House of Commons
Wednesday 7 May 2008
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Duchy of Lancaster
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
In Budget 2008, the Government committed to a transitional gift aid rate of 22 per cent. for three years, worth £300 million to the sector, which was widely welcomed. Alongside that, we are making significant changes to the auditing, record-keeping and claims process to reduce the administrative burden on charities. We will continue to work with the charitable sector to see how the take-up of gift aid can be improved.
Gift aid has been such a successful scheme that there was real concern about detrimental effects when announcements were made about changes to the tax regime. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is close contact with the charitable sector, including the many small organisations, to ensure that it fully understands the changes so that the scheme can be as effective as it has been in the past?
My hon. Friend is right. The Government have a good record on gift aid. Gift aid receipts were £385 million in 1996-97 and were £830 million in the latest year for which figures are available. The transitional relief that we have been able to provide has been widely welcomed by the charitable sector. My hon. Friend is right that there is still a lot of unclaimed money in gift aid, and both the Government and the charitable sector must work to ensure that it is taken up.
Is not the Minister concerned that the amount that charities receive in gift aid will fall as a result of the cut in income tax, and what will he do to ensure that they have more funding opportunities?
With respect, the hon. Gentleman must have missed my reference to the announcement in the Budget. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced three years of transitional relief to tide over charities that face a cut in gift aid as a result of the cut in the basic rate of income tax to 20p.
The charitable sector thinks that the tax rate and the gift aid rate need to be tied together in the long term—and it is right—because it removes the Government’s discretion to vary the amount the sector gets. We need to use the next three years to see whether we should reform the gift aid system further—I welcome any suggestions that he has—and to increase the take-up of gift aid.
Will my right hon. Friend look sympathetically at the representations that have been made to extend gift aid to subscriptions to junior sports clubs? That would be an excellent way to encourage young people to participate in sport and to reward parents and others who run the clubs, who make an enormous contribution to our communities.
I was not aware of the specific campaign, but I clearly should be. I will endeavour to look at my hon. Friend’s proposal. Sports clubs play a huge role throughout the country and are an incredibly important part of the charitable sector. I shall make representations to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
As the Secretary of State will be aware, many charities will have a hole in their budget when the transitional period is over. Surely this is the time to look again at the ability to recover VAT on charities. He will know that the EU commissioner has confirmed that member states—although not including Britain—are implementing systems compatible with EU legislation that would allow the whole charge to be reclaimed and recovered.
I understand the hon. Lady’s suggestion, because it is a long-running issue for the charitable sector. To be candid, the costs would be significant, running to hundreds of millions of pounds. EU legislation also poses barriers, although I will look into the point that she makes. My feeling, from talking to people in the charitable sector, is that the argument has moved on. People welcome the gift aid reliefs, and they want to build on the system that we improved and have protected through the transitional relief that I have mentioned.
It is good news that charities now have three years to prepare for what will be a hit when the gift aid rates come into line with income tax rates. This is a good time for charities and employers to encourage the use of payroll giving. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to increase the amount of payroll giving on which gift aid can be claimed?
My hon. Friend is right. Payroll giving can play a big role in increasing the income that is available to charities. We should be honest about the fact that we can do much more to promote payroll giving. Outside work is being done on how payroll giving can be reformed to make it more attractive for people to take up, because there is nothing like having people committed to giving to a charity through their payroll. It means that the charity has some certainty about the income that it will receive. I would welcome any suggestions that my hon. Friend or others have about how to improve the system of payroll giving and increase take-up.
Relate is a fantastic charity that offers a valuable service in many of our constituencies. I met Sue Andrew, the Hertfordshire director of Relate, who said that the charity had previously been entitled to gift aid but was not now. Relate stresses that it suggests a voluntary donation of approximately £40 in Hertfordshire, but it does not withdraw services if a donation is not forthcoming. Indeed, some families give more. Will the Minister investigate why gift aid has not been available for Relate?
We miss the Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) from his usual place, but he has courteously explained why he is away. I am sure that the whole House will want to send him and his wife all its good wishes for the forthcoming event.
We welcome the transitional relief to which the Secretary of State refers, which has been given to compensate charities for the shortfall in gift aid income as a result of the Prime Minister’s income tax changes, after my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) raised the issue in the Budget debate last year. What assessment has the Cabinet Office made through its social exclusion taskforce of other groups in society that are losing out as a result of the income tax changes?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s ingenuity in bringing that point into a question about gift aid. I think that it is good that we are cutting the basic rate of tax to 20p. As we can see, that has an effect on the charitable sector, and it is right that we should try to help the charitable sector out. As I said earlier, I think that the transitional relief has been widely welcomed.
Is it not clear that the belated introduction of the transitional relief on gift aid shows that the income tax changes were simply not thought through? After the kick in the ballot box that the Government received last week, do not Ministers realise that it is now time to set out in detail what relief there will be for the millions of low-paid victims of the 10p tax hike? Is it not unfair to Ministers such as the hapless Communities Secretary to send them out night after night on “Newsnight”, unable to answer the most basic questions on that point? When will she be put out of her misery?
This Question is on gift aid, but I will happily answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question on the other issue, with your permission, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking at the issues in relation to the 10p rate and he will make a statement at the appropriate time. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to have an argument between now and the next election, either about the charitable sector or about people in poverty in this country, and about which party is best to deal with those points, I say, “Bring it on”. Not only do this Government have a good record on gift aid and the charitable sector, but we have a record on poverty of which we can be proud.
Charities play an essential role in campaigning for change. I welcome the Charity Commission’s recently published guidance, which gives greater clarity to the freedoms that charities have to campaign in order to meet their charitable purposes.
My hon. Friend is a former charities Minister, and she knows the issue well. She knows some of the difficulties of addressing it. Her fundamental point is absolutely right. Charities should not feel constrained from biting the hand that feeds them. Whether they are funded by an organisation, a local authority or a national Government, they should feel absolutely free to campaign against the policies of that authority or Government. I want the Commissioner for the Compact, Sir Bert Massie, to consider how we can do more locally to ensure that local organisations can campaign with freedom on local issues.
In the area that I represent, public transport is inadequate for many people who do not have cars. Voluntary community transport schemes provide people with the opportunity to be taken to hospital, yet the amount of money that the schemes can pay volunteers who provide their own vehicle has been pegged. The schemes are not allowed to pay any more without tax being deducted. As there has been an increase in the price of petrol and in other costs, will the Minister consider that and decide whether the amount paid can now be increased?
I am taking away rather a lot of work today for myself and for the Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope). The treatment of expenses for volunteers is a significant issue. It arose about a year ago in relation to lunch expenses for people on benefits, and we managed to get a good result with that. As I have said in answer to some other questions today, we will endeavour to look at the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises.
One social change that I have been working with the third sector to try to achieve is a shift towards healthier lifestyles and diets. Will the Minister join me in congratulating organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and Unison? They have joined me in campaigning for free, universal and locally sourced school lunches to ensure that every child in every school has a hot, healthy meal.
May I begin by paying tribute to what started off as my hon. Friend’s one-woman campaign for universal free school meals? It is an ingenious campaign, and many people in this House will understand its benefits. I was recently in Hull, where the Labour council introduced free school meals in primary schools for a time, but that was unfortunately abolished by the Liberal Democrats—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”] Well, what would one expect? However, I can tell my hon. Friend that I know that others in Government are looking at this matter, and I hope that they are doing so sympathetically.
Wellingborough Mind does a wonderful job of campaigning for social change in my constituency. It is funded by the NHS and the county council but, unfortunately, that funding runs out on 30 June. What would the Minister say to those organisations about providing a properly funded budget for the future?
The hon. Gentleman indicates that he is doing so, Stable funding is incredibly important for the third sector. Again, I pay tribute to the work of Mind, which does an excellent job throughout the country. From here in Whitehall, it is very difficult to ensure that every local organisation is funded, but I wish him luck with his representations.
National Youth Volunteering Programme
England’s biggest ever youth action scheme, v involved, started in April. The scheme funds 158 projects to recruit volunteers up and down the country, and 107 teams to support young volunteers and to help organisations to involve young volunteers. Over the coming three years, v involved will create 500,000 more volunteering opportunities. That will help it to progress towards its overall objective of 1 million new volunteers by 2011.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating the Ingol and Tanterton Action Group, and in commending it for its work? The group is made up of many young people from Preston who are working in the community to develop many fantastic activities such as summer festivals, internet cafés, coaching in sports activities and DJ workshops. They are also working with older people to generate the intergenerational capacity that we need so much in our communities.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I certainly want to congratulate him on his work as a champion of young people and young volunteering in his constituency. The Ingol and Tanterton Action Group does terrific work, and I want to emphasise that its intergenerational nature fosters better relationships between younger and older people in the community. That can do a great deal to break down barriers, dispel myths and build community cohesion between people of different ages.
The charity v was charged with delivering in a variety of ways the resources that we provide, as I described earlier, and with creating match-funding opportunities as well. Some £75 million of the £117 million that v will be delivering has come via the v involved programme. The match-funding target is some £45 million. To date, v has secured more than £32 million in pledges for youth volunteering from the private sector—well on course!
Is the Minister aware that we have a very active volunteer centre in Mansfield? Part of it is the new Artemis project that deals with young ex-offenders. I hope that he will give that project a fair wind today, and give us some news about its future.
I have some good news for my hon. Friend: the Artemis project in Mansfield is receiving money from v to do some very interesting work on peer mentoring between older young people and young people who find themselves in trouble with the criminal justice system. I think that there is particular value in the one-to-one relationship that that can provide for young people, either when they are in custody or when they leave custody and go back into the community and need support. May I remind everybody that the first week of June is national volunteers week? I hope that every Member of the House will take the opportunity to go to their volunteer centre—my hon. Friend mentioned the one in Mansfield—and offer their services for a couple of hours during volunteers week.
