998, but seems now to have accepted the settlement. Devolution means difference, which I celebrate. Plenty of services delivered in England may be considered to be different and more beneficial than their equivalents in Scotland. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman must remember that Scotland used to be run from London by a proconsul called the Secretary of State for Scotland. Things were done differently then too, but usually worse. The Scottish poll tax is an example: before the 1987 election, the Government of the day refused to impose it in England, but were willing to impose it on Scotland.
Will the Leader of the House give us an indication of how soon we can have a substantial debate on foreign affairs so that policy on Iraq, the continuing crisis in the middle east and the plight of the Palestinian people can be discussed, and the new Foreign Secretary can tell us in what direction the Government intend to take foreign policy?
May we have an early statement about the future of the joint ministerial committees of the devolved Parliament and Assemblies of the United Kingdom? Unbelievably, these powerful bodies have not met since 2002, and we now find ourselves with new dynamic Governments in each and every Parliament and Assembly in the United Kingdom. Can those moribund committees be reconvened to allow for a free and frank discussion and dialogue between the national Parliaments and Assemblies in the interests of each and every nation of the United Kingdom?
I will certainly ensure that what the hon. Gentleman says is given full consideration within the British Government. We are anxious to make the devolution settlement protocols work in practice. To my personal knowledge, the joint ministerial committee on Europe was working until May 2006, and I am almost certain that it has been working since. That included representatives from the Scottish Administration and the Welsh Administration, and often included representatives of other parties. It was my duty as chairman of that committee to ensure that we worked co-operatively with such representatives, who were democratically elected within their nations, and I believe that we succeeded.
Many of us in the trade union and labour movement have campaigned long and hard for the introduction of a robust corporate manslaughter Act. The sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, a cross-Channel ferry based in Dover, 20 years ago gave extra impetus to that campaign. Is my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House confident that the Bill that is being considered again this afternoon will go through all its stages before the end of this Session? Will he talk to his successor to ensure that she does all that she can to make sure that the Bill does not fall?
As my hon. Friend knows, consideration of a Lords message on the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill is next on the Order Paper straight after this business. He will also know that provisions have been put into the Bill by the other place, particularly in respect of circumstances in which the offences would apply to deaths in custody. Those issues are being considered. Of course we are committed to the legislation; it is our Bill. We are the people who introduced a Bill in respect of corporate manslaughter, and corporate homicide in Scotland.
The Leader of the House cannot have failed to notice that another three soldiers have been murdered and several others injured this morning in Iraq. I do not know whether it is the case, but a device such as that which has killed those young men and injured others probably has the hand of Iran behind it. May we have a full and clear debate on Iran’s murderous interventions in Iraq and a clear statement of Government policy towards Iran for the future?
May I first pay tribute on behalf of the Government and the House to the soldiers who lost their lives in southern Iraq in the small hours of this morning, and send our deep condolences to their families, friends and comrades in arms? Yesterday in this House my right hon. Friend Tony Blair paid his own tribute to the British forces. They are indeed the best and the bravest, as those such as the hon. Gentleman and many others in the House who have personal dealings, friendships and families in the forces have every reason to know. On the issue of policy that the hon. Gentleman raises, let me say that I know of that concern and I will consider, not least in the context of the concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), when we can have a debate.
Will my right hon. Friend consider looking at security provision for Members of Parliament in their constituencies? Within the last year, I have received death threats, my office has been broken into, and as recently as last week I had a death threat spray-painted over my home. The job is hard enough, without having to go through this kind of thing. Does my right hon. Friend think that there should be some mechanism whereby Members who are subjected to such awful behaviour get some support?
Yes is the answer. First, my hon. Friend should receive extra support from the local police. I will certainly assist her in ensuring that if they are not already doing so, as I hope they are, the local police take the matter very seriously. Secondly, it is in the discretion of the House authorities to make grants to Members for special security measures, taking account of the specific risk. I know of a number of Members who have benefited from that grant arrangement.
After 25 years of failed housing policy, it has been reported that the new Prime Minister is to introduce a programme to resume the building of council houses, especially for families. The council house waiting list has increased by more than 600,000 since Labour came to power, and hundreds of thousands of children live in accommodation deemed inadequate for their needs. Can the Leader of the House indicate when that council house building programme will commence?
