House of Commons
Wednesday 9 January 2008
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The peacetime Army garrison in Northern Ireland currently retains 12 sites.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Of course, all of us across the House welcome that further symbol of normalisation. Has he received any representations on handing over some of the disused sites, either to local communities or to the Northern Ireland Assembly, for their overall benefit?
I have indeed received a number of representations. It may be worth reminding the House that following the reinvestment and reform package in 2002, five sites were transferred to the Executive. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are in correspondence with the Executive on questions to do with making available further sites that arose following the joint declaration.
Further to that answer, will the Secretary of State elaborate on any discussions that he is having with the Ministry of Defence, given that some sites are now coming into the public domain and are offering economic regeneration, such as Fort George and Ebrington in Londonderry? If other sites were available, they could act as an economic driver in deprived communities, offering them employment opportunities.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. May I congratulate him and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) on the work that they have done to try to attract investment to Northern Ireland? Obviously, I wish every success to the investment conference in May, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I will support in every way that we can. The gifting of military sites is obviously an important issue for the Assembly and the Executive, and the five sites that were gifted in 2002 are an important part of the process. Discussions are taking place with Members of the Assembly and the Executive, and with the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Doherty), about the two sites in Omagh. I do not want to raise expectations about what the Government may be able to do, but I should just say that the proposal for an educational campus is an extremely good and imaginative one. The Government remain committed to helping to encourage investment and development in Northern Ireland in every way that we can, as we did through the £18 billion investment package and the comprehensive spending review.
Given that before demilitarisation in south Armagh the police expressed concern about their ability to deal with the security situation there, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of general safety in the area, and the ability of people there to work with the police? No arrests have been made following the Paul Quinn murder, and there has been an increase in fuel smuggling. Is not the situation in south Armagh rather difficult? How happy is he with that?
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues about the security situation in south Armagh, particularly in relation to the investigation into the murder of Paul Quinn, murder that everybody has condemned. I met Paul’s parents immediately before Christmas to discuss the progress of the ongoing police investigation, which, as hon. Members will know, is being conducted by the Garda, because the murder took place south of the border. There is extremely close co-operation between the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the Chief Constable has observed that there is unprecedented co-operation from the community in south Armagh, but it is of course a very difficult investigation.
On the wider issue of criminality in south Armagh, as Independent Monitoring Commission reports have observed, there are clearly still problems of criminality in that part of Northern Ireland but, again, that should be seen in the context of an improving situation, improving—
The restoration of devolved government in May last year has given Northern Ireland what it wants: locally elected, accountable politicians taking decisions on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.
As Northern Ireland’s institutions bed down, devolved government is starting to deliver a shared future of peace and partnership for nationalists and Unionists—a future of which a past generation, involved in that all too recent nightmare of sectarian violence, could only have dreamed. Is not the logical next step to encourage a political realignment and framework on the island of Ireland under which more parties are organised on a 32-county basis, thereby denying Sinn Fein fundamentalists the effective free rein that they too often enjoy?
My hon. Friend makes an important observation. Political parties and political organisation is a matter for people who live and work in Northern Ireland. However, as he remarked and I underline, it is an illustration of just how different life is today in Northern Ireland that the discussion now is about the future of democracy and political institutions, and a vibrant political culture it is, too.
We all welcome the progress that has been made in devolution in Northern Ireland in terms of stability moving forward, but does the Secretary of State accept that in both communities in Northern Ireland there is little appetite for the devolution of policing and justice powers? Does he accept that as far we are concerned, it is not on the agenda? Does he further accept that continuing to push against a door that is not only locked, but triple locked, is counter-productive?
There are many matters on which I would be delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but on the proposition that people in Northern Ireland are not looking forward to further devolution of policing and criminal justice, I beg to disagree. Opinion polling shows that more than 60 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland now want the Executive and the Assembly to make progress on the second stage of devolution. That is a matter on which Members have been elected to the Assembly in Northern Ireland and it is what people in Northern Ireland expect. It flows from the St. Andrews agreement, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to make progress on the matter as quickly as is sensible.
I join the Secretary of State in recognising how well institutions are working. That goes to show that when everyone is committed to allowing arrangements to work, they will work well. If we want to add to the effectiveness of the institutions of devolution, surely we need to add to the confidence by ensuring the devolution of justice and policing, not just to complete the devolution project and the policing change, but so that all parties can unite to defy and deny the dangerous lie coming from dissident republicans that the policing arrangements are about Crown forces and the British police force. Is not the best way of all parties uniting against the agenda of dissident republicans is to secure the devolution of justice and policing?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The best way of demonstrating that to every dissident in Northern Ireland is for politicians to reflect what people who live and work in Northern Ireland want, which is the second stage of devolution that of policing and criminal justice. In relation to the investment conference and attracting investment, there could be no greater show of the future stability of Northern Ireland than local politicians embracing the devolution of policing and criminal justice sooner rather than later.
I hate to be the one to break the cosy consensus, but does the Secretary of State accept that the operation of devolved government could be much more effective if the Executive were to take on board and to demonstrate the same commitment that his Government demonstrated towards working for a shared future? Although it is part of the ministerial oath of office, there is no reference to it even in the programme for government. The Executive could give an early indication of a small commitment to working towards a shared future if they would get on and appoint a victims’ commissioner.
The appointment of a victims’ commissioner is a matter for the Executive. I invite the hon. Gentleman to be part of the cosy consensus that we all so warmly enjoy. Huge progress is being made. It is sometimes best to judge these things not by words, but by actions. When the Executive unanimously agreed the draft programme for government, the investment strategy and budget, as they did in October 2007, we can see what progress has been made by politicians across the spectrum in Northern Ireland.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the ways to make sure that the long-term settlement in Northern Ireland works is through the expansion of integrated education? At present, 95 per cent. of children do not meet people from other cultures. What can he do to encourage integrated education?
Academic selection is the issue that my hon. Friend touches on. It is entirely a matter for the devolved Administration. The Minister of Education has set out her vision for the education system. That is now a devolved matter, but I look forward to hearing more about the details of how she will take it forward.
I wish the Secretary of State a happy new year. I am sure that he is relieved to be in his place and that the predictions made by the new year blogs have so far proved incorrect. In his own new year message, the Secretary of State said that devolution would be effectively completed by the transfer of justice and policing in 2008. Further to his reply to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), does he think that that will happen this year?
Yes, I do, and I do because I see that this is something that the people of Northern Ireland want, and from which the people of Northern Ireland continue to draw every confidence. They see an Executive working effectively, being prepared to make difficult decisions and being able to embrace the clear vision and future for those areas that have been devolved. The appetite for devolution of policing and criminal justice is growing in Northern Ireland. Of course, it is based on confidence, but the embracing by Sinn Fein of policing and criminal justice and the steps that have been taken in the last few months are yet more signals of that. It is now up to local politicians to push the agenda forward and to adopt stage two.
But in the past six months, I have not met a single Unionist who either expects or wants that to happen in 2008. In the short time that the right hon. Gentleman has left, how does he propose to persuade the Unionist community that he is right and it is wrong?
I am sorry to disturb the cosy consensus in my turn, but I do not really think that it is a judgment of right and wrong. Most Northern Ireland politicians believe that it is right to move to stage 2; the issue is when. Therefore, this is not a matter of right and wrong; it is a matter of whether we should move within the St. Andrews timetable, which I believe that we should, and on which the Government will be ready to deliver. It is a matter for consensus to be achieved between the politicians and the Executive, but whenever they stand ready to ask for it, we will be ready to deliver devolution, and I believe that the confidence will be there to deliver that this year.
Tackling antisocial behaviour is a central theme of the community safety strategy and a priority for community safety partnerships. The police and other agencies work closely through the partnerships to reduce antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime.
My hon. Friend will be aware that antisocial behaviour is not just specific to Northern Ireland, but occurs throughout the United Kingdom, and devolved Administrations have different solutions for different problems. Is it not time that we got together with the devolved areas and set up a national taskforce under the UK Government to bring together all the good practice to stamp out such behaviour once and for all?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that antisocial behaviour is an issue throughout the United Kingdom, in his constituency and mine and throughout Northern Ireland. He makes an interesting suggestion. Although it would need more than my agreement before such a taskforce could be established, I am happy to consider his proposal, to discuss it with ministerial colleagues and to report back to him. But most important of all is that we must learn the lessons of good practice wherever they occur throughout the United Kingdom.
One of the tests of policing in Northern Ireland and making the police acceptable is how they deal with antisocial behaviour. Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to persuade the public that the police are serious about antisocial behaviour when some senior officers seem to suggest that the police should empathise with gangs of youths rather than deal with them when they engage in criminal acts? In Northern Ireland, antisocial behaviour orders are rarely used by the police. What, in his discussions with the Chief Constable, will the Minister push the police to do to ensure that antisocial behaviour is dealt with?
I have regular discussions with the Chief Constable and I had a meeting with him earlier this week when we discussed antisocial behaviour. It is a priority for him and for the PSNI, and he was able to report to me that antisocial behaviour is down by more than 3 per cent. compared with last year. So rest assured that this is a priority for him and the police, but in the end, for the short term—this is relevant to the devolution of policing and justice powers—we can manage a situation where some agencies, such as the police and the Youth Justice Agency, are accountable to Northern Ireland Ministers, but other agencies, such as the Housing Executive and social services, are accountable to locally elected Ministers. But surely the day must come soon—people should have confidence in this—when the system is joined up and accountable at a local level.
Does the Minister accept that in my constituency the police claim time and again that a lack of resources, particularly human resources—manpower and womanpower—restricts them in dealing with antisocial behaviour? How will we reconcile that situation? Can we get extra resources into policing, and not only into Belfast, South? This morning, I heard the mayor of Antrim on the radio discussing the same problem in Antrim town. Can the Minister give us some assurance that the resources will be provided and that the police are not simply left saying that they are too overstretched to tackle antisocial behaviour?
I do not accept the argument on resources; we have just had a superb settlement on financing policing for the next three financial years. It will enable the Policing Board and the Chief Constable to keep in place 7,500 police officers in Northern Ireland over the next three years.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that the police need to be applied and focused at the community level. Indeed, the Chief Constable himself is committed to the development of community policing in Northern Ireland and to working in partnership with other agencies and the community. The police cannot resolve the issues alone; they have to work with other partners. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the PSNI is committed to that.
In the past five years, crime overall fell by 15 per cent. in Northern Ireland. Domestic burglary fell by 33 per cent., and car crime by 52 per cent. Figures released by the police before Christmas showed a further reduction in crime during the current financial year.
Whenever such actions by paramilitary organisations and others take place, they are to be deplored. However, I put it to the hon. Gentleman that between 2001 and 2005, paramilitary attacks reduced by half; indeed, in the following year—2005-06—they halved again.
We have moved to far more normal times in Northern Ireland, where paramilitary attacks are becoming a thing of the past. However, of course criminality continues. We need to bear down on it and all the agencies concerned are committed to that.
Is the Minister content that enough is being done to tackle fuel fraud in Northern Ireland? He will know that recent figures show that only 1 per cent. of seizures end up in convictions. Has that something to do with the fact that in many cases fuel fraud results in intimidation of petrol retailers and their families? What more can be done to close down the illicit trade of the fuel thugs in Northern Ireland?
We need to do everything that we can to crack down on those dealing in fuel fraud in Northern Ireland. Criminal convictions alone are not the only measure that we should use, however, because disruption of such activities is also an important aspect of the strategy. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that in December I had a meeting with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and with the PSNI. We intend to establish within the Organised Crime Task Force a specific action group to deal with fuel fraud. I am determined to crack down on it wherever we can.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as elsewhere in the UK, much of the crime in Northern Ireland is low level crime and disorder, which can be effectively dealt with by crime and disorder partnerships? If my hon. Friend is taking up the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson)—to have a national-level crime and disorder partnership—will he look at the best practice in Wales? Of the 376 crime and disorder partnerships in the UK, the one in my constituency, in my county of Denbighshire, is the third best.
We are always happy to learn lessons from colleagues in Wales, and I am sure that the whole House will be interested in my hon. Friend’s experience there. In the end, cracking down on low level criminality, social disorder and antisocial behaviour requires effective local partnerships. In Northern Ireland there are 26 local community safety partnerships in which the police work with local councils and a range of other agencies to make sure that those issues are dealt with. That will be in common with my hon. Friend’s experience; that is the kind of approach that works.