I am struck by the thought that some intergenerational volunteering might not be amiss for the hon. Gentleman. “V” is short for volunteering. He will be glad to know that young people are getting cash to support their projects through v cashpoint, are getting involved in local projects through v involved, and are having a great time contributing to building their communities through v teams. Perhaps he might like to go down to his v volunteer centre and offer to educate himself about the contribution that young people are making through those very innovative schemes.
In addition to the measures that I listed in response to Question 1, the Government are funding a small charities training programme that targets charities with a turnover of less than £1 million per annum to ensure that small charities can access guidance and training on gift aid.
The Mary Stevens hospice in Stourbridge is much loved by all my constituents—so much so that it derives 82 per cent. of its income from legacies and donations. How will changes made to gift aid in the Budget assist small charities and organisations such as Mary Stevens?
Let me join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to her local charity and the work that it does. The changes that we announced in the Budget—not just the transitional relief for gift aid but changes to rules on auditing and record-keeping—are specifically designed to help small charities, which often get small donations and find that there is a lot of complication and bureaucracy involved in claiming gift aid. I hope that she will find that the changes will help her local charity.
Websites such as justgiving.com make it easy for people who want to donate to charities to access gift aid. What specific encouragement will the Minister’s Department give to such websites, so that online access can be extended?
The hon. Gentleman has just given the website a good plug. I believe that I used it, or a similar website, to sponsor someone who was running in the London marathon to raise money for a hospice. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we will endeavour to look into whether there is anything more that we can do to help such websites. It is important that the Government do not try to do the task themselves, because independent organisations are doing a very good job.
In response to the Cabinet Office report, “Think Family”, the Government recently received 90 bids from local authorities across the country to be part of the £16 million family pathfinder programme. The proposals set out how to take forward social exclusion policy in local areas better to meet the needs of the most vulnerable families. Fifteen successful areas have now been chosen.
I am surprised that the Minister has not received representations from the many thousands of people who are unfortunately trapped on council house waiting lists, and who are therefore excluded from decent housing. In fact, the Labour Government’s achievement in developing council housing post-1945 was perhaps our greatest contribution to public health. The House will welcome the millions and billions that are to be spent on housing, but a great proportion of that money should go directly to local authorities, where it will be well spent helping to reduce the historic waiting lists.
Of course, my hon. Friend has been an ardent campaigner on the issue for many years, and I pay tribute to his campaigning, even if I do not agree with every part of it. He is absolutely right about the need to increase the amount of social housing that is built; that is what we are doing, through local authorities, housing associations and other means, but no doubt his campaign will continue.
Will the Minister ensure that social exclusion policy includes prisoners with literacy problems and those who suffer from dyslexia so that more can be done while they are in prison to help to raise their literacy skills so that they have a better opportunity when they return to society and do not reoffend?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important subject, and I wholeheartedly concur with everything that he said. As part of our public service agreement targets, we have a target to help ex-offenders find a home and a job when they leave prison. He makes an important point, and we will look at it as part of that work.
My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question. I had the pleasure of visiting his constituency recently. I saw the amazing work that is going on in Rhyl, and I pay tribute to all the work that he and members of his local community have done. I look forward to Rhyl and many other seaside towns continuing to regenerate in the years ahead.
Will the right hon. Gentleman, who has ministerial responsibility for social exclusion, take his share of responsibility for the abolition of the 10p rate, given that it has plunged 300,000 more people into poverty and hits those on the poverty line hardest? The Prime Minister has promised to listen, but many Members on both sides of the House think that the trouble is that he has listened too much to the right hon. Gentleman and his gang.
Of course, we all take responsibility for the Government’s tax policy. We take responsibility for the fact that we have taken 600,000 children out of poverty since 1997; we take responsibility for the fact that we have 3 million more jobs in this country; and we take responsibility for the fact that we will continue to show that we are the best party on poverty.
The Government will invest £117 million in youth volunteering through v from 2008-2011. The youth-led volunteering charity v has the mission to inspire 1 million more young people to volunteer. Since its establishment, it has created over 210,000 volunteering opportunities. The national programme that began in April 2008 aims to create 500,000 more volunteering opportunities for young people.
Does my hon. Friend accept that too much paperwork and red tape deters young people from volunteering, so what can he do to avoid unnecessary time-consuming checks, especially in cases where those volunteers are not involved with children and vulnerable adults?
I am unused to such a tribute from the Opposition when I rise to speak. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Baroness Neuberger, who was appointed volunteering champion by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, identified the issue of bureaucracy and unnecessary checks on volunteers. There is anecdotal evidence of some confusion, which means that potential volunteers and, indeed, young volunteers are being checked unnecessarily, and that acts as a barrier to participation. I am therefore pleased to be able to tell the House that we will produce clearer guidance to voluntary organisations about volunteering, about when, and when not, to recheck individuals and about alternatives to checking such as seeking references, which, I hope, will reduce the barriers that my hon. Friend described.
May I commend to my hon. Friend the work of TimeBank—the largest volunteer organisation in the UK, of which I am a patron? Will he have a word across government to introduce an NVQ for volunteering, as that would have a great impact on volunteering in schools?
My hon. Friend makes a good point—it is one that he has made to me in the past—about being able to accredit and recognise, through qualifications, the contributions made by young people when they engage in volunteering. He will be glad to know that v is developing a system to bring on board the best experiences from the Duke of Edinburgh award and other schemes that give out certificates that recognise the contribution made by young people, either in their initial attempt to volunteer or if they volunteer for, say, 40 or 50 hours. We wish to find a way of building in the ability to accredit young people’s contribution to the community and recognise that through volunteering and the certificate employers and universities can see the contribution that they have made to the community in which they live.
Analysis from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that tax and benefit reforms introduced since 1997 have increased the annual incomes of the poorest tenth of the population by 12.4 per cent. or £1,300 on average. In addition, independent research confirms that tax credit and other measures have helped lift 600,000 children out of poverty during that period.
Given the specific remit of the social exclusion unit, will the Minister state whether, prior to the last Budget, the unit provided any advice to Ministers on the entirely predictable negative consequences to people on low incomes of the abolition of the 10p tax band? If so, why was that advice ignored?
We have discussions about a range of issues with all kinds of colleagues across Government. Nobody in the House is proposing that we restore the 10p tax rate. The Opposition had to admit that yesterday. I come back to what I said in my earlier answer: we take credit for the fact that we have taken 600,000 children out of poverty—a record that the Conservative party could never match.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Trooper Ratu Sakeasi Babakobau of the Household Cavalry Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on Friday. We owe him and all others who have lost their lives a great debt of gratitude.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further meetings later today.
Once again, the big policy questions of substance. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what the Government have done under two Prime Ministers. We have created the highest employment in history; we have cut child poverty and pensioner poverty; we have doubled investment in health and social services; we have got the best education results in our history—and none of that would have happened under a Conservative Government.
Yes, we will. We have made available money for 70,000 new affordable homes, including 45,000 new social homes. That is a 50 per cent. increase, and half of those will be delivered in London. I welcome the new Mayor of London to the House. I hope he will continue the record of his predecessor in social housing and creating affordable housing.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Trooper Ratu Babakobau, who was killed in Afghanistan on Friday.
The whole House will also want to send our condolences to everyone caught up in the Burmese cyclone. The Prime Minister knows that he will have the full support of those on the Opposition Benches in any action needed for the aid and assistance that clearly will be necessary.
I join the Prime Minister in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on his magnificent victory. I am sure the Prime Minister has always secretly wanted to see the back of Ken Livingstone, and I am sure he will have a fruitful relationship with my hon. Friend. [An Hon. Member: “Will you?”] Indeed. Following Thursday’s elections, the Prime Minister said that he would listen and lead, so let me start with an issue of leadership. Labour’s leader in Scotland, Wendy Alexander, says that there should be a referendum now on Scottish independence. Does he agree with her?
That is not what she has said. The Conservative party, the Liberal party and the Labour party have joined together in setting up the Calman review, the commission on devolution. I hope that we can see progress in that commission, and we will review the progress before making any further decisions. I thought that that was the policy of the Conservative party, which supported the commission.
I think the Prime Minister is losing touch with reality. This is what Wendy Alexander said:
“I don’t fear the verdict of the Scottish people,”
she told BBC Scotland on Sunday,
“Bring it on.”
What else could that possibly mean? Can I ask the Prime Minister again? Does he agree with Wendy Alexander or not? It is not much of a leadership if no one is really following him.
The Calman commission has been set up to review the progress of devolution. I believe that all parties in the House will welcome the fact that it is looking at all these issues. When we review the progress of the Calman commission, we can make further decisions.
What the leader of the Labour party in Scotland was pointing to was the hollowness of the Scottish National party, which said that it wanted independence, said that it wanted it immediately, and now wants to postpone a referendum until 2010-11. That is what she was pointing out. She was making it clear that what the Scottish National party was doing was against its election manifesto.
The one thing that people thought about this Prime Minister was that he was quite a good political fixer—and he has now lost control of the Scottish Labour party. So there has been no leadership on the Union.
Let us turn to listening. People want to know whether this is a genuine listening exercise, or just another relaunch. In London, where we now have a Conservative Mayor, one of the biggest issues at the election was crime. Under this Government’s early release scheme, nearly 24,000 prisoners have been released early from prison. The last Prime Minister, who introduced the scheme almost a year ago, described it as “very temporary”. If the current Prime Minister is serious about listening to people, will he now scrap it?
We are building up the number of prison places. We have made an announcement about the new prison places that we are going to create this year and in the next few years. When we have built up the number of prison places from the 60,000 that we inherited—now 80,000—to 82,000 and then 86,000, we will make our decisions on the right thing to do about early release. But it is important to have a situation where we have built enough prison places and that is what we are going to do. Again, I thought that the right hon. Gentleman supported us on the building of prison places—and so he should.