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not make an announcement on that, as well as much else. We have done a huge amount in respect of house building, home creation and home ownership. Home ownership is at record levels. House building is at its highest level since 1990. There has been substantial investment, not least in suburban Essex and Kent—not far from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—to increase the number of affordable homes. The problem that the Government and the country face is that the demand for homes and the formation of families is rising at an ever faster pace. We have to meet that challenge, which is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken so much in recent days about the need for an upgrading of our response to the demand for affordable homes, as indeed will happen.
Will my right hon. Friend assist me in obtaining a debate on the Floor of the House and perhaps talking to the relevant Minister about introducing a Bill to stop ticket touting? It was announced this morning that Wimbledon innovatively put 500 tickets on the internet, only to find that most of them had been bought up by ticket touts and were reappearing on the internet at grossly inflated prices. Is it not time that we protected the ordinary fan in this country?
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns and those of many other hon. Members about ticket touting. He may also be aware that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is currently holding an inquiry into ticket touting. The whole House will be looking forward to its conclusions.
A few weeks ago it was revealed that the European Union had suspended payment under its European regional development fund programme to most English regions because of failures in Government accounting policy. This week it was revealed to me in a written parliamentary answer that a further £269 million had been withheld from earlier programmes. Why has a Minister not come to the Dispatch Box to talk about this? Can the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate so that that can be remedied?
Hitherto, climate change debates in the House have centred on dealing with the causes—emissions—rather than the effects of climate change. For more than a year I have been ploughing a somewhat lonely furrow on the adaptation side of the equation, which is little debated. Adaptation is a cross-departmental issue. In the light of the terrible flooding in this country particularly in the past fortnight, which, sadly, looks as if it will continue for a few days, may we have an early debate on measures to adapt to the effects of climate change?
Yesterday there was a written statement on the altered memorandum of understanding on the funding of the Olympics. When does the Leader of the House expect legislation to permit that, as suggested in the memorandum of understanding? It would give us an opportunity to discuss the poor deal for London in the new arrangements, with £300 million to be cut from London’s services in the run-up to the Olympics, when there will be additional pressures on London’s services to fulfil the needs of the Olympics.
We will come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific issue about legislation, but I simply do not accept what he says. I am chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Olympics so I have been paying great attention to that matter—still fulfilling my role as Leader of the House, I might point out to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). The Olympics are hugely welcomed by Londoners, as well as by the rest of the country. The money has to come from somewhere, but I believe the benefits of the legacy of the Olympics for London, the south-east and the nation as a whole will in the end be seen far to outweigh the cost.
May we have an early debate on the role of the House of Commons? That will enable the Prime Minister to describe his proposals to enhance this place, but it will also enable people such as me to say that unless Members of Parliament recover their independence, and in particular, loosen the grip of the Whips—on both sides of the House—the changes will be of little relevance.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to make his own remarks, as I am sure there will be plenty of occasions for such debates. However, I think that the Conservative party is showing every sign that its Members are leaving the grip of the Whips Office, which is why we welcomed his constituency neighbour, his former hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford—and we look forward to the right hon. and learned Gentleman crossing the Floor, too.
May I wish the Leader of the House every success? I thank him for the courtesy he has always shown when I put questions to him, and in particular, for always answering them. However, will he reflect on the answer he gave earlier when he said that there had been no cuts in flood defence schemes? I draw his attention to the schemes for Shaldon and Teignmouth in my constituency, which, I am advised, have been delayed by at least two years because of the changes in the budget of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Either I am being misled or the Leader of the House has been misled.
May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, in a similar spirit, on having asked a rather more comprehensible question than the one he put to the former Prime Minister yesterday? He may like to know that almost the whole of the 1874 Session was spent debating relations between Church and state, and he may want to go back to that; it would be a good new Liberal Democrat project.
I accepted, and put on the record, that there had been a reduction in the overall flood risk budget by £15 million, but I then went on to say that I had been advised that the capital budget had not been cut, and that funding for capital projects for new and improved defences to reduce risk was not affected, so no current or planned capital improvement projects were delayed as a result. The amount of spending on flood risk management overall has doubled since 1997. Of course, there is always more that we can do and should do, and we take account of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I think the answer I have given him is accurate. If it is not, of course we shall correct it.
