The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Solicitor-General was asked—
Crown Prosecution Service
The Dutch authorities submitted 2,159 crime scene profiles from unsolved crimes. When my noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General became aware of issues surrounding the disk, she ordered the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct an urgent inquiry into what had happened. The inquiry has three strands, two of which will be concluded by the end of this month. I shall not be able to comment on numbers of DNA matches, or anything like that, because of ongoing operations.
The Solicitor-General has said in the past that, unlike what happened in recent cases of official negligence, the data have not actually been lost, but how does she know? If the CPS did not know it had the disk in the first place, how can it possibly reassure us that the disk was never copied illegitimately, or that something similar did not occur?
The full facts about where the disk was and how it was handled will become clear from the outcome of inquiry. The hon. Lady should not overlook the fact that this was an excellent example of international co-operation between UK law enforcement offices and those abroad, which is capable of taking off the streets a lot of criminals who would not have been taken off the streets if we did not have our strong DNA database and excellent international relationships with our European partners.
Is not the real lesson that the Government cannot be trusted with sensitive data? They do not know the value of such data and cannot keep them safe. How will the Solicitor-General achieve a real cultural change in the way the Government handle data?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that no data have been lost in this case, so he really should take a calming pill. He should set his feet slightly more firmly on the ground and take his head slightly further out of the clouds. There is an inquiry and it will produce outcomes in due course. It should take only a moment’s thought to appreciate that when we delivered our DNA data disk to the Dutch, it was taken by an Association of Chief Police Officers officer. It was handcuffed to him and he was escorted by another officer. When the data came to the CPS, which is—as again a moment’s thought would have told the hon. Gentleman—remote from ownership of our database and not the appropriate recipient, it came with no destination except “CPS, Ludgate Hill”. The hon. Gentleman is going too far in his criticisms; he needs to wait until he knows a few facts; a little knowledge is a terribly dangerous thing.
I am a little troubled by the length of time the inquiry is taking. On the face of it, if some of the background facts that have already come into the public domain are correct, it would seem that the answers to the inquiry are probably fairly simple, yet as the Solicitor-General will appreciate, particularly from the question she has just received, some of the disquiet centres on the fact that we still do not have the inquiry report. Will she assure the House that it will be brought forward as quickly as possible? I am a little troubled about the length of time it is taking given that the facts seem fairly simple.
Probably the most important fact for me to confirm is that the results of the matching process have been returned to the Dutch. We have completed the inquiry into where the disk was at any given time, and by the end of the month it is expected that the CPS will have looked at responsibility for that. The third strand, to which I have just alluded, is the one on which our ACPO officers and the Dutch police are now able to take matters forward. We will produce the results as soon as we can.
Does that incident not illustrate a more important point about the use of the DNA database? If reports are to be believed, the incident came about because the Crown Prosecution Service could not cover the absence of a prosecutor. Does that not show that resources would be better spent on using the data that we already have more efficiently and effectively, than on endlessly expanding the DNA database to include more and more innocent people, who have less and less likelihood of being involved in crime?
We are determined to use the DNA database in the most effective way, so that it can stamp out crime that would otherwise not be detected. If that is not how the Liberal Democrats see an appropriate criminal justice policy going forward, so be it. The hon. Gentleman’s factual basis for his question is wrong. He, too, must wait until he has a little bit more knowledge than the tiny amount that he has at present.
Last year, the Government asked the Law Commission to undertake, as a priority, a fresh review of options for reform of bribery law and to prepare a draft Bill. Those processes are under way, and they cover both domestic and foreign bribery. The commission produced a consultation paper on 29 November, and its review and Bill should be complete by the autumn. Obviously, we will then have to look at the final proposals, but we will seek to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
When the Government published their next steps paper on reforming bribery law last year, they confirmed that the Attorney-General’s consent for prosecution for all bribery offences, including transnational bribery, was to be replaced by the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the Director of the Serious Fraud Office. That was a very wise decision. Is it still the Government’s policy?
As my hon. Friend knows, there has been a review of the Attorney-General’s role, which included consideration of the issue of consents, and until we announce our conclusions, which we will do shortly, I am not in a position to say more. However, my hon. Friend has hit on an interesting point. The Attorney-General’s consent is required under the Prevention of Corruption Acts. In 2003, it was proposed in the Corruption Bill that we retain that requirement, but the Joint Committee providing pre-legislative scrutiny, of which I was a member, suggested that it should not be retained. The Law Commission proposes that it remain in place for domestic cases, but not for cases with an extra-territorial element. I should be very glad to have conversations with my hon. Friend on that interesting theme, but I cannot comment on what the outcome of the consultation on the Attorney-General’s role will be.