So that is a no, then—no action to stop the early release of prisoners. Every week, more prisoners are going to be released under the Prime Minister’s early release scheme. He is not going to listen to people when it comes to crime.
Up and down the country, people told the Government in the clearest possible terms that they wanted to keep their local post offices. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)—[Interruption.] They should listen to the former Home Secretary; he always has something helpful to say. He said that the current review was “over-bureaucratic” and should be suspended. So will the Prime Minister listen to people and halt the closure programme for the post offices?
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman is proposing to spend money that he does not have. He knows perfectly well that we are putting £1.7 billion into post offices to keep as many post offices open as possible. The London results of the review have just been published, and it has saved some of the post offices in London. But the fact of the matter is that the right hon. Gentleman has no money to be able to keep further post offices open, and he should stop misleading the electorate about what he can and cannot do.
So that is another no, then—he is not listening to people about post offices. When it comes to post offices, when it comes to releasing criminals and when it comes to taxing the low paid, people will just conclude that this whole listening exercise is just empty words.
Seven months ago, the Prime Minister called off the general election and said that he wanted more time to set out his vision. Since then, we have had nearly 130 White and Green Papers, 34 Government Bills and 7,457 Government press releases. If he had a coherent vision, would not people have heard it by now? Should not everyone conclude that we have a Government who just lurch from one relaunch to another? Should they not conclude that what is missing is what is really needed—that is, a clear vision and some strong leadership for Britain?
The choice in this country is between a Government who have created jobs, stability, growth and public services and a Conservative party that has absolutely nothing to offer the people of this country. When I look at what the Conservative promises are, I see £10 billion of tax cuts, a black hole in public spending, risk to the economy and going back to the situation that we had in the early ’90s. No amount of slick salesmanship can obscure the fact that there is no substance in anything the Conservatives are saying.
People expressed their view on the choice last week. The Prime Minister talks about salesmanship. We all know his brilliant salesmanship—this is the man who sold gold at the bottom of the market. That is the problem with the Prime Minister—he has got nothing to sell and he is useless at selling it. While we are at it, I have got a bit more advice for him. This is the Prime Minister who went on “American Idol” with more make-up on than Barbara Cartland; this is the Prime Minister who sits in No. 10 Downing street wondering—[Interruption.]
This is a man who tries to lecture us on presentation, this is a man who tries to lecture us on style, because there is no substance in any of his questions. The choice is between a Government who have raised the minimum wage and a Conservative party that opposed the minimum wage. The choice is between a Government who have taken a million children out of poverty and the Conservative party that trebled poverty. No amount of presentation from the Conservative party can obscure the vital question that the choice in this country is between a Labour Government who deliver and a Conservative party that just talks.
During the ’80s and early ’90s, many families in Portsmouth had to cope with sky-high interest rates, rampant inflation and little likelihood of finding work. Since then, sustained investment in jobs and training has led to the highest employment levels ever. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a prime example of fixing the roof while the sun shines?
There are more people in employment in this country than at any time in our history, there are more vacancies for jobs, and we have cut unemployment to its lowest level since 1975. That could not have happened if we had followed the policies of the Conservative party. More than that, there are 1.8 million more home owners in this country, and that could not have happened if we had the 15 per cent. interest rates that we had under the Conservatives.
May I add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Trooper Ratu Babakobau? Also, I am sure that I speak on behalf of all Members of the House when I extend our expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Ray Michie, the former Member for Argyll and Bute, who sadly passed away just last night.
Does the Prime Minister understand the threat from the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) when he said that the doubling of the 10p tax rate will
“resonate until there is clarity”?
When will we get concrete proposals to compensate all those who have been hit?
I add to the condolences that the right hon. Gentleman has sent to the family of Ray Michie, who was a very distinguished Member of this House.
The right hon. Gentleman’s party is not proposing the restoration of the 10p rate—not at all. Let me also say that the Chancellor has put his letter to the Treasury Committee and outlined the steps that he is taking to deal with the two groups that were missed out—the 60 to 64-year-olds and those people on low incomes who cannot claim the working tax credit—and he will put forward his proposals in due course. I would have thought that the Liberal party would be prepared to wait until he puts his proposals.
That is not good enough. This is a matter of principles—remember those? I think that everybody now knows that when it comes to helping the most needy, the Prime Minister has got no principles and the Tories have got no policies. Will he now provide an absolute guarantee that those who have lost out will be compensated in full, backdated to the beginning of April, and will not have to jump through hoops to claim what is rightfully theirs?
The Chancellor will put his proposals. The Liberal party opposed the new deal, which has helped 2 million people get into work. The Liberal party wanted a local minimum wage, not a national minimum wage, and the Liberal party opposed our child tax credit and our child trust fund. That is not a record that it should be proud of.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We proposed tougher sentences for murder, for sexual and violent offences, and for persistent offenders; indeterminate sentences for anyone who committed serious sexual or violent crime; and five-year minimal custodial sentences for unauthorised possession of firearms. All those proposals were opposed by the Conservative party.
Does the Prime Minister recall agreeing with me when I suggested to him a month or two ago that the House was going to need a much better and fuller explanation of why an increase in time is being sought by the Government for holding people in detention without charge? When is he going to give us that explanation? Would it not be a good time to do so now?
That is what the debate at the moment is about. I have appealed to Members of this House to look at the matter so that we can find a consensus. I have said that using the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which some people wish to use for this purpose, would mean going beyond 28 days, but we would have to declare a state of emergency to do so. Many people in this House would be prepared to have a period lasting longer than 28 days, but to do so we would have to declare a state of emergency.
I and the Government are proposing that we give a power to the House. The Home Secretary, with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the head of the Metropolitan police, would have to come to this House with an order and the House would have to vote a second time on whether it approved the action to allow someone to be detained for more than 28 days before they were charged. I believe that the safeguards that we have put in place protect the citizen against arbitrary treatment. They include a judge reviewing the detention every seven days, a report by an independent reviewer, the Home Secretary being required to come to the House and a final report on how the procedure had been adopted. Those are the protections for civil liberties that people have asked for. But I have to take the advice of other people who tell me that it is important for us to have a precautionary power in place so that, if there were a multiple incident, we could go beyond 28 days with the approval of the House.
I have looked at terrorist incidents over the past few years, and I have looked at the sophistication of terrorists who are using multiple passports, multiple telephone numbers and multiple e-mailing facilities. If there was a plot involving a number of people, we would need more than 28 days to review all the evidence. I believe that most sensible people in this House, as well as most members of the general public, support that position, and I hope that the House votes for it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We wish the strength of our economy to withstand the economic downturn that is happening worldwide. We will do everything in our power, working with other countries and through action we take on our own, to withstand these problems. In the next few weeks, we will look at what more we can do to help the housing market and the construction industry as a result, and we will look at what we can do to help first-time buyers, who are in a difficult position because of the rise in mortgage rates being charged by building societies. We will look at how we help those people who are subject to high utility bills. On employment, we will work with small and medium-sized businesses to ensure that they have the funds to invest for the future. In every area, we will look at what we can do to help Britain to withstand a problem that is hitting America and the rest of Europe, and I believe that the strength of the British economy will withstand the problems that we face.
Sustainable Communities Plan (Kettering)
It is vital that all Departments and their agencies work closely together to deliver the homes needed in Kettering and elsewhere. It is precisely because we need to ensure that new housing is not built in isolation and that it is delivered with transport infrastructure, utilities and public services that we have allocated over the next three years £1.7 billion for infrastructure in growth areas and new growth points. Northamptonshire has received £59 million. Since 2003, the Government have allocated in total over £250 million to Northamptonshire, made up of various growth area, community infrastructure and transport funds. This has been possible because we have been able to expand public spending.
Local residents would like a meeting with the Prime Minister so that he can explain to my constituents why the Government’s plans to increase the number of houses locally by one third by 2021 is being matched on the one hand by cuts in the train service and on the other by restrictions on the use of the local road network. Will the Prime Minister please agree to a meeting?
I can say to the hon. Gentleman that £1.7 billion is being allocated for infrastructure. Northamptonshire alone has received £250 million. I will of course look at what he says, but he has to agree with me that no Government have spent more on public services and public infrastructure than we have, and that his county has benefited as a result.
I am grateful for the work that is done by the police authority and the police in my hon. Friend’s area. The Home Secretary will be making a statement on this matter just after Question Time. It is generally agreed that the quantity and the type of cannabis being sold on the streets of our cities, and the threat that it poses to the mental health of many of the people using it, make it necessary that we look at this matter again. I believe that the recommendations that the Home Secretary will put forward will be in line not only with what the public want to see, but with what the police want to see. I believe that the House will be pleased that she is also taking new measures for enforcement that will be welcome in all parts of the country.
Ken Livingstone, the outgoing Mayor of London—[Hon. Members: “He’s gone.”] Yes, of course. Ken Livingstone, the sadly gone Mayor of London—sorry Boris—has said that he is looking forward to doing a spot of gardening and taking his children to school. What is the Prime Minister looking forward to when he leaves office?
I am looking forward to building a stronger economy in Britain; I am looking forward to creating more jobs in our country; I am looking forward to building a better health service. I know that we will get no help from the Welsh nationalist party, but we will go ahead and do that for Wales as well.
I have given support to those South African workers who stopped an arms shipment coming from China that would have gone to Zimbabwe. At the same time, we have been calling at the United Nations for an arms embargo, to prevent other arms and armaments from getting into Zimbabwe at this time. This is a critical time for Zimbabwe. It is important that we recognise that the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and all those who have an interest in the future of Zimbabwe should apply pressure, so that any elections that take place in Zimbabwe are free and fair, monitored by the whole international community to be seen as free and fair, so that justice is done in securing for the Zimbabwean people their democratic rights.