The Minister will be aware of recent criminal and sectarian attacks on Orange halls; most have taken place in my constituency. Will the Minister confirm that by February of this year he will move legislation through the House to enable those Orange halls and lodges to claim compensation?
We all condemn unreservedly the attacks on Orange halls. I was able to join the hon. Gentleman in a visit to Ballyworkan in his constituency, where a deplorable attack took place before Christmas. Members of the Orange Order are trying to do their best to put something into communities through their Orange halls, and I condemn unreservedly those who attack them. As he knows, I am committed to ensuring that where Government compensation is due it should be paid quickly, but we need to ensure that the commercial cover works as well. Over the next few weeks, we will do everything possible to ensure that the commercial option is thoroughly investigated and examined. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made a clear commitment to the Orange Order and to members of the hon. Gentleman’s party that we will look at this again in early March.
There is close co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Siochana, and I have regular discussions with all law enforcement agencies about drug smuggling and other forms of organised crime.
What is required is close collaboration between the police forces north and south of the border. They are actively engaged in that; they have regular contact and share intelligence. Indeed, in December—just a few weeks ago—a joint operation north and south of the border intercepted an organised criminal gang, some of whom were arrested north of the border and some south of the border. There have been a number of arrests and some people have been charged. That kind of effective enforcement action will, in the end, remove the drugs barons and others who profit out of the misery of drugs, who should rightly be out of the community and in prison where they belong. [Interruption.]
I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Chief Constable feels that he is being severely held back by the amount of time that his force is having to spend looking back over past matters and not getting on with matters such as that which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned—the joint pursuit of those responsible for the drugs problem. Will the Minister do all that he can to ensure that the Chief Constable is allowed to get on with his job, which is policing for today and tomorrow rather than so much for yesterday?
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Every pound that is spent on policing the past is a pound that is not spent on policing the present and making the future absolutely safe. The Government have established, under Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, a commission to investigate whether there is a way of drawing a line under the past that will enable the whole of society in Northern Ireland to move forward, including on policing. We must devote all the resources that we can to ensuring that Northern Ireland is a safe place in which to live and work.
Does the Minister understand the frustration that is felt within communities in Northern Ireland when they see the godfathers of the drug smuggling industry swanning around the countryside endlessly enjoying their ill-gotten gains, many of them not having worked a day in their lives? When will we have effective measures taken against these abusers of society?
The hon. Gentleman is right to express his anger about such people. Where possible, they should be arrested, prosecuted and put behind bars. Short of that, it is also possible to seize and remove the assets that they have gained through their criminality. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, and the House, that in the first six months of the current financial year some £10 million-worth of criminal assets were seized and confiscated. That is an encouraging use of the powers that we now have to track down and crack down on those criminals wherever we possibly can.
The security situation in Northern Ireland has vastly improved in recent years. However, the recent serious, although isolated, incidents highlight the continued threat posed by a small handful of individuals who continue to live in the past, not the future.
The police continue to make significant progress in dealing with criminality in Northern Ireland, which is why crime figures there are among the best in the UK. However, at no point will we be complacent about those dissident elements in republicanism and loyalism that continue to pose a small and isolated threat. Equally, let it be clear that those people have no support in the community and that we will continue to hunt them down.
While the security situation has undoubtedly improved, does the Secretary of State agree that it would be entirely wrong and a deep injustice if the perpetrators of terrorist crimes in Northern Ireland were to be granted an amnesty?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I realise that he is effectively commenting on remarks made by the commission on the past. Let me remind him that its deputy chairman, Denis Bradley, has said that nothing is ruled out and that nothing is ruled in, and what matters is that the commission collects views. He accepted that there are some who have a view about an amnesty and that it is for others to have a view about that and for the group to make an assessment of that.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The Prime Minister will know that economic inactivity in constituencies such as mine will only be successfully tackled with sustained investment in the creation of jobs, and the giving of skills and support to people. However, given the growing economic global uncertainty, will he meet me and colleagues who represent the valleys to look at the work already being successfully done by the Department for Work and Pensions and others to build our economic capacity? Will he assure me that any responses he makes to the global uncertainties that there may be in the economy will not be allowed to damage the sustainability of that investment?
Long-term unemployment in my hon. Friend’s constituency is down 72 per cent. since 1997. Since 1997, there have been 135,000 new jobs in Wales, and there are nearly 3 million new jobs in the country. I believe that as we face these uncertain global times, when there are difficulties that have started in America that affect the whole of the world economy, it is important to remember that what makes us well placed to face such difficulties is the low inflation and high levels of employment we have achieved in this country, and the low interest rates that stand us in good stead to face global uncertainties. Of course I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues to talk about those issues.
May I start be welcoming the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) to his post? [Interruption.] He is moving away from me already. He is the fourth Liberal Democrat leader that I have faced, and I wish him well—[Interruption.]—although not that well. I am simply relieved that it is no longer my party that has this habit of replacing its leader on quite such a regular basis.
A few months ago—[Interruption.]
I am on my second Labour Prime Minister as well.
A few months ago, a Home Office Minister said:
“It is the Government’s policy that ID cards should eventually be compulsory for everyone resident in the United Kingdom who is aged 16 or over.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 784W.]
Is that still the Government’s policy?
The whole purpose of identity cards is to protect people’s identity and the way to do that is to use, in addition to the passport information that will be part of the identity card, biometrics so that use of the information cannot be triggered other than by the facial or fingerprint data that are part of the biometrics. That is the purpose of identity cards.
The right hon. Gentleman’s police adviser, Sir John Stevens, and Lady Neville-Jones, his security spokesman in the House of Lords, both support identity cards.
We have learned in the past few months that it is completely unsafe to trust the Government with any more of our identity information. If the Prime Minister wants to trade quotes, what about one from the Chancellor of the Exchequer? He said that identity cards were “not necessary”. He continued:
“I do not want my whole life to be reduced to a magnetic strip on a plastic card.”—[Official Report, 2 March 1992; Vol. 205, c. 70.]
Compared with being Chancellor in the Government, being a magnetic strip on a plastic card would probably be a welcome relief.
If it is the Government’s policy to press for compulsion, why did the Prime Minister say in The Observer on Sunday that,
“under our proposals, there is no compulsion for existing British citizens”?
Why did he give such a misleading answer?
Because there has to be a vote of Parliament. We have passed the original identity cards proposals. That is a voluntary system. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that not only do some members of his party support identity cards, but people recognise that the identity card will contain little more than the information that is now given for passports. I have to ask him: does he support identity cards for foreign nationals, which we are introducing this year?
Everybody in the House wants proper biometric visas for people visiting this country. The question for the Prime Minister is why he cannot give a straight answer on identity cards. Let me try it another way. What is his personal view? My personal view is that I am against compulsory identity cards. What is his view? Is he in favour—yes or no?
It is the Government’s policy to move ahead with this, but subject to a vote of Parliament, and depending on how the voluntary scheme works. I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: does he support ID cards for foreign nationals—yes or no? He says that he is against them; is he in favour of them for foreign nationals?
I just answered the Prime Minister’s question. Does he not recognise that part of his problem is that he cannot give a straight answer to a straight question?
Let us have a look at another vital decision, this time on the economy. It is only three months before the start of the financial year. Businesses throughout the country want to know the capital gains tax rate that they will face in April. Will the Chancellor go ahead with his 80 per cent. increase in capital gains tax rates, or are we set for another humiliating U-turn?
I see that the right hon. Gentleman’s incursion into identity cards did not last long. He cannot answer the central question of whether he supports ID cards for foreign nationals. He could not give me the answer on two occasions. I suggest that the whole country supports ID cards for foreign nationals, and that that is the best protection we have, and one of the best against illegal immigration. If he cannot answer that question, he is not fit to ask questions about other issues.
On capital gains tax, when we came to power it was 40 per cent. Now, under the Chancellor’s proposals, it is 18 per cent. The Chancellor has agreed to consult on its implementation and will report back to the House of Commons in due course. Why did the Conservatives have 18 years of not reducing the rate of capital gains tax?
I remember our cutting taxes and the right hon. Gentleman’s opposing every single tax cut we proposed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer promised the House of Commons that he would make a statement on capital gains tax by Christmas. Business needs to have the answer to that question.
Here is something else about the economy. Goldman Sachs, the Prime Minister’s advisers, state that
“the UK is slowing more than the rest of Europe, the ‘Northern Rock’ factor has badly dented the UK’s reputation… and the UK balance of payments…deficit is now bigger than that of the US”.
Those are the words of the Prime Minister’s advisers.
Let us consider another big economic decision that the right hon. Gentleman must take. At a time of financial turmoil the markets need clear leadership, not more dithering from the Prime Minister. Will he confirm, here and now, that he will recommend Mervyn King for another term as Governor of the Bank of England?
The choice of the Governor of the Bank of England will be made in the usual way and announced in the usual form. On capital gains tax, again the right hon. Gentleman does not return to the issue. He was principal adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer when capital gains tax was 40 per cent. He was also principal adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of Black Wednesday. The difference between our country then and now is that inflation at that time was 10 per cent. and the Conservatives could not reduce interest rates, whereas inflation at the moment is 2 per cent. and the Governor of the Bank of England was able to reduce interest rates. We face the global crisis with higher employment than ever before, and we face the global turbulence with low interest rates and low inflation. It is a record that they could never match.
There is plenty more. I remember a shadow Chancellor who sat here and supported every aspect of being in the exchange rate mechanism and every single step that was taken. I seem to remember a politician who when he was in his 20s supported wholesale renationalisation and punitive tax rates, and wore his CND badge with pride. That was the Prime Minister. Is it not the case that his capital gains tax policy is in complete confusion, he cannot make up his mind about the Governor of the Bank of England, and his ID policy is in full retreat? All that is from a Prime Minister who has lost everyone’s identities, seen a run on a bank, and whose Ministers are rocked from one funding scandal to another. He can talk about long-termism all he likes, but everyone knows that it is just a smokescreen for the short-term mess that he has made. Is that not why his relaunch is utterly doomed to fail?
Once again, all these pre-rehearsed lines, all these lines rehearsed in front of the mirror—[Interruption.] They mean absolutely nothing. When it comes to the economy—[Interruption.] Oh yes, we get all these pre-rehearsed lines. People are asking the question: when will the right hon. Gentleman face up to the big challenges? Nobody knows what he thinks about the big challenges: not the country, not the party, and probably not even himself. He flits through all these issues today. When it comes to the economy, let us remember that there were 3 million unemployed under the Conservatives, and we have created 3 million more jobs. Under the Conservatives, 250,000 people lost their mortgages and were repossessed. There are 2 million more home owners under Labour. Interest rates went as high as 18 per cent. under the Conservatives; they have averaged 5 per cent. under Labour. We will return to his record as chief adviser to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, because he has no credibility when he talks about the economy.
You are aware, Mr. Speaker, that the President of Somaliland and members of his Cabinet are visiting Parliament at present. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Somaliland on the way in which it has worked over the past 18 years, very quietly, through local government elections, parliamentary elections and presidential elections? When the people of the south have no real government and are still in a state of chaos, does not that record command respect from the international community?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, who is a friend of that country. I welcome the visitors to this country, and we will do everything that we can not only to help with international development for the countries with which we are associated, but to help to build the institutions of democracy.
Hooray! This is going to be an expensive year for the countless British families who face fuel bills of £1,000 or more for the first time. With as many as 4 million British families unable to afford their fuel bills, does the Prime Minister seriously think that a single letter from the Chancellor to the energy regulator is an adequate response?
Let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to the leadership of the Liberal party. I look forward to working with him on many of the issues facing the country. I have said to him in our private conversations that there is an open door for him, and we are ready to discuss the major issues that affect the country where there is common ground.
As far as fuel prices are concerned, it is regrettable that utility prices have to rise, which is as a result of a 60 to 80 per cent. rise in the cost of coal, gas and electricity. That, in turn, is the result of factors that are hitting every economy in the world. What we have done in Britain over the last few years is devote £12 billion to fuel poverty issues. We have had the winter allowance, which I believe the hon. Gentleman’s party did not support, and other allowances to help with energy bills. Only in the last few days, companies have announced that those amounts will rise from £40 million to £56 million in order to protect energy users. We will do everything in our power to avoid fuel poverty in this country.