But is it not entirely improper for a Minister of the Crown with political responsibilities to decide whether people should be prosecuted for corruption? Is it the case that the Attorney-General has again stayed an international corruption case on the basis of political considerations?
I cannot talk about individual cases, but I am not at all aware of the facts that the hon. Gentleman puts forward. I am aware of a number of ongoing cases, one of which awaits a decision, and one of which is coming quite close to conclusion. A number of others are being run by the Serious Fraud Office. No doubt their results will be made public in due course. I do not recognise the description of the case that he raised.
It is an offence to suborn a police officer, for instance by bribing them to provide information to a national newspaper, yet one editor of a national newspaper has admitted that she has done so, and one former editor of a national newspaper, who now works for the Conservative party, has said that he, too, has paid police officers for information. No prosecutions have ever been brought against a newspaper for paying police officers for information, yet the practice often undermines the criminal justice system. Should there not be reform of the law, so that bribery is dealt with severely?
Bribery must be dealt with severely, from wherever it emanates—and it will be. There are always headlines about cases, but then there is an important, second process called investigating to see exactly what is in the claim. Then there is a process called evaluating to see whether there is a 51 per cent. prospect of securing a conviction. I can assure my hon. Friend that those duties are carried out rigorously.
Fraud Prosecution Policy
My noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General met the Federation of Small Businesses in February, when she attended its annual dinner. Earlier, I went to a scambusters conference, which was attended by small business representatives, including the chair of the FSB, John Wright, who lives in Redcar, as it happens, and whom I know extremely well, so there is no difficulty at all about that communication. I think that the FSB is pleased that our strategy will be to engage small business in the process of disrupting, preventing, investigating and prosecuting fraud.
I thank the Solicitor-General for that reply. It is good news that she is engaging with small firms. Is she aware that the small business community is reporting an increasing number of internet and banking scams? The scam normally involves the firm in question receiving an e-mail from the third-world country saying that funds need to be transferred and asking whether it can help in doing that. Right hon. and hon. Members will be staggered by the number of firms that are taken in by that. Obviously they are very naive, but it is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with. What will she do about it?
One of the tasks of the embryonic national fraud reporting centre will be to perceive the nature of frauds as they develop. It will put together intelligence packages that it will then distribute to try to help businesses to spot the fraud before it happens, and to disrupt it in order to ensure that people are not taken in. The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on an important point.
Women and Equality
The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—
Domestic Workers (Trafficking)
I have already met a number of non-governmental organisations to discuss the trafficking of female migrant domestic workers. This disturbing issue was also raised at a round table event with representatives of non-governmental organisations that I held in October.
Is the Minister aware that many hundreds of women come into Britain every year with unscrupulous employers who beat them, bludgeon them, scare them, frighten them into submission and say that if they go to the police they will be deported? To ensure that domestic slavery does not continue to raise its head in Britain, as I believe it already has, will she consider the Home Office’s proposal to prevent visas from being transferred from unscrupulous employers to other employers if the women escape?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, which has not been aired much in the House. I also thank him for the work that he continues to do on this horrible issue. I will agree to speak to the Home Office—in fact, I speak to the Home Office quite often about the issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that the primary aim of Pentameter 2, which was launched on 3 October, was to recover victims of sexual and domestic exploitation. That work needs to go on and I welcome his support.
The law that we introduced to allow political parties to use women-only shortlists for selection has been one of the most effective ways of increasing women’s representation. On 6 March, I announced our intention to legislate in the new equality Bill to extend the right of political parties to have women-only shortlists until 2030.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. On the Labour Benches in this House, more than a quarter of our representatives are women. In Holyrood, one in two Labour MSPs are women. Those overall averages, however, are unfortunately brought down by the representation of women in other parties. Only 25 per cent. of the SNP’s representatives in Holyrood are women—
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want improved representation of women so that the issues of concern to women in this country are reflected not only in the House of Commons but in our local councils, too, in our devolved Parliament in Scotland, in Wales, and in London. It is notable that although we have fewer Labour Members in the Scottish Parliament than the Scots Nats, we have twice as many women Members. Women in Scotland are properly represented by Labour women. The other parties say that they support women’s representation but they must get their act together and do something about it.
If it is so important for the Labour party to have more women in Parliament, can the Minister tell us how many male Labour MPs have agreed to cut short their parliamentary career to give up their seat for a woman? If, as I suspect, the answer is none, can we abandon all this political correctness regarding getting more women into Parliament and just concentrate on people being selected on merit?