The vast majority of British people want more access to their GPs in the evenings and at weekends, and the vast majority of British people welcome the vote by the British Medical Association to give an extra three hours of medical services either on an evening or at the weekend in half the areas of the United Kingdom. I am pleased that that service is now starting. That is why it is surprising that the Conservative health spokesman said in Pulse magazine on 29 April that he wants to restore to GPs the power to make that decision, and presumably also the power to block the extension of primary care to new providers. I do not believe that the Conservative party is acting in the interests of the national health service, and that is the tradition of the Conservative party.
A litre of petrol is now £1.10 in many places, and it is rising in some other places. The important thing is that we have postponed the fuel duty increase, and we are doing what we can to work with OPEC to get the price of oil down. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that in every part of the world, when oil prices rise, it hits households and motorists. We are doing everything in our power to get the price of oil down.
I wish to add my congratulations to the state of Israel on its 60th anniversary. Israel has come a long way in those 60 years. I look forward to being present at the Finchley united synagogue with the Chief Rabbi this evening to celebrate 60 years. Israel’s future is as part of a secure middle east, and it must remain optimistic that that can be achieved. We will work with people on both sides to secure a settlement—a two-state solution—with a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel. I believe that that is the best guarantee of the future of Israel in the next 60 years to come.
It is right that households are suffering as a result of what has been happening in a world downturn and it is right that fuel prices have gone up—and it is unacceptable that so many people have lost out as a result of that. That is why we have postponed the fuel duty rise, that is why we have increased the winter allowance by £50, and that is why we have negotiated with the utility companies a deal that, next year, £100 million will go to help low-income households in this country. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that none of that happened under a Conservative Government when people were suffering.
Last week, Nestlé opened a brand new £15 million chocolate factory in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that that is a vote of confidence by a foreign multinational company in the British economy, and in the city of York? Will the Prime Minister come to York, or ask his Business Secretary to come to York, to see the fundamental strength of the British economy?
I congratulate the companies in my hon. Friend’s constituency that are expanding; long-term unemployment in his constituency is down by more than 80 per cent. The reality is that, while unemployment is rising in other countries, employment is rising in Britain. That is because of the fundamental strength of the British economy—something that I believe that all people who look at that will accept. We will continue to create more jobs in this country.
I took the job for the reason that I gave in my answer to the last question: to create jobs for people; to create better public services; to tackle poverty; and to make Britain a better place. Is it not remarkable that not one question coming from the Tory Back Benches is about the substance of policy? They cannot face up to the big policy questions facing this nation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are in discussions with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to enable people to get a better deal when they are faced with difficulties in paying their mortgage bills. At the same time, we have put forward proposals for a shared equity scheme that will allow more people to buy a percentage of their house, if they are not in a position to buy all of it as a result of the changes in the rates that are being charged for mortgages. We will do everything that we can to help young homebuyers to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the classification of cannabis. In July 2007, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minster announced that we would seek the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, as we are obliged to do by statute, on the classification of cannabis. I am grateful to the council for its work, and I have placed a copy of its report in the Library of the House. In reaching my decision, I have also taken into account the views of others, particularly those responsible for enforcing the law, and the public—58 per cent. of whom, according to a survey carried out for the council, favour upgrading cannabis from class C.
Cannabis use is falling significantly across all age ranges, and this is a testament to the success of the Government’s drug strategy. However, I am concerned to ensure that the classification of cannabis reflects the alarming fact that a much stronger drug, known as skunk, now dominates the cannabis market. I want it to be clearly understood that this powerful form of cannabis is an illegal and harmful drug.
Today I am publishing the results of a study undertaken with 23 police forces across England and Wales. This provides clear evidence that skunk now makes up 80 per cent. of street-seized cannabis, compared with 30 per cent. in 2002. Furthermore, its potency has increased nearly threefold since 1995. The advisory council’s report confirms that cannabis use poses a real threat to health. The council is concerned about its use among young people, and points to growing evidence of a causal link, albeit a weak one, between cannabis use and psychotic illness.
The council acknowledges that use of stronger cannabis may increase the harm to mental health. Young people may be more at risk if they first use it at an early age, and the council refers to the average age of first use being 13. It suggests that some young people might “binge smoke” to achieve the maximum possible intoxication, in the same way as some treat alcohol, and it concludes that if they do, the consequences
“may be very serious to their mental health”.
The council also believes that the evidence of the impact of stronger cannabis may not be clear for some years to come. It has recommended that cannabis remain a class C drug.
I have given the council’s report careful consideration. Of its 21 recommendations, I accept all bar those relating to classification. I have decided to reclassify cannabis, subject to parliamentary approval, as a class B drug. My decision takes into account issues such as public perception and the needs and consequences for policing priorities. There is a compelling case for us to act now rather than risk the future health of young people. Where there is a clear and serious problem, but doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public. I make no apology for that. I am not prepared to wait and see.
To reflect the more serious status of cannabis as class B, I am clear that a strengthened enforcement approach for possession is required. As the Association of Chief Police Officers said last week:
“Should the decision be taken to reclassify cannabis, we would expect to see increased robust enforcement activity particularly in cases involving repeat offenders or where there are aggravating circumstances.”
I firmly believe that while our response must remain proportionate and offer discretion to police officers, a system of escalation is necessary. I have therefore written to ACPO today, seeking its views on a clear and workable system of escalation that is consistent with reducing police bureaucracy and maintaining discretion. That will include considering cannabis warnings, which were introduced by ACPO in 2004 to ensure that action was taken when someone was found in possession of cannabis. Prior to that, the police had to choose whether to make an arrest or to take no action. I am not against cannabis warnings, but I believe that it is unacceptable for someone to receive more than one warning and for that warning not to be properly recorded.
I am fully aware that the system we adopt will be delivered by those on the front line, and I have asked ACPO to involve other police organisations and criminal justice partners in developing its proposals. The new approach to enforcement will not, of course, preclude officers from immediately effecting arrest. For those under 18 caught in possession, I am content that the current procedure, which uses a reprimand, a final warning and then charge, provides an appropriate escalation mechanism.
In the last few years we have seen a massive growth in the commercial cultivation of cannabis in the UK. This cannot be tolerated. We know that the “cannabis farms” are controlled by organised criminals who stand to make large profits and who, as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has found, will stoop to using trafficked children on such premises. Reclassifying cannabis will help to drive enforcement priorities in shutting those farms down.
ACPO and the Serious Organised Crime Agency are responding to this threat. There is a dedicated ACPO lead on cannabis cultivation and it is working with SOCA on a co-ordinated, targeted and robust approach to cannabis farms. That involves building a national profile of these criminal activities, using forensic and other intelligence to make the links between individual farms and organised criminal gangs. We must also focus on other ways to combat the problem. Energy suppliers are currently losing significant revenue through abstraction by organised gangs running cannabis farms. I have today written to the chief executives of the six largest energy suppliers, asking them to work with us to identify abuse and target those groups.
We have already introduced statutory aggravating factors where supply is made on, or in the vicinity of, school premises, and where a courier under the age of 18 is used. I accept the advisory council’s recommendation for additional aggravating factors to be introduced concerning the supply of drugs in the vicinity of colleges and universities, mental health institutions and prisons.
I also accept the council’s recommendation for more effective regulation of the trade in cannabis paraphernalia. It is unacceptable for cannabis use to be glamorised in any way. We will work with ACPO to look at how existing legislation and powers can be used by the police, local authorities and other partners to curtail the sale and promotion of such items.
As the council makes clear, this is an important public health issue, and one that a change in classification alone will not resolve. Through campaigns such as the “Frank” campaign, we will continue to make the public aware of the health harms associated with cannabis use. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will also ensure the following: that we update our messages on the harms caused by cannabis; that we look into providing more advice on the health risks and where to get help through NHS Direct, NHS Choices, the Smoking Helpline, Drinkline and other public information points; that we publish a report on the health risks associated with smoking cannabis and tobacco, and, where appropriate, include advice on cannabis misuse in NHS smoking cessation services; and that we seek the advice of the four UK chief medical officers on what more needs to be done to reduce the risks to public health.
My decision to reclassify cannabis is part of the relentless drive to tackle drugs and the harm they bring to families and communities, and I will seek to do that by the end of the year. This is the right action to protect the public, particularly the future health of young people and the most vulnerable, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving me advance sight of her statement. First, may I say that I fully support the Government’s decision to upgrade the classification of cannabis to class B, even if their decision to do so has come rather late? The Government’s historically lax approach to drugs has been a hallmark of our broken society under Labour. The UK has the worst level of overall drug abuse in Europe. Drug crimes have increased by almost a half under this Government, and Britain has the highest rate of teenage cannabis abuse in the European Union. We all hope that today’s statement means that the Government now recognise that cannabis is a very dangerous drug—that it wrecks lives, is a gateway to harder drug abuse and fuels crime.
Let us examine the hard facts. As the Home Secretary intimated, since the 1970s the strongest psychiatrically damaging component of cannabis—THC—has increased by about four or five times in skunk cannabis, and the other chemical composition of the cannabis may have altered in a way to exacerbate the psychiatric harm. A survey of 35 studies published in The Lancet medical journal concluded that modern cannabis users are 40 per cent. more likely to develop psychotic illness. Certainly the number of anti-psychotic drugs prescribed to young people has doubled in the last decade.
Much of this information has been known for years, so does the Home Secretary accept that, on the grounds of psychiatric damage alone, the 2004 decision was an utterly avoidable mistake? The Government’s decision in January 2004 to downgrade cannabis sent out precisely the wrong message, by encouraging the public and impressionable young people to believe that cannabis did not cause serious harm and would not be taken seriously by the police.
Last week, the Prime Minister—I am glad to see that he is still present—said about cannabis-taking that
“we really have got to send out a message to young people—this is not acceptable.”