Returning to the topic raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—the death of three servicemen and the wounding of a fourth—it had appeared that the Ministry of Defence and the broadcasters had got their act together by not broadcasting details until they could say in the broadcast that next of kin had already been informed. This morning, however, it was clear from the broadcasting of the news that next of kin had not already been informed, or if they had it was not said in the broadcast, which must have sent a thrill of horror through everybody who has family members serving in Basra. May we have a definitive statement from a Defence Minister to make it absolutely clear that such broadcasts should never be made until it can be said that next of kin have been informed? Whether or not the news creeps out on the internet or anywhere else is irrelevant, because the majority of families probably will not see that, but they will hear the broadcasts.
I believe that British broadcasters show great responsibility, but I shall of course pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which is shared by all of us, that next of kin should always be the first to know whenever possible. However, I do not think it is practical or realistic to dismiss the fact that others may be broadcasting such news; the problem is that in Iraq, as everywhere else in the world, there are people with mobile phones, cameras and video cameras at all those sites, so the news more than seeps out; it is broadcast in a large way.
Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) about the three tragic deaths, my regiment is serving in southern Iraq. It has only just been deployed there, yet in the first 48 hours 15 personnel were wounded, and it receives fatalities of about one a week. Those statistics are unacceptable, so I urge the Leader of the House to accept the fact that we require a statement from the new Prime Minister on long-term strategy for Iraq and, more importantly, a statement from the Defence Secretary about whether we have the right size of force and the right equipment to do the job, before we see that country spiral into civil war.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s great concern—not least from his own experience. Many Members on both sides of the House have, have had or will have family serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they appreciate the extent of the anxiety caused to families. I shall ensure that both the hon. Gentleman’s points, in respect of a wider statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and a more immediate statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, are communicated to them.
I very much share the concerns expressed by many that the chairman of the Labour party should not also be Leader of the House, but another problem needs to be addressed: we hope that the new Secretary of State for International Development will make a statement next week to explain how he can be the election manager for the Labour party while also carrying out the onerous and difficult tasks of a Secretary of State.
May I just repeat the point that all of us, whichever side of the House we sit on, have to accept what is called in the jargon multi-tasking? For example, all of us are constituency Members; when I was Foreign Secretary, I carried on with constituency surgeries—all Members do that—but we are partisan politicians as well. During my 18 years in opposition, I remember many Conservative Members who held high office and conducted it with great assiduity and integrity but who were also partisan politicians and filled senior positions on behalf of their party at the same time.
May we have an urgent debate on the views of the new Prime Minister on the environment? It was noticeable that yesterday in his speech in Downing street he mentioned neither climate change or the environment, and that he gave the issue short shrift in his speech accepting the leadership of the Labour party—and as the Treasury was hardly a powerhouse of environmentalism under his care, this is starting to look deliberate.
I completely reject what the hon. Gentleman says. He has not been listening to what my right hon. Friend, now the Prime Minister, has been saying. Across the country, in 11 separate hustings—partisan hustings—my right hon. Friend spoke a great deal about climate change. Moreover, in the Treasury it was my right hon. Friend who gave much support, and indeed much leadership, to the Government’s efforts until now, when we have a world position on climate change, and set up the Stern inquiry, which has reported and is providing much policy for the future Government.
I listened to the Leader of the House’s comments about school discipline with great concern. Does he really believe that it is appropriate to compel head teachers to readmit pupils excluded for rude and abusive behaviour towards staff? If he does, would he consider having a word with the new Prime Minister about offering a new Cabinet position to—to choose an entirely random example—a former Home Secretary who called the Prime Minister a delusional control freak, and psychologically flawed?
Discipline is a dangerous topic for the Conservative party to get into, although I am always happy to debate it. However, there is a serious issue about school discipline, which I did not deal with directly in my reply to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead; I am sorry about that. We faced the issue when I chaired the governors of my children’s large and diverse comprehensive school, and I am certain that the new Education Secretary, whoever that may be, will consider it with great care.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for the next Home Secretary to make a statement on the operation of section 165A of the Road Traffic 1988, the provision that empowers the police to seize uninsured motor vehicles? Two weeks ago, a car belonging to my constituent, Mrs. Maureen Smith of Rhos-on-Sea, was being driven quite legally by her daughter under the terms of her own insurance when it was seized by the police. Mrs. Smith was obliged to pay a £105 fee to have the car released from the car pound and her daughter received a £200 fixed penalty and six points on her licence.
The difficulty is that the police relied on the motor insurance database, which is of necessity always out of date, because of the number of vehicles that change hands and the number of insurance policies that are changed. On that basis, does the Leader of the House agree that this is a serious issue, and that many other motorists may well be penalised in the manner that I have described? Will he ask the Home Secretary to consider that point?
