House of Commons
Thursday 25 October 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Foot and Mouth Disease
We put our contingency plan into operation as soon as there was confirmation of foot and mouth disease. Two and a half months on, it has been contained in a small part of the country. Nevertheless, we are committed to learning the lessons from this and all disease outbreaks, and we have therefore asked Dr. lain Anderson, who conducted an inquiry into the 2001 outbreak, to chair a review.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that rational and helpful reply. My constituency of Macclesfield is a predominantly livestock farming area. Livestock farmers have sustained huge losses. A little earlier this month, he announced a compensation package of £12.5 million. How widely do the Government anticipate that the package will be distributed? Will it adequately recompense livestock farmers throughout the United Kingdom for the huge losses that they have sustained?
I recognise the real difficulties that the livestock industry in particular is facing as a result of the outbreak, which could not have come at a worse time of year. The support that I announced to the House when we returned after the summer recess was for those who have been most adversely affected, who are, indeed, the hill farmers. As well as containing the disease with a view to eradicating it, we have tried throughout to get the market working again. In all parts of the country, except the remaining small risk area, all the restrictions that have been put in place domestically have now gone. The ones that remain are the result of the European Union rules, but we have already seen in the past two weeks a further easing of those restrictions to allow exports to resume. I am clear in my mind that the best thing that we can do is help the industry recover, but I know that it is going to be very tough and extremely difficult.
In last week’s debate on foot and mouth, I referred to the pig sector and the problems that the outbreak has caused for it. I asked for assistance for that sector, perhaps through storage aid or a sow disposal scheme. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who responded to the debate, said that the team would be working closely with pig industry leaders to try to assist them. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress since?
I can tell my hon. Friend that that discussion with representatives of the pig industry and of all parts of the livestock industry has been a very strong feature of the way in which we have tried to handle the outbreak. A decision was taken on Monday at the Agriculture Council meeting to open a scheme for private storage in respect of pigs, following a request from Poland, which it made because of the difficulties that it is facing. I repeat what I said a moment ago. With the easing of restrictions and the lifting of all those put in place domestically, I hope that the industry will find that it now has the opportunity to recover, albeit that it will take time.
Following on from last week’s debate on compensation and so on, may I press the right hon. Gentleman on one question? If the Agriculture Minister in Wales were to apply to the Treasury for special funding in these special circumstances, would the Secretary of State lend his weight to the application and support it?
As I told the House when I made the statement, it is open to each of us—I have to manage the cost of the schemes that I have put in place and the assistance that I have given in relation to England—and to the devolved Administrations to have that conversation if they wish. However, it is not unreasonable in the circumstances, given that we do not yet know what the full cost of the outbreak will be, for each of us to bear the costs for the time being of the schemes that we think are appropriate for the parts of the country for which we have responsibility. That is what I have done for England, and the Welsh Agriculture Minister has done the same in Wales, as have the Scottish Executive in Scotland.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that this problem impacted even on largely industrial constituencies such as mine? The company Devro, which exports sausage skins to many parts of the world—Europe, Africa and so on—and has locations in both Moodiesburn and Bellshill, clearly needed certificates of clearance. His Department was enormously helpful. Given the horrendous demands that must have been placed on it, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you on the company’s behalf.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s words. I take this opportunity to echo those thanks—to the Department officials, vets and animal health staff who have worked phenomenally hard in the past two and a half months to deal with the consequences. They have worked not only to contain the outbreak but to give every assistance to those caught up in it. The reopening of the meat product export market to the rest of Europe—exports to the rest of the world will take some time to resume—has probably been the most important step. Those exports are now gradually happening.
The hill farm allowance supplement is an average £850 for an individual farmer and the average hill farmer in my constituency has lost in the region of £10,000 to £20,000 in the past few weeks. Given that the Government are culpable for the outbreak, does the Secretary of State feel that the additional support that they have provided is sufficient?
I recognise that the support will not help to meet all the costs, but it is not this Government’s policy—it has never been any Government’s—to provide full compensation for economic loss.
Why did I take the decision to help hill farmers? I did that because, as was said a moment ago, hill farmers have faced the greatest difficulties as a result of what has happened. The £8.5 million will provide some additional assistance and, I hope, give hill farmers slightly more options, albeit in very difficult circumstances. We should recognise that the markets are operating again—that includes the resumption of exports to Europe—and that that has released the most important blockage that the hill farmers were facing.
The Secretary of State has just stressed the importance of learning from disease outbreaks. One of the lessons of the 2001 outbreak was that the decision to close the countryside to visitors led to enormous economic consequences. Does he understand that although farming is important, the value brought by people who visit rural communities and boost the rural economy is more significant?
They are both significant and both extremely important. My hon. Friend is absolutely right—we have sought to learn the lessons from 2001, which include the advice given by Dr. Iain Anderson. That is why he is entirely the right person to come back and say how we have all done on this occasion.
My hon. Friend is right to say that rural communities benefit enormously from such wider economic activity. We have handled the footpath closures in the protection zones correctly, but, like the industry more broadly, we have been clear about sending out the message that the countryside is open for business. It is important that people continue to enjoy the countryside and bring economic activity to it, to help those who would otherwise be affected in addition to the farmers, who have suffered so much.
I telephoned a leading farmer the day after the foot and mouth outbreak was announced, and was surprised to find that I was the one informing him about it. Given that, for years, automatic electronic telephone calls have been used to sell financial services, when will the Department make sure that they—not only text messages—are used to give farmers the earliest possible information about notifiable disease emergencies?
We have been using both text messages and automated telephone messages. Furthermore, we have been delivering information packs to affected farmers in the protection zones. However, we have to recognise that the media are one way in which we all get our news; I would be surprised if many farmers in the country had not been aware, first, of the outbreak, and secondly, of the imposition of movement controls. We all have a part to play, and I pay tribute to the efforts not only of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs staff but of the National Farmers Union and other organisations, including those representing different sectors. They played an important part in reinforcing the message to their members.
At one stage of the outbreak, the chief veterinary officer declared that the UK was free of foot and mouth. If that had not happened, many of the hill farming industry’s problems would not have occurred. Was that declaration made because the surveillance area was not great enough, and will the Government learn the lessons?
Of course we will reflect on the lessons. That is why we have been so quick to invite Dr. Anderson to establish the review. In my view, the decision taken on 8 September was absolutely right in the light of our knowledge at the time; it was a month and a bit since a case had been confirmed, and the decision was confirmed by the European Union, which looked at all the evidence.
Why was there the further case? As we now know from the epidemiological report, which we published at every stage, in the interests of openness, the animals on one of the premises—infected premises No. 5, as it is described—had had foot and mouth and the lesions were between three and four weeks old. That reinforces our point throughout that the first line of defence in overcoming the disease is farmers’ vigilance. That case went undetected for whatever reason, and was therefore unreported. Had it been reported, the situation would have been different. Our decision at the time was right in the light of the evidence that we had.
This outbreak has already, at the latest estimate, cost English farmers well over £100 million. Two weeks ago, as we heard, the Secretary of State announced a package of £12 million. On Monday this week, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), told me that no conclusions had yet been reached on cost sharing or the estimate of the element of those costs falling to farmers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the comprehensive spending review clearly states that an increased share of responsibility and cost-sharing will save DEFRA £121 million over three years, which is £40 million in extra costs to farmers each year—more than three times the package that he announced?
Yes, I am happy to confirm that that is the case. I will be frank with the hon. Gentleman—we need to change the system. There are already different approaches in relation to different parts of the livestock sector. The truth is that if one was designing a system from scratch today, it would not look like the system that we have; we all know that. The deal to be done is to give the livestock industry much greater say over how the controls on animal disease outbreaks affecting animals only—not zoonotic diseases because we, as the Government, have a public health interest—are applied and lifted. We have worked in partnership with the industry in dealing with this and in, in return for that, there should be recognition that the costs of dealing with preventing disease and coping with outbreaks should fall more upon the industry. I think that that is the right way to go. This is very difficult anyway—especially so in the circumstances that we have just been through—but dealing with these outbreaks over the past two and a half months has brought it home to me that we should have a different system, and that is what I want to try to get agreement on.
I am in regular contact, as are ministerial colleagues and officials, with the insurance industry and the Association of British Insurers. We are working together to ensure the continued widespread availability of flood insurance cover through the association’s statement of principles.
I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that it is now estimated that more than £3 billion is to be paid out by the insurance industry. How can my constituents be sure of keeping their flood insurance cover when only just over 40 per cent. of flood defences are properly maintained by the Environment Agency and when the increase in flood defence spending by 2010-11 will return us only to the level that we were at in 2004, before this year’s devastating floods? Can he give reassurance to my constituents and confirm that those in rural areas will not be neglected in order to put all the emphasis on urban areas?
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue so I am very aware of the impact that the flooding had on his constituents in Burstwick and Hedon. I would say to his constituents that the increase in funding that I announced at the beginning of July and the way in which that is going to be phased in between now and 2010-11 is a direct response to the requests that many people have made of us, including the Association of British Insurers. In June, it asked us to get up to £750 million a year by 2010-11; in fact, we are going to be spending £800 million a year by 2010-11. That is why, when I announced that figure, the ABI said that this was the news that homeowners had wanted to hear. I recognise that there has been a second round of flooding since then. I am very keen that we continue to work in partnership with the ABI as we significantly increase spending on flood defence, building on the doubling of investment over the past decade so that we can keep that statement of principles in place and therefore protect the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.
Following this summer’s flooding, my survey of 4,000 households in my constituency tells me that people would support my right hon. Friend’s Department giving incentives to landowners to manage their land in ways that help to prevent floods—not just the normal daily work of keeping watercourses and gullies free from obstructions but proactively, for example, by creating new water meadows and other wetland. Will he change the conditions for the single payment and the schemes for stewardship of land in order to give that incentive to landowners?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting and important point. Of course, there is already land that naturally floods during the winter, but the problem for some of the farmers whom I met was that they did not expect it to flood in that way during the summer, so it came at a bad time of the year and affected their ability to get their crops out of the ground. Yes, the Environment Agency does need to consider all the ways in which we can accommodate astonishing flows of water of the kind that we saw in June and July.
It is debatable whether landowners have to be paid to do that because in the winter they provide such flood capacity naturally. However, one lesson that we have learned from all of this—Sir Michael Pitt will be drawing all of them together in his lessons-learned review—is that we have to look at the inter-relationship of the ways in which water can escape when we have the astonishing amount of rainfall that we experienced during the summer. If my hon. Friend has not already done so, he might like to pass on the result of his consultation to Sir Michael Pitt so that he can consider it in his review.
In my constituency, we have had two “one in 30 years” floods in nine years, and the last time 2,000 properties flooded. The owners of those properties are worried that they will not be able to get insurance in the future. I suggest two things that the Secretary of State could do to help. First, there are too many agencies with responsibilities for different parts of the problem. It would be helpful if he were to put the Environment Agency in some sort of overall co-ordinating role.
Secondly, if we are to do a proper cost-benefit analysis of the flood defences that we can afford and make sense of, we need a comprehensive survey of what could be done about each little bit of local flooding. I suggest that the Environment Agency should either do that, or commission someone to do it. Without it, we cannot make the decisions on whether particular flood defences are economically sensible.