Does the Home Secretary accept that the downgrading of cannabis by her predecessor in 2004 sent entirely the wrong message both to young people and to the police force? Does she recognise that since that reckless decision, the number of cannabis factories, to which she referred, has more than doubled? Furthermore, the number of adults treated for cannabis abuse has increased by 51 per cent.; hospital admissions for mental illness connected with cannabis have risen by nearly a quarter; and cannabis has served as a gateway to even more harmful drugs, with class A drug abuse increasing by 43 per cent. in the past year alone. Does she accept that the effect of the policy change has been to increase the size of the cannabis market and to damage, if not destroy, many more young lives?
This long-awaited U-turn has followed delay, dithering and indecision, when the country cries out for leadership. As the Prime Minister is sitting here, I have a question for him. He announced his intentions on this policy a year ago, but in the meantime, he wasted a year by handing it to an advisory body, which he has now ignored. The Home Secretary told us in her statement that that was required by statute—but I am unaware of any statute that required them to take a year to consider evidence that has been around for half a decade. On the Home Secretary’s own figures, 2,000 new cannabis factories will have started up during that delay, and thousands of young people will have become addicted to cannabis unnecessarily. In due course, many will end up on hard drugs or in hospital unnecessarily, all because this Government could not make up their mind.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for my statement. However, I must take issue with his suggestion that, somehow or other, we have taken a lax approach to drugs in this country over the past 10 years: we have not. That is why drug use is falling; that is why we have doubled the number of people able to get drug treatment; and that is why, as a result, the acquisitive crime most closely linked to drug use has fallen by 20 per cent. All that is due to the decisions and the success not only of the Government’s drugs strategy, but of many people working in both law enforcement and drug treatment services. They should be recognised for their efforts in supporting that strategy,
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the links to mental health. It is precisely the relationship between the increased strength of cannabis, particularly skunk, and, as the advisory council points out, the potential future danger of young people, in particular, binge smoking it, and the uncertainty, at least, about the resulting impact on their mental health that have driven today’s decision.
However, the right hon. Gentleman then accuses the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs of delaying the decision. That body was set up under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and when considering the reclassification of a drug, it is a statutory requirement to take advice from it. As I said in my statement, I thank the advisory council not only for the 21 recommendations that it has made today, the vast majority of which I support and we will implement, but for the careful way in which it took evidence, not only from large numbers of professionals and academics, but from the public, 58 per cent. of whom agreed with the decision that we are taking today. The right hon. Gentleman may wish to rush to decisions and to throw out such important processes and evidence gathering, but I do not believe that other people do.
Finally, I must mention the right hon. Gentleman’s brass neck when he referred back to the 2004 decision. I must give him his due, because he has probably always taken a consistent approach to the reclassification of cannabis—
Unfortunately, that has not always been the case with everybody on the Conservative Benches. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) supported, in a Home Affairs Committee vote—on the record—the downgrading of the classification of cannabis from B to C. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) talks about reckless decisions, but perhaps he would like to take the matter up with his own leader before he levels that charge at us.
I strongly welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, especially what she said about toughening up enforcement. In the Select Committee’s last meeting to consider this issue, it accepted the harmful effects of cannabis and the fact that its use should be discouraged. What steps is she taking with her Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that his Department works with the Home Office to get the message across to young people about the need to discourage cannabis use? What new resources will she allocate for that purpose?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, especially about young people. We are allocating more than £6 million this year, partly to the “Frank” campaign, which has proven very successful, with a high rate of recognition among young people, and in increasing by 12 percentage points the number of young people who now recognise that cannabis impacts on mental health. The drugs strategy, published at the end of February, made it clear that, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, we will work closely with parents through a new coalition of family charities; improve the information and guidance available to all parents; and continue to provide important drug advice through “Frank”, and also through improving universal education and information for children and young people about drugs, alcohol and other volatile substance misuse. That drugs strategy, together with the proposals that I have set out today, forms a coherent approach that sees reclassification as the start of the process, not the end. It also takes seriously the responsibility to ensure that the public health messages sent to young people and others are communicated clearly.
I, too, thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement. Does she agree that her move will not accelerate the falls in cannabis use or the falls in psychosis, nor will it cut crime? Will she describe now the circumstances in which a five-year custodial sentence would be appropriate for cannabis possession? Will she now confess that evidence plays no part in her policy? Will she save public money by disbanding the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and establishing a new committee—a committee of tabloid newspaper editors, given that the biggest influence on her policy is the Daily Mail, not the facts?
I take it that the hon. Gentleman is against the decision that I have taken today. No, I will not disband the advisory council. It has made some important recommendations, which we will follow through. Nor do I accept his suggestion that the decision will have no impact on crime or mental health. I have spelled out how the reclassification will help to drive police priorities, especially in tackling the serious organised crime now involved in the cultivation of cannabis here and internationally. I have also asked the police to look carefully at enforcement for possession, including escalation.
The hon. Gentleman’s response is no surprise when we consider the history of the Liberal Democrats’ drug policy. Theirs is the party that wants to legalise the sale of cannabis, that does not want to penalise those who grow cannabis, and that wants to end all jail sentences for drug possession and downgrade ecstasy from class A to class B. When they have sorted their own policy out, I will take the hon. Gentleman’s questions a little more seriously.
As someone who opposed the declassification in 2004, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her decision today. Does she agree that one thing that young people need is clear and accurate information about various kinds of drugs? I thank her for making it unambiguous that cannabis does cause harm.
I thank my right hon. Friend; he is right. We have sometimes been charged with using the classification system to send a message—but in fact part of its function, as the advisory council accepts, is indeed to send the clear and unambiguous message that the use of cannabis is dangerous and harmful to health, and should not happen. If there is more that we can do to support parents and others in giving that message to children, we should take that opportunity, and that is what I have done today.
I agree with the Home Secretary’s statement today. In fact, last year the “Breakthrough Britain” report called for this change after taking evidence from more than 3,000 people who work in the drugs industry. However, it is not enough just to threaten people with a prison sentence. We took evidence from Sweden and it was clear that it put alongside the prison sentence a full abstinence-based rehabilitation programme for every single person arrested by the police. That is the missing bit of the equation, and I urge the Home Secretary to consider it, and work to get people off drugs. Abstinence-based programmes will be the key in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman has taken a clear evidence-based approach to this issue. He is right to say that we need to ensure that when people are sent to prison we emphasise the need to help them to get off drugs. That is why we have brought about a tenfold increase in investment in and provision of drug treatment in prison. It is also why it is already the case that when young people are stopped and found to be in possession of drugs, they are referred to the youth offending team and assessed for the support that they need to get off drugs. It is also why, in the drugs strategy published at the end of February, we were clear that abstinence should be the aim of drug treatment—but that with many serious drugs the addiction is a chronic illness, from which it may take between five and eight years to recover. Abstinence should of course be the aim, and the additional investment that we have put into drug treatment has ensured that it is now far more successful.
This will be hailed as another tough policy—but, sadly, tough policies have never worked. We have the worst drug problem in Europe, alongside the harshest penalties. I urge my right hon. Friend to look at the new convention on drugs accepted by the Council of Europe, which seeks to move the emphasis away from the criminal justice system and locking people up for using drugs, towards systems that work—the health outcomes. We have a good record in recent years in concentrating on the health outcomes, but we have had 37 years of tough policies. When can we have an intelligent policy?
My hon. Friend, too, has taken a consistent position on this issue. My only disagreement with him is that I do not think that we need to make a choice between enforcement and the emphasis on treatment that he advocates. Both the previous drugs strategy—over the past 10 years—and the newly published strategy enable us to send out a tough message on enforcement and to invest in prevention and treatment. That approach has resulted not in failure, as he claims, but in considerable success in reducing the usage of all drugs at all ages.
I very much welcome the Government’s U-turn on this matter, but will the Home Secretary accept that the years between the downgrading of cannabis and today have been a wasted opportunity? Will she also accept that if she is concerned about enforcement, she should consider the possibility of fixed penalty fines, as they do not involve the police in all the hassle of cautions and court cases, but do act as a deterrent and are relatively quick to administer?
On the right hon. Lady’s first point, I must point out that notwithstanding the decision to reclassify in 2004, cannabis use has continued to fall, because of other actions that we took. However, she makes an important and useful point about the use of fixed penalty notices. ACPO has suggested those as a possible way to escalate the enforcement response to possession, and I hope that it will hear her words, and what I have said about the issue.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust approach to prevention and protection. Will she join me in congratulating Luton police on closing down large numbers of cannabis factories run by illegal immigrants, who are often exploited? Will she also look at the possible exploitation of another vulnerable group, namely drug addicts seeking to rehabilitate themselves, who are being lured into private rehabilitation clinics that have no discernable regulation and can easily exploit very vulnerable people? In one case in my constituency, such a clinic employs ex-convicted drug addicts. Will the Secretary of State urgently look into this to ensure that people are properly rehabilitated within a proper drugs strategy?
I will take the opportunity that my hon. Friend has offered to congratulate the police in Luton on their action in closing down cannabis farms. A lot of good work has been done across the country by police forces and others. I accept what my hon. Friend says about the danger to drug users when they are lured into private rehab clinics that lack good regulation. That is precisely why, as part of the drugs strategy, we also emphasise the need to continue to develop high-quality drug treatment that is appropriately regulated. I will certainly bear in mind my hon. Friend’s points.
The Science and Technology Committee considered drug classification in its report of 2005-6 and concluded that it was not based on clear evidence. The Secretary of State has indicated yet again that the decisions being made are not based on evidence, but are an example of Government policy dictated by others—I shall not mention the Daily Mail, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) did.