I am certainly happy to suggest that the matter be looked at. However, I say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, things sometimes go wrong in specific cases, and he and his constituents have clear rights to make a complaint against the police. I am sure that they will do so. Secondly, however, the principle behind that section of the 1988 Act, which was introduced by the hon. Gentleman’s party when it was in government, is a good one. Indeed, I think that most of us would want it to be used even more when the police are clear that uninsured vehicles are being driven around. Typically, those who show social irresponsibility in respect of not insuring their vehicles are also much more likely to show social irresponsibility in everything else.
Orders of the Day
Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill
Lords Reasons for insisting on their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed and for disagreeing to the Commons amendments to the Bill in lieu, considered.
Lords Reasons: Nos. 2B, 3B, 5B, 6B and 10E.
I beg to move,
That this House insists on disagreement with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10, but does not insist on its amendments Nos. 10C and 10D in lieu thereof, and proposes amendments (a), (b), (c) and (d) in lieu of the Lords amendments.
The other place has for a third time sent to us amendments to the Bill that would extend the new offence to deaths in custody in all circumstances. Hon. Members will be familiar with the Government's position. I do not intend to rehearse this at length, but I do want to place this issue in the wider context of progress on other issues in the Bill and to set out why we are not persuaded to set a timetable for custody.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, I have always made it clear to hon. Friends and Opposition Members that the Government would listen carefully to arguments to improve the Bill, and we have done so. The Government responded to concerns about the test for liability in the Bill as it was first introduced, we have shown flexibility in terms of the sort of organisations to which the offence applies and extended the Bill to certain unincorporated associations. We have offered real progress on the sort of penalties that will be available against convicted organisations and made provision for an entirely new sort of disposal against corporate bodies—a publicity order.
When concerns arose about the possible impact of the new offence on prosecutions against individuals on a secondary basis for health and safety offences, we again offered amendments to clarify the position. The Government openly recognised the strength of concern in this House and in the other place on the question of custody, and again offered positive movement. That is not just in terms of a power to extend the new offence—a move that explicitly opens the door to a future extension to custody— but in practical terms. Putting the prisons and probation ombudsman on a statutory footing will strengthen the position of that office to provide an independent investigation of deaths in prisons and other forms of custody.
Will the Minister confirm, yet again, that the latest set of amendments that the Government have tabled actually enable any future Secretary of State to restrict the introduction of any measures to extend to custody in exactly whatever way the Government see fit? The suggestion that it is simply a device by which at some future date the Lords amendments can be brought into force is not accurate. In fact, it would allow for the complete rewriting of the Lords intention.
I do not accept that, and I will say why I think that we need to support the position that we are in. I have accepted the principle of what has been said, and putting the office of prisons and probation ombudsman on a statutory footing will strengthen that office.
Hon. Members will see that, in the criminal justice Bill that was introduced yesterday, we are delivering on our commitment. We will be strengthening the arrangements for decreasing the occurrence of such deaths in the first place through the commitment to strengthening the forum for preventing deaths in custody. That is considerable movement on the Government’s part, and it is against that background that this House should measure where we are now. This is not resistance for the sake of it; it is because we genuinely consider that this is as far as the Bill should go at this stage.
At the end of it all, I will probably vote with the Government, but I will do so with the greatest reluctance. I have read the exchanges in the other place and my view is that compelling arguments were advanced for the Government to go further. I am very disappointed that it has not been possible for my hon. Friend to tell the House that the Lords amendments should be accepted.
I am sad that my hon. Friend is disappointed and saddened, but if he has followed the debate all the way through from the Government’s original position, he will fully understand why we are in this position today. Many groups and stakeholders were involved in the progress of the Bill and they had different views about its progress, but they were flexible and understood the Government’s position. We have moved genuinely forward on the issue of deaths in custody.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but he keeps telling the House that the Government have moved and accepted the position in principle. However, he did that the last time we debated the issue, but with a qualification—“if” the powers were ever needed. It is important to see whether the Government have moved from the word “if” to the word “when”.
I acknowledge that the Government have been listening and that they have moved. I also acknowledge my hon. Friend’s sincerity. However, he has had many predecessors and there will probably be a lot of successors, and it cannot be guaranteed that his successors will share his view. The Bill as framed makes it possible for this commitment to be forgotten about, and that is why many of us are worried.