Those are two good suggestions. We were already consulting on giving the Environment Agency such responsibility, particularly in relation to surface water flooding. The hon. Gentleman is right; a lot of disparate organisations have responsibility for different bits of the surface water drainage system. I want to take on board whatever Sir Michael Pitt has to say, but I am keen that we make progress on the matter, because it definitely reflects one of the lessons that we learned from the summer, particularly from what happened in Hull.
Secondly, the Environment Agency needs to look at the range of potential schemes, but even with the additional funding that we are putting in place, there has to be a system for deciding on prioritisation of where the money will be spent. The Environment Agency has already been reviewing the points system that it uses to weigh the different considerations in reaching a decision, which is a process that I support. We recognise that a decision will have to be taken to fund one thing rather than something else, but at least we have more money with which to take that decision than was the case in the past.
In addition to welcoming the sensible suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) about managing river valleys so that their uplands are not intensively farmed or left in a situation where flood water can rush down them, will the Secretary of State consider earmarking some of the welcome investment in flood relief and flood defence schemes for the overhauling of antiquated surface water drainage systems? They are not up to the job, and caused as many problems as flooding from river valleys itself.
Now that I have announced the phasing of the increase in funding over the next three years, the Environment Agency will be in a position to plan. It will need to talk to local authorities about surface water drainage. The truth about such drainage is that we have a system that was built between 100 and 150 years ago, at a time when people did not expect to have to cope with the amounts of water that we have recently seen. The second problem is that we have concreted, covered with tarmac and paved over a lot of the surface land in our towns and cities, so when it rains to such an extent, there are fewer places for the water to go. It is not soaked up by the ground that is already saturated. Those are some of the lessons we have to learn. It will be a combination of improving capacity and ensuring that new drainage is built to a higher specification than was the case in the past, but we need to ask what more we can do in towns and cities to improve capacity to enable water to run off when we have rain of that sort.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s interest in the impact of flooding in Gloucestershire, and in my constituency in particular. There are two issues that I would like him to raise with the insurers. First, is it wise to keep building planned houses on areas that flooded in July, such as Leckhampton in my constituency? Will the homes built there be insurable at any economic premium? Secondly, will the insurers be able to expedite payments to small businesses affected by the flooding? Many of them are still waiting for compensation months later, with an obvious impact on their cash flow, their bank charges and the interest that they pay on their overdrafts.
On the second point, I am happy to pass on the hon. Gentleman’s point to the industry. However, from my conversations with many people who were affected, including those in his constituency, and with hon. Members, it appears that the insurance industry responded well by and large in terms of sending assessors. I understand the point about payment; quite a lot has already been paid out.
On the first point, the hon. Gentleman knows that we have considerably strengthened the guidance in planning policy statement 25. We have given the Environment Agency, which is the expert on where there is a risk of flooding, a statutory right to be consulted. Ministers, of course, have a right to call in proposals. In the light of the strengthened guidance, it is a continuing responsibility on local authorities to ask themselves whether, if they intend to build on a flood plain, they can adequately defend against a risk that is increasing because the climate is changing. Approximately 2 million homes in the country are built on a flood plain. The building that we are in now is on a flood plain, but it has a defence. Local authorities must weigh that up when making decisions so that we do not add to the problems.
May I record my personal thanks to the Association of British Insurers, the managing director of which visited the Vale of York when it was flooded for the second time in 2005? Does the Secretary of State see fit to give an undertaking that water companies in future will be consulted on all new developments on the flood plain so that they can ascertain whether they should go ahead rather than being deemed fit simply to connect water and sewerage to new developments?
In reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) about the involvement of too many bodies, the Secretary of State referred to predicting ways in which water will escape. Does he acknowledge that too many bodies are involved in mapping future flood risk? They include the Met Office, the Environment Agency, the ABI, individual insurance companies and district councils. Should not one body be made responsible for mapping possible future flood risk?
On the second point, there is a problem, especially in relation to surface water flooding. Although the Environment Agency maps for river flooding, it is hard, if not impossible, to predict where surface water flooding will occur because one has to know the volume of rain that will fall, exactly where it will fall and the gradient of the ground, and then assess the capacity of the drainage system. It is a problem, but I am sure that Sir Michael Pitt’s review will consider it.
Water companies’ interest is principally in the capacity to supply water to new developments. In the context of flood risk, the Environment Agency, to which we have given a statutory right to be consulted, is the body whose views we need to hear. However, all those matters should be considered because I am determined that we learn lessons so that we can do better in future.
Climate Change Bill
The Government’s response to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation on the draft Climate Change Bill will be laid in Parliament shortly, ahead of its introduction in the forthcoming parliamentary Session.
As climate change is one of the most important issues of our age, it is essential to set up a climate change committee that is independent of the Government. If the Government appoint the chairman and members of the committee, what criteria will be used? Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the committee will be independent?
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance because the committee on climate change will be an important body, which will comprise people with the right expertise and skills. As he knows from the draft Climate Change Bill, it will have to take a range of considerations into account in advising the Government on the budgets and undertaking their other duties. If he will bear with us a little longer, he will see what happens. A genuine consultation has taken place—that is why I was strongly in favour of publishing the Bill in draft. The purpose of a consultation is to listen and respond to the arguments. I intend to do exactly that.
Some people are asking the Government to embrace a target of an 80 per cent. cut in CO2 instead of the ambitious and laudable target of 60 per cent. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will resist the requests for 80 per cent., which could be perceived as posturing by today’s politicians, who will not be active in 2050, and concentrate more than hitherto on tackling the effects of climate change? Will he strengthen that aspect of the Bill to ensure that the Government put in place further measures quickly to adapt to the climate change that we are already experiencing, such as the flooding that we have discussed? We have the crazy example of Wessex Water in 2000 asking Ofwat to install bigger pipes but not being allowed to do so.
The truth is that we have to do both. It is not a competition between mitigation and adaptation, because we are going to have to learn to live with the change in our climate that has already taken place, while we work as hard as we can to ensure that we avoid catastrophic further change, so I very much take the point about adaptation.
As for the figure for the reduction in carbon emissions that we need in the UK, the draft Bill talks about at least 60 per cent. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last month that we will ask the committee on climate change—the independent experts who will advise the Government—whether that target is strong enough in the light of the changing science. I am clear that that is absolutely the right thing to do, because as circumstances change and we have a greater understanding of what is happening, it is right to ask whether we need to change the policy and the approach that we take in response. That is a much better way of answering the question than plucking a figure out of the air.
Well, the UK signed up to it. Not only are we going to meet the commitments that we entered into but we are likely to meet nearly double those commitments. The UK is one of the few industrial countries in the world to do so. Can the hon. Gentleman name another country in the world that is about to put legislation before its Parliament that will put on the statute book a statutory commitment to reduce emissions in the way that we propose to do? Can he name another country in the world that has done more to argue the case for an international agreement as a successor to the Kyoto protocol? The answer is that he cannot do so. That is an indication of the seriousness with which the Government take the need to deal with climate change.
The committee on climate change is an important part of the draft Climate Change Bill. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the draft Climate Change Bill earlier this year, he indicated that the committee on climate change would be set up at an early date and that a shadow committee might even be set up in advance of the full legislation coming into force, so as to start work at an early stage. If the idea of setting up a shadow committee soon is not already in the Government’s response to the Joint Committee’s report, will the Secretary of State slip it into that response quickly and try to get the shadow committee set up soon?
I received a rather alarming answer to a question that I put to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in which I asked whether the Climate Change Bill would require a lower level of emissions in the period 2008 to 2012 than in the preceding five years and whether the level for every future budget period would be set lower than that. The answer was extremely non-committal and simply said that the committee on climate change would advise the Government on the pathway. Can the Secretary of State seriously imagine circumstances in which the carbon emissions budget for 2008 to 2012 would actually be higher than the carbon emissions for the previous five years? Can he not also give a firm commitment that the committee on climate change will be asked to advise him on reductions in carbon emissions?
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that commitment. Of course the committee on climate change will advise on reductions in carbon emissions, because how else would we have any prospect of reaching a reduction of at least 60 per cent. by 2050? If he had listened to what I said in response to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), he would know that the committee on climate change will be independent. He is asking us to do the committee’s job for it, but I do not propose to do that. We are setting the framework. We are setting a clear target that we must achieve to reduce carbon emissions, but it is right and proper that the committee on climate change, in giving us advice on the first three five-year budgets, should be the body that advises us on what the pathways should be, and that is exactly what it will do.
On that very theme, my right hon. Friend will know that one of the key messages in the Stern review is that we must take strong early action to tackle climate change. As others have pointed out, because carbon dioxide lasts for about 100 or so years in the atmosphere, we must take early action to stop its accumulation, not just aim for a lower emission target in the future. Does my right hon. Friend agree and does he see the Bill as helping to address that through five-year carbon budgets?
I am sure that the whole House will be intrigued to find out exactly what the Climate Change Bill contains when we finally get to see it. Recent reports that the Government are planning to abandon their commitment to the 2020 European target for renewable energy have again raised serious doubts over whether this Prime Minister takes climate change seriously at all. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity categorically to state that the Government will not renege on their support for the European renewable energy target or are we looking yet again at a broken promise and another dumped target?
I simply ask the hon. Gentleman whether he listened to the Prime Minister’s words in the House of Commons yesterday, where he expressed the Government’s commitment to the target that we signed up to in the summer. The hon. Gentleman has heard it directly from the Prime Minister himself.
Our top priority is to encourage prevention or re-use of waste wood, wherever possible. However, recent research has concluded that there are significant energy and carbon benefits from recovering energy from waste wood, compared with sending it to landfill, where most of it currently goes. DEFRA is taking forward a programme of work to develop energy markets for waste wood by addressing the informational and practical barriers to expansion.
I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. I am sure that she will recall the statement in “Climate Change the UK Programme 2006”, suggesting that if waste wood that currently goes into landfill were diverted to use for fuel, that could account for more than 11 per cent. a year of the UK’s carbon reduction targets. In that light, will she expedite and seek to achieve agreement on Environment Agency proposals for protocols on waste wood as a fuel resource?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, but I am sorry to have to tell him that, because of the lack of agreement on suitable controls and standards, the Environment Agency and the industry have not been able to produce a protocol. However, it is not all bad news and we hope that the industry itself will make further progress on protocols. The Environment Agency issued new guidance on 3 October, confirming the deregulation of virgin timber. That means that producers will be able to recover and sell on virgin waste wood, such as off-cuts, shavings and sawdust and, of course, the production that comes from the management of forests. Those will be free from regulatory control. Clean and treated non-virgin timber will remain classified as waste and regulated as normal through exemptions and waste legislation.
The hon. Lady will understand that waste wood could be an important raw material source in the production of second-generation biofuels, whose importance becomes more apparent as we move towards the era of road transport fuels obligation and as we seek a solution to the food-fuel paradox. Not much seems to be happening in respect of developing second-generation biofuels in the UK, so will the Minister tell me what DEFRA is actually doing to take advantage of her own Government’s assistance in this sector to see second generation become reality?
DEFRA is dealing with the issue very actively. What is needed first is a collection of wood and other biodegradable materials such as food waste, all of which could be used for the production of renewable fuels, and that is being done in a number of ways. We have an infrastructure programme, research is taking place, and we have support from WRAP, the waste and resources action programme. There are a variety of ways in which we expect to be able to develop more infrastructure, because, following the collection of raw materials, the introduction of appropriate infrastructure is the key.