With 25,000 people predicted to die from the cold in this winter alone, we need a more specific commitment from the Prime Minister. Will he agree today to take action to stop the energy companies from hitting the poorest families with higher bills on prepayment meters so that we can end the scandal of the poorest families paying the most for their energy needs?
We have asked the fuel companies to look further into prepayment energy meters and it is very important to do so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares our common interest in avoiding loss of lives as well as suffering and illness as a result of fuel poverty and the cold winter weather. I thus hope that he will support us in asking the energy companies to provide extra money to subsidise the fuel bills of people who are lower paid, and that his party will continue to support us in all the measures, including the winter fuel allowance, that we have taken to deal with fuel poverty.
We face a major decision about the future of energy in this country. Tomorrow, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will make a statement on energy and on nuclear power. I hope that we can take a decision that will protect the long-term interests of the country. Without taking such a decision on this matter and on renewable fuels, we will become more dependent on foreign sources of supply. It is therefore a shock to me that other parties are looking in different directions on this issue. I know that the Leader of the Opposition wants to be consistent in what he says. However, he said to the CBI that he wanted to make it easier for people to build fuel stations, while also saying to the readers of Green Futures magazine that
“if…we have to keep the lights on, then nuclear might come into the picture”.
Nuclear as a last resort—that is not the proper way to plan for the energy needs of our country.
Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to pay tribute once again to the gallant service of the security forces of Northern Ireland in the fight against terrorism and crime over many decades of violence? Will he also take the opportunity to rubbish any attempt by the commission on the past in Northern Ireland to validate or vindicate terrorists and criminals in their sordid terrorist war by describing it as a war? Will he utterly rule out any suggestion of an amnesty for terrorists and criminals?
Yes, and it is important to say two things. First, our respect for the security services, the police and the armed forces for the difficult job they did over many years and for the loss of life suffered as a result of their difficult work is clear. Secondly, it is important to move forward with reconciliation. The efforts made by a number of bodies, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are an important element of building for the future. What we want is a safe, secure, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.
I think it is true that, as my hon. Friend suggests, disabled people are twice as likely to be in poverty as people who are not with disabilities, but it is also true that disabled people should be helped into work when that is possible. That is why about 900,000 disabled people have found jobs over the last 10 years, why our pathways to work programme is so important for the future—it has already put 32,000 people into work—and why, in my view, it would be a mistake to abolish the new deal, which does so much to help people back into work.
Members in all parts of the House have expressed concern about the conditions in Guantanamo Bay, and most people are glad to see that it is at last winding down, but can the Prime Minister explain why he has just offered places in Britain to five people from Guantanamo Bay not one of whom is a British citizen, although two of them are wanted in connection with the most serious terrorist charges in Spain?
When people are wanted for arrest in Britain, they will be arrested. When people have to be returned to other countries, we will expedite the process if at all possible. I think the whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman that Guantanamo Bay should be closed as soon as possible, but when people have moved to our country we will deal with them if there are offences for which they are to be prosecuted.
The future of the national health service means that patients will have more power over the decisions that affect their lives: decisions about where they have their treatment, the times at which they have their treatment, and with whom they have their treatment. That is an important element of the next stage of the development of the health service. However, it is also important for patients to have information about what is happening in their local hospitals and health areas. One of the next stages of reform—and Professor Darzi is looking into exactly this—is how more information can be made available to patients, and how more patients can become foundation trust members, and how the flow of information can empower patients in a way that gives them more control over their health and their health care. That is the right direction for the 21st century health service.
The education and business communities are working hard in Crawley to attract a university campus. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the best way to improve aspiration and get our young people into higher education in their own towns and cities, so that they may strive to make this a better country?
In the last 10 years, there have been more than 300,000 more people in higher and further education. We want to create more institutions of higher education—including universities—in areas that do not have that facility, and my hon. Friend has put the case eloquently for new facilities in a range of areas in her constituency. I think it right to say that we want to increase the number of universities, further education colleges and colleges generally in cities and towns that do not already have them, and that will be a big feature of future education in this country.
Over the last 10 years, we have increased spending on home insulation dramatically. We have encouraged people to insulate their homes and have encouraged draught-proofing, and will continue to do so. As for the winter allowance, I remind the hon. Gentleman that it started at £20, was raised to £50, and for the over-80s is now £300.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he raises an important question about the disparity in life chances and the disparity in the ages to which people live in different parts of the country, partly as a result of poverty and partly as a result of information about health. It is important to recognise that, as we expand preventive medicine and as more and more people can have check-ups, whether for breast cancer, heart disease or stroke, the people who will benefit most are the people who are most susceptible to those diseases, who will get quicker treatment, will have their illnesses diagnosed earlier and will then be able to lead healthier lives. That will have a major effect on health inequalities in our country.
Our commitment to lifelong learning is, first, that those people who have no qualifications whatever should get better chances than they have had in the past to enable them to get both qualifications and in many cases degrees. If the hon. Gentleman has read the report that was done by Lord Leitch, he will know that he says that by 2020 we will need 40 per cent. of the country with degree-level qualifications. Therefore, the first priority for money—that is why there has been that transfer of money—is first degrees and qualifications for those who do not have them at the moment. There is no cut in the overall budget. There is more money going to education than ever happened under the Conservative Government. The difference is between cuts under the Conservatives and expansion under Labour.
The Paul McCartney concert is not the only major event in Liverpool during the year of culture. People not only in Liverpool but all over the country are looking forward to a great success for Liverpool in this year of culture. It is already one of the greatest cities in the world for music, sport and the arts. More people go to museums and art galleries in Liverpool than in any other city, so we wish it well as the city of culture.
When I arrived at the Treasury, I was told that, because inflation was rising and as a result of the failure of the previous Conservative Government to increase interest rates, interest rates had to rise. That was the first statement made to me at the Treasury. That is why we made the Bank of England independent, a more opposed by the Conservative party, and that is why, as a result of our actions, interest rates are half what they were under the Conservative Government on average, inflation is half what it was, and employment is at a record level. We are proud of our record as a Labour Government.
The right policy for getting people back to work is to work with employers who will help people to find the jobs. That is why the local employment partnerships now have 200 companies signed up to them, and it will be 300 very soon. The right way to get people back to work is not to abolish the new deal, as the Conservative party would do, but to place a duty on people to have skills for the future. That is why we will move forward with our plans to create jobs.
A consultation is taking place at the moment. I understand that it goes through to the end of February. The proposal is for a third passenger runway at Heathrow. I believe that many people think that that is in the national interest, but I also believe that local views must be taken into account and that is why the consultation is taking place.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending the deepest condolences to the family, friends and fellow students of my 16-year-old constituent, Bradley Whitfield, who was killed in the early hours of new year’s day, and will he reassure them that he and the Government will do everything possible—that we will redouble our efforts—to work with the police, schools and community groups to try to protect young people from such appalling acts of violence?
I agree. The whole country was shocked by what my right hon. Friend refers to, and my sympathies go to the family—I believe that the whole House will join her in wanting to pay tribute to the family. We are determined to do everything in our power to deal with these crimes of violence. That is why the Home Secretary will be announcing new measures very soon. That is why we will step up all the actions we are taking against gangs and knives, and against guns as well. We are determined that in those areas where there is the greatest violence, we have the greatest surveillance as well, and we will also take action against the hot spots. My sympathies go to the family of my right hon. Friend’s constituent.
Runaway and Missing Children
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements regarding the safeguarding of runaway and missing children; and for connected purposes.
Every year in the United Kingdom, more than 100,000 children go missing from home or care. Most of them return home safely, but research by the Children’s Society indicates that about 10,000 children every year are hurt or harmed while they are missing. Many thousands of those children are running away to escape abuse in the first place; they have no safe home to return to. Some children are hurt very severely while they are away and suffer lifelong consequences. Vulnerable children on their own are targeted by predatory adults. Evidence from police and children’s charities has identified children drawn into prostitution, trafficked or groomed into drug-running by adults who pretend friendship. Some children disappear without trace. Police estimate that about 50 children every year die or are killed while they are missing; that is a child death each week that could be prevented.
All such figures are estimates because, astonishingly, there is no requirement for data to be recorded or collected nationally; and without data identifying need, statutory bodies are not allocating resources to safeguard these vulnerable children. A small number of police forces are leading initiatives to identify and protect runaway and missing children and the Association of Chief Police Officers issued guidance on the management and reporting of missing persons in 2005, but a number of police forces are still using paper-based systems. Better information is still available nationally on missing cars than on missing children. Police have a key performance indicator set by the Government on vehicle crime, so they allocate resources and collect information. Children are more important than cars, but the Department for Children, Schools and Families—the lead Department—collects no data on runaway and missing children.
Recently, a welcome announcement was made that children missing from home and care will be included as a national performance indicator for local authorities from April 2009. But the relationship between the police and local authorities is crucial, because people report a missing child to the police, not the local authority. Police forces must have a proper and effective method of collecting and analysing information about missing children. Some 40 per cent. of police forces are unable to provide information about the level of need in respect of runaway and missing children in their area.
In November 2005, and again in January 2007, this House gave consent to publish a Bill to protect runaway and missing children. Both Bills received support from Missing People, the Children’s Society, Parents and Abducted Children Together, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Crisis, the lead officer for runaways from the Association of Chief Police Officers and many hon. Members. In the previous Session, more than 200 hon. Members supported the call for time to be granted for this Bill’s consideration. It does not seem too much to ask that vulnerable children are identified so that they can be helped, that information is collected when a child is reported missing to the police and that there is effective co-ordination between the police, health authorities and local authorities.
We must ensure that a child who is calling for help can get it. In October, the sponsors of this Bill and other hon. Members held parliamentary hearings, where we received evidence from a range of charities, police forces, local authorities and Government bodies. We heard about some excellent joint local working between the police, local authorities and voluntary organisations. Such partnerships demonstrated effectiveness in reducing the incidence of running away, in better protecting children who had gone missing and in tackling predatory adults who target runaway children to prey on them. Such effective partnerships are few and far between, and the reality for many children is bleak, with no local service either in place or planned.
The Children’s Society has just completed an extensive review of services for runaways in England on behalf of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It told us that there was exemplary practice in few locations and that adequate services do not exist in the majority of places. The survey identified that only about 12 per cent. of local authorities have organised responses to the needs of young runways. More than two thirds of local authorities are not even planning a response, despite the fact that having a plan is part of the local authority guidance issued under a local authority circular by the Department of Health in 2002. More than two thirds of local authorities are not fulfilling even that part of the existing guidance, and that serious failure is leaving some very vulnerable children and young people without any protection. Poor data collection is making it impossible to identify failures or to direct resources and allocate priorities. We received a wealth of evidence relating to real dangers that are being faced by some young people who are alone in Britain’s streets today and identifying that this issue must be made a clear and urgent safeguarding priority.
Lancashire police’s “Mountains into Molehills” project produced significant evidence of risk levels to young individuals and the successful results of early intervention. The force also identified the hugely wasteful cost to police authorities and the hugely attritional effect on children’s life chances of having only a reactive approach to missing children. It worked out that just investigating cases was costing Lancashire police about £6.2 million a year. Some 77 per cent. of the force’s missing person cases involved young people under the age of 18, and the same people were going missing over and over again—one girl from a care home was the subject of 78 missing person investigations. Three children did not survive; one was killed in a road traffic collision while missing, one was murdered and her body was never found and the other visited some adults who had chaotic lifestyles and who plied her with drink and prescription drugs—she died as a result.
Many runaway children return home safely, but we repeatedly heard evidence of children being targeted by predatory adults for sexual or drug-related exploitation. Such children were being encouraged to run away repeatedly by people who were pretending to be their friends. The police’s ability to tackle such predators depends on the good retrieval and recording of information from young victims, who often feel no trust in authority figures.