That is not the Government’s intention. During the debate on deaths in custody, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Home Affairs Committee and other bodies in the House have made sure that the issue has developed in the way that it has. I am clear that they will continue to ensure that the issue is dealt with. It is my fervent belief that we need to give the prisons and probation ombudsman the opportunity to develop his role and we also want to strengthen the forum for preventing deaths in custody. Other issues may flow from those two arrangements and they may affect the issue even further.
It is not the Government’s intention to condone or protect circumstances in which there are serious failings in the management of custody. The issue is about the appropriate application of a new criminal offence. The Bill recognises that there are difficult decisions to be taken about the application of the new offence to the operation of public services. That position was debated at length in proceedings in this House and in the other place. This House has supported excluding the exercise of a number of public responsibilities from the scope of the offence. It is therefore an overstatement to say that equality before the law demands the application of the offence to those in custody. Accountability for the exercise of public functions raises difficult and complex issues. The forums for investigating and holding to account those responsible for public responsibilities, including the management of custody, recognise this.
The Government have been prepared to meet concerns that the offence should apply to custody by opening the door clearly in the Bill to that being the case. That is a serious acknowledgement of the issues here and accepts clearly the principle of the offence applying. However, this issue must also be seen in the wider context of lifting Crown immunity. Applying the new offence to Government Departments brings with it considerable uncertainty. How these bodies discharge their public responsibilities is intimately bound up with wider questions of public policy.
It is tempting to consider that faults in the management chain and operational matters can be isolated from the organisational context within which they occurred. In practice, that is a difficult distinction to make and, in the exercise of public responsibilities, the systems and processes by which an activity is managed can involve fundamental questions of policy, not least in relation to the allocation of resources. Those matters need to be answered for politically.
On one view, that is a reason for not lifting Crown immunity or at least never extending the offence beyond the sorts of duties already set out in the Bill. We have taken considerable steps beyond that by accepting in principle the application of the offence to the management of custody. However, there must be an opportunity for Departments, investigators and the courts to become familiar with the concept of criminal liability for Crown bodies in areas such as employer and occupier responsibilities before looking to apply this sort of offence to the discharge of public functions any more widely than the Bill currently allows. That will also provide time for the changes to the ombudsman’s powers to become established and for the forum for preventing deaths to be further developed, and time to consider how the wider application of the offence will operate alongside those changes.
I cannot set out the timetable today and the right approach to acknowledging the uncertainty is to include a power in the Bill to extend the offence. There can be no doubt that Parliament envisaged the application of the offence to custody—the principle of that is accepted, but the exact timing is not. There will be a considerable opportunity to question the Government on the matter: for example, through the Select Committees. The Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights have demonstrated their interest so far. Our proposals for putting the prisons and probation ombudsman on a statutory footing include provision for publishing and laying before Parliament various reports. That will provide a new source of information on the management of custody.
The Minister knows the reality: implementation by statutory instrument is a matter wholly at the discretion of the Government of the day. No Member of Parliament can introduce the statutory instrument to try to force the Government’s hand. If we lose this opportunity—there are many caveats from the Minister about when the measure might be introduced—is it not the case that we will be taking something on a promise that looks even more remote today than when we last considered the matter?
Again, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, but I do not agree with it. Clearly, the House should consider the matter in the round and think about what we have tried to achieve. We are in a difficult position. Many organisations and bodies want to see the Bill enacted and it will be sad if the movement that the Government have made is not acknowledged and if the other place continues to reject what we are saying. That will not help people in terms of resolving the issues around deaths in custody and it will certainly not reflect the main inspiration for the Bill.
Why should private sector organisations have no timetable for changing their processes to prepare for the offence, when public sector bodies—in this case, the Prison Service—have carte blanche and may never even have to face up to the measures? Are public sector managers in the Prison Service so much more inefficient and incompetent than private sector managers? Will the Minister explain the logic of that to the House?
That is entirely wrong. The hon. Gentleman has not looked at the core of the issue. This is about public functions. The Government are lifting Crown immunity—that has never been done before—where the Crown operates as an employer and an occupier. There are other ways to inspect the way that public policy is outlined. I have explained that in previous discussions. He is quite right to talk about the private sector. One of the reasons for applying the offence to the private sector was to read across to what we needed to do in the public sector. That was the motivation for removing Crown immunity.