WRAP is working on developing markets. We are also renewing the renewables obligation, and considering the possibility of its operating under a banded system. Electricity generated from waste wood, for example, would be eligible for support under the obligation.
Will my hon. Friend and Portcullis House neighbour accept an invitation to visit my constituency? It lies at the heart of the 200sq m national forest, where industries associated with waste wood are being developed at quite a rapid rate. If she does visit my constituency, will my hon. Friend visit Orchard primary school in Castle Donington—where I switched on a wood-pellet boiler some time ago—and observe the ways in which we can encourage public sector bodies such as schools, hospitals and police stations to install heating systems using materials of this kind?
I should be very pleased to receive an invitation to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency, if my diary permits such a visit.
Such schemes are important, and we expect both the private and the public sector to be increasingly prepared to use wood as fuel. At present 7.5 million tonnes of waste wood arise each year, of which the vast majority—6 million tonnes—is disposed of as landfill. If it could be used in the production of energy, that would be enormously beneficial.
My hon. Friend mentioned the forest in his area. The Forestry Commission has come up with an excellent plan in its wood fuel strategy for England, which it hopes will produce an additional 2 million tonnes of wood a year by 2020. It will be good-quality wood, and it will be possible to burn it and recover fuel very efficiently. It could supply 250,000 homes with energy.
DEFRA is working collaboratively with all parts of the dairy supply chain to reduce the environmental impacts of the production and consumption of fresh liquid milk.
The Minister will know of reports that civil servants proposed either to persuade or to coerce the British public to move away from fresh British milk towards UHT milk. Will he take this opportunity to inform us either that there was no truth in those stories, or that he has told the civil servants concerned to throw their proposals very firmly in the waste-paper bin?
I am grateful for the opportunity to answer my right hon. Friend’s question. There was a discussion document about the proposal, but it is not Government policy, never has been and never will be. Reports suggested that we would force people to drink UHT milk—which is considerably inferior to the fresh milk produced by British farmers—but I can tell my right hon. Friend that the story was and is a load of old bullocks.
What is the cost of the product road-mapping? Would the money not be better spent on supporting the dairy sector, which has already been hit by bluetongue, foot and mouth and bovine tuberculosis? If refrigeration truly is an environmental problem, is the hon. Gentleman really going to be the Minister to tell people to drink their lager warm?
Not lager, not milk. No, I am not going to tell consumers to do that. However, we do need to examine the environmental impact of farming. We have worked with representatives of farmers’ groups from across the industry, and we are very grateful for the hard work that they have put in. There has been a good collaboration between DEFRA and the industry, and we want that to continue. If we can identify costs—particularly energy costs—and savings, that will be good for not just the environment, but the farmer.
We have already seen progress this year with several key meetings, including the G8 leaders summit, which sent a clear signal on the need to advance international negotiations on a post-2012 framework, and the UN Secretary-General's high level event last month. We look forward to Bali, where the aim must be to reach agreement on starting negotiations on a new framework.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Bali, a major international conference, is just six weeks away. Can he give an undertaking that the attitude of Her Majesty's Government will be that countries such as the United States, which contributes 22 per cent. of the carbon dioxide in the world, will be forced to be part of the next agreement, to sign up to it and then to deliver, and that President Bush will not be allowed to stall discussions and agreements until after he has left office, thus setting back progress considerably globally as well as in north America itself?
I cannot force, and the United Kingdom Government cannot force, any other country to do anything, but when I was in New York for the high level event, I said that a post-2012 agreement that does not include emissions from the largest economy in the world is not going to do the job. We all know that. The fact that the US Administration now recognise that there is a thing called climate change and have begun to talk about it, is welcome. What is striking about the US is the extent to which policy is being led by the states. Look at what is happening in California and in the eastern states, which are developing their own emission trading scheme. Understanding is increasing, and that is moving the politics. I do not think anyone at the Bali conference will be in any doubt that we have to start those negotiations, because we do not have much time left to sort this out.
While it is welcome that the United States is starting to move in the right direction, what is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the commitment of other leading industrial nations, for example, China and India, to post-2012 Kyoto agreements?
We are seeing movement—look at the recent announcement that Australia made. However, my hon. Friend draws attention to the other thing on which we have to make progress. If we look at the G77, the group of developing countries, we cannot credibly argue that China, which will shortly be the largest emitter in the world, if it is not already, although not in per capita terms, should be regarded as in the same position as Mali or Burkina Faso. That would hinder efforts to make progress. So far, the agreements have talked about common but differentiated commitments, but in the course of negotiations wewill have to come to a view, as countries develop economically, about what commitments it is reasonable for them to take on to contribute to dealing with the problem.
Even if the rich developed countries disappeared from the world tomorrow and took the emissions that we are currently producing with us, because of the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere and the rising carbon emissions in the developing world, it would be left to deal with the problem anyway. That makes the point that all of us have to play our part.
Britain has huge natural resources and financial and human capital to build the world’s first low-carbon economy. Bali should be a key staging point on that mission, yet the global leadership we once exerted in those international forums is being undermined by the slow rate of genuine change and economic transformation at home. As the Secretary of State prepares for Bali, can he list any low carbon sectors or renewable technologies where the UK is now leading the world—not in their discovery or research, but in their commercialisation and market share?
I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman some examples. We have just given the go ahead to what will be the world's largest offshore wind farm, the London Array. When it is completed, it will generate—[Interruption.] Well, we are getting on with it. When it is completed, it will generate enough electricity—[Interruption.] Having asked me the question, will he do me the courtesy of listening to the answer? It will generate enough electricity to power one in four homes in Greater London. That is what I call world leadership. We are undertaking a feasibility study of the Severn barrage, which could generate 5 per cent. of our electricity. Renewable electricity is set to increase threefold between now and 2015, and Ernst and Young, which does a renewable energy attractiveness survey, now ranks the UK equal second in the world behind only the United States. I would call that leadership.
The Government intend to carry out the feasibility study announced on 25 September in an open and transparent way. The issue of how we can best engage with all the interested groups, including wildlife non-governmental organisations, will be considered in the development of the communications element of the study.
The Newport wetlands wildlife reserve, the compensatory habitat for Cardiff bay, is in my constituency. I support the drive to harness tidal energy in the Severn, but will my hon. Friend ensure that the feasibility study is truly independent and open and examines all the options and impacts? Will she ensure that wildlife groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trust are listened to and are part of a stakeholder group during the process?
The feasibility study is at an early stage and the project organisation and Government arrangements are being developed and are subject to ministerial approval. The work plans for the various issues are also at an early stage and we had our first cross-departmental working group meeting on 18 October. The detailed communications plan is being developed to ensure that appropriate stakeholder communication and engagement take place in an effective and appropriate way and at the right time. I am not in a position at the moment to guarantee the specific involvement of groups in any particular way, but I can assure my hon. Friend of the group’s openness, transparency and willingness to consult. I hope that she and organisations such as the RSPB and Friends of the Earth will acknowledge that the Government have a good track record in consulting NGOs.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
Conviction Rates (Nottingham)
During the year ending March 2007, a conviction was recorded in Nottinghamshire on Crown Prosecution Service figures in respect of 60.7 per cent. of all defendants whose case got as far as the CPS for an offence of rape, and in 59.5 per cent. in the cases of domestic violence. Nottinghamshire’s outcome in cases of rape compared favourably with the national figure of 54.5 per cent, but in cases of domestic violence the conviction rate was short of the national figure of 65 per cent.
Those are improving figures; congratulations to all involved. However, it remains the case that many women who appear before court feel that they are the accused rather than the victim. In that context, will my hon. and learned Friend look at the case about which I have just written to her concerning a constituent in Edwinstowe who has had that very experience?
I certainly will and I have just received a letter from my hon. Friend about the case. He raises a problematic issue: the extent to which cross-examination should be allowed. Obviously, there must be a balance between the freedom for the defendant to test the case against him and his not being inappropriately oppressive and re-traumatising the victim. Judges and magistrates have a duty to control proceedings and to stop over-oppressive cross-examination. Our prosecutors now have a duty to do that as well. I will certainly look at the file about the case and I invite him to come and discuss it with me.
Inside Justice Week
Inside Justice week is being supported by all of the Departments that the Attorney-General and I run so we are all playing a busy part. It was the idea of the Attorney-General some four years ago and its aim is to open up the criminal justice system to the public through a themed week of events, media opportunities and public engagement.
The Crown Prosecution Service does a lot of fairly regular work with schools: mock trials; talks on restorative justice; and work on domestic violence awareness. The Attorney-General will be starting the week at Deptford Green school. On Friday, I shall be going, at the request of the head teacher, Mr. Hobbs, to talk to children at the terrific Bydales sustainable technology college, which is in Marske in my constituency. I shall probably talk about the Middlesbrough community court.
Inside Justice week offers a rare and perhaps even unique opportunity for young people to take a look inside the criminal justice system. Does the Solicitor-General agree that we should maximise the number of women participating in the numerous events taking place throughout the country to ensure that as many young women as possible are encouraged to consider a career in that system?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I thoroughly agree. The idea is to help young people in particular to understand that the criminal justice system is a part of keeping their neighbourhood safe, that justice is very important and is not a separate and arcane preserve, and that they have access to it, both if they need it for justice purposes and if they want to pursue a career in it.
I was slightly disappointed that the Solicitor-General did not specifically mention opening up the Attorney-General’s own office as part of Inside Justice week, because a number of puzzles still exist about how the Department works. May I ask the Solicitor-General to clear up one particular puzzle? In February, the previous Attorney-General told the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs that he would take independent counsel’s advice on the cash-for-honours question and publish it. It turns out that neither of those things has been done. In the spirit of the openness of Inside Justice week, will she explain why?
That is a remote link to Inside Justice week, if I may say so. I would not necessarily recommend opening up the Attorney-General’s office in any physical sense, because people would probably find my neglected coffee cups there. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the issue that he raises, if there is anything to add to what he knows perfectly well.
I recognise that non-custodial sentences are often appropriate and, in certain circumstances, should be encouraged. My hon. and learned Friend was talking about justice a moment ago. What sort of justice is there when someone who was convicted of pushing and blinding a 96-year-old person did not receive a custodial sentence?
May I first say that I welcome Inside Justice week and hope that it is a success? It looks, from the material that has been put out, that considerable emphasis has been placed on the role of the Attorney-General’s office and the Crown Prosecution Service in supporting victims. May I also urge the Solicitor-General to draw attention in this week to the role of the CPS and the Attorney-General’s office in preventing pointless prosecution? I am sure that she will agree that although they may be few in number, prosecutions of individuals for matters that are likely to appear trivial, for instance difficulties that teachers may have disciplining children or, indeed, people carrying out citizen’s arrests, as in the Bridlington chip shop case, undermine confidence in the criminal justice system. If it could be seen that the CPS and the Attorney-General’s guidelines ensured that prosecutions in such investigations were stopped at an early stage, a great deal of public reassurance would be derived.
The hon. Gentleman makes a straightforward point—there must be balanced, good judgment, in accordance with the guidelines, about who to prosecute and who to forbear from prosecuting— and I agree with him. Part of our task in Inside Justice week is to make clear the basis on which such decisions are being made.