The most effective local action depends on a good working relationship between police, local authorities, health authorities and the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector was consistently cited as a key partner because of its role as a trusted friend for young people. However, despite their crucial role in supporting children at risk, most of the charities working to provide support for runaway and missing children are uncertain about continued funding for their work. Most do not know whether they will have funding to continue in just three months’ time. Even Missing People, the national charity that provides 24/7 helplines for missing people and their families and a runaway helpline that took 50,000 calls last year, receives only modest core support from Government and does not know whether it will receive any funding beyond March this year. More alarmingly, the National Policing Improvement Agency, which took responsibility for missing people, including missing children, from September, has been allocated a budget of only £261,000 from the Home Office in this financial year.
ACPO has calculated that the social cost of policing runaway and missing children is £220 million a year, which is set against a total Government investment to tackle the issue of £1.1 million in the last year. It beggars belief. Targeted early intervention, using data to identify children at risk and involving senior-level leadership are proven to reduce the number of children who run away, to help those who do run and to tackle the underlying problems. Early intervention saves money and saves children. Urgent action must be taken to make the simple changes that are needed to reduce the number of children who run away or go missing in the first place and to ensure the immediate safety of those children who go missing. The Bill is a simple measure to require the collection and reporting of information. It is our job to protect those children and it is about time we did it. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Helen Southworth, Ann Coffey, Dan Norris, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Russell Brown, Alan Keen, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. David Chaytor, Mr. Kevin Barron, Ms Dari Taylor, Annette Brooke and John Bercow.
Runaway and Missing Children
Helen Southworth accordingly presented a Bill to make requirements regarding the safeguarding of runaway and missing children; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 June, and to be printed [Bill 51].
Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
I beg to move,
That the Order of 8th October 2007, in the last Session of Parliament, (Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill (Programme)), as varied by the Order of 11th October 2007 in that Session (Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill (Programme) (No. 2)), be further varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order of 8th October 2007 shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
3. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings New Clauses relating to section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; amendments relating to those new Clauses. Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order. New Clauses relating to self-defence; amendments relating to those new Clauses. Three and a quarter hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order. New Clauses and new Schedules standing in the name of a Minister of the Crown relating to sentencing, the release or recall of prisoners, or bail, except those relating to the Repatriation of Prisoners Act 1984 or referral orders; amendments relating to those new Clauses and Schedules. Four and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order. Remaining proceedings on consideration. Seven hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order, or 7.45 p.m., whichever is the earlier.
Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses relating to section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; amendments relating to those new Clauses.
Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
New Clauses relating to self-defence; amendments relating to those new Clauses.
Three and a quarter hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
New Clauses and new Schedules standing in the name of a Minister of the Crown relating to sentencing, the release or recall of prisoners, or bail, except those relating to the Repatriation of Prisoners Act 1984 or referral orders; amendments relating to those new Clauses and Schedules.
Four and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Remaining proceedings on consideration.
Seven hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order, or 7.45 p.m., whichever is the earlier.
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion eight hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order, or at 8.45 p.m., whichever is the earlier.
I recognise that the Opposition will undoubtedly not share the Government’s wish to support the programme motion. I almost anticipate the fact that the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats will oppose it. Indeed, Mr. Speaker, I shall let you into a little secret, between ourselves: if I were an Opposition Member I might well oppose the motion myself. I know that it will be very difficult for us to discuss some of the amendments before the House in the time that we have allocated for today’s debate. I am sincerely grateful to the Government Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), for securing extra time for today’s business, beyond the normal point of interruption, so that we can continue the Third Reading debate until about 8.45 pm.
My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I understand that the official Opposition and others would like to have more time. We have tried to use the programme motion to make available as much as possible, consistent with the need to get the Bill to the other place on time.
I do not understand the logic of the Minister’s argument. He concedes the position of those who oppose this dire programme motion and says that we must complete our deliberations in the time available, but it is in the Government’s power to ensure that legislation is not forced or rushed through. It should not be left to the House of Lords to deal with the Bill, so why do not the Government withdraw the motion so that we can adopt a proper approach to the business?
I understand the concerns of the Opposition. With my right hon. Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Whip, I have tried to make available as much time as is practicable, consistent with the need to get the Bill through this House and the other place.
The programme motion ensures that the House will have eight hours today for Report and Third Reading, on top of the 47 hours that we had in Committee. The Bill was debated fully in Committee, where hon. Members of all parties supported the Government’s programming provisions.
I note what the Minister has said about the Committee proceedings, but hon. Members had no opportunity to discuss the new clauses being introduced today. They include new clause 1 on blasphemy, new clause 2 on prostitution and, to a lesser degree, new clause 17 on graffiti. That last new clause is my own modest contribution to the Bill, but although I believe that the Secretary of State is sympathetic to it, we are not likely to reach it.
As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I have tried to structure today’s proceedings so that there is a reasonable amount of time to debate three significant new additions to the Bill. We had a full debate in Committee and covered all the matters that arose then. In fact, we completed the Committee stage 15 minutes before the allotted time expired, but we have made available a reasonable amount of time so that the new clauses that we have had to introduce—on the reserve statutory prohibition on prison officers taking industrial action, the clarification of the law on self-defence, and the proposed changes to sentencing and bail arrangements following Lord Carter’s review of prisons—can be considered by the House.
I recognise that the programme motion will be debated, and that the Opposition will not support it. However, given the circumstances and the extra time that we have been able to secure today, I commend it to the House.
May I begin by congratulating the Minister on his ability to keep a straight face?
This Bill was first presented to the House before the summer recess and its Second Reading debate took place in the spillover period of the previous Session. In those days—at a time when the Government and their spin doctors were threading their wobbly way through the Corridors, bars and Lobbies of this building, having returned from the hazy pleasure domes of Bournemouth—a general election was in the air. We all expected the Prime Minister to announce when it would be held: certainly, the topic and was being spoken of by journalists and by the younger and more excitable members of the Cabinet.
Indeed, political commentators were promised not only an election in the first week of November but a crushing victory for the Labour party that would see the end of the Conservatives as a credible party of opposition. What that meant, of course, was that the Bill that we now have the misfortune to be considering was intended to die with the Parliament. It was, as anyone who has given it even the most cursory glance will know, a disastrously muddled Bill. As I suspected when it was published—and my suspicions have only got stronger since—the Bill was not meant to be passed into law; instead, it was intended as a headline catcher to give the impression that the Government, despite the departure of Tony Blair, were still at work.
Today is a dark day for the House and for parliamentary democracy as a whole. The Government—who do not enjoy the public’s trust or confidence, or the respect of the membership of this House—now tell us that this Bill should complete its remaining stages by 7.45 pm, or possibly earlier. Were this a 10-clause Bill that had gone through Committee with a few amendments, this timetable would not be objectionable and the motion would pass without debate, let alone a Division, but let us see what sort of Bill this is and the timetable into which the Government intend to fit our debate. The Bill that left Committee bore little resemblance to the Bill that was debated on Second Reading, and the Bill that we are debating this afternoon bears little resemblance to the one that left Committee. It had 128 clauses and 23 schedules on Second Reading.
It was, by any standards, a large Bill. That had much to do with the fact that it was the product of two ministries, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that Ministers from both Departments would privately prefer that this Bill had nothing to do with them because neither ministerial team wants to take responsibility for the mess it has become—and I do not blame them. Success has a thousand parents and failure is always an orphan, and this Bill is a legislative failure. It has been used as a dumping ground for every half or ill-considered idea that has been languishing on the shelves of the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and Downing street.
We heard evidence in Committee from several witnesses who pointed out numerous deficiencies in the Bill that were the result of the omission of necessary or desirable provisions and the inclusion of provisions that would not work or were not likely to deal with the problem they were said to be curing. Of course, the Government paid no attention to that.
Ministers have seen this Bill—as will become evident this afternoon—not as an opportunity to improve the criminal law, but as a chance to invent new laws and offences and to stick them, like decorations on a Christmas tree, anywhere they could reach. It was a mis-shapen tree in the first place—how else can one describe a Bill that deals with youth justice, adult sentencing, the creation of a commissioner for offender management and prisons, a Northern Ireland commissioner for prison complaints, proceedings in magistrates courts, international co-operation in criminal justice matters, violent offender orders, antisocial behaviour and disturbances in hospitals, parenting orders, financial assistance for police authorities, inspection of police authorities, misconduct proceedings against police officers, special immigration status, the disclosure of information about sex offenders, sales of tobacco to those under 18, and amendments to armed forces legislation?
I now come to a stark illustration of the chaotic nature of this incoherent Bill, because the following subjects are not just in the same Bill, but in the same part of the Bill. Part 7 includes provisions on pornography, prostitution, sex offences committed abroad, adoption and offences relating to nuclear facilities.
It gets worse, because in Committee the Government introduced 85 new clauses and 11 new schedules, only one of which—that covering the offence of hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation—was mentioned on Second Reading. Where have the Government stuck this addition? It is to be found in clause 107—right next to clause 108 on offences relating to the protection of nuclear material and facilities. In addition, the Government introduced 400 amendments in Committee. We have a Bill that now—by that I mean as at midday today—runs to 176 clauses and 34 schedules. Some of those schedules have as many as five, eight or 10 separate parts. Today we have a Bill that can only be contained in two volumes of 121 and 131 pages respectively, whereas on Second Reading it was contained in one volume, albeit big enough at 239 pages.
One might have thought that the Government would stop there, but, no, not content with the mess they have already created, they have sought to go further. A further 204 new Government provisions—new clauses, new schedules and amendments—have been tabled for discussion today. Some were tabled as recently as Monday, and some were tabled at the end of last week before the House returned. Issues as important to the management of our prisons as the restoration of the statutory denial of prison officers’ right to strike—a fundamental U-turn in Government policy—were brought forward only on Monday, although quite where that fits into the long title escapes me at the moment; further elucidation might be provided in the short debate to come.
Government proposals on issues as important as the repatriation of foreign prisoners and the return of British criminals from abroad, sentences for public protection and for serious sex offenders, on extended sentences—whether time spent on tag before sentence is to be treated the same as time spent in custody before sentence—and the adjustment in the law of self-defence have all been put before the House for the first time today.
This timetable motion, even if it permits us to debate just a few of these important issues for the first time in this House and even if it allows us seven hours from now, is not just inadequate: it is an abuse of power and an affront to this House and the public on whose behalf we make laws. The Government have the numerical majority in the House so I have no doubt what the result of the Division will be. But that is not the point. This is not the Bill that came to this House in October. This is not the Bill that the House permitted to carry over into the new Session. This is not the Bill that Ministers and other witnesses gave evidence about in October. This is not the Bill that left Committee after 16 sittings on 29 November. This is not even the Bill that the House expected to be dealing with even as recently as last Wednesday. This is a vastly expanded, vastly more incoherent and vastly more ridiculous Bill than it was at any stage before today.
I said to the Minister for State last year that this Bill was a plum duff with a lot more duff than plums. In response, the Government have added to the duff, but given us no time to digest it. The Government are beyond hope and beyond rescue, but this House need not follow them into the abyss. Let us do what we were elected to do—hold this Government to account. Let us throw out this disgraceful, shameful motion.
It really will not do for the Minister of State to open this debate by saying how much he agrees with the Opposition about the inadequacy of the timetable for the Bill. I do not take, and never have taken, the reflex view that all timetable motions are of necessity inadequate for the purposes of the House. However, I do say that if the House is prepared to forgo its responsibility to consider some of the most basic legislation that we are here to consider—criminal law—and to sub-contract it to the other place to do the job that we are supposed to do, all the guff about the primacy of the House of Commons and how important this place is as a debating Chamber means absolutely nothing.
These are matters of life and liberty and we are being asked to pass them on the nod because of a timetable exercise by the Whips, against the interests of the Department that leads on the Bill. We are asked to believe that there is no time in January, in a Session that started in November, to find a second day for a Bill that comprises two volumes, 176 clauses and 34 schedules, and to which hundreds of substantive amendments have been tabled today. Many of us could have tabled many more amendments if we had felt that there was the slightest chance that they would be considered.