A key issue that the Secretary of State brought up in the statement is the need to toughen up law enforcement. This is a law enforcement issue, but she has made no reference to why we cannot close down illegal cannabis factories using the current law. That has nothing to do with classification. If she is so concerned about young people, why are the under-18s the only group for whom she intends not to change the current law enforcement?
As chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Gentleman produced a report to which the Government responded in detail at the time and, I think, we rejected the main recommendation that there should be a fundamental change in the classification process. I dispute the suggestion that the decision is not based on evidence. As I have outlined, the decision is based not inconsiderably on the evidence that I have produced today from the survey that we commissioned of police forces about the strength of skunk, linked to what the advisory council has identified as a potential and serious threat arising from the relationship between young people binge smoking and much more potent and stronger cannabis. Of course, in making my decision I needed to bear in mind the impact on police priorities. A reclassification from class C to B will be likely to drive police priorities and sentencing when it comes to drug dealing and cultivation. I also needed to bear in mind the impact on public perception. Neither police priorities nor public perception are part of the remit of the advisory council.
The current law on possession and young people already enables an escalation from reprimand to final warning to charge. The problem for those over the age of 18 is that enforcement does not allow that process of escalation. I am asking the police to find a way to provide that.
As someone on the Labour Benches who voted against the downgrading of cannabis, I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Does she agree that although this move is not a panacea to the drugs problem in this country, it sends a clear message and supports the many parents in my constituency who want to send the right signal to their children? It is important that we have now sent a message that smoking cannabis is wrong and harmful. We should get that message across and unite behind it.
My hon. Friend is right. The advisory council is clear that the use of cannabis is not only illegal but seriously harmful to health. I believe that it is our responsibility to make clear to people the fact that cannabis is harmful. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the need to reinforce support for parents who sometimes have a difficult job in making clear to their children the dangers that they face. One such danger is the potential use of cannabis, and I want to do everything I can to support parents in protecting their children from the certain health dangers that come from the use of cannabis.
May I assure the Home Secretary that my right hon. and hon. Friends wholeheartedly support her action in reclassifying cannabis to a class B drug? We believe that she will have the support of people throughout the UK. It is true that the scourge—indeed, the blight—of drugs in society is a public health issue that will be solved by no single piece of legislation. Does the Home Secretary agree that it is essential that her decision is enforced robustly by the police alongside an extensive rehabilitation strategy?
The hon. Gentleman is right. The fact that under the current system it is possible for an adult to be given more than one warning on cannabis and there is the possibility that those warnings have not been properly recorded, demonstrates that the system is not as robust as the measures that a class B classification would require. That is why the police have recognised the need for a more robust and escalated response and why I have asked them urgently to provide me with advice about a workable way to deliver that.
My right hon. Friend will rest assured that the Cheshire police, who do an excellent job in closing down cannabis farms, will welcome her announcement. May I press her on one particular issue where the police are finding difficulties? When the police close down cannabis farms and arrest workers in the farms—who are usually illegal immigrants—they take them in front of the magistrates court. The magistrates grant those immigrants bail, and they then disappear and set up work elsewhere. Will the Secretary of State use her influence to ensure that when the police take people before the courts they are refused bail, so that the police can get on with prosecuting them?
I am not sure that I can use my influence on bail decisions, which are of course rightly for the court system. However, my hon. Friend makes an important point about the relationship between immigration crime and policing. That is why we are developing strong immigration crime partnerships across the country, where the local police work with those in the UK Border Agency to ensure that illegal immigrants are not even taken to court, but that the action that is warranted by the fact that they are illegal is taken. In many cases, that may well mean deportation.
Every wretched, pathetic heroin addict whom I have to sentence began their drugs career in their teens on cannabis and skunk. That is why I am a little disappointed that the Home Secretary is retaining the system of reprimand, warning and so on for those aged 18 and under. May I urge her to think again and to realise that to catch the problem early by making access to rehab compulsory at the very beginning for cannabis takers in their teens, as they do in Sweden, would have a better effect than just issuing a warning and so on?
No. If it were only a warning, I would agree with the hon. Gentleman, but let me make it clear that the escalation process for young people already involves taking people to the police station and a reference to the youth offending team with assessment for drug treatment and rehabilitation. I believe that that is an important element of preventing young people from going on to more serious drugs. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the gateway, the advisory council does not believe that cannabis has a particularly strong gateway effect.
We know very little about the abuse of substances and the damage it does to the mind. That includes alcohol, incidentally, as well as cannabis. Will my right hon. Friend persuade the Government to make far more money available for research to establish whether there are causal links between drug misuse and mental illness?
As part of the drugs strategy that we published in February, we said that drug addiction should be a priority for the Medical Research Council. The advisory council has put forward recommendations for more research into the link with mental health, so I think that my hon. Friend makes an important point.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs looked at the questions of harm, potency and the potential for binge smoking and recommended that cannabis should be class C. So the Government’s proposal to make it class B cannot be rational or based on evidence about any of those issues: instead, it has to be based on what the police have asked for and on the Government’s perception of public views. When the police give more priority to policing the possession of cannabis, what will they deprioritise? Does the Home Secretary accept that the policy that she has announced today drives a coach and horses through any claim that the Government might make about making evidence-based policy in this area?
First, we have long known that the classification of cannabis arouses both controversy and differing views. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues seem to be suggesting that there is a single, simple and objective scientific view on the matter, but there is not and their approach undermines the knowledge that he usually displays about scientific matters. In addition to the evidence in the advisory council report, it is perfectly reasonable to take into consideration evidence and views about police priorities and public perception. That is what I have done, and I believe that it will provide a route for the police to prioritise—as they should—action against serious organised crime based on dealing. With respect to possession, I have asked the police to find ways that will help to provide the escalation that I have talked about in a way that is workable and reduces bureaucracy. I believe that it will be possible to do that.
When a Minister says that a policy is designed to send out a signal, that is a sure symptom that it contains no substance, as the Home Secretary should be aware. She will know that I take a view that is very unpopular on both sides of the House—that the key substantive goal is to break the link between the supply of cannabis and the supply of hard drugs, and to stop driving soft drug users into the arms of hard drug pushers. Is there anything in her statement that addresses that issue? Has she considered the evidence from Holland, where far fewer people move from cannabis to hard drugs, because they get cannabis from people who do not push hard drugs?
In Holland, of course, the policy is being reviewed, because of a lack of success. I did identify the point made by the advisory council about whether cannabis was a gateway drug. The council’s view, and that of others, tends to be that it is not a significant gateway drug, so the decisions that I have announced today are based largely on the certain danger to health from the use of cannabis, on the very considerable risks extending into the future attached to the relationship between cannabis use and mental health problems, and on the certain link to serious organised crime. Given those considerations, I believe that the reclassification of cannabis is right. I do not feel that I have to apologise for wanting to send a clear message or signal about the danger of cannabis—although, as I have spelled out today, that will of course be backed up by extremely practical actions to maintain our commitment to keeping cannabis use in this country on a downward trend.
Does the Home Secretary accept that her predecessor’s decision in 2004 to downgrade cannabis has encouraged the large-scale commercial development and sale of skunk? Did it not undermine the principles that she has been trying to outline today? While reclassification is highly desirable, surely it demonstrates the folly of her predecessor’s decision.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman might like to take that up with the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who agreed with the decision at the time. I do not believe that it was necessarily wrong, nor that it has led to the development of organised crime and cannabis farming, but I do believe that there has been a considerable change in the strength of skunk and the proportion of the market that it now takes up. Alongside its potential relationship with serious mental health problems, that is what has driven my decision today.
I very much welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. She said that there is a compelling case to act now, but in her statement she made it clear that she would not be able to introduce the reclassification until the end of the year. My Bill on the reclassification of cannabis is coming up for its Second Reading on Friday: why do the Government not adopt it, so that they could get the reclassification on the statute book a lot sooner?
The process requires parliamentary approval, and the impact assessment is the appropriate way to introduce the reclassification. The route that I am proposing is the one already laid down in legislation, and I believe that it can achieve our goal quickly.
Now that the Home Secretary has taken this important decision, may I urge her to consult the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and leading campaigners against the illegal use of drugs among children? They should look carefully at how drugs education in schools can be improved, so that young people get real warnings about the consequences of drug use. Will she also take a fresh look at the website “Frank”? Sometimes it can trivialise the subject, and make it look like a bit of a joke.
I have already discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The hon. Lady is right that we need to improve drugs education in our schools, and we said as much in the drugs strategy. However, I disagree with her about “Frank”: the site has had considerable success in getting traction with young people, and in increasing the proportion of young people who recognise that there is a link between cannabis and mental health problems. Sometimes, advertising campaigns that are not convincing for those of us of a certain age nevertheless work on those for whom they are intended.
The Home Secretary has talked about robust enforcement and drugs treatment, so why is the cannabis strategy so divorced from reality? Why does not the Serious Organised Crime Agency have a target to enforce the interdiction against cannabis coming into this country? Why do people presenting themselves to police stations, courts or prisons find that there is no dedicated cannabis rehabilitation? Why do drugs courts have no power—
I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman, as important work is already going on. When SOCA produces its annual report, he will see that it has made considerable progress in preventing the import of illegal drugs and their trade in this country. I take very seriously the views of people on the front line who are responsible for enforcement, and it is for that reason that we will work through the enforcement process with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the other bodies who will carry it out.
As a parent and someone who had not been elected to this House in 2004, may I say that I greeted the downgrading of cannabis with some bemusement? The Government downgraded cannabis but kept its possession a criminal offence. Does the Home Secretary accept that allowing criminals to control the strength of the substance being supplied to young people meant that it was inevitable that they would get a bad lot? I am pleased by the regrading, but will she elaborate on what she said in her statement about what she called the glamorisation of cannabis paraphernalia? Is she seriously suggesting that we should criminalise people for wearing t-shirts or pendants decorated with leaves? What will happen to the people who provide that merchandise?