I understand the passion around the issue of deaths in custody and we all agree that we have to try to find ways to prevent those deaths. The Government have set out a way of doing that. Opposition Members underestimate the powers of Select Committees and other bodies to continue to pressurise the Government in the future. I want to make sure that we do not compromise a complex situation that involves the relationship between public policy and organisational matters.
We have made two changes to the amendments in lieu since they were last considered. First, there is a change to address a point raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) in our previous debate. He was concerned at the inclusion of the scope—in subsection (2) of the proposed power to extend the offence—to specify exemptions to the forms of custody to which the offence would extend. I undertook to consider that point. As I said, I have always tried to address matters of concern where possible and we have removed the ability to specify exemptions.
It will remain necessary for the order to set out the forms of custody to which the offence extends. It is right that that should be the case. There are a number of technical points that are not adequately addressed in the amendments proposed by the other place. In the context of an order-making power, it is right that the exact description of custody should appear in the order itself, but there will not be the scope to specify exemptions.
I am grateful that the Minister has taken on board the points raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, but is not the reality of the wording that it would be open to the Government to introduce the measure in relation to certain sorts of custody, but not to others—if they were minded to do so? That is how I read the amendment. Clearly, the Lords intended the introduction to apply to all forms of custody. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that that may make some Members a little nervous about the direction in which the Government are going.
Hon. Members cannot have it all ways. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham asked us to reflect on the matter. We have done that and we think that we have hit on the right way forward. This is not an attempt to deal with the matter in an underhand way; it is a genuine attempt to meet the requirements of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I hope that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) will accept that.
Secondly, changes have been made to make it clear that the definition of “premises” in subsection (1) of the power is the same as the definition in clause 2. That definition will now appear in the wider interpretation clause that is inserted by amendments made in the other place.
This is an important Bill that will strengthen the law and make sure that organisations have strong health and safety policies. I hope that the other place and Members in this House recognise the lengths to which the Government have gone to try to address the points raised on both sides of the House. I hope that hon. Members will support us today.
I am always pleased to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box, but I am rather sorry to hear what he has to say. There is plainly a wide measure of agreement in this House and the other place concerning this matter. We are all in agreement—the Minister has reiterated this today—that the issue of deaths in custody is serious. It could not be anything other than that. There were some 2,000 deaths in custody between 1995 and 2005. Unfortunately, not a year goes by—sometimes I think not a month goes by—without our hearing of another example that gives rise to concern.
I have no doubt that the vast majority of the deaths are nobody’s fault, but, from time to time, there is pretty clear evidence that a death may be the result of neglect of a kind that would not give rise to any personal criminal liability by an individual, but that would certainly fall within the scope of what the Bill is intended to consider. There may well be corporate failures within the Prison Service or other organisations that have allowed such a death to occur.
The problem that my hon. Friend outlines is going to get worse tomorrow, because the Government, under their chaotic arrangements for dealing with overcrowding in prisons, are going to release thousands of inmates back on to the streets, without supervision or assessment. Many of them will be drug addicts. While in prison, they have been cared for by the Prison Service and the health service, but once they are released—if they are released when they are still suffering from drug addiction—many of them could come to untimely ends as a consequence of the lack of care. Does he accept that the Prison Service’s duty of care covers not only the period during which those people are in custody, but must foreseeably extend to a situation in which it releases unsuitable people who are affected by drugs on to the streets from within its care?
My hon. and learned Friend makes an interesting point, although it pushes the bounds of what can be foreseen a little. I am not sure that I wish to encourage his line of reasoning because it might make it even less likely that the Government will extend the corporate manslaughter offence to the Prison Service.
In the context of prisons, I have always thought that the main scope of the offence was the care delivered in the prison system. However, my hon. and learned Friend makes a perfectly fair point. Someone who was known to be a serious suicide risk might suddenly be thrown out of the prison hospital wing one morning. If no provision had been made for their care after release and the first thing that they did was to throw themselves under a railway train at the nearest station, that could give rise to interesting legal and factual arguments about the possible extension of the duty of care. I accept what my hon. and learned Friend says. From his experience of visiting prisons in his capacity as our prisons and criminal justice spokesman, he knows only too well the worrying fact that an overcrowded Prison Service is poor at delivering care to the most vulnerable.