We are being asked to agree that the House of Commons cannot find the time to discuss criminal law properly and to pass it, without consideration, to the other place. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has already said that many new clauses—which were not in the original published Bill—were introduced in Committee, often at short notice. Since then, we have had whole new provisions introduced, some of which we are seeing for the very first time today. They are not trivial matters, because they include provisions that affect the governance of our prisons, the basic law of self-defence, the terms for recall of prisoners and public protection. Those are not trivial, but even if none of them had been introduced today, I question whether it is right that the House should be given a mere few hours to deal with fundamental issues such as homophobic hatred crime. Parallel offences were discussed for days and days, but today we are expected to dispose of the provision in a matter of minutes.
Repeal of the law of blasphemy is an important issue on which the House is entitled to have an opinion. People are concerned to make sure that we get right the law on prostitution, both to reduce the incidence of prostitution and to avoid the trafficking of women and men for the purposes of prostitution. However, we may not even have the opportunity to debate those measures.
The Bill introduces what could be termed a Sarah’s law or Megan’s law. It would certainly be an important change to our criminal procedure in protecting children against those who have been found guilty of sexual offences against minors. We may not have a chance to say a word about those proposals because of the timetable. There are to be huge changes to the role of the Court of Appeal, and we are being asked simply to pass the issue down the corridor; the attitude is, “The Lords will sort out the Court of Appeal. It is not for the Members of the House of Commons to have an opinion about its role in the judicial process.”
We are talking about an abuse of the House, made that much more difficult to stomach by the fact that the Lord Chancellor—I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber—told the Commons when he was Leader of the House how important it was that we respected the House’s role, the rights of Back Benchers to intervene in debate, and the importance of Report as a part of the legislative process in which the whole House had the opportunity to debate matters that would otherwise be considered only by members of a Committee. That same Leader of the House was to reform and improve the House’s procedures, to make it capable of doing the work entrusted to it. It is he who puts before us today an abuse of process that will prevent us from doing our work. It means that eventually we will have to rely on an unelected House to do the work that we should do. That is quite wrong.
The Minister of State knows that I have argued from day one that this is a big Bill that needs proper consideration. He knows that, whenever possible, I have tried to argue that we need sufficient time for Report. The answer is wholly inadequate. It will not do, and I hope that the House will, for once, take it upon itself to do its job properly by rejecting the programme motion.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have now heard from all three Front Benchers, and it is abundantly plain that what is taking place today is an abuse of the processes of the House. The Procedure Committee sits at 2.30 pm. I will ask the Chairman of that Committee, on which I sit, whether he considers the issue to be within his remit. When you leave the Chair, as no doubt you will fairly shortly, will you be kind enough to summon the Leader of the House to your apartments, and ask her to look carefully at what is happening today, with a view to extending Report for a further day?
As I have said to the House on many occasions, the House expresses its opinions, but the Speaker cannot be drawn into such matters. The House is debating the motion and making its views known, and I will not be summoning the Leader of the House. It is for the House to make its views known at this stage. Everything has been done in perfect order; I am therefore bound by the rules of the House.
I will be brief, because I want to get on to debating the amendments, particularly the first group, in which I have a considerable interest. The Opposition Front Bencher says that the timetable is an abuse, but I am confident that if there were a Tory Government—I trust that that will not happen—and they wished to get a controversial Bill through the House, they would use the same process of introducing a timetable motion and not leaving much time for debate. They would do that because it suits Governments to be able to get their business through.
This afternoon we are being asked to deal with 100 pages of amendments. I know that a considerable time was spent in Committee, but those of us who are not on the Committee have a legitimate right to take part in debates on Report, and to raise issues about which we have concerns. Looking at the timetable, I can see that in the last two and a half hours of the time available, there are a dozen groups of amendments to be dealt with, and some are on issues, including blasphemy and prostitution, that are of major interest to a lot of Members on both sides of the House. There are issues that may not be of great interest to everyone, but about which some of us have concerns. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I have tabled an amendment on violent offender orders, but we can be almost 100 per cent. sure that the group of amendments concerned will never be reached. It does the House’s reputation no good when we try to rush through 100 pages of amendments in a limited time.
When it comes to such Bills, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to think not only about getting the business through, although clearly they have a legitimate, perfect right to get the Government’s business through, but about Back Benchers who have an interest and wish to take part in the debates. Almost certainly, they will find this afternoon that there are issues in which they take a real interest, but on which they will not be able to say a word.
Of course there are many issues that are to be discussed that are new to the Bill, and people who were on the Committee will have a legitimate interest in them. As I say, however, I am under no great illusions: if a Tory Government were dealing with such a Bill, they might well adopt exactly the same process, because it suits the Executive. It does not, however, suit the interests of Back Benchers.
When the Bill was published, its territorial extent was described. Only minor matters related to Scotland—issues to do with the commissioner for offender management, nuclear material and facilities, the Data Protection Act 1998, the British Transport police, defence policing, and immigration status for foreign nationals. The explanatory notes said that there would be no requirement for a consent to legislate motion. By and large, the measures seemed reasonable. However, I understand that there has since been published in the Scottish Parliament an intention to pass a consent to legislate motion in relation to bribery and corruption by foreign officers, violent offender orders and the repatriation of foreign prisoners. We will not, or are very unlikely to, debate the latter two issues, so in trying to defend the programme motion, will the Minister tell us what the extent is of the changes to Government amendments, which now require a consent to legislate motion from the Scottish Parliament?
Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I have been here from the beginning of the debate. The path to hell is paved with Home Office criminal justice Bills. They have had a long career: the number of criminal justice measures is now well into the 60s. However, that is not the issue. The Government, under the new Prime Minister, started off with the idea of reinforcing the powers of the House of Commons. He was to return to the House its proper functions. Under the presidency, as I suppose I would call it, of the now Lord Chancellor—a former Home Secretary, Leader of the House, and Foreign Secretary: the éminence grise of the new Labour Government—the Government are back to their old role of ensuring the steamrolling of discordant Bills through the House.
How can it be that, as has been set out so adequately by all those who have spoken so far, the House of Commons is to be denied the opportunity to judge on matters relating to the criminal law? With these measures, we will be consigning people to prison for new offences—yet we will not discuss all of those. This is the very antithesis of good government. A compendium Bill that covers every last thought of anyone in the Administration is not easy for the public to understand, is awfully difficult for the world to get to grips with, and casts our hopes, our securities, our freedoms and our liberties into the hands of lawyers.
I am glad to see that the éminence grise has returned. The debate is seminal to his role. We have heard much preaching about every one of us being able to contribute to the process of law. We were all sent here by distinct electorates to be able to affirm or reject propositions for what should be contained in law. The programme motion, as was honourably said by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), denies Members that right, and deliberately so.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) spoke honourably and nicely. I do not criticise his approach. It was a humble approach to the House. He understands the position of the Opposition, but he goes on to say that in the circumstances it is necessary to adopt this course of action. What circumstances constrain the Government so that they cannot do away with this guillotine motion—for that is what it is?
Perhaps the éminence grise, the Secretary of State, the lord high panjandrum, will get up off his haunches and tell the House why the circumstances, whatever they are, do not enable the House to discuss the Bill. It is farcical. People outside the House would not begin to understand how, after they have sent Members here to examine criminal matters, the high panjandrum and his cronies deny the House the opportunity to consider those matters. That is what it amounts to.
I have listened to the lord high panjandrum over many years, as both Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, with all the soothing, the sympathy, the understanding and his love for the House—but he denies the House the basis of its existence. This is fraudulent and we do ourselves a grave disservice. I shall watch to see whether the hon. Member for Walthamstow votes against the motion. It is appalling. I should like to see every one of those brave new Labourites who believe passionately in the chance and opportunity to change Britain voting in the Lobby to deny the British people representation on criminal law.
The Bill is a mess. Everyone knows that it is a mess. I am surprised that it has not been reconsigned to Committee. That is how serious the matter is. This is not the Bill that originally came before the House, yet the high panjandrum chews his chewing gum and gets on with other business, instead of addressing the House. The House should reject the motion.
It is difficult to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who speaks with such eloquence and passion—more than almost any other Member in the Chamber. We should respect what he says and how he says it.
Let me say in my own words that politicians and the House have never in my memory been held in such great contempt by the public. We see one of the root causes of that before us today—the railroading of a confused, incoherent and deeply flawed Bill, without adequate time for consideration of the 100 pages of amendments. That typifies the root cause of the political malaise and the Executive’s contempt for the House.
Issues such as self-defence, the repatriation of prisoners, blasphemy and incitement to hatred, pornography and sex offenders, and violent offender orders will be rushed through with little or no consideration today. We could spend all the available time on each of the 14 main groups of amendments that we have to consider. With the timetable before us, it is patently impossible to do our job as Members of Parliament, representing our unique group of constituents and legislating properly in the important area of criminal law. That is why I intend to oppose the programme motion.
I have never opposed a programme motion before, because I know that Governments need to get their business through, but I am extremely concerned about this motion. I understand the urgency of some of the matters before us. There is a timing issue in relation to the prison officers’ dispute, but there are other matters, such as self-defence, which were not debated in Committee, but which have arrived at this point and will be debated. As a result, matters that were originally in the Bill, such as prostitution, which the House so rarely has the opportunity to debate, will probably not be debated today. That is why timetable motions should not be employed.
The Government have noticed the problem, which is why the business is not scheduled to end at the usual time. That is not good enough. I feel pretty sure that the new clause that I tabled on prostitution, which is a significant proposal, will not be discussed for years to come, if legislative opportunities follow the usual path. That is not right for the House, and the House has not been treated with sufficient respect.
The problem with the speech by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is that he always says that, doesn’t he? On this occasion, however, he has a better point than usual. The Government’s approach is better than it might have been, but it is not good enough. It is not right that matters such as self-defence, which the House has debated before, should not be considered in Committee. It just is not right.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). On any reasonable assessment of the House’s consideration of the Bill, the arguments made particularly well by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) when he set out the case against the programme motion are overwhelming. It is almost certain that the hon. Lady’s amendment will not be reached for debate. It would be a great surprise if it were.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, on 27 June we were promised a new beginning for the House, which was to be treated with respect. If the Government intend to insist on the disgraceful programme motion and their disgraceful treatment of the House of Commons, will the Prime Minister at least come to the House, less than an hour after he was here to answer questions on his own account, and vote for the motion?
When the Minister moved the motion, he suggested that the Government had to terminate their business today in order to get such an important Bill through. All the arguments that have been deployed suggest that the Bill is a mess, that it has been and will further be severely amended, and that it is being railroaded through.
When the Minister responds, will he deal with this question? Tomorrow’s business in the House is a debate on the Adjournment. There is no vote. It would have been perfectly possible to reschedule that important debate in order to debate the Bill tomorrow. It would have been equally possible to suspend the 7 o’clock rule, as we shall in fact do, and to sit, if necessary, later into the night in order to debate these matters properly. Why are the Government not prepared to do that?
I, too, wish to place on record my extreme disquiet about the programme motion. All the other speakers have been experienced Members of the House, but I speak as someone who was elected only at the last election. I came to this place to play whatever part I could in effective scrutiny of legislation, to make sure that laws came out of this place as good as they could be. I find this process utterly demoralising, and a disgrace. When the Minister winds up, will he tell us what possible reason there is for not suspending the increasingly irrelevant gimmick of a topical debate tomorrow to make room for a proper debate on some of the measures before the House?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, all Governments have programme motions, and there is nothing unique about this one. We saw that when we were in opposition. Usually, rightly or wrongly, I vote for programme motions, but I have the greatest hesitation in doing so today. The debate on industrial action by prison officers must end at 2.43, and whatever view one takes on whether the Government’s proposal should be pursued, surely there should be more time. If there is a Division on the programme motion, there will be less than one hour to debate that important issue. The Government are wrong on this matter. There are many other important issues, as my hon. Friend and others have mentioned, and not to provide anywhere near adequate time to debate them shows a lack of sensitivity towards the House of Commons. For that reason, I will not be able to support the programme motion.
Order. I know that the hon. Member does not mean to be discourteous, but I have already prevented an hon. Member from entering the debate because she was not here for the opening speeches, and it has been brought to my attention that that is also the case with the hon. Gentleman.