Sexual Assault Referral Centres
There are now 18 sexual assault referral centres, with 18 more in development. They are usually joint projects between the police, the health services and the voluntary sector. They provide important early support and counselling for victims so that they are better able to be sustained to go through with any criminal prosecution and to give their best evidence in court.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply, and I am sure that she will be pleased to hear that building conversion work for the Cardiff centre will start next week. Is she aware that, since January, the women’s safety unit in Cardiff has had 71 referrals of sexual assault, mainly rape? The unit has been able to offer help and support and to undertake the early evidence work, such as taking DNA samples. On the whole, the women involved do not want to go forward to prosecution, but that early work is done in case they change their minds. What more can the Government do to support that important work?
My hon. Friend’s city has a fine record of battling with issues of violence against women, and she has a fine record of championing these matters.
It is a great pleasure to hear that Cardiff’s sexual assault referral centre will come on-stream soon. We must spread the best practice across every area, and ensure that there is good quality practice in the SARCs. However, in due course—and probably early next month—we will publish our response to the previous Solicitor-General’s consultation document on what more we can do to improve the quality of justice for rape victims. We have made advances in domestic violence through training relevant agencies, and we consider that it may be desirable for juries to receive information about the psychological reactions of rape victims. We want to help dispel myths about rape, and we consider that that might be achieved through a neutral document or judge’s statement. We will publish our response formally in a month or so, and that ought to be a considerable step towards ensuring better justice for the sort of women supported by SARCs across the country.
Governance of Britain
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about our programme of constitutional renewal. With this statement, three consultation documents are being published. The first, jointly by my right hon. Friends the Foreign and Defence Secretaries and myself, is in respect of parliamentary approval for war powers and treaties; the second, by me, is in respect of judicial appointments; and the third, by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, is in respect of protests in Parliament square. Copies of the documents are available in the Vote Office and on my Department’s website.
In his statement to the House on 3 July to launch the Green Paper entitled “The Governance of Britain”, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out his vision of a renewed relationship between Government and citizen. Among other things, he identified 12 areas in which
“the Prime Minister and Executive should surrender or limit their powers, the exclusive exercise of which by the Government should have no place in a modern democracy.”—[Official Report, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 815.]
Two of the most important prerogative powers are the power to deploy the armed forces overseas and the power to commit the nation to international legal obligations through the ratification of treaties.
I turn first to war powers. On 15 May, the Government supported a motion in this House that declared that it was “inconceivable” that the precedents set in 2002 and 2003, when the Government sought the approval of this House for military action in Iraq, would not be followed in the future. The same motion called on the Government
“to come forward with…detailed proposals”
on how that convention should be entrenched. Today’s consultation paper therefore explores a range of options, each aimed at formalising Parliament’s role. It suggests that that might be achieved through a convention or legislation, or a combination of both. The consultation paper discusses the critical issues that any system would have to accommodate. It is essential that any new arrangements should not damage morale or hinder us in meeting our international obligations. They should not inhibit operational flexibility and the need for secrecy, nor inhibit our need to act in emergencies. In addition, of course, no members of our armed forces should be placed under any legal liability as a result of any new arrangements.
The Government welcome views on how those objectives can best be achieved, and also on related questions. For instance, what is the role of the House of Lords in contributing to decisions by this place? How should we define “armed conflict” and “armed forces”? What information ought to be supplied to Parliament, and at what stage?
I turn now to the ratification of treaties, which is already subject to a parliamentary convention introduced—I am pleased to say—by the first Labour Government, in 1924. For the cognoscenti, it is known as the Ponsonby rule, after the man who introduced it. According to the convention, and with certain exceptions, the Government must lay a treaty as a Command Paper before Parliament for a minimum of 21 sitting days before ratification. It is then for Parliament to determine which treaties it wishes to debate.
The Government believe that there may be value in putting the convention on a statutory footing, to establish better Parliament’s right to decide and to show that the actions of the Government are subject to the will of the people’s representatives. The paper seeks views on how that can best be done, including on the detailed and important questions of exceptions to the existing convention, which include bilateral double taxation agreements, how a debate and vote on a treaty should be triggered, and how the 21-day period could be extended in special circumstances.
As Lord Chancellor, I am responsible for upholding and defending the independence and integrity of the judiciary, which is essential to the functioning of a free and democratic society. Our system of appointing judges must be, as I believe it is, wholly devoid of party politics; it must be transparent, accountable and capable of inspiring public confidence. Under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, with the establishment of the Lord Chief Justice, not myself, as head of the judiciary, we have already made significant reforms to the way in which judges are appointed in England and Wales. The most fundamental was the creation of an independent Judicial Appointments Commission. The consultation paper published today outlines other possible options for additional reform, on which the Government would welcome views.
The final consultation document published today concerns protest in Parliament square. The framework in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in respect of such protests raised concerns from campaigners and other citizens and, separately, from Members of the House. The purpose of the consultation is to listen to those concerns and review the provisions, to see whether there is a better way to both uphold the right to protest and manage individual protest appropriately.
Holding the Government to account for the way in which they spend public money is one of the most important functions of the House. I and my colleagues pay tribute to the work of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office in supporting the House in that task. The House will be pleased to know that following a joint request to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister from my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the House, and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), space will be made available in the forthcoming constitutional reform Bill for any agreed changes to the governance of the National Audit Office emerging from the review that they have announced.
It is right to consider the circumstances in which we open up more information for debate before the House. Even in the most sensitive sphere—national security—where everyone agrees that some safeguards have to be in place to respect confidentiality, we should always consider where we can do more, so starting next month, the Government will publish annually, for parliamentary debate and public scrutiny, our national security strategy setting out for the British people the threats we face and the objectives we pursue. Additionally, new rules will govern a more open approach to the working of the Intelligence and Security Committee. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has agreed with the Chair of the ISC that Parliament should have a clear role in the appointment of members to the Committee. More details about the new rules and that role will be announced in due course.
In keeping with the Government’s commitment to ensure that the public can access the information they need, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a speech later today announcing that we will not tighten the charging arrangements for freedom of information requests. A consultation on whether to extend the Freedom of Information Act to a range of organisations that perform public functions, although theoretically some of them may legally be in the private sector, and a review of the 30-year rule will be established.
These days, huge amounts of personal data are held by the public and private sector. The scale of those holdings has moved on significantly since the passage of the Data Protection Act 1998. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have therefore asked the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and Professor Mark Walport, the director of the Wellcome Trust, to review the way in which we share and protect personal information in the public and private sector.
The freedom of the media to investigate and report is a key issue in the use of information. We consulted last year on restricting media access to the coroners’ courts. In the light of the responses to that consultation, I can now confirm that we will not be proceeding with any proposals to limit such access.
Proposals to ban media payments to criminals have been under consideration for some time. None of us wants to see criminals profiting from publishing books about their crimes. While ensuring that the freedom of the press to investigate and report is maintained, we will bring forward proposals to make sure that criminals cannot benefit in that way.
As provisions in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill make clear, we are also concerned about the misuse of personal data. However, the new rules proposed in the Bill have raised concerns that they might impede legitimate investigative journalism, so the Information Commissioner, in consultation with the Press Complaints Commission, will produce clear guidance to ensure that rights to investigate are not impeded.
There is often a lack of clarity in the balance between an individual’s freedom and the role of the state. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been examining this issue in relation to existing police powers of entry to consider whether there should be a single readily understandable code. My right hon. Friend will widen the scope of the review to include all powers of entry available to other public authorities. She will also lead a consultative review to consider whether improved guidance is needed for police officers in the exercise of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000—stop-and-search powers—to ensure that trust is preserved in the use of the powers.
For the sake of completeness, may I tell the House that in respect of reform of the House of Lords, discussions are proceeding inside the all-party talks? We are arranging for two meetings of the working group before Christmas.
These consultation documents and the other measures are all in part concerned with the right to freedom of expression and its facilitation. The right is specifically protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, but it has existed in the UK for a very long time. Because of its fundamental importance in our democracy, I shall be considering how, as all future legislation is developed, it can be carefully audited for any explicit or unforeseen restrictions that that might unnecessarily place on that freedom of expression.
I hope and believe that the House will agree that the matters that I have raised go to the heart of exactly where power should lie in our country and how it should be exercised. We now look forward to hearing the views of both parliamentarians and citizens on the proposals. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Lord Chancellor for giving me a brief early sight of his statement and for the delivery of the documents to my office this morning. I congratulate him on pulling rank over his right hon. and learned Friend the deputy leader of the Labour party and the Leader of the House by making his statement ahead of the business statement.
The Lord Chancellor says that this is about changing how Britain is governed, and strengthening Parliament. Will he confirm that the Prime Minister will be making a speech shortly on the Human Rights Act outside the House, as has been widely reported in the press this morning, not least on the front page of The Guardian? The press has clearly been briefed. Will the Lord Chancellor tell the House how, when the Prime Minister makes such an important speech outside the House and prevents us from being able to debate it, that constitutes the strengthening of Parliament?
In our Opposition day debate on 15 May, we called for the strengthening of parliamentary approval of international treaties. Our democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), proposed that international treaties be exempt from the royal prerogative, and be required to be laid before Parliament, together with an explanatory document. Why do the Government believe that statutory change is necessary, when a resolution of the House of Commons would be adequate? The consultation document says that proposals on parliamentary approval would relate to new international treaties, but what about existing ones? The House will have a chance to vote on the EU constitutional treaty, signed by the Prime Minister in Lisbon last week, but none the less it will not be put to a vote of the people. Is that the way to rebuild the public’s trust?
Given the frequency of deployments and the controversy that that has created, there is growing consensus in this country that the decision to go to war requires democratic legitimacy. We have already said that parliamentary assent, for example through a resolution of the House of Commons, should be required to commit troops to war, international armed conflict or peacekeeping activity. We favour that being done through the development of a parliamentary convention. The consultation paper proposes that, apart from informing the House, there be no requirement for any further parliamentary procedure, but if the Government really want to strengthen Parliament, should not the House be able to have a decisive say if the Government make a wrong call? Of course there are serious issues relating to the potential for a negative vote when troops are already in the field, but there should be no blank cheque. In matters as critical as a major deployment in an emergency, why should there not be an opportunity for retrospective approval, not just an obligation for the Prime Minister to inform Parliament?
It is right that the House should vote before troops are committed to military action overseas, but we had a vote when the war in Iraq was declared, and the House was not given a full and accurate account of the position. Does the Lord Chancellor not appreciate that what has caused a haemorrhaging of public trust in Government is not the failure to give Parliament a vote—there was a vote—but the fact that the Government for whom he was Foreign Secretary misled the public on the issue?
We welcome moves to strengthen the Intelligence and Security Committee—but will the Lord Chancellor confirm that appointments to the Committee will not be in the gift of the Government Whips?
We welcome the measures to allow protests around Parliament. Indeed, when the reprehensible legislation on the subject was passed, I said that it was more appropriate to Tiananmen square than to Parliament square. [Interruption.] Will the Lord Chancellor explain exactly how such a flagrant attack on freedom of expression was not found to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998? Was that not an example of the way in which the Act interferes with our ability to deal with terrorists and serious criminals, but fails to protect essential civil liberties? [Interruption.]
It is unfortunate that the Government find themselves trying to ensure greater independence in the appointment of judges, as only recently they have done far more to threaten the independence of the judiciary by forcing judges, without prior consultation and still without their agreement, into a Department where their budget is imperilled by the prisons crisis. Will the Lord Chancellor tell the House when he will be able to make a statement on negotiations with the judiciary to protect their independence in the new Ministry of Justice? We welcome measures to limit political involvement in judicial appointments. Does the Secretary of State for Justice now accept that ensuring judicial independence is far more important than gestures such as moving the judiciary to a different building on the other side of Parliament square? The Government now admit that that will cost more than £100 million to set up, and £12.3 million a year to run, although the current arrangements cost virtually nothing.