No, I am not suggesting that but, as a parent, I do not want head shops on my high street. They have cannabis leaves in the window and flog the stuff that people use to consume cannabis. In my book, I do not want them in my neighbourhood. I do not think that anyone else should. The advisory council was clear about that, and that is why I want to work with local authorities and the police to close such shops down. I am sure that the hon. Lady, as a parent, would want that to happen.
I welcome the statement made by the Home Secretary today. May I invite her to recognise that the period of time when cannabis has been a class C drug has persuaded many young people to believe that it is neither as harmful nor as illegal as it once was? I want her to focus on two things. First, in the education programme that she has mentioned, will she focus on the strength of cannabis now, so that people are persuaded that it is not the same drug that they perceived it to be during its period of lower classification? Secondly, will she have a word with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that, in prosecuting offences where class B drugs such as cannabis appear on the same indictment as class A drugs, it will not quietly forget about the cannabis offences? The CPS should continue to prosecute cannabis offences fully.
The hon. Gentleman makes two fair points. First, we certainly need to look at the “Frank” campaign to make sure that the increased strength of cannabis is fully represented in it; he is right about that. Secondly, I will ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service hears his words about the requirement not to bury a cannabis offence, even if it is the lesser of two drugs offences.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that the Scottish Government were seeking to “postpone a referendum until 2010-11” and that the Scottish Government were acting “against its…manifesto”. That manifesto explicitly set out the timetable for the referendum in 2010. In misrepresenting that fact, I fear that the Prime Minister has inadvertently misled the House. It is far from the case that the referendum is being delayed or that the manifesto promise is being broken; it is a promise that the Scottish Government intend to keep. What powers do you have, Mr. Speaker, to have the Prime Minister withdraw his remarks or correct the inadvertently misleading impression that he gave the House?
Immigration (Discharged Gurkhas)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the immigration rules in connection with the requirements for indefinite leave to enter and remain in the United Kingdom as a Gurkha discharged from the British Army.
The Gurkhas have a unique place in the history of our country and in the hearts of the British people. For around 200 years they, the bravest of the brave, have served Britain with outstanding courage and loyalty. They continue to play a vital role in today’s Army, both at home and overseas. Indeed, only a few weeks ago Prince Harry paid tribute to their role in Afghanistan. Today, about 3,000 Gurkhas serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces. That represents more than 3 per cent. of the British Army. Our under-strength, overstretched forces would be in a more difficult situation if it were not for the Gurkhas, yet despite their astonishing service, many former Gurkhas are treated disgracefully. To the shame of this country, Gurkhas who left the Army before 1997 are not allowed to stay in the United Kingdom.
My Bill seeks to amend the Immigration Act 1971 to enable Gurkhas to be granted indefinite leave to enter and remain in the UK under the category of “Gurkha discharged from the British Army”. It is a small, simple Bill, but one that would speak volumes. It has support in all parts of the House. To their credit, in 2004 the Government introduced changes that benefit today’s Gurkhas; that is appreciated. Those who retire from the Army can now stay in the UK should they so wish, but the changes do not apply to those who left prior to 1997, because it is claimed that before that date they were based in Hong Kong and therefore were not fully part of the UK forces. That is outrageous nonsense and an insult to men who served in Her Majesty’s—in some cases, His Majesty’s—armed forces, serving the UK’s interests in many parts of the world.
It is argued, somewhat insultingly, that Gurkhas who retired before 1997 could not generally show strong enough links to the UK. The hollowness and callousness of that arbitrary cut-off date was illustrated in the most powerful way when Victoria Cross winner Tul Bahadur Pun was initially denied entry to this country, although he is a man whose loyalty and service to the UK was recognised with the award of the VC for his action in single-handedly storming a Japanese machine-gun post during the second world war, in the face of intense machine-gun fire. That act of bravery was not unique. There are countless other stories of the bravery of Gurkha soldiers who never served in Hong Kong.
Most of our constituents have great affection for the Gurkhas. That is certainly the case in the garrison town of Colchester. I am confident that constituents share my view that the 1997 cut-off date is not morally acceptable. To add insult to injury, retired Gurkhas living in the UK now face deportation, yet soldiers from Commonwealth countries can be granted the right to UK citizenship after only four years’ service.
The moral case for the provisions set out in my Bill, which has all-party support, is best illustrated with the following example. Mr. Madam Gurung served in the British Army for 24 years. He retired in 1993 and applied for the right to live in the UK, but his application was refused by the Home Office. All that he wants to do is to work as a bus driver or security guard here in the UK. He currently lives in one-bedroom accommodation in Tonbridge, where he is awaiting news of his appeal. He is prevented by law from working, and subsists on handouts from concerned friends. Is that how a man who served in the British Army for 24 years should be treated? Many other former Gurkhas are going through the same tortuous process of immigration appeals. They are destitute, in limbo, never sure of their future. Forbidden from working, they are not even second-class citizens in the country that they served so loyally for many years. They are relying on the charity of friends, comrades and neighbours. It is a disgrace that some of our former soldiers have been condemned to such a life.
In any survey or poll, the massively overwhelming majority of citizens want the right to British citizenship extended to the pre-1997 retirees. The retired Gurkha community in this country is hard-working and entrepreneurial. The Government need have no fears about them in any way being a drain on the public purse. The reverse is the case—they would be net contributors. Experience in areas where they have settled clearly shows that their hard work and high standards of citizenship add positively to our economy and our culture. The numbers involved are small given the number of people who annually migrate to the UK. It is estimated that there are about 1,000 retired Gurkhas in the UK awaiting results of appeals. Back in Nepal, it is considered that most elderly retired Gurkhas would wish to remain living there. According to best estimates, the maximum number of retired Gurkhas who may possibly want to come here is under 10,000.
British people are frustrated and angered by the unfairness. They do not understand why the Government will not allow a relatively small number of people, all of whom have served in the British Army for a number of years, to live here. The sentiments and provisions of the Bill transcend party politics. The Gurkhas enjoy wide support across the House and the nation. The situation is becoming more urgent by the day. A few weeks ago, outside Parliament, I and some other Members witnessed 50 retired Gurkhas handing in their long service and good conduct medals in protest at the way in which they are being treated. There was extensive coverage of the event in newspapers and on television. The sight of such loyal, brave and dignified people being pushed to such a desperate act filled me with shame.
The Bill seeks to give voice to what I believe is the will of the British people. Let the Gurkhas stay! I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Bob Russell, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mr. Don Touhig, Nick Harvey, Patrick Mercer, Mr. Paul Keetch, Mr. Paul Burstow, Mr. David Drew, Andrew Mackinlay, Andrew Rosindell, Mark Pritchard and Mr. Bruce George.
Immigration (Discharged Gurkhas)
Bob Russell accordingly presented a Bill to amend the immigration rules in connection with the requirements for indefinite leave to enter and remain in the United Kingdom as a Gurkha discharged from the British Army: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 107].
[11th Allotted Day-First Part]
I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the Government’s management of the Civil Service; condemns the excessive increase in the Government’s spending on communications, advertising and marketing; further notes with alarm the increasing number of civil servants employed as press and communications officers despite the aims of the Gershon Review to reduce the administrative costs of Government; observes the increase in the number of political ministerial adviser appointees; further notes the creation of bodies and quangos which are unaccountable to the public; considers there to be widespread failures in the efficient implementation of Government policies by No. 10 Downing Street, Government departments and agencies; and calls on the Government to enshrine Civil Service independence in law in a Civil Service Act, bring in a strengthened Ministerial Code and a more transparent means of enforcing it, ask the Committee on Standards in Public Life to establish a code of conduct for the impartiality and accuracy of Government publications and advertising campaigns, and to take urgent steps to restore trust in the UK system of government by making it more efficient, transparent, accountable and effective.
I start by declaring the interests against my name in the Register of Members’ Interests.
The Tony Blair era of government became synonymous with spin. At the very outset of that Government back in 1997, there were huge increases in the number of special advisers; the figure more than doubled. Two special advisers in Downing street were given, completely without precedent, powers to give orders to conventional civil servants. In addition, a large number of departmental press secretaries who were already in place, and departmental heads of the information service who were permanent civil servants in the Government Information and Communication Service, were replaced with appointees who were more or less partisan.
At the time, eyebrows were raised and mildly controversial concerns were expressed, but after all, the Government were elected with a substantial majority and nothing that was done could be said to be illegal. However, it was nakedly a sharp turn away from the conventional approach of reliance on an impartial and professional civil service. That became the hallmark of the Blair era of government—the subordination of all considerations to the partisan political interests of the Labour party. In no Department was there a greater dedication to the cult of spin than in Her Majesty’s Treasury. We all remember—I do so vividly, as I was shadow Chancellor: one of many holders of that post—the notorious double-counted spending increases in the pre-Budget report of autumn 1998, in which spending increases for the whole comprehensive spending review period were conveniently added together to give a sum much greater than that which was being spent. That was the first indication that with the then Chancellor—now Prime Minister—it was wise to count the spoons carefully and decipher the fine print with a magnifying glass before deciding to rely on what he said.
Despite that history, it is fair to say that when the Prime Minister took office in the middle of last year, there was a sigh of relief that the first announcement of the age of change was that the era of spin was definitively over. Parliament, we were told, was to be told about things before the press and the media. Spin was consigned to history—a relic of the Blairite-Mandelsonist era of the past. The right hon. Gentleman said that
“one of my first acts as Prime Minister would be to restore power to Parliament in order to build the trust of the British people in our democracy.”
At the time, the soon to be elected deputy leader of the Labour party—now the Leader of the House—made an even more explicit promise:
“In future, under a Gordon Brown regime, we need to have no spin, no briefing, no secrets, and respect for Parliament”.