I was here at the start of the debate, Mr. Speaker, and I simply wish to make the brief point that, as legislators, we will be voting ourselves into disrepute if we vote for this programme motion. Whatever the requirements and pressures of government, we as legislators are charged specifically with care and consideration for the law of the land. The Bill contains wide-ranging and deep-reaching changes to the criminal law that affects so many aspects of individual life and community and national life. Under the programme motion, new clauses and amendments will be microwaved on to the statute book, undebated, untested and unread by many hon. Members, and that is a democratic scandal. When many parties are competing as to who will tell people who are not working that they must work, we as a democratically elected Chamber should not be shirking our work and leaving it to unelected people in another place to give more care and consideration to what goes into the law of the land. We as legislators should pass only that which we, according to our conscience and consideration, deem fit to be in the law of the land. More consideration and care has been given to who stays in various celebrity television reality shows than hon. Members are prepared to give to what should be in the law of the land. I appeal to hon. Members to vote not according to party but as conscientious legislators, and to reject this programme motion.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I shall respond to the debate. I said at the start that I understood that there would be concerns on the part of the official Opposition and other hon. Members about the nature of the programme motion, but I also said that I agreed wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Whip that every effort has been made to give sufficient time today to debate these matters. We will continue beyond the normal time of interruption, to 8.45.
I have been in the House only 16 years, which is not as long as some hon. Members who have spoken, but I can recall five years of opposition with guillotine motions from the Conservative Government, and there has been no discussion by the Conservative party about repealing the ability to table programme motions. Any Conservative Government, if there ever were one in the future, would have the same regard to getting legislation through this House and the other place within time, as we seek to do today. We have had 47 hours in Committee, when we sat late into the night, and the House has eight hours today for consideration—
This is a question not of programme motions but of rationality. Everyone who has spoken on the matter has criticised the rationality of the process of dealing with the matter before us today. The Minister referred to the Chief Whip, who is not present, and the lord high panjandrum, but neither has spoken on this matter and we know nothing about their arrangements; that is the essence of the indignation and anger that some of us feel, particularly after all the promises made by the new Prime Minister. It is a question of trust.
As has been said, the hon. Gentleman makes the same speech on such matters on every occasion—occasionally with some justification. But we had 47 hours in Committee and we will have eight hours today. We have had trailed before the House in statements by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor the measures that we are bringing forward today on the Prison Service, on imprisonment for public protection and on the Carter reforms. On Monday, my right hon. Friend made a statement to the House giving hon. Members an opportunity to comment—unheard of in normal practice.
I do not want the right hon. Gentleman to lose his rag, because he contained himself admirably in Committee. As I said, we had a happy Committee, although we had a very unhappy Bill to deal with. But it will not do for him to pray in aid the amount of time that we spent in Committee, because we were dealing with matters that are completely outside the ambit of today’s debate. Regardless of the merits of the measure on prison officers’ right to strike, we are debating today a wholly new addition to the Bill. There are hundreds of new clauses and amendments, and if he cannot get that into his head we are in trouble.
On Monday my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, in an unprecedented way, made a statement to the House telling hon. Members that he was introducing the clauses that are before us today. We have an opportunity today to debate those clauses and the points brought before the House, and I repeat that we had 47 hours in Committee, with late nights—which as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough said, it was a very friendly Committee, and—
These matters are for discussion and agreement, and the Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), and my right hon. Friend the Lord High Chancellor, and I, as the Minister responsible, are content with the motion before the House today. If we were not content, I would not be standing at the Dispatch Box proposing that motion.
The question before the House today is whether it supports the motion. I contend that we have had considerable time in Committee, and we have today opportunities to debate the key issues: indeed, we have until 8.45 to complete our proceedings on the Bill. I commend the motion to the House.
The House proceeded to a Division.
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.
Orders of the Day
Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill
As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
[Relevant documents: Letter from the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, of 29th October 2007; and the Department’s replies to the Chairman of the Committee of 25th November and 10th December 2007.]
New Clause 36
Amendment of section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
‘(1) Section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (c. 33) (inducements to prison officers to withhold services or breach discipline) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), for paragraph (a) substitute—
“(a) to take (or continue to take) any industrial action;”.
(3) After subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) In subsection (1) “industrial action” includes the withholding of services as a prison officer and any other action likely to affect the normal working of a prison.”
(4) In subsection (4), after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) holds any post, other than as a chaplain or assistant chaplain, to which he has been appointed for the purposes of section 7 of the Prison Act 1952 (appointment of prison staff),”.’.—[Mr. Straw.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, in subsection (3), leave out from ‘officer’ to end of subsection.
Government new clause 37—Power to suspend the operation of section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
Government amendments Nos. 169 and 170.
That is absolutely correct, and any time that we take up now will be taken out of that time, so I suggest to the House that we get on with it.
On Monday, for an hour, I gave a statement, in the course of which I obviously took questions, to set out why the Government have reluctantly felt compelled to come forward with these amendments to the law, which are to be included in the Bill. Let me now set out some of the background. I am of course ready to take interventions from either side of the House, as I always do.
In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, there was, for a variety of reasons, serious industrial action—often not direct strike action but other kinds of industrial action—within the Prison Service, which made the management of the Prison Service extremely difficult and placed public safety at risk, as well as placing the welfare of prisoners in serious jeopardy. The Government of the day did two things. In 1993, they went to court to seek an injunction restraining prison officers under the existing law, which they succeeded in obtaining. Then, in what became the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, they moved amendments, which became sections 127 and 128 of that Act, to prohibit industrial action by prison officers. At that time, as we were reminded yesterday—and it has been a point that the Prison Officers Association has raised—the Labour Opposition spoke and voted against those amendments. However, I want to make it clear that in doing so, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) did not give an undertaking to repeal section 127 and made it clear that there could be circumstances in which we would accept that such a restriction on industrial action in the Prison Service should be on the statute book. He said:
“It could be argued that when there are people who have special responsibilities—the police are in such a category and it may be argued that prison officers are as well—and therefore there are difficulties about taking specific forms of…industrial action, there should be a guarantee against that. If that is desired, such people should be given something in return—for example, a right that guarantees fairness in any negotiations.”—[Official Report, 13 April 1994; Vol. 241, c. 335.]
He referred to agreements that existed at the time in respect of the fire service. It is also the case that our former Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, gave undertakings in general terms about what was regarded as anti-trade union legislation in that Bill and elsewhere. I have to say to my hon. Friends that there were particular things in the measure as originally proposed by the Conservative Government that were plainly totally unacceptable and raised the temperature. They included measures that would have resulted in the certification officer being able to certify the Prison Officers Association as an independent trade union. It was only under pressure from the Labour Opposition that those matters were sorted out.
I also want to make it clear that when I became shadow Home Secretary in the summer of 1994 and considered, in full consultation with the shadow Cabinet of the day, whether we should repeal that legislation, I decided that, without more such legislation, we should not, because of the very special circumstances that apply in respect of the running of a prison, which, I suggest, are similar to those of the services to the state and to the community provided by the police and the armed forces. I say to the House, and remind my colleagues, that at no stage did anybody, be it the then Leader of the Opposition, me or anybody else, ever give undertakings that section 127 would be repealed, nor was it in any manifesto, either in 1997 or 2001. Indeed, on three occasions I had to make use of the injunctive power under section 127 to avoid a very serious situation within the Prison Service. I have no recollection of that ever being the subject of complaint from anyone in the House. However, we were concerned to do what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said, by ensuring that reciprocal arrangements were put in place to balance the fact that prison officers were not able to take industrial action. First, we sought to bring into force part of the 1994 Act, which could easily have been brought into force by the Conservative Administration, but was not, to set up an independent pay review body in place of the previous ramshackle arrangements for settling prison officers’ pay.
My right hon. Friend has suggested that in the summer of 1994, he took a decision on behalf of the Opposition, and the Labour party, that there would be no abolition of section 127. However, a letter of 6 July from Mr. Tony Blair MP to the Prison Officers Association says clearly:
“An incoming Labour Government will want to put this situation right”—
that is, the issue of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill—
“and ensure, once again, that prison officers are treated in the same way and with the same working rights as other public servants, and recognises the status of the Prison Officers Association as an independent Trade Union”.
I believe that the POA and the labour and trade union movement generally interpreted that accurately as a Government commitment to restore the trade union rights of the POA, which means the right to withdraw one’s labour.
I understand what my hon. Friend says, but the simple fact is that I made the judgment during the period between summer 1994 and 1997. I do not recall any pressure—except from the Prison Officers Association, which I explained I could not accept—to include a specific commitment to repeal section 127, and no such commitment went into the manifesto. I do not recall any suggestion at the so-called clause 5 meetings that take place with the national executive, or at meetings of the shadow Cabinet of the day, that we should have such a specific commitment, nor was one made.
Winding forward, I have set out—as did Paul Boateng on my behalf in 2000—how we have sought to negotiate a voluntary agreement and a comprehensive package of reforms of industrial relations in the Prison Service to obviate the need for reliance on section 127. That is what Paul Boateng told the House on my behalf in summer 2000. We introduced the pay review body and the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), took the matter forward with the then Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins). There was then a series of intensive negotiations with the POA about establishing a new, comprehensive voluntary agreement in return for a suspension and/or repeal of section 127.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East, who led those negotiations, has authorised me to say that throughout the negotiations with the POA it was made clear at every stage that the voluntary agreement to which we could assent had to include a comprehensive and legally binding undertaking by the association not to take industrial action. It was only in respect of that that the Government moved, by an order under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, to repeal section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. When that repeal occurred, it was made clear—initially in the other place because that was where it was dealt with, and subsequently in this House—by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who had taken over as Prisons Minister, that
“If the POA gives notice to terminate the agreement with no alternative arrangements being in place, the Secretary of State would ask Parliament to reintroduce statutory constraints such as existed prior to disapplication of Section 127.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2006; Vol. 449, c. 1897W.]
That is absolutely fundamental to this part of the story, which is why I ask all my right hon. and hon. Friends, as well as the House more generally, to support the introduction of what will be a reserve power in the event that we cannot reach a further voluntary agreement.
By the time that the POA had signed up to the 2005 joint industrial relations procedural agreement, or JIRPA, it had voluntarily accepted that whatever else happened in the Prison Service, there could not be industrial action because of the risk to public safety and, I have to say, to the welfare of prisoners. We saw on 29 August the serious risk to prisoners if there is industrial action or a strike: they are literally locked in their cells with no idea when the next meal or exercise is coming, and the quite large number of prisoners with health needs have no idea when their medication will next turn up.
The POA accepted that, but now in a round robin to MPs it says that it signed up to the agreement only under duress—its exact words. But that is not the case. It did not sign up to it under duress, but voluntarily. Indeed, I think that the matter went to a delegate conference. The association examined every single word in that agreement. It signed it and accepted the case voluntarily that I am now making to the House, which is that we have to have arrangements for dealing with industrial disputes in the Prison Service other than the possibility of industrial action because of the risk to the public and the dangers to the welfare of prisoners.
May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that I was the Prisons Minister at the time of the Wandsworth strike? I therefore approach this matter as one who had to deal with a strike by prison officers. I agree with the analogy made between prison officers and police officers, but I fail to see why we should ever have contemplated relying on a voluntary agreement with the POA. Either now or in the future, there needs to be a statutory prohibition in force that is in no way the subject of a voluntary agreement.
I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point of view. However, the POA came along and said—I paraphrase and summarise, but entirely accurately—that it was ready for a voluntary agreement. It accepted that the voluntary agreement would be comprehensive. It accepted the terms of the voluntary agreement, which I shall read out in a second, and it also knew all the way through the negotiations that the deal it had signed up to consisted of clear, legally binding and enforceable undertakings not to take industrial action of almost all kinds, and that we would only seek the repeal or suspension of section 127 on that basis. When we sought that repeal, absolutely categorical undertakings were given to the other place, and to this House, in the terms I have read out, that should notice of termination of the agreement be given over a period of a year, as it has now been, we would bring back those powers.
We were given notice of termination last May, which runs out on 8 May this year. I was asked why I have introduced this legislation now. In practice, because of the time it takes a large Bill to go through the Lords, this is the last possible moment, more or less, for legislation to go through in normal time. The only alternative would have been to wait until 8 May and then introduce emergency legislation. In such circumstances, I would have been asked by the Opposition what the emergency was, given that we had known about this possibility for a year. My view was that it would be quite false to suggest at that stage that there was some kind of emergency when there was not.