That live issue is one of the reasons why we believe that the corporate manslaughter offence should be extended to protect people in custody. The Government appear to have accepted that principle, albeit not without considerable argument, and that was the major concession made by the Minister in one of our ping-pong sessions. However, rather than following the logic of his argument of saying that the Prison Service will need time to prepare for the change, the Minister hides behind the statement that the system will be introduced by statutory instrument as and when the Government think that everything is ready.
The Government pride themselves on target setting. The old Government—I suspect that the same will be true of the new Government because the new Prime Minister seems to be as wedded to this as anyone—said that they liked targets because they enforced discipline. Ministers have proudly said at the Dispatch Box that the Government will be able to match targets for the implementation of measures. Why, therefore, will not the Minister pick a reasonable target for changing the culture in the Prison Service and elsewhere so that a full assessment can be made of the response to the measure, which, as the Minister concedes, is entirely justified?
I realise that we are in times of change. The new Prime Minister has a reputation in the press—perhaps it is grossly unfair—of being a little curmudgeonly. Here is his opportunity, with his new vision for Britain, to take a grip of government and take a different stand. I mean that seriously. Conservative Members are looking to him to show leadership on a matter on which there is much cross-party consensus. When the Minister has the opportunity to see the new Prime Minister, I hope that he will point out to him the extent of the disquiet in the House and what we are seeking.
I am not sure whether we have a new Home Secretary yet, or whether he is moving from ministerial substance into ministerial ectoplasm. However, it appeared that he was a serious impediment to the implementation of the proposals. As he is vanishing into thin air as I speak, this must be a tremendous opportunity—I had rather hoped that the Minister would have been in a position to grasp it with both hands today—for the Government to shift by saying that they accept that such a timetable would be possible. If that happened, we could all congratulate ourselves mutually and go away, which is what I want to happen.
This might be a little premature. I am conscious that doors are swinging as people go in and out of No. 10 Downing street. There has not been time to present new Ministers with their briefs. The Minister is probably not quite sure what his post will be in 24 hours. All that makes life very difficult, but it is all the more reason why we should ensure that this issue is kept live so that we can come back to it next week and the week after. I am confident that the other place, on a cross-party basis, is resolute on this matter and will not let it drop, given that the Government’s explanations for their position on the implementation of the amendments have been really incoherent.
My children are now growing up, but when they were little, they used to engage in distraction when one wished to scold them for doing something wrong. They would introduce a new argument, or something would happen, to distract one from the main issue. The Minister has been doing such a thing rather well. We have been told about systems and given promises of reform in the future, even though there are absolutely no assurances that we will get it. I even detected that it was vaguely suggested in the other place that the Lords amendments might not work quite as intended. If that is the case, the ball is firmly in the Minister’s court because the Government would have not the slightest difficulty curing that problem, if they wished to do so.
I am sorry that we are again not succeeding in making progress. The Bill will continue to go backwards and forwards. It has been pointed out that unless the time period is extended, the Bill has until 19 July. If the Government wish to continue the argument, they can extend the time allowed until the end of the parliamentary Session. If they do so, I will be only too happy to come back to the Dispatch Box to debate the matter further with the Minister because as long as it is alive, there is some hope that we will reach the outcome that everyone in the Chamber—including, I strongly suspect, the Minister—would like to see.
I hope that reasonableness will prevail. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that we cannot support the Government’s motion. However, whatever happens in the Division, I hope, if the Minister is not promoted, that he will give us his benevolent presence again in the Chamber and that we can reach the happy moment when we agree that we have a sensible timetable and target so that protection for some of the most vulnerable members of our society will finally be provided in a completely reasonable fashion.
The Bill is an excellent measure and the sort of legislation that one would expect from a Labour Government. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the progress and concessions that have been made as a result of debates here and in the other place. However, through no fault of his own—presumably, he does not make the decisions on these matters—the principle of addressing death in custody has not been put into effect. If the death of prisoners was relatively unknown and a minor matter, one could understand the Government’s position. However, some pretty tragic cases have been cited by Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons who tabled the Lords amendments. I find it difficult to understand for the life of me why the Government will not go a step further. As we have heard, there is no doubt that the principle has been accepted. Why should the Bill become an Act without covering those who die in custody? Even at this very late stage, I hope that the matter will be given further consideration.