Independence is not the only principle that guides judicial appointments. It is quite right that judges should have to be competent, diligent and people of the utmost integrity. Above all, as the consultation paper says:
“Linked to independence is the principle that judges should be appointed on merit.”
How does the Lord Chancellor reconcile that principle with the commitment to ensuring that judges are drawn from diverse communities? Can he rule out any suggestion of any kind of quotas or positive discrimination in judicial appointments?
All three of the consultative documents that the Government have published today are welcome, and we will engage fully in debate on them. “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper says that the Government want to forge a new relationship between Government and citizen, but does the Lord Chancellor not understand that there will be no such new relationship until trust is rebuilt? Talking about strengthening Parliament will count for nothing if Parliament is undermined, as it was when the Prime Minister cynically made his announcement of troop withdrawals to the press.
Talking about giving people more power will count for nothing if the Government put party interests ahead of voters’ interests, as the Electoral Commission found that they did—
Order. I called on Government Ministers to limit their statements to 10 minutes. That happened in this case, and I do not expect an Opposition spokesperson to go over the limit. The hon. Gentleman has used up his time, and I must stop him, because I have Back Benchers to call. That is important to me.
Let me try to deal briefly with those points. I regret the first point that the hon. Gentleman made about the order of the statements today. When I was Leader of the House, and in the case of every predecessor, there were a number of occasions when it was for the convenience of the House and colleagues that I, as Leader of the House, made my statement after a ministerial statement. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House on this occasion.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is indeed making an important speech. My statement was intended to ensure that in advance of that speech, the House was informed of all substantive developments that he will speak about.
The fact that we are proposing a British Bill of Rights and responsibilities and developing such a Bill has been made very clear in the House on a number of occasions. When the consultative document, which I am currently working on, is ready to publish, it will be published first to the House.
The hon. Gentleman made some extraordinarily muddled comments about the ratification of treaties, and about war powers. I always do my best to ensure that Opposition spokespeople have documents like the ones under discussion as soon as possible. That I tried to do this morning. As for the European treaty, the Ponsonby rule does not apply to that. Why? Because there is a far better procedure in respect of all EU treaties. They are the subject of line-by-line examination by a separate Bill.
On war powers, I do not know what the hon. Gentleman was going on about when he talked about retrospective approval. There are paragraphs in the document, as we have made clear, about where retrospective approval should apply, and how we could have retrospective approval without undermining the armed forces.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we should prevent recommendations for membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee from being influenced by the Government Whips. That is well above his pay grade and mine. If he is proposing that we get to a situation in which the Government Whips exert no influence whatever on the membership of Committees, I look forward to that time arriving—but I am not sure that that will be while he or I are in the House.
On protests about Parliament, I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that references to Tiananmen square are completely misplaced. I heard the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) saying from a sedentary position, but not sotto voce, that what the hon. Gentleman said about that was rubbish. Provided that that is parliamentary, Mr. Speaker, I agree with it. I am making a serious point to the hon. Gentleman. People died in Tiananmen square. [Interruption.] His language was very intemperate indeed.
On the judiciary, again the hon. Gentleman was profoundly muddled. Nothing has been imperilled by the creation of the Ministry of Justice. The protection of the judiciary remains. I have made it clear that I have no intention of undermining its budget. The case for a supreme court has been widely supported across the country.
The hon. Gentleman’s last point was extraordinary, suggesting that if we sought a more diverse judiciary, somehow it would be less well qualified. I hope that that is not the official position of the Opposition. The House has been strengthened by the introduction of more women and more black and Asian Members, and it will be more strengthened still by more women and black and Asian Members. Exactly the same applies to the judiciary.
I very much welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend and the documents that accompany it. One of those relates to changes in royal prerogative. Is it my right hon. Friend’s intention to continue to review the question of the royal prerogative, particularly how Parliament uses it, or does he consider that the documents that we have this morning constitute that review?
The documents are part of the review of the royal prerogative. We have been much informed by the report of the Public Administration Committee of about three years ago, and we continue to examine other aspects of the royal prerogative.
May I also say that in response to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, (Nick Herbert) I got one point wrong? The EU reform treaty will be subject to the Ponsonby rule, but in addition, it will be subject to detailed parliamentary scrutiny.
I, too, welcome the statement, and I would have welcomed early sight of the papers accompanying it. In his announcement today, the Lord Chancellor has given the strong impression that he is running to catch up with the statements of the Prime Minister outside the House. Nevertheless, I welcome many of the proposals in the statement.
The changes to the royal prerogative on war-making powers are long overdue. It is extremely pleasing to hear the support from the Government Benches and from the Conservatives for something that they flatly rejected when it was proposed by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) not long ago. Even with the provisos that were already in that Bill about morale, operational flexibility and legal liability, it seemed impossible for those on either Front Bench to support even the principle at that stage, so the conversion is welcome.
With reference to the royal prerogative on treaties, I invite the Lord Chancellor to provide a further gloss on what he said about European Union treaties. Where no change in domestic law is required by the treaty, it does not receive line-by-line scrutiny in the House. Some of us believe that any treaty should be subject to the oversight of the House.
On the independence of the judiciary, I welcome the discussion paper on separation of powers—almost, as it would seem, as an academic subject. The large number of examples from other jurisdictions have sparing relevance to our system, but if we can further cement the independence of the judiciary, that is extremely important. What new thinking is apparent on the Government’s part since the last time we visited the issue? After all, we have only just put in place new provisions to strengthen the role of the Lord Chief Justice.
On the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, I note what the Lord Chancellor says about concerns among campaigners and other citizens, and we need to listen to those concerns. May I suggest an innovation to him: that this House actually listens to Members when they raise concerns in the context of the Bill? We fought every inch of the way on the provisions, because we knew exactly what the consequences would be. We would have welcomed the support of those on the Conservative Front Benches in both Houses all the way in arguing against those provisions, but unfortunately we did not receive it. We would apparently have received the support of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) if he had been in the House at the time. His observations, presumably made in his bathroom at home, are extremely welcome in that respect. This legislation is working to suppress the right of free speech and demonstration, and if one wants illustration of that fact, one has only to look at the case of Maya Stevens or the march that took place only the other day with on-off permission from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the threat even to hon. Members of this House that they would not be able—
Let me just say in respect of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman that the EU treaty will be the subject of both the Ponsonby rule and line-by-line examination, because it does affect our domestic law. The European Communities Act 1972 requires that we examine such Acts in detail.
On the independence of the judiciary, I hope that the House will find international comparisons very interesting. When the document was originally drafted, it was short on discussion of the separation of powers, and it is important that we can put our system in the context of other comparable countries.
On protests around Parliament square, I understand the controversy and I hope that we can reach a better consensus than we have done before, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not the case that the legislation has been working to “suppress protests”. Notwithstanding that legislation, it is a fact to which I can bear testament that, compared with the time when I was organising quite a number of demonstrations in and around London as president of the National Union of Students, there is far greater freedom in practice to demonstrate around Parliament square while Parliament is sitting—and we still had quite a good time protesting.
On the last point about new thinking in respect of judicial appointments, I think that most of the arrangements set out in the 2005 Act will stand the test of time, but some may need changing.
I welcome the announcement that we will not restrict media access to coroners’ courts, which will certainly be welcomed by Birmingham coroner’s court, which has been arguing for that.
Without having had the benefit of reading the specific contents of the document, I wonder whether the Lord Chancellor can tell me whether he is also considering affirmation hearings on appointments, such as those of high commissioners and ambassadors, carried out by Select Committees, to strengthen accountability to Parliament.
We do not make specific proposals on that issue in these documents. There are proposals, which I discussed with the Liaison Committee not so long ago, for some pre-confirmation hearings in respect of a positions ombudsman, for example. So far there have been no proposals for pre-confirmation hearings in respect of ambassadors and high commissioners.
I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s view that freedom of information should not be restricted by new charges and that confirmation hearings for judges would be a bad idea, but why does the consultation paper not take account of the wide extent to which judges, from the Lord Chief Justice down to local magistrates, now appear before the Committee and give valuable evidence? Why was it more urgent to revisit a judicial appointments system that has just been set up than to look at issues such as the post-devolution governance of England, on which the Committee will be taking hearings in the near future?
We look forward to hearing from the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee; I think that he would have been complaining if we had pre-empted its sage consideration. As I discussed with his Committee, there are changes, albeit second-order changes, that need to be made in the appointment of the judiciary, not least to slim down the current statutory requirement on me for various decisions which neither I nor the Lord Chief Justice think are necessary.
Does the Lord Chancellor agree that there is all the difference in the world between orderly, peaceful protest in Parliament square, which all of us should uphold, and having a permanent, squalid encampment in Parliament square?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s remarks about a more widely drawn judiciary, but I would like to focus my question on the proposals that he makes in relation to the intelligence and security strategy and the Intelligence and Security Committee. How can we ensure that Parliament focuses more carefully on these issues than it has to date? He is aware, as I am, that the debates are often poorly attended. Has he proposals to ensure better parliamentary scrutiny of these issues, on top of what we heard about in his brief statement?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made proposals for change, particularly to give, as it were, a greater impression of legitimacy to the people who serve on these committees. In my experience of appearing before the Intelligence and Security Committee over a nine-year period, it is in fact a very independent body of parliamentarians. We are ensuring that more information is made available, but ultimately it is for Members of this House to make better use, if I may say so, of the opportunities that are available, including a full day’s debate each year, in respect of the ISC’s work.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that any proposed changes to the governance of the National Audit Office will be proceeded with on a cross-party basis, so that we can ensure the integrity and absolute independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General?
On the day when Sir John Bourn has announced his retirement from his post, may I thank him for 20 years’ unstinting support of the Public Accounts Committee, which I think has ensured that we now have more effective oversight of public moneys than ever before in our history?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and particularly the announcements about freedom of information. I also welcome the fact that there will be a review about protests in Parliament square, because I think that it is important that the Government recognise that there has been an issue about them. Does he agree that how the consultation is carried out is very important? If we are to change the nature of the relationship between the citizen and Parliament, and between Parliament and the Government, is it not important that the citizen is involved in the consultation right from the beginning? Does he have any new ideas about how we can reach out to citizens to get them involved in this process?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of involving people better in the decisions. There are proposals that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 3 July, which we are developing and some of which we have already used, for formal arrangements. I know that they are the subject of some mockery by the Opposition, but they can work and have done so, as I have personally seen in relation to citizens juries, for example, which really can make a difference.
I also say to my hon. Friend that each of us has our own responsibility to talk to our constituents about these matters and to seek their views. I do that on a regular basis, not least in my open air meetings in the centre of Blackburn, where I did so last Saturday and two weeks before. I am happy to give Members on both sides of the House advance notice of when I will be there, and to entertain them with a cup of coffee after they have listened to me. They can have the same rights as citizens of Blackburn to put me to proof on any issue that they wish. I find that there is real appetite, surprisingly enough, for discussing issues about how our democracy should work better, not least among the young. The development of youth parliamentarians and youth MPs in every constituency has been very encouraging indeed.