Moreover, I also had to take into account the following. On 29 August, at 45 minutes’ notice, the POA decided to take 24-hour strike action to protest against the phasing of its pay award. I understand its anger. However, in doing what it did, it broke the undertakings that it had already given, because the agreement was current at that time.
I appreciate that the matter is difficult, especially for our side. However, we have accepted that the police and the armed forces cannot go on strike. Anyone who had to deal with the strike, as I did, on 29 August, would have had any doubts that they may have harboured about the need for restrictions on industrial action by prison officers removed by what happened. Only as a result of obtaining an injunction and talking matters through with Colin Moses and with great help from third parties did we manage to persuade the prison officers to call off their strike during that afternoon.
Notwithstanding that, there was a total breakdown of order in Lancaster Farms’ Buttermere wing, which houses unstable and potentially violent young offenders, aged 15 to 18. They had been locked in their cells, with only a dozen governor-grade officers on duty to cover the whole youth offender institution, which has a total of 500 young prisoners. It became very clear that those young prisoners were rioting in their cells. I saw the damage and spoke to the staff who had to try to deal with it. The prisoners had completely wrecked their cells, pulled out all the sanitary ware, started fires and so on. Members of the POA outside the gates were asked to come back to help to restore order and they failed to do so. I have to take that into account.
Notwithstanding all that, the moment we had notice from the POA that it would terminate the agreement in May, my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for prisons got in touch with the Trades Union Congress and asked it to appoint someone to be an intermediary to help us to resolve the matter and facilitate negotiations for a new joint industrial procedure agreement. That is an important point, especially for my hon. Friends, but I hope for all hon. Members. Ed Sweeney, who is well known from Amicus to many people, and is now the chairman of ACAS, was appointed to undertake the work.
Ed Sweeney reported on the matter. I decided that I should wait until he had reported to both sides before coming to the House. Copies of his report are available on the website and I know that many colleagues have read it. He lays down a road map for far better industrial relations in the Prison Service. He does not propose at this stage to have no statutory protection against industrial action. Paragraph 4.16 of the report says that, of course, he is aware of the POA’s rights and its position. It states:
“This is a clear policy position from POA. However, given the state of employment relations in the Prison Service, I do not believe at this point in time it will be possible to meet this policy position of the POA. Employment relations in the Prison Service actually mitigate against meeting this policy consideration as does the absence of any form of minimum cover arrangements.”
He goes on to say that there are minimum cover arrangements in, for example, the fire service and the ambulance service, and that they have worked satisfactorily. He suggests that, after a successful agreement and two years of stability, discussion should take place between the Prison Service and the POA with a view to establishing minimum cover arrangements instead of a statutory ban. I committed myself to that in the House on Monday.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend for not being able to remain for the rest of the debate, but I have an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on police pay—another uncontentious issue.
The whole House will understand the circumstances in which my right hon. Friend found himself in August. That is why mediation by the TUC, with Ed Sweeney bringing all sides together and developing a process through agreement, was welcomed by all parties. However, we now have the memorandum, dated 4 January, from Ed Sweeney. It reads:
As you know, a couple of weeks ago I sent you a draft copy of my proposals”—
we have now seen the report—
“arising from the review that I have been undertaking over the past few months and we are due to meet on January 24.”
The parties have only just seen the proposals. A meeting will take place on 24 January, yet we are now souring the process by precipitate action in introducing the new clause, which builds on the distrust that already existed before September in the POA and the Prison Service generally about the Government’s intentions. Does my right hon. Friend believe that it was wise to introduce the new clause now? Would it not have been better, if necessary with the agreement of all parties in the House, to introduce emergency legislation if no resolution was found through discussion?
The action is not precipitate—far from it. The parties had the draft, which is exactly the same as the final version, of the Ed Sweeney report before Christmas. The POA has been left in no doubt about the Government’s intentions. Its members knew the position when it negotiated the agreement. They knew what my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South had said. They heard exactly what I said before the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs on 9 October, when I made it clear that reintroduction of section 127 was under active consideration. I have also discussed the matter with them and I am due to meet them next Monday. There is no reason for the new clause to sour relations.
On the August strike, was not one of the problems with the voluntary agreement the fact that the union expected the Government to honour their side of the bargain? When they clearly did not, by phasing in the pay review, it believed that the Government had broken the agreement and that is why it took strike action. Do the Government not bear some responsibility for what happened?
I understand that that is the POA’s case. I do not want to make points about the matter, but it has always been clear that pay review body reports would be accepted apart from in exceptional economic circumstances. However, the POA made the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.
I thank the Secretary of State for being so generous in giving way.
We are considering a serious issue. As a trade unionist, I am worried about the speed at which the Secretary of State is trying to push the new clause through. We have 58 minutes to debate the union rights of the prison workers of this country. Surely there must be another mechanism. Loads of Members from all parties wanted to discuss the matter. Is not 58 minutes an insult to prison officers?
First, I want to emphasise the point that breaching the agreement angered the POA. At no time was there an agreement about phasing awards from the board.
Secondly, with respect to the Secretary of State, he was serially unavailable to speak to the POA in the months after August—[Interruption.] That is what Colin Moses told me. If I am wrong, I withdraw the remark. However, we are taking precipitate action, which is unlikely to assist matters. We are all concerned about that.
I shall give way again, but I want to make one point before concluding. I happened to be on holiday in August. The day I got back—the day before the strike—I asked my then diary secretary to phone the POA because we needed a meeting with its representatives. They were telephoned and they will admit that they failed to get the message, but I have always made myself available to the POA.
My last substantive point before giving way is that the new clause provides for reserve powers, which can be introduced by order. If we do not have an agreement by 8 May, they would come into force in any event. However, subject to that, they would be introduced and turned off by order. [Interruption.] I have just been reminded that I had a telephone call with Colin Moses on 9 July and saw him informally before that, as well as holding a meeting at the end of August. There has never been an issue about his access to me. The POA accepts that.
I emphasise to my hon. Friends that the new clause provides for a reserve power. I said on Monday that I would prefer it if we never had to use it, and that remains my intention. We will work with Mr. Sweeney, the Trades Union Congress and other facilitators to do everything that we can to gain a new agreement. When people both inside and outside the House know the history, they will accept that what we have said has been entirely consistent and honourable. What we propose is the minimum required to protect the public and the welfare of prisoners.
Everyone will recognise that my right hon. Friend would not ask for such powers lightly. Obviously, industrial action taken by prison officers could cause a great deal of difficulties and worse. But does he also recognise the concern that if such powers are agreed to, another Government might use that as an excuse and a justification for taking away the right of people in the emergency services—firefighters, ambulance workers and the rest—to take such action? That is the reason for my hesitation about being able to support him.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but the wording is very specific. In relation to the fire and ambulance services, these days no Government would be justified in doing what he fears, because there are proper minimum cover arrangements, and in practice there are no strikes or serious industrial disputes in those areas. That is the truth of it. He and I were in opposition for 18 years against the Conservative Government, and if and when the Conservatives come to power they will do what they want to do, regardless of what we do.
The Secretary of State mentioned Ed Sweeney’s plan as being a road map. In the view of the prison officers and many Labour Members, however, the wording of the second part of new clause 36(3) is actually a road block. The reference to
“any other action likely to affect the normal working of a prison”
would be a catch-all, whereby people would be guilty of a criminal offence for any simple thing, if such action is defined by the management. Will he remove that provision, alter it, or define clearly what it means?
It is not why it did not work, with great respect. In the hope of being helpful, while I cannot give an undertaking now as to the terms I am certainly ready to sit down and consider ways in which that provision can be tightened, with a view to bringing forward amendments in the other place.
The prison officers at Lancaster Farms were grateful to the Secretary of State for visiting them, talking to them and listening to their concerns, but morale is very low at both Lancaster Farms and Lancaster Castle. Staff are losing the right to strike and to industrial action, but what are they getting in return? The solution must be to recognise the difficult and dangerous job that they do, to give them our full support, and to give them adequate financial compensation.
I accept the concerns expressed, and I was pleased to meet prison officers, who are dedicated staff, as I have spelled out on many occasions—and I mean it. But they are not losing the right to strike—the POA voluntarily signed up to legally binding undertakings not to take industrial action; it accepted the case that I am now making. It did not have to sign up to it; it did sign up to it.
For all the reasons that my right hon. Friend has given, I am sure that we all want a successful reintroduction of the voluntary agreement. As has been pointed out, however, the new clause relates to all industrial action, not simply that affecting the safety, welfare, security or health of prisoners. Given that other Governments could use that provision, will he guarantee that in the event of the reserve powers being taken, there would be a specific vote in the House before they were ever exercised?
I am ready to give this very clear undertaking. If the powers have to be brought in on Royal Assent, the issue of the affirmative procedure would not arise, because it would have been the subject of considerable debate backwards and forwards in any case. But if, as I hope that we can achieve, they start off as reserve powers, I am ready to ensure that amendments are made to this part of the Bill in the other place, whereby the reintroduction of those powers could take place only through the affirmative procedure. I am happy to consider the reverse situation, whereby they would be turned off, but I do not think that anyone would want that. Once they exist as reserve powers, or have been turned off, their reintroduction could only take place through the affirmative procedure.
I am grateful to the House for listening to me. I have taken a lot of interventions, which I hope has been helpful. I commend the new clause to the House.
I shall try to take as little time as possible because I suspect that other hon. Members might wish to contribute to the debate.
The Secretary of State seemed to show little understanding of why the Prison Officers Association is so angry about his statement on Monday. It was taken by surprise by his statement, in the same way that he claims to have been taken by surprise by its wildcat action last year. Far from the Government being entirely consistent, as he claimed, part of that anger arises because the Government’s explanation of the history of the legislation and the action that they are now taking has not been straightforward.
On Monday, and again today, the Secretary of State denied that the Labour party had fought tooth and nail against the legislation that outlawed strike action. He took umbrage at the suggestion. We have already heard about the letter from Tony Blair when he was shadow Home Secretary, shortly before he became leader, to the Prison Officers Association. Mr. Blair made it clear in that letter that
“we have strongly opposed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill on a number of Clauses which represented a wholly unwarranted attack on the working rights of prison officers”.
What is the difference between fighting tooth and nail against such measures and strong opposition? As has been admitted, the Labour party originally opposed the legislation.
On Monday, the Secretary of State also said, and he has repeated, that no undertakings were given to repeal section 127. Again, Tony Blair’s letter is explicit. In 1994, he told the Prison Officers Association:
“An incoming Labour Government will want to put this situation right”.
It was not just Tony Blair as shadow Home Secretary who was making those promises; Labour Opposition spokesmen were going around the country making such undertakings, giving the impression to members of the POA that section 127 was not only being resisted but would be repealed. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), when he was shadow Employment Secretary in 1994, won great applause, as the record shows, at what was no doubt a Labour party conference, when he talked about the Labour party’s decency agenda. He said:
“we will revert and give Prison Officers the right as employees in an employment situation doing a decent and responsible job”.
Is it not absolutely clear that the unions were given the impression that section 127 would go? It does the Justice Secretary no good at all to seek to suggest otherwise now.
It is surprising that the Prison Officers Association should have been moved to issue a note yesterday saying:
“It seems to us that despite repeated guarantees, the Labour Party in Government cannot be trusted to honour their promises”.
Of course, the Opposition have known that for some time, but it comes to something when a union is forced to issue such a statement.
The fact is that whatever the subsequent justifications, the Labour party opposed the legislation originally, and promised to repeal it. It did not do so fully until three years ago, when it replaced it with a voluntary agreement, which the country was assured would deliver the same protection for prisons as had been delivered by the no-strike provisions. Now, three years later, the Secretary of State is forced into the humiliating position of having to come back and reintroduce provisionally that same legislation.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but does he accept that at the time of the repeal, a little less than three years ago, the clearest undertakings were given that if we faced the circumstances that we do today, we would reinstate section 217 or its equivalent?
The question I put to the Justice Secretary on Monday, which he did not answer, is why the Government repealed the legislation in the first place. Is it not clear that it was a mistake to do so? If it was not a mistake, why are the Government now coming before the House, after giving 48 hours’ notice, to reinstate legislation that they had previously removed? The Government have not yet satisfactorily explained why they took that action in the first place.