The hon. Gentleman raises the question of merit. Does he think that this Chamber was meritorious and representative when it was, as it was when I was first elected, 97 per cent. men? Then, it was said that it just so happened that all the men in the country were the best people, and they had to be in this House of Commons. The fact is that we have to bring about change so that women are fairly represented. We have made progress on that in our party. We now have 96 Labour women MPs, and the hon. Gentleman’s party still has only 17. It is in the interests of everyone in this country and of our democracy that there is fair representation in this House of Commons.
In Wales, 47 per cent. of those in the National Assembly are women, which is one of the highest records in the world. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this was achieved only by the efforts of Labour in Wales, by bringing in twinning, and by being bold and acknowledging the fact that we need people who actually represent the communities whom they represent?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and there are three really important issues here. First, it is only with positive action that there has been a difference and an increase in women’s representation. Secondly, it is Labour that has taken the lead—whether in Scotland, Wales or other parts of the UK. Thirdly, women’s representation has made a difference for women in this country, ensuring that women representatives have been able to put issues of concern such as domestic violence, child care and flexibility at work on our political agenda.
What message does it send that, of the Ministers who are women, a disproportionate number of them are not paid, compared with that of male Ministers? Should my right hon. and learned Friend not have a word with the Prime Minister, saying that there should be parity of treatment—equal pay for work of equal value—or is the real question whether Ministers should be paid at all?
Historically and regardless of political parties, local government has attracted proportionately more women to participate in it than this House has attracted. What lessons does the Minister think we can learn from that, and why does she think that that has been the case?
In fact, the representation of women in local councils is only about the same as that of women in this House. Historically, there have always been more women in local councils than in this House, but because of the positive action that we have taken, and which has been taken in Scotland and Wales, this House has overtaken that figure. Many of the people who work for local councils are women, providing important local services, as are many of the people who depend on local councils’ services because they are caring for young children or older relatives, or are involved in schools or local social services. Because such services are so important to women in local communities, it is quite wrong that we still have so few women in local government. We need to make progress on that, too.
I welcome the number of men asking questions in this House today during women’s questions. Although there are women here, none of them is asking a question on the Order Paper.
Delivering support for victims of domestic violence is at the heart of the Government’s recently published action plan for tackling violence. Over the next three years, we are committed to ensuring that they and their families have access to the help that they need, including with accommodation, specialist counselling and legal and financial advice.
Will the Minister undertake to review the assistance provided after the police attend a domestic violence incident? Although the forms and bureaucracy may be appropriate during the first visit, they are perhaps unwieldy and not particularly action-oriented if a second visit by the police is necessary.
I will look into the matter. I welcome the hon. Gentleman raising it in domestic violence month. As Minister for the East of England, I know that we have had an increase in reports of domestic violence in Essex, but I am glad to say that I would count that as a success, because it means that women are now willing to come forward, rather than suffering in silence.
No. As I said in response to the previous question, we count that as positive because—[Interruption.] Well, it means that people are coming forward to report such incidents. For a long time people were too frightened to report, and we are providing support. There has been an increase in convictions in Essex, as I know from my position as Minister for the East of England.
On the subject of violence against women, some women who suffer from domestic violence find support through rape crisis centres. In the past week I have visited the rape crisis centre in Newcastle and the rape and sexual abuse centre for Merseyside, both unable to provide as full a service as is needed locally because of uncertainties about their funding. On Tuesday the Minister for Women announced in a press release £1 million funding for rape crisis centres. That looked very similar to the announcement nearly two weeks ago by the Home Secretary of £1 million to tackle sexual and domestic violence. Can the Minister confirm that that will indeed be additional money? Can she also confirm over what period the money will be available and exactly how much will be available? Will she guarantee that every penny will go to rape crisis centres?
Once again, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s interest in the matter, which I share. Like her, I have been visiting rape crisis centres and, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, I am concerned to ensure their sustainability. That is why we announced the emergency fund. I can confirm that that is new money and that it is long term. We want to make sure that the centres are sustainable. I hope to improve capacity in rape crisis centres and to get them working with the new sexual assault referral centres, which I think is the way forward.
To continue the theme of uncertain funding, in my local area there is a women’s refuge which, each year, has to go out with a begging bowl to the district council, primary care trusts and so on. What more support can be given to refuge centres, and what can be done to encourage local councils to take up their responsibility and ensure that they make a major contribution to those centres, which are desperately needed?