My right hon. Friend made brief mention of the progress of the discussions on the reform of the House of Lords. Will he give more detail on how they are going and an indication of when he expects them to conclude? So that we do not lose the impetus of the overwhelming vote in this House for elections to the House of Lords, will he ensure that if we do not get agreement in the all-party discussions, the matter will be brought back to the House early so that we can move things further forward?
I made a detailed report to the House in an oral statement just before the summer recess. The all-party talks are taking place against the background and in the context of the clear decisions, made on an all-party basis in this House in early March, in favour of an 80 per cent. elected or 100 per cent. elected House of Lords and against all other options. That is the clear decision of this House. In that context, and given that all three parties support a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords, I hope that we can reach agreement on the many issues that make up the dossier.
May I put it to the Lord Chancellor that although his occasional busking at the Dispatch Box is attractive, constant noise from protesters in Parliament square is not? I underline what my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said: there can surely be a happy compromise between the freedom to demonstrate in Parliament square—that is essential—and not having a permanent protest site. I ask the Lord Chancellor to stress to the Home Secretary that the consultation period should be relatively brief and that legislation should be brought forward as quickly as possible. I would strongly support appropriate legislation.
I should have said that the consultation period on all the documents ends on 17 January, so it is pretty brief. I entirely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. My rooms have always faced Parliament square, and I find it difficult to conduct some meetings. I applaud the right to protest; as the House knows, I have used it myself on many occasions.
How does the hon. Gentleman know that? I shall give him my biography later. I have protested rather more recently than that; we regularly marched against the terrible Conservative Government. I have not marched against this Government, however.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point and hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does too.
Are we actually at war in Iraq? The Lord Chancellor says that he wants to look at extending the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to a range of organisations that perform public functions. No greater public function is performed than that by the media. Does he think that the 2000 Act should be extended generally to the media, so that we can get an answer to the famous question: quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Indeed; I once wrote a long essay on that, but it was in English.
The document makes it clear that the last time that we formally declared war was in 1942, although we have been involved in many armed conflicts since the second world war: 16,000 British service personnel have lost their lives since. The document deals with the issues about the definitions. Plainly, the rights of this House to make decisions on armed conflict go beyond any formal declaration of war.
Given the Government’s keenness to involve the citizen in the wider debate, does he see merit in the proposal to build on the experience of citizens juries and create a citizens convention supported by Members on both sides of the House? Given the parallel debate on the constitutional future of Scotland and Wales, launched by the respective First Ministers, will the Government involve the devolved Administrations in the wider debate about the future governance of Britain?
The answer to the second question is yes. I gave advance information about the contents of the document “The Governance of Britain”, although not of these documents, to the First Ministers and colleagues in Northern Ireland on 3 July. We are actively seeking the views of the devolved Administrations—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. There is no question about that.
Earlier this week, I spelt out to the House of Lords Constitution Committee why we are not in favour of a citizens convention to determine such matters. There is no direct parallel with the convention that did important work in Scotland and the parallel consultations in Wales. The Scottish convention was necessary because at the time there was no Scottish Parliament. There had to be some legitimated but necessarily informal body to do the job that would otherwise be done by the Parliament; the situation was similar in respect of the arrangements for Wales.
We have a people’s convention; it is called the British House of Commons. It is vital that any key decisions on our constitutional arrangements be made here. I do not believe that we should subcontract decisions to a parallel Parliament. However, the decisions that in the end we have a responsibility to make should be far better informed by vigorous debate and pressure from outside—from British citizens.
The Lord Chancellor makes a great deal of democracy. Does he agree that given the reform treaty—[Interruption.] Oh yes, indeed. Given the reform treaty or any other that creates substantial constitutional change, does the Lord Chancellor agree that another convention should be applied? Not only should such a treaty go through Parliament—where, of course, it will be rammed through by the Whips—but it should be subject to a referendum of the people as a whole, for we hold our position on trust from them.
I have a bet at Ladbrokes, with extremely generous odds, on whether at any stage in the next 10 years the hon. Gentleman will ask any question of the Treasury Bench that does not mention the word “Europe”. Sadly, despite the generous odds, I have still not collected any winnings, because I have never heard him ask any question whatever that does not get on to the issue of Europe. Public conveniences in Staffordshire would—[Interruption.] The answer to the question—[Interruption.] Well, I have given the hon. Gentleman so many answers to the question and I never satisfy him; it is very sad. The hon. Gentleman knows the answer; I do not know why he asked the damn question. I apologise; I withdraw that intemperate word.
Yes, I do. It is that we are the party that pioneered the use of referendums in particular circumstances. We do not believe that that one is appropriate for the EU reform treaty. The only thing that would satisfy the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is a decision made by this House; if he got his party on board and it won an election on such a manifesto, it could happen. I am talking about a decision to repeal the European Communities Act 1972. This House and the other place made the decision to join the European Union; this House and the other place, with or without a referendum—I suggest that one would be useful and desirable in such circumstances—could make a decision to withdraw from the European Union. That is the hon. Gentleman’s policy, not that of those on the Conservative Front Bench. That is his problem.
Does the Lord Chancellor recognise that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would not have voted for the war on Iraq if they had known then what we know now? As we consider our war-making powers between now and the end of the consultation period in January, should the House not have an opportunity to debate how we can avoid collectively misdirecting ourselves again in that way, and how the House can be better informed about such decisions before we again erroneously commit people to war?
We will have to have another occasion to debate the justification for military action in respect of Iraq on 18 March 2003. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, who voted for it, I think—I certainly did; if he did not, I apologise—that the House as a whole voted for it by a very large majority.
I have thought about this a very great deal. As far as I am concerned, on the basis of the information that was then available, which was the only information that could have been available at the time, the decision to take military action was justified. I am happy to discuss that in another place. Whatever criticism is made of the Government and their decision, every effort was made to involve this House, not on one occasion but on four, through substantive motions. I believe that we have to learn lessons from what happened, one of which is how much more detail should be available about both the intelligence and the defence case for any military action. Also the House has to come to a view about whether, and in what circumstances, it needs formal written legal advice, and if so from whom, if there is any question of a challenge to the legality of any proposition for military action.
Does the Lord Chancellor accept that when we exercise our right to free speech, whether in this Chamber or in public places such as Parliament square, that does not confer an unlimited right to shout and bawl one’s message using amplification equipment in a deliberate attempt to disturb other people? Is he aware that when that happens, in breach of the over-generous permission already given to the protesters by Westminster council, there is nothing the police can do about it other than retrospectively take the perpetrators to court? That is because the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 removed the power of the police to cross the road, take the equipment away and stop the people from breaking the rules. Will he address that loophole?
I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement. I particularly welcome his comment that his motivation for much of his activity as a student was enjoyment—I always thought so, as did many others, and I am grateful for his honesty.
When I wrote to the Home Secretary about Parliament square and the insulting behaviour thrown at Members as they leave this place, particularly at the then Prime Minister, I was told that local government powers stood very much in the way of taking further action. The Lord Chancellor will obviously take that into account. Will he talk to local government people to ensure that they do not get in the way of the actions that he wants to take on this occasion?
I understand and am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whose happy task it is to conduct this review, will certainly bear in mind. Having been Home Secretary when we had the Stop the City protests, which were very violent and disruptive—on one occasion people dug up the whole of Parliament square—I discovered that the legal ownership of that piece of land is a nightmare, as different bits of it belong to different owners with different rights in respect of it. If I might make my own suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, one of the things that we have to ensure is that any new legal framework in respect of demonstrations there takes proper account of those legal ownership issues.
The Lord Chancellor said that the Prime Minister is making a statement elsewhere about the freedom of information request, and that the charges will not be tightened. If it is not a secret, could the Lord Chancellor tell us what were the pros and cons of that decision?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is indeed making a speech elsewhere shortly. One reason why I made this statement in advance of his speech is his concern, and mine, that this House should be the first to know of the substance of what he says—not the whole speech, as that would run over the allocations that we have agreed with Mr. Speaker.
On freedom of information fees, there was a proposal that the definition of excessive time taken should be extended, and that some relatively minimal fees should be introduced in respect of data protection. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will announce, as a supplement to the announcement that I have made in this House, that we are not intending to proceed with those restrictions, nor with the fee.
Business of the House
With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week. It will include:
Monday 29 October—If necessary consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the UK Borders Bill, followed by a debate on Burma on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, followed, if necessary, by consideration of Lords amendments.
Tuesday 30 October—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments. The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.
Colleagues will wish to be aware that business may go beyond the moment of interruption on both days.
I am sure that Members understood all that, but I am aware that the formal way in which business statements are made can be incomprehensible. I hope that the Clerks will not start tearing the hair out of their wigs, but I have already asked the Procedure Committee to consider looking at how we can use plain English, and I hope that in future my statements will be more in humanspeak and less in gobbledegook.
On oral questions, following representations from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I have reflected on their comments and confirm to the House that, following agreement through the usual channels, the Government will bring forward a revised questions rota which is intended to result in better accountability for the larger Departments and, subject to the views of the House today, even greater topicality.
I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has reflected on the issue of the question cycle. It is important that Departments such as the Ministry of Justice are able to have longer than the half hour that is in the current cycle. I thank her for giving us the future business, such as it is at this stage of the Session.
Last week, the Leader of the House told the House that the Government were
“not committed to an equalities Bill for the Queen’s Speech this November”.—[Official Report, 18 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 965.]
Yet last month she told the media:
“We have promised a new equalities Bill next year”.
Will she make a statement on what exactly is happening with the equalities Bill?
This morning, the Government announced in a written statement that motorway hard shoulders will be used to curb congestion. The Transport Secretary has not come to the House to take questions from hon. Members. Can the Leader of the House confirm that that decision hides cuts to the Government’s motorway widening programme; and when will the Transport Secretary come to the House to explain it?
Yesterday, speaking about the changes to capital gains tax, the Minister for Trade Promotion and Investment, Lord Jones of Birmingham, said that
“medium sized businesses think it is a terrible thing”.
Can we have a debate, in Government time, so that we may decide who is right about capital gains tax—the Chancellor or the Minister?
The Prime Minister said:
“As far as the statement on the constitution is concerned I'm not going to pre-announce what we're going to say to the House of Commons.”
However, we have just had a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice, the details of which were reported by The Guardian this morning. It is now clear that with this Government no spin has become the new spin. Who can trust the Prime Minister on the constitution? He abused his constitutional position by planning and then bottling a general election for party political reasons. Can we have a full debate, in Government time, on the Prime Minister's abuse of the constitution?
Cancelling a general election for party political purposes is cynical; making a mess of the Scottish elections for partisan reasons is unforgivable. The Gould report says that
“party self-interest was evident in ministerial decision making”.
Will the Secretary of State for International Development come to the House to apologise and make a personal statement? One experienced parliamentarian has said that
“we have to approach change in electoral administration and systems on a non-party basis.”
That was the Leader of the House herself. Will she arrange a debate, in Government time, on the lessons of the Gould report?
Democracy and electoral processes will undoubtedly be raised in next week’s important debate on Burma. Who will be speaking for the Government in that debate—the Foreign Secretary or the International Development Secretary?
The British population will increase to over 70 million by 2031, and at least 70 per cent. of that increase will be down to immigration. What is the Government’s big idea on immigration? They borrow British National party slogans such as “British jobs for British workers”—even though everyone knows that that would be illegal. Can we have a debate, in Government time, on Labour’s failed immigration policy?