I have no doubt that the Government will not have a problem getting a majority at the conclusion of this debate. There will be no rebellion. I will probably vote with the Government, albeit with much hesitation. Government Members often ration the number of times that they vote against the Government or abstain. I certainly do so, although I am not sure whether it is appreciated by the Whips. I am very conscious of my responsibilities as a Member. As I said in an intervention, I read with considerable care the arguments put forward on Monday in the House of Lords, and they seem to be compelling arguments to which it would be difficult to object. I have not the slightest doubt that if we were on the Opposition Benches, we would make precisely the sort of speech that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made, but of course it is quite likely that if we had a Conservative Government, the Bill that we are debating would not have been introduced.
As I have said, I am saddened and disappointed. I believe that the Government should go further, and that the Lords were right. I would not be surprised if they insisted on their amendments and the Bill came back before us once again.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) joins the long line of distinguished Labour Back Benchers who are contributing to the cross-party support for our argument with the Government. In a way, he has done so in order to try to push the Minister to where the hon. Gentleman and I believe the Minister wants to go. Debate on the Bill and on the issue that we are discussing has been of high quality. The arguments have been put forward clearly, but today the Minister has yet again not come forward with a strong argument for his position. We have heard a number of arguments about the process, and they have all been destroyed, both in this place and the other place. They really do not stand analysis.
One particular argument, which is out of tenor with the other arguments that have been made, has been heard outside this place, and Members of the Commons and the other place have been lobbied on it. It is the idea that those of us who support including provisions on deaths in custody in the legislation are somehow trying to kill the Bill. That is absurd and completely wrong, and anyone who has seen the way in which Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members have supported the Government’s overall thrust throughout the Bill’s progress knows it to be wrong. Only one group of people can kill the Bill, and that is the Government. They need to listen to Parliament, and to arguments by Members of all parties, in this place and the other place. If they refuse to do that, they will kill the Bill.
I find it quite shameful that there has been pressure from outside bodies that rightly want the Bill, and which know that all parties in the House want the Bill, but are trying to suggest that we are behaving poorly by pushing the Government on the issue. We are behaving in exactly the right way. We are behaving as a democratic, open Parliament should behave, and we are flexing our muscles in the only way we can. I believe that this House, and Parliament in general, is not strong enough. It is only on rare occasions such as this that we can show the Government that they really need to move and listen. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made clear, if we do not include the measure in the Bill now, the chances of having another occasion on which to do it are remote, so we need to win this battle, and the Minister needs to listen.
In many ways, the issue of whether or not the Minister will still be in his position in a few days’ time should not concern the House. If he is promoted, or moves sideways or whatever, I am sure that he will talk to his successor. I hope that he will also talk to the new Secretary of State for Justice, the new Home Secretary and indeed the Prime Minister, to convince them that this is a golden opportunity to show that there is change. Yesterday, we heard the Prime Minister talking about change—change of heart and a change of approach—and about wanting to listen. Well, here is his first opportunity.
Yes, it is the acid test, and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will give the Prime Minister that first bauble; we will congratulate the Minister if he does.
I want to make two more points on the substance behind the issue. To refer back to my first intervention on the Minister, he and his colleagues in the other place keep telling us that the Government accept the principle behind the measure. We want to believe that and take it at face value, but there are so many caveats—so many ifs and buts—that it is difficult to believe that the principle really has been accepted, and that the Government are not simply using parliamentary and legislative devices to avoid the pressure that is being put on them. If the Minister was prepared to say that it is no longer an issue of “if” or “whether”, but rather of “when”, that would be a shift. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested the last time we debated the amendments, the Minister could come before the House with a commencement order that named a date two or three years hence. If he did that, I am sure that reasonable people on both sides of the Chamber would give it serious consideration, even though many of us want the measure to be introduced very quickly.
Although the Minister has been courteous, generous and attentive to the remarks of hon. Members of all parties throughout the passage of the legislation, on this last point he really has not gone far enough. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield is quite right: the other place will stand absolutely firm on the issue. One only has to read the Hansard report of the debate in the other place to realise that the other place feels very strongly about it, and it is being backed, and encouraged to stand firm, by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Benchers in this place. The number of Cross Benchers and Labour Members of the other place who support the Conservative and Liberal Democrat position is very large. The Minister mentioned to me in passing, yesterday evening or the day before, that he thought that a number of Lords had peeled off, but I have to tell him that the numbers against him are still very large. There might have been an extra-nice dinner on the evening of the vote, but the resolve of the Lords is clear.
It is worth mentioning on the record the persuasive powers of Lord Ramsbotham, who is key on the issue, and who speaks with far more experience of conditions in the Prison Service than almost any of us, or any Member of the other place.