This is where the new sub-national review gives us an opportunity. Under the local area agreements, we can perhaps influence funding, as long as the sexual and domestic violence sector is ready and able to input into those local area agreements. However, at present only 37.8 per cent. of local authorities have a refuge—that is not good enough—and only a third provide services for victims of domestic violence. In Warwickshire, which is Conservative-controlled, funding for the refuge was cut by half, and in Conservative-controlled Ealing, the funding for Southall Black Sisters is being withdrawn.
I welcome the Government’s announcement that over the summer they will consider the issue of women who are trying to flee domestic violence but who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status, but will the Minister commit to putting emergency funding in place now, because abusers will not wait for Government policy and these women need urgent help right now?
Like the hon. Lady, the Government are extremely aware of the acute problems faced by this group, and that is why applications for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom made by victims of domestic violence are prioritised, and where the applicant is destitute we are now waiving fees. It is also why we will shortly be announcing details of a new scheme under which victims of domestic violence with indefinite leave to remain may be able to have their housing and living costs met, but there is more work still to be done in this area.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The Administration Committee last considered the issue of the provision of drinking water in Committee and meeting rooms in March 2007 and concluded at the time that the current practice of supplying bottled mineral water should continue, but I am pleased to report that the Department of Facilities is re-examining the issue with the intention of providing further advice.
I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary and the Evening Standard on coming aboard my long-standing campaign to increase the use of tap water against the use of bottled water. The hon. Gentleman’s reply is welcome, but I urge a little more urgency on him. This is a major environmental issue and a substantial cost issue. Will he now take steps to give instructions to the administration that tap water should be available at all meetings and in all dining facilities as a proper alternative to bottled water, hopefully with a view to phasing out the use of bottled water?
I agree with the gist of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Tap water is widely available in the catering outlets in the estate, but I can assure him that this is being treated with some urgency and that the Department of Facilities is expected to report back soon after Easter.
I share a little concern about this because the water that we all drink comes from my constituency, so I hope that instead of some stringent adherence to the latest political correctness we will be presented with a choice in the future. Can we be reassured that there will be a choice? Tap water should be available, but not at the expense of choice.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
As I have stated in the past, the Leader of the House keeps the quality of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions under continuous review.
On the assumption that every Whitehall Department has now abandoned the traffic light system that was formerly used to filter out embarrassing questions, will the hon. Lady confirm that she will use her good offices to urge the Treasury to provide me with an unambiguous answer to questions that I have tabled today about the use of No. 11 Downing street by charities, including the Smith Institute, rather than the obfuscatory ones that I have received hitherto?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, all Ministers understand the importance of answering parliamentary questions fully, truthfully and in a timely manner. He has only just tabled those questions, so I am sure that he can expect an answer in accordance with the usual timetable.
As regards answers to questions put by Members of Parliament, the House will be aware that it is Government policy to have more out-of-hours GP services. However, when I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Health on the number of GPs who operate the service, I was told that that information was not collected centrally. The Government must have the information centrally in order to have made their policy in the first place, so will the hon. Lady urge the Secretary of State for Health to provide the relevant information, or alternatively will she confirm that the policy was made on the hoof without any supporting evidence?
Will the Deputy Leader of the House talk to the Leader of the House to see whether we could have a much more efficient system to monitor, check, report back on and improve the quality of written answers? I suggest that either the Modernisation Committee or a sub-committee, on a cross-party basis, could do quarterly reports on what the standards should be and whether they are met.
Is the hon. Lady aware that many hon. Members believe that if they table difficult questions for the Government, the Government respond to the question that they wish they had been asked, rather than the one that actually was asked? Will she confirm that in the folder with the answers for written questions is a note from the permanent secretary reminding Ministers that the answers have to be factually correct, fit the requirements of the question and be produced swiftly? That was the practice during the Major Government.
As I explained in my previous answer, the 1997 parliamentary resolution on ministerial accountability was incorporated into the ministerial code. It is absolutely specific:
“Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their Departments and…Agencies”.
In deciding whether to make an oral statement to announce Government policy, the Government will take into account the importance of the issue and the other business before the House.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know whether he is aware of the fact that in the 70 sitting days of this Session, there have been 39 oral statements, and that we gave notice of 20 of those. That means that 20 were flagged up on the Order Paper. Obviously, that leads to media stories and speculation, which are clearly outside the Government’s control.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Parliamentary Recording Unit
The rules largely date back to the regulations that govern the admission of cameras to the Chamber. The Member may use only material featuring themselves or a reply from a Minister to their question, and contributions to the debate on an issue raised by the Member. The clip should display the portcullis logo, and the Member should acknowledge copyright and ensure that the material is not downloadable. Members may use recordings of proceedings on their own parliamentary website, but not on any third party hosting website.