The scrutiny committee was clear that the protection afforded was not to the same standard as a no-strike agreement. The unions thought that they had a deal. The quid pro quo for having a no-strike agreement was that there would be a pay review and that any award would be honoured. Today, the Secretary of State justified the staging of the review—in part, the cause of this grievance—by saying that there were “exceptional economic circumstances”, which is why the award could not be honoured in full. Conservative Members have been constantly told that we are living through a golden economic age with successive years of economic growth. Now it appears, in the words of the Justice Secretary, that there are “exceptional economic circumstances”, which means that this award and that of the police cannot be paid. We are apparently living in such dire economic straits that the awards cannot be honoured. That breach of the deal that the Prison Officers Association believed it had has driven its anger about current arrangements. As I said on Monday, the POA is also concerned about the conditions in prisons over which the Government have presided.
While I accept my hon. Friend’s analysis, does he agree that it simply reinforces the proposition that we should never allow a voluntary agreement and that there should always be a statutory prohibition on prison officers taking industrial action—simply because they cannot be relied on to keep to voluntary agreements?
Indeed, as my right hon. and learned Friend says, the statutory ban would have afforded greater protection for the public and the wildcat action could not have taken place. Presumably, the fact that the Government have come before the House to reinstate the ban demonstrates that they agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that it is indeed necessary to have statutory protection.
On Monday, the Justice Secretary said, and I agree with him, that
“it cannot be acceptable for prisoners to be locked in their cells for an indeterminate period”—[Official Report, 7 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 40.]
Anyone who has visited prisons will know of the great difficulties that prison governors have in dealing with inmates locked up for whole days with only a few staff on account of the wildcat action. Prisons must be places of safety; there is no place in them for such industrial action.
We are aware that locking up prisoners for long periods is rumoured to be about to happen this summer on account of the budgetary situation in the Prison Service. I would be happy if the right hon. Gentleman were to correct me, but I understand that there are proposals to have lockdowns in prisons for entire weekends, during which prisoners will be confined to their cells as there are insufficient staff to look after them. I thus find it surprising to hear the Justice Secretary talking about the unacceptability of locking prisoners up for long periods.
We will support the Government in the reintroduction of this power—
Of course it is no surprise, as we introduced the power and it was clearly a mistake to rescind it in the first place. I would like to congratulate the Secretary of State on his conversion to Thatcherite trade union reforms and on his recognition of the protections they afford the country. When the Prime Minister invited Lady Thatcher to Downing street for tea just a few months ago, we could hardly have thought that it would yield such impressive results. I suggest that the Justice Secretary invite my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in for a cup of tea in order to advise him further on how to introduce more of such legislation.
The fact is that the proposed reserve power actually goes further than section 127. The new clause does not just make industrial action by prison officers unlawful, as it applies to
“any other action likely to affect the normal working of a prison”.
We have now reached a position of future uncertainty because of how the Government have reneged on the pay award. They have mishandled the situation in prisons and allowed them to become overcrowded, so damaging relations with the POA that it is necessary for them to assume this power again. Being forced into that situation is an indictment of the Government’s handling of this matter, so I am not surprised that the Secretary of State looked so sheepish about it both on Monday and today.
Any doubts about my view of the new clause have been reinforced by the reminder that this is Thatcherite legislation. In fact, some of what it does goes beyond Thatcherism.
We all recognise that operating a prison is exceptional and that it is not like running a factory. There have to be differences in how the trade unions can operate because we cannot allow prisons to be left unstaffed. Prisons have dangerous and violent people within them as well as people with all sorts of mental health problems. There are also many vulnerable people, particularly in some of the young offender institutions. We expect prison officers to keep those people secure, keep them safe and ensure that they are fed, receive appropriate medication and so on.
If we are to achieve that as efficiently as possible, we need good industrial relations within prisons, as the Secretary of State has acknowledged. We need the Prison Officers Association and other unions in the prison system to feel that they can act as trade unions, which is part of having good industrial relations. Recent history, however, has been exactly the opposite, as prisons have had very poor industrial relations. That is one of the reasons why Ed Sweeney’s report was undertaken and why both the Government and the POA signed up to it. That report, however, was published only on Monday this week. I realise that my right hon. Friend said that drafts have been seen, but the report was published only on Monday, as I say, and at exactly the same time that he made his statement announcing the amendments to this Bill.
The Sweeney report was set up in the context of poor industrial relations and the need to secure a new voluntary arrangement to replace JIRPA—the joint industrial relations procedural agreement—from which the POA had given notice that it was withdrawing. We can argue about how good JIRPA was and how well it worked. The fact is, though, that it did not work; otherwise, there would not have been any withdrawal from it. The Sweeney report points to some of the issues that the POA raised about JIRPA and how far it allowed the union to raise relevant industrial relations issues as opposed to allowing management to rule them out. Irrespective of arguments about JIRPA, everyone accepts that we need a new and better agreement.
My right hon. Friend says that he does not want to use the powers in the new clauses, but—because of the timing as much as anything else—the POA now undoubtedly sees the new clauses as having been designed to hold a gun to their head in negotiations that have not begun. I know that that is not my right hon. Friend’s view, but having spoken to its representatives yesterday afternoon I can assure him that it is the POA’s view, and I think that that will make it much more difficult for us to reach the sort of agreement that we want to reach.
A particular problem is the wording of the new clause, which is why I tabled amendment (a). As has already been pointed out, it does more than just reinstate section 127 of the 1994 Act. My right hon. Friend says that the wording of the definition of industrial relations in the new clause is the same as that in the JIRPA, but I consider that there is a distinct difference between putting that wording in a voluntary agreement and putting it in the law.
Is not the obvious difference the fact that while under the JIRPA people who took action that was slightly out of order would be guilty of a disciplinary offence, under the new clause they would be guilty of a criminal offence? Those to whom we look to lock up criminals would become criminals themselves.
That is quite possible. Another possibility is that the wording will become the subject of interpretation by courts. I do not think any of us can be certain what the consequences of that will be: what it might mean in terms of a new definition of industrial action and, once it has happened in this context, into what other contexts it might spill.
As I said to our hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), although I will not give an undertaking on the precise wording until we have reached an agreement, I am prepared to consider points that are raised, and I understand the point that has been raised so powerfully by both my hon. Friends.
That is helpful. I think that the wording should be examined and, hopefully, changed before it is put into law. Anyone who has read Sweeney’s report will know that he had many good points to make about changes to the arbitration system allowing both sides to raise issues, and about binding arbitration. It is very important for the arbitration to be binding on both sides.
The hon. Gentleman says that we need to be sensitive about the rights of prison officers, and I understand that, but we also need to be sensitive about the rights of prisoners. Will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to what happened at Strangeways in the early 1990s, when a number of prisoners on rule 43 were effectively attacked in the prison? That is what happens when order in prisons breaks down. We must bear it in mind that prisoners are very vulnerable, and are at risk from other prisoners. We cannot tolerate circumstances in which order in prisons cannot be maintained.
We all appreciate that order in prisons must be maintained. The issue for me is the timing as much as anything. If we had reached a point at which negotiations were breaking down and it was clear that no voluntary agreement would be reached, I would understand the Government’s saying that something must be done; but doing it at this moment and in this form will make it far more difficult to reach the sensible agreement that we want to be reached between the Department and the prison officers.
I do not think that new clause 37 helps. My hon. Friend says that the power will be introduced by order, but my reading of the new clause suggests that it would come into force on Royal Assent. The new clause concerns the ability to suspend the provisions, and my right hon. Friend has said that he will consider allowing that to be done by means of an affirmative resolution. Some of us would be rather happier if the implementation took place by means of an affirmative resolution in the first place, rather than on Royal Assent with the suspension being implemented by means of a negative resolution.
I think that we are in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot by passing a measure that will make it far more difficult to reach the voluntary agreement that we all need. I hope that my right hon. Friend will think again, because I cannot support the new clause in its present form.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who talked a great deal of common sense. He spoke of the danger of our shooting ourselves in the foot. I suspect that the foot is well and truly shot already by the actions that have been taken, and in particular by the circumstances that have led to what the Lord Chancellor has done today.
The problem is not, in fact, what is proposed. We would all prefer a voluntary agreement to a statutory agreement if it could be made to work, but wildcat action took place, and that cannot be ignored. As I said on Monday and am happy to repeat, I do not believe that strike action is ever proper in a prison environment, and that is the end of it. The other side of the coin is that avoiding industrial action, and ensuring that we have an environment in which it is inconceivable, requires proper negotiating machinery and proper, binding arbitration on issues of grievance, and it requires management and Government who listen to what the people in the service are saying. It is transparently obvious that that has not been the case for a good many years.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) spoke of a cosy little teatime chat between the Lord Chancellor and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). The two of them could reminisce for a long time about the various deficiencies of the prison system under their respective stewardships, although it might be a rather one-sided conversation. I seem to remember that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe was somewhat reticent when asked questions about the system, and famously found it difficult to give a response. The fact is, however, that we have had a significant problem with industrial relations in our prisons for a long time—in England and Wales. I made that point on Monday. Ed Sweeney’s report makes it absolutely clear that the same does not apply in Scotland. We must ask ourselves in all humility what the Liberal Democrat-Labour Administration in Scotland were able to do—[Interruption.] It was a Liberal Democrat Minister of Justice, as the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) may recall. We must ask ourselves what that Administration were able to do that eluded Ministers in this House with the same responsibilities, because we have clearly reached a point at which there has been a breakdown in trust.
I said on Monday, and I say again now, that I believe that the staging of the pay award was a key component. If we do not treat the public services fairly by providing an independent assessment of pay, we must clearly expect a degree of resentment. All I have said to date is that I wish we were not starting from here. But we are starting from here, and I recognise the Lord Chancellor’s difficulty. He must deal with a prison system in which there is recent experience of strike action, and that is not acceptable. However, the timing is most unfortunate. The fact that we are legislating today when the Sweeney report was published only on Monday, containing very positive proposals for improving the situation, is extremely regrettable. My fear is that it will poison the well in terms of future negotiations, and we will not secure the successful outcome that we all want.
I am concerned to hear the Lord Chancellor tell his hon. Friends that he did not really mean what the new clauses and amendments say, and that he will rewrite them before the Bill goes to another place. That is yet another example of why it is wrong to legislate on Report on important matters of this kind, and expect us to rubber-stamp the legislation in the context of a very abbreviated time scale when it should be subjected to proper reflection, consideration and scrutiny before moving to the other place. It seems, however, that we must wait until the Government have done their work in the other place and brought the Bill back to us with revised wording which we hope will deal with some of the issues of scope identified by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, and perhaps with the issue of the commencement on Royal Assent—which may or may not be helpful, depending on the circumstances that apply when the Bill reaches its final stages in both Houses.
However, I have to say to the Lord Chancellor that, if there were an affirmative procedure, that would not be a problem in any case. In those circumstances, we would not need to make commencement automatic on Royal Assent. We could bring forward the affirmative procedure at that point in order to bring it into action if it is considered to be necessary to do so.
Although I am prepared to accept for the purposes of today that the Lord Chancellor has to bring forward these proposals, I think that it is intensely regrettable that they are here. It speaks of failure of management and failure of the negotiating machinery between the Government, the management of the Prison Service and the work force. It suggests that industrial relations are at an unacceptable level in a key public service. My message to the Government is: they really must do better.
We are very short of time so I will make some quick points. This is an industrial relations issue. Of course, it is necessary for the Secretary of State for Justice to see it in the context of the security of the Prison Service. He rightly talks about the statutory position. My recollection is that the Prison Act 1952 makes the prison officer a constable, but the real position is that the Prison Officers Association is different from the trade unions for the police and the Army. The trade unions for the police and Army have always been subject to limitation on their actions and in relation to strikes. For most of its existence over 70 years, the POA has been a normal trade union with all the normal trade union rights.
In the early 1990s, there were a lot of industrial difficulties. There are still industrial difficulties in the prison system, but it was the courts that decided that prison officer trade unions were not to be allowed to operate as normal trade unions. It is an irony that the 1994 Act, introduced by the then Conservative Government, restored some of the rights that they had lost.