The issues tell a bigger story. We have a Prime Minister with no long-term vision, just short-term tactics, and no serious answers, just spin. He spent a lifetime working to get to No. 10, but now he has got there, he has no idea what to do.
The first point that the right hon. Lady asked me about concerned the equality Bill. I very much welcome her new interest in equality, particularly on the question of equal pay. However, I remember that she voted against what was, in itself, the biggest contribution to narrowing the pay gap between women and men: the minimum wage. Nevertheless, I welcome her commitment to equality.
As far as the Bill is concerned, the original plan was to issue a consultation and following that to publish a draft Bill this spring for inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of November 2008. Following the response to the consultation, a number of proposals have been made that we think are worthy of consideration in order to improve the Bill. As I told the right hon. Lady previously, we want to keep our slot for a new equality Bill, fit for the 21st century, in 2008. It might not be possible to publish the whole Bill in draft, but we would seek to publish some draft clauses. I attended a reception at the TUC in September—the House was not sitting at the time—where I gave that answer to a question about our response to the consultation on the equality Bill. If the House had been sitting, I would have taken the opportunity to come to the House to make that point.
The right hon. Lady asked about motorway hard shoulders. There was a written ministerial statement on that, and I am not aware of any request for an urgent question from hon. Members, but there will be Transport questions in the future—[Interruption.] I apologise; an urgent question was requested, but not accepted.
The right hon. Lady asked about capital gains tax. There is an opportunity during consideration of the Queen’s Speech for the Opposition to choose the subjects for whole-day debates. I have no doubt that the economy will be one of them, and hon. Members can revisit those issues.
The right hon. Lady accused the Secretary of State for Justice and the Prime Minister of briefing the newspapers before the statement given by the Secretary of State. The information that was new in the Secretary of State’s statement was first announced in this House, but a lot of the information discussed in the papers this morning was in the Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, which had already been given to the House by the Prime Minister in July. That information was already in the public domain. Although we can discuss things already in the public domain in the newspapers, if Ministers have new information, I regard it as important that they bring it in a statement to this House. As I understand it, that is what the Secretary of State for Justice did today.
The right hon. Lady raised the question of the Scottish elections. It is deeply regrettable that 150,000 or so people did not have their vote counted in those elections. The point is that everyone should have a vote and we have always wanted to increase the turnout from its diminishing level. One of the reasons why proportional systems, which operate in the European elections, and in London, Wales and Scotland, were introduced was the belief that it might increase turnout, based on the argument that every vote counted for more. As we have seen, the reality is that it makes the system more complex.
I remind the House that in the 2004 London elections, 220,000 votes were ruled out because we had the European, the Greater London authority and the mayoral elections on the same day. We tried to have a perfectly fair system for each election, but the result was too much complexity. The Electoral Commission is on hand to deal with the matter, and we established that independent commission to assist with election questions when we came into government. However, the question of how the new electoral systems are knitting together is the subject of a review that is being led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.
On the question of Burma, I am sure that the House will welcome the fact that a Minister in the Foreign Office has been in talks in the region, in Singapore on Monday, and with Chinese and Indian Ministers in Tonga, so work is going ahead—[Hon. Members: “Who is the Minister?”] I shall get to that in a moment. I know that the matter is very important, and I wanted to report to the House the work of Ministers on the important question of Burma. We hope that it is a sign of progress that Aung San Suu Kyi has been called for talks by the Burmese authorities, and the Foreign Office are still considering who will lead an important debate on the matter on Monday.
As far as Labour’s immigration policy is concerned. I will repeat what I have said before. This country was built on successive waves of immigration. No doubt, many Members would not be in this House if it were not for immigration, and I am sure that they play a very important role in this country. If they want to debate the issues further, they can raise them on the occasion of the Queen’s Speech debate.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the Government have for several months had the report of the Senior Salaries Review Body. Can she let the House know when it is likely to be published and when it is likely to be considered by the House?
I can say that it will be very shortly. I know that the question of pay and the important support services for Members that enable us to do our job properly are of concern to the House. We will publish the Government’s response at the same time as the SSRB report, enabling the House to debate it very shortly thereafter.
The Leader of the House’s announcement about plain English statements and a new timetable for questions is welcome. I assume that there will be a chance over a year to consider how the latter works. I hope that there is a case for doing the one thing that, despite her best efforts, she has been unable to achieve: ensuring that the Department for International Development has a full slot like the other major Departments. I am sure that that would be popular and welcome and I hope that we can do it as soon as possible.
May I join the calls that hon. Members of all parties made yesterday and that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made today for the earliest possible debate about elections in the United Kingdom? The Gould report contained the telling phrase
“a notable level of party self interest”—
Indeed. However, we also have the report that the Leader of the House mentioned, which has been completed in the Ministry of Justice and reviews all the elections in recent years. May I urge giving serious consideration to ending the real mischief, which is holding elections for different levels of government throughout the country on the same day? That means that people do not vote on the issues that are relevant to the various authorities. We are desperately keen to get quick rather than accurate results. There is no public support for counting by machine, when people cannot see what is going on. People prefer counting by individuals, which means that people can see what is happening. Ultimately, somebody has to take responsibility for elections.
The Leader of the House mentioned justice issues for debate. I ask her to put two items on the agenda as soon as possible. The first is prisons. We now learn that some prisons are dedicated entirely to foreign prisoners, yet in other prisons, there are many people suffering from mental illness who should not be in prison. We must put prison issues on top of the political agenda.
Secondly, tribunals in this country are now full of people—for example, female local government workers pursuing equal pay cases—but we cannot have group actions, which would resolve many individual issues at the same time.
I asked the Leader of the House a written question, as I said I would, about the draft legislative programme and the consultation that has taken place on it. I know that she cannot tell us today what changes the consultation has brought about, but, given that the Government published a draft legislative programme for the Queen’s Speech and then consulted, are any changes likely as a result of responses to the consultation, or was the consultation simply a presentation exercise—spin rather than substance?
We will keep the rota of questions under review after we have changed it.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned elections in the UK. It is in the interests of all hon. Members to get everybody who is entitled to vote on the electoral register. Currently, 3 million to 4 million people do not get a chance to cast their vote because they are not on the electoral register. It is also in our interests to ensure that all those on the register vote. A high percentage of people voting gives legitimacy to institutions. That should be our only interest in UK elections when we legislate.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned different levels of elections—European elections, local elections, Scottish or Welsh elections—on the same day. The reason for holding them on the same day is to increase turnout—there is concern about low turnout in some important local elections. There is a balance to be struck. Is it best to hold several elections on the same day, with people perhaps not distinguishing between the responsibility of the different tiers of government, or to have chronically low turnout? We must reflect on those matters.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about counting by machine. Extensive piloting of machine counting has taken place. Obviously, we must keep all those issues under review. He asked who takes responsibility for the elections. Hon. Members of all parties are responsible for legislation on elections. The Electoral Commission has independent responsibility, and all parties have a responsibility to work together to improve the position.
The hon. Gentleman asked about accountability and scrutiny of prisons. I agree—I am sure that that applies to all hon. Members—that that is an important issue. One of the improvements that he and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) proposed for our rota of questions is that the Justice Ministry, which is now responsible for prisons, should have an hour’s Question Time instead of half an hour, which is clearly inadequate given the importance of prisons as well other Ministry of Justice issues.
The hon. Gentleman asked about group actions on equal pay. Several organisations—women’s organisations and trade unions—raised that in response to our consultation and we are reflecting on the matter.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be changes in the draft legislative programme as a result of our publishing it in advance. As I acknowledged at the time, publication was very late in the day in the context of the gestation of the Government’s legislative programme. The new Prime Minister did not make the decision—
Well, just listen. A new Prime Minister took office in June and the decision was then made to publish the draft legislative programme. Hon. Members know that an awful lot of a draft legislative programme that is to be presented to the House in November is pretty finalised, as one would expect. [Interruption.] It is the Government’s legislative programme. Next year, we intend to go beyond simply conducting an exercise in transparency—hon. Members should bear it in mind that the draft legislative programme would be secret until November had we not changed the position in July. We also had a chance to debate it in July. We hope that, next year, we will publish the draft legislative programme earlier so that there is a genuine opportunity for people to influence the outcome and propose Bills that they want. There is a big demand for people to be more engaged in the contents of our draft legislative programme. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will set aside his cynicism for a moment and agree that it is a good idea to be more transparent and have more consultation. We are striving to achieve that.
Has my right hon. and learned Friend read early-day motion 2175 in my name and those of several other hon. Members?
[That this House expresses its disgust at and condemnation of, Mobile Connections of Bordesley Green, Birmingham, which has cheated a constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton out of hundreds of pounds and has failed to answer a series of letters, over a period of months, from the right hon. Member; and calls on potential customers to have nothing to do with this dishonest organisation.]
It condemns and expresses disgust at the theft by an organisation called Mobile Connections of Bordesley Green, Birmingham of hundreds of pounds from a constituent of mine. Will my right hon. and learned Friend provide time for a debate on the matter? Will she also ask the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to draw the matter to the attention of the director general of fair trading?
May we have an early debate in Government time on the appalling state of the roads and the rip-off of the motorist? Now that taxes on petrol are more than 60p a litre and we are told that we may have to use the hard shoulder because the Government have not provided enough road space, surely the crisis is urgent enough for even this Government to believe that we need a proper debate to explore positive options to get more capacity on our road system.
As part of Inside Justice week, a group of children from Adswood primary school in my constituency are visiting a local magistrates court, where they will have the opportunity to participate in a mock trial, question the judge and pass sentence. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is an excellent way of involving children in understanding the justice system and that it should be open to all children? Will she also make time for a debate on the subject?
I will bring that to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Justice. I commend the work that is being done in my hon. Friend’s Stockport constituency on Inside Justice week. I hope that many of those young people will end up in court again as magistrates.
I was always opposed to householders being charged extra for putting rubbish out depending on its weight. However, we understand that the Government junked that idea last night. Ribble Valley council, along with many others that have been rolling out wheelie bins for recycling, were encouraged by the Government to put chips in those bins at an extra cost of thousands of pounds. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to make an oral statement next week to announce the Government’s position and, if the idea has been junked, thereby making the chips possibly the biggest piece of rubbish in the bins, to say what compensation will be made available to local authorities that have put chips in bins?
I thought that the Conservative party was the newly greened party and was concerned about waste. I would therefore have expected Conservative Members to join positively in the discussions taking place nationally, locally and among members of the public on how to ensure that we collect waste effectively and generate less of it.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Kent county council has decided to spend £600,000 on its own TV channel, while putting up home care charges for older people in order to raise £600,000? There is no greater supporter of devolution to local councils than I, but should we not have a debate, so that we can expose how Tory councils abuse those powers?
Does the Leader of the House not see that we have been shamefully late in having a debate on Burma, which has sent completely the wrong message to the dreadful military Government there? Her saying that the Foreign Secretary might not necessarily lead the forthcoming debate would send an even worse message. Will she therefore rethink her previous answer and assure us that the Foreign Secretary will be present, as the shadow Foreign Secretary will be?