Parliament should be embracing new technology as a way to reconnect with the public. Is it not about time that we ditched the ridiculous ban on parliamentary clips being shown on YouTube? Sites such as YouTube are popular and accessible; if there is a copyright issue, will the House authorities review the current contracts and bring Parliament into the 21st century?
Copyright is only part of the point that I am making. Obviously, the costs of the pictures recorded in the Chamber are also part of the contract. The other issue is to do with the manipulation of pictures taken in this Chamber. That comes back to the issue of the rules that govern the admission of cameras into the Chamber. At the moment, the rule is that the clips can be streamed to be viewed in real time, but not downloaded in such a way that they could be manipulated later.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
European Union (Scrutiny)
As I said to the House during the debate on 26 February on the Bill to enable ratification of the EU treaty,
“We will work with both Houses to ensure that there is an effective mechanism, and we will also ensure that there is an opportunity for a decision before the Lisbon treaty comes into force.”
I also said that we would examine this alongside the review of
“the new scrutiny arrangements that we established last month.”—[Official Report, 26 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 977.]
On 13 March, the Lords European Union Committee published a report, “The Treaty of Lisbon: an impact assessment”, setting out its views on the yellow and orange card mechanism. We will take that into account, alongside the findings of the forthcoming inquiry by the Commons European Scrutiny Committee.
I think that it is fair to say that opinions differed on the treaty of Lisbon, but the one thing that was welcomed in all parts of the House was the additional powers of scrutiny conferred by the treaty—not on the Executive but on Parliament, giving Parliament the chance to constrain some of the activities of the European Union when it did not show subsidiarity. Will the hon. Lady ensure that we have an appropriate mechanism that does not just send this to some Committee a long way away from the Floor of the House where nobody knows exactly what is going on, but gives this House and this Chamber centrality in the issue of what should be decided at European level and what should be decided by this Parliament?
The hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points. As I said, it will be a matter for each House to decide how it plays its cards. Of course, the European Scrutiny Committee will maintain its role in making an initial scrutiny of the documents, and we anticipate that the explanatory memorandums produced by Government Departments will highlight the subsidiarity point more fully than is the case currently. Furthermore, when we come to look at this we will consider a number of issues, including the role of the whole House, what to do during long recesses, and the scope that there may be for inter-parliamentary co-operation through the COSAC mechanism.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave earlier.
The Minister will be aware that certain Ministers within each Department take lead responsibility for written questions. Do those Ministers meet and share best practice, and is there a document that outlines that best practice, or do Government Departments operate in silos, given that certain Departments are much better than others?
As the hon. Gentleman understands, where Government Departments have shared interests and shared policy responsibilities, of course they carry those forward together and discuss not only policy development but what appropriate announcements should be made to this House.
There is no formal assessment. However, the new approach appears to be working well.
May I urge the hon. Lady to undertake an assessment to highlight some of the problems that we are having with topical questions? For example, under the old system, in any typical 60-minute departmental Question Time each Member of this House had the opportunity to ask one question. Now, it is increasingly the case that some Members get the chance to ask two questions, while others lose out altogether.
Obviously, who is called during topical questions is a matter for the Speaker. However, I think that there was a consensus that the introduction of topical questions would help to ensure that questions that had arisen very shortly before Question Time could be answered fully. Notwithstanding the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, by and large most hon. Members are happy with the current practice.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House announced a review of the operation of topical debates in a written ministerial statement on 7 February. The hon. Gentleman can submit his views to that review. The results will be published before the summer recess.
These are my views, so I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of them. I suggested the Chairman of Ways and Means in my question because I know that you are very busy, Mr. Speaker. The point is, however, that topical debates are currently decided by the Government based on what they feel like—what announcement the Prime Minister made on Monday—instead of issues of topicality. If these debates are to be topical and useful to the House of Commons, we should have issues that can be debated seriously in this House, that mean something and that are topical, instead of some Government stooge debate. We need proper debates: ones that the House wants, not ones that the Leader of the House or the Government want.
The hon. Gentleman should take a more balanced view of the matter. On 7 February, the topical debate was on NHS staffing—a suggestion of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). We have also discussed Holocaust memorial day, Kenya, preventive health services, availability of financial services for low-income families, the health consequences of the availability of cheap alcohol, future prospects for apprenticeships and climate change. The first topical debate was also based on a suggestion from his right hon. Friend; it was on immigration.