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not welcome the fact that the House is debating Burma in Government time, bearing in mind the terrible events that have taken place there. He will know that the Foreign Secretary has duties that he must carry out in different parts of the world, including at the United Nations. He has responsibilities to the House, too, which he is well aware of, but I assure hon. Members that we will have an important debate, with information coming forth from the Government and an opportunity for all hon. Members to participate.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend feel that it might be useful to have a debate on the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which, with a great deal of help from her, was finally given Royal Assent at the end of last Session? Given that the measure received all-party support, which I very much appreciate, it is unfortunate that the press gave it hardly any coverage. The very people who could be protected by that measure through injunctions therefore know nothing of it, and it will not be used until we can get some publicity for it.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will bring to the attention of my hon. Friends dealing with questions of justice. If people do not know about their rights, they cannot be protected. People do not know that Bills have received Royal Assent. We must do more to bring such important pieces of legislation to the attention of the people whom they are supposed to benefit. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s role in bringing the legislation forward.
May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the aftermath of the postal strike? Postal services in my part of London are still nowhere near back to normal—that is my experience, the experience of my constituents and the experience of my small businesses, too. It is becoming a serious matter when we are not receiving our post. Can we have an urgent statement, so that the issue can be discussed in this place?
I understand from my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who has just informed me, that the Secretary of State met the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on Monday. We are keen to ensure that the backlog is cleared as soon as possible and that the situation is resolved.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the BBC is central to our democracy? Will she agree to encourage an early debate on the BBC, in view of what is happening? We all believe that the BBC should live within the licence fee, but the way in which cuts are being made and people are being selected suggests that members of staff who ask uncomfortable questions are being made scapegoats and getting fired, whereas people such as Alan Yentob and other senior managers seem to survive whatever happens. The BBC is central; it is a wonderful institution. At least it cannot be bought by Lord Ashcroft, as he has bought the Conservative party. Can we ensure that we have an early debate on what is happening in the BBC?
My hon. Friend is right that the BBC is central and important in our democracy. The issue has not had the importance in the House that it perhaps should have. That is one of the reasons why it has been agreed throughout the House that we should increase the time for Culture, Media and Sport questions to 50 minutes.
As we enter the season when the Government will be making statements on the financial settlements for many organisations, I understand that there might be a radical reform of the formula to determine police funding, which could particularly affect Welsh police authorities. There is a statutory consultation document out, but the Welsh police authorities have not received copies and have had to ask for it. Will the Leader of the House therefore gently remind her colleagues in the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government that although policing, and police funding in particular, is a reserved matter for Westminster, the Welsh police authorities want to be involved in that consultation? May we also have a pre-settlement statement on the change of the formula, so that hon. Members can be involved, rather than just reacting to the settlement?
Loughton parish council in my constituency has been forced to hold a parish poll on the subject of an EU referendum—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—by just 10 electors, spearheaded by a local Conservative councillor who seems to be strangely close to UKIP. The poll will cost £1,000, which is 10 per cent. of the parish council’s budget, which would otherwise be used to improve life for people. Both the parish council and the National Association of Local Councils are extremely concerned about the hijacking of parish councils for party political purposes. Could we look seriously at amending the Local Government Act 1972 with urgency, to prevent parishes throughout the country from seeing their funds diverted to a purpose that is wholly outside their purview?
I will certainly ask my hon. Friends to look into that question. Spending by parish councils is supposed to be limited to parish affairs. I remind hon. Members that it is we in this House who will be debating and making a decision on whether to ratify the treaty. It will be for hon. Members, no doubt having consulted their constituents, to bring their views to the House and make them known.
For some weeks now, we have been expecting to see on the Order Paper the names of members of the Regional Select Committees, trailed by the Government’s paper in July. Can we take it from the Modernisation Committee’s announcement that it is consulting on this matter that the Government are having second thoughts? Will the Leader of the House confirm that one option would be not to proceed with this misguided proposal?
I think that the House will want us to proceed with the proposal to have greater regional accountability—[Interruption.] The Modernisation Committee will discuss how we can increase regional accountability in the House. When it has concluded its deliberations, it will make proposals. We remain committed to the principle of regional accountability and we will widely discuss the precise formulation. I hope that all hon. Members will contribute to the consultation.
May we have an early debate on the problem of prostitution, particularly about how we curb demand? There are 25,000 sex slaves operating in Britain, while brothels and massage parlours are growing in importance. It is a huge industry. Young women of only 12, 14, 16—[Interruption.] I see Conservative Members sniggering about this; they should stop it. Young women of those ages are being beaten up and forced to act as sex slaves. It is more a matter of demand than supply, which we cannot do much about. I have a quote from a 12-year-old from the Balkans, who was beaten up:
“I remember vividly the first time I was with a customer. . . He was in his late sixties and smelt awful. As he crouched over me, his hands groping my body, I felt sick, but there was a guard standing outside the room, so I couldn’t escape.”
That is happening in 21st century Britain, and unless we curb demand and make men accept their responsibility for the cruelties they impose on women, it will get a lot worse. We need an urgent debate. Britain must rid itself of this foul and evil trade.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work in this area. This modern-day slavery is a new and evil trade that is emerging in this country, which is one reason why we need to work closely with our European partners. This vile trade is not only going on as my right hon. Friend describes, but is being advertised on the back pages of local newspapers—even local family newspapers—which read, “new girls in every week”, “new girls from eastern Europe, from Africa, from south-east Asia” and so forth. That is advertising slavery and I will meet the Newspaper Society next week to discuss how it can play a part in curbing this evil trade.
As it is international brain tumour awareness week and supporters in several countries across the world have covered twice the circumference of the globe in undertaking fundraising sponsored walks on its behalf, may we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House as a matter of urgency? No fewer than 16,000 people are diagnosed with brain tumours each year, yet survival rates have not risen in line with those for other cancers and the brain tumour research community benefits from only a tiny proportion of the resources available to Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council. Is it not time that we considered how we can do better in the interests of helping those thousands of people who have suffered far too much for far too long with far too little done to help them?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point, as will hon. Members throughout the House. I am pleased to have the opportunity to congratulate all the organisations that are working together as part of brain tumour awareness week as well as throughout the year. I also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s support for those organisations.
Pursuant to the question asked by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), my county of Leicestershire suffers more than most from the need to landfill for domestic waste, for instance, which runs at a total of 28 million tonnes nationally, including 3,000 million disposable nappies and vast amounts of excessive product packaging. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether a statement can be made or a debate organised on how to drive up recycling and composting rates, which have stalled at 25 to 26 per cent.? We could probably achieve a national standard for recycling information to be printed on product packaging. We could also work with the Nappy Alliance to promote reusable nappies, which would make a significant contribution.
May we have a further clarifying statement on the report into the shambles of this year’s Scottish elections? On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Scotland said that he was minded to accept some of the Gould report’s recommendations, but yesterday the Prime Minister gave the clear impression that he had accepted all the recommendations. What is the Government’s response to the Gould report, and when will the Secretary of State for International Development come before the House to explain his role in this shambles?
We had a statement on the Gould report on Tuesday. As and when specific proposals for action come forward, they will be reported to the House. The same applies to the general question of how we ensure a fair voting system, but one that is not so complex that people find it hard to understand.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, and now that 7.75 million babies have been aborted in this country, is the Leader of the House able to state whether, when the human tissue and embryo Bill comes before the House, it will be possible to move an amendment to reduce the number of weeks within which an abortion may take place, which would enable the views of the House to be heard on the matter?
The issue of what amendments are tabled is a matter for Members and the issue of which amendments are selected is a matter for Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Science and Technology Committee is conducting an important inquiry into this issue. I believe that the most important consideration is to avoid unwanted pregnancies through good sex education, good and available contraception and aspiration among young girls. It is often said that the best contraception is aspiration—and responsibility among boys and young men, as this is not just an issue for young girls. It is exceptionally important that where a termination is necessary, it happens as early as possible. I pay tribute to the doctors, nurses and voluntary organisations that provide important services to women who do not want to have to seek an abortion and do not want a termination, but find that that is the best choice in the circumstances.
As Remembrance day draws near, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the work of the Royal British Legion, particularly its honour the covenant campaign? Such a debate would allow hon. Members to pay tribute to the Legion’s work across our constituencies and to express our support for the campaign. It would also provide an opportunity for the Government to explain what they are doing to ensure that the aims of the covenant are met.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the Light Dragoons, 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment and 1st Battalion the Sherwood Foresters have just returned from Afghanistan, with more than 30 dead and several hundred wounded. May we have a debate on coroners’ inquiries and the speed at which they are conducted, so that we can help to draw the mourning of the families and loved ones to a close?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. We pay tribute in the House every time one of our soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan dies. However, the coroner system is not yet able promptly to answer the questions of bereaved relatives. We have included in our draft legislative programme a coroners Bill so that we can ensure that we treat bereaved relatives properly and provide them with answers to their questions.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the inadequacies of private insurance cover for members of the armed services? Last week I visited my constituent, Corporal Ryan Knight, who sustained devastating injuries to his arm, leg and pelvis when he was blown up by a bomb in Afghanistan. He is now confined to a wheelchair. His insurance company, PAX—which provides insurance for some 58,000 members of the armed services—is refusing to pay up for his shattered pelvis on the grounds that it does not cover pelvises. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that appears to be outrageous behaviour by the insurance company, and may we have a debate so that we can air the subject more widely?
When people who have paid their insurance premiums expecting to obtain cover find, when they need to make a claim, that small print denies them the cover they feel they have bought, it causes no end of agony and grief. My hon. Friend will know that the Secretary of State for Defence recently announced an increase in MOD compensation. However, he has made an important point about private insurance companies, which I shall bring to the attention of my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Will the Leader of the House look into the operation of the named day questions system? I understood that when the maximum number of questions allowed was reduced to five per day, the other half of the contract was that the Ministries concerned would make serious efforts to answer them on the named day. Nevertheless, I usually add a bit of extra time.
When Parliament resumed on 8 October, I was astonished to receive a holding answer to three fairly straightforward questions about the Royal Navy that I had tabled on 26 July. When I tabled another question asking why that had happened, the Minister for the Armed Forces replied:
“The answers were delayed as my weekend ministerial box was not delivered to the office until 9 October as a result of the postal strike.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 766W.]
Does that mean that questions do not get anywhere near Ministers until the last day or two of a 10-week recess? And what are ministerial boxes doing in the postal system?
I submitted a request for a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate next week on the important subject of tackling fuel poverty. I note that, although business has been announced for next Tuesday, there are to be no Westminster Hall debates on that day. If that remains the case, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that a debate on the subject is held early in the new Session? It is an issue on which important decisions ought to be made by the industry and the regulator before the winter sets in. I am sure that the House would like an opportunity to discuss it early in the Session, not some time after Christmas.
Is it possible for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House and explain why, nearly two years after the Buncefield explosion, a report on the explosion has still not been made public and an inquiry is still taking place behind closed doors? The local authority is under huge pressure from oil companies such as BP to allow the terminal to reopen before we know the inquiry’s conclusions, which is of grave concern to my constituents. We have done without the terminal for two years; surely the oil companies could wait a little longer for the conclusions before putting pressure on local authorities.
I know that the Leader of the House shares the view that statements to the House should be accurate. On 26 July, the Prime Minister made a machinery of government statement about the Government Equalities Office, in which he announced that the Leader of the House would become Secretary of State for Equality and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), would become Under-Secretary of State for Equality. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether that is still the case? According to the list of ministerial responsibilities that has just been published, she does not appear to be Secretary of State for Equality and the hon. Member for Stevenage does not appear to have any responsibilities at the DWP. Is the Prime Minister’s statement accurate, or do Members need an update?