The right hon. and learned Lady’s final point about treating Parliament with respect and making statements to the House before the media was instantly more honoured in the breach than in the observance. We have worked out that on average, the media have been briefed about two announcements a week before they are made to Parliament. Often, announcements are not made to Parliament at all, even after the event.
What of the pledge to cut back on spin, and put the era of spin in the past? The simple truth is that there has been no reduction in the number of spin doctors and special advisers from the Blair era, or perhaps only a tiny one. The age of change turns out to be the age of no change. The publication of the White Book by the Central Office of Information, which was delayed until September last year to take account of the changes since the Prime Minister took over from Tony Blair, effectively shows that there has been no reduction at all. In fact, it took some time for the document to be published, and a number of questions from my right hon. Friends and me to elicit that information. Indeed, the Government’s answers, to specific questions, Department by Department, on the scale of the spin machine are a master-class in the spinning of information to give a false impression. They exclude, for example, the majority of communications personnel, limiting the numbers to the narrowest possible definition of “press officer”.
The White Book directory tells the full story of a Government spin machine that has spiralled out of control. Advertising costs have also spiralled. The Government have spent over £800 million on advertising in the past five years alone. The annual spend has quadrupled since Labour came to power. No doubt under the rigorous financial stewardship of the Prime Minister, assisted by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as his adviser for much of the time, it was spent immensely prudently. Is the advertising spend simply the overhang of the reckless Blairite era? No, because the figures clearly show that since the Prime Minister took over, the advertising spend has increased still further by four times the rate of inflation.
Taxpayers are entitled to ask whether they are getting a good return on the money that is being spent. Many Conservative council candidates who fought elections last week may think it was well spent, because the results were not bad for them. Even taxpayers who belong to, or support, the Labour party are asking that question because, after all, Labour’s electoral interests were clearly intended to benefit from those huge spends, including on advertising to promote the merits of neighbourhood policing in the middle of the local election campaign. That is a questionable use of taxpayers’ money in supposedly non-partisan information programmes.
The results of last week’s elections suggest that, from the Labour party’s point of view, it was a wretched use of money, because it led—I believe directly—to its worst position since the war; I do not mean the last war but the first world war. We have to go back a very long time indeed to the infancy of the Labour party to find a time when it did as badly as it did last week.
It is worth spending a little time looking at the Prime Minister’s explanation last weekend of what went wrong, because it bears directly on the substance of today’s motion. He said,
“I’ve spent too much time…looking at the detail of solving people’s problems.”
He also said,
“I’ve spent too little time thinking about how we can get our arguments across”.
He was saying that the Government were not doing enough spinning; they were spending their time earnestly looking over the fine detail of policy programmes to be absolutely sure that they had got them right. That was supposed to conjure up an image of an incredibly high-minded Prime Minister blundering around Downing street in the small hours of the morning, setting off security alarms while trying to unlock his office, because he was desperate to refine subsection (27)(a) of the bin charges Bill, or to rewrite paragraph 147 of his Chancellor’s Budget speech, or to work out with mathematical precision exactly why 42 days’ detention without charge was the right answer, rather than 40 or 44.
For somebody supposedly obsessed with substance, as the Prime Minister constantly tells us at the Dispatch Box, and the detail of “solving people’s problems”, he has not made a fantastically good fist of it. Abolishing the 10p tax rate was entirely his idea; indeed, it was his idea to create it in the first place. However, when it came to be implemented—
I will tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what it has to do with the debate. It is about allowing the Government’s emphasis and focus on spin from the outset to overcome the need to get the detailed management of policy implementation right. It becomes clear, and Ministers have had to admit, that that policy was not thought through. We find the Lord High Chancellor, as we understand he likes to be called, generously apologising for the mistakes that the Prime Minister had made.
When it comes to the package of changes promised to buy off the Labour rebellion, spin has yet again trumped substance. Fourteen months after slipping abolition into the fine print of the Budget paperwork, the Government still cannot say what the effects of the package will be. We are told—off the record, of course—that the Chancellor has given a categoric pledge, but there is still, amazingly for such a supposedly substance-obsessed Government, no actual package in sight. Hence the pitiful sight of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on “Newsnight” last night fending off the most basic questions—will the changes be backdated, will all the losers be compensated—
I am happy to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. My argument is that this is a Government whose obsession with spin, whose removal of resources into the communications side of government, has fatally weakened their ability to formulate and deliver policy in practice.
My right hon. Friend is remiss in not bringing to the fore all the delivery units in No. 10, all the blue-sky thinking units and all the quasi-political systems that are superseding the civil service in the eyes of the Prime Minister and the political élite. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is unacceptable and a waste of taxpayers’ money, and that they are not accountable to anyone, least of all the House?
Those units are meant to be accountable to the Prime Minister, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster may want to comment on that when he speaks. The creation of all those central departments with hundreds of personnel in them was the result of the warfare going on between the Treasury and Downing street. Because the Chancellor, as he then was, was constantly building up the Treasury’s own resource to stamp his authority over the whole of domestic policy, Tony Blair was constantly trying to counter that by creating countervailing units at the centre of government. The result was that the whole thing spiralled out of control, and there are thousands at the centre of government who were not there before.
One of the things that I remember from the way the Government operated in the 1980s, when I was junior Minister, was that, as my right hon. and hon. Friends who were there at the time will remember, No. 10 operated with quite a strong grip over the way the Government worked, with a private office of half a dozen and a policy unit of 10. It did not need delivery units or huge numbers—[Interruption.] I hear the Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), talking about substance. We constantly hear complaints from the Government that we are not engaging on substance. I am concerned with exactly the issues of substance. The Government are so obsessed with spin that they are consistently getting the answers wrong on major issues of huge importance to the public.
Let us look at the proposal on capital gains tax in the Budget, announced with such certainty in the pre-Budget report. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor had rapidly to find the reverse gear when the detail turned out, once again, not to have been thought through. The same with the proposal on non-doms—another humiliating U-turn when the package fell apart. Screening for clostridium difficile in January—
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am simply attempting to illustrate the problems that have arisen and the complaint that we make about the Government’s approach—the way in which, on substantial issue after issue, spin trumps substance. They get the substance wrong. They are so obsessed with trying to get the spin and the presentation right, and doing it incompetently, that they get not only the substance wrong, but the presentation desperately wrong.
On so many issues, decisions have been taken not with a view to the substantive merits of the argument, but on 42 days, on the income tax changes, on non-doms, on capital gains tax, ineffectively to try to wrong-foot the Opposition, rather than get the answer right. Far too much time is spent badly on presentation, and not enough time is spent on getting the substance right. The Government press on, claiming that they are slaving away solving people’s problems, as the Prime Minister puts it, but that has nothing to do with the substantive need.
Instead of the sober, steady focus on solving problems, we have seen a Prime Minister in a panic, hiring ever more spin and PR advisers to join the Downing street spin cycle. The rate of recruitment makes Tony Blair look like Gandhi. Hot on the heels of Stephen Carter from Brunswick, we saw David Muir from WPP—to direct political strategy, we are told. A few days later Nick Stace was appointed to beef up, we were told, the communications team. Mark Flanagan was named the head of digital communications at No. 10. Nicola Burdett was brought in to avoid visual gaffes—definitely a full-time job. There is effectively a weekly column in PRWeek charting the weekly appointment of new recruits to Downing street.
Our contention is that in the face of the relentless focus on the spin machine, the morale of the civil service is at an all-time low. Its independence has been sapped by Ministers who have used it constantly to pursue their narrow partisan interests, rather than to solve the problems of the country.
Is it not a sign of the time and of the truth of the case that my right hon. Friend is making that these days, when one wants to find out what is going on in No. 10 Downing street, one does not look at the leaks to the political correspondents in the national press, but one looks for the exclusive stories that seem to come up in PRWeek? Does that not say it all? It is all in the public relations sphere now, not in the political correspondents’ sphere.
My hon. Friend is right. It makes one smile when one hears the Prime Minister criticising us for slick salesmanship. There is a certain amount of envy, I think, when he says that, because the salesmanship from him has not yet reached that pinnacle. No doubt with all those advisers coming in, it will. That indicates the direction in which the Government are going under the new Prime Minister. There is more emphasis on spin than there was before.
My right hon. Friend set out some of the people working in Downing street. No doubt some have appropriate jobs and some do not. Does he consider that it would be better if, at the beginning of a Parliament, Parliament approved whether those people should be working so that we could assess whether that was value for money?
It would be useful to have a little more scrutiny. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, one learns about the appointments only by careful perusal of PRWeek.
That brings me to the next point, which is the way in which the civil service currently operates. As I said, its morale is at an all-time low. Its independence has been sapped. We see a series of terrible disasters, with people’s personal data being lost, the result of a civil service relentlessly exploited by Ministers for partisan advantage, at the cost of focus on the basics of good, sound administration. We see the failure to legislate, despite all the promises, to put the civil service on a proper legal basis. Despite the publication four years ago of a draft Civil Service Bill, we are now told that no legislation is likely until next year.
The independence of the civil service is one of the jewels in our constitutional crown. Civil servants’ advice should always be sought. Everything that one hears about the way the Government operate suggests that frequently it is not sought, in case Ministers hear something that they do not like. It should always be sought, even when challenging. It should be respected, even when it is not taken. However, that, of course, would require Ministers who had a real sense of direction and purpose and who were competent and capable. At this stage, I can do no better than quote the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), who said:
“Our people are abandoning us, we’re sinking fast and no amount of hand-wringing and promises of ‘listening and learning’ will change that.”
The Government are now rotten and directionless, led by a losing Prime Minister, and they have lost their authority to govern. The sooner the Prime Minister summons up the bottle to call an election, the sooner the public will get the chance to vote for the change that they so earnestly seek and so richly deserve.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“commends the Government’s measures to protect the impartiality of the Civil Service, in particular through its decision to legislate for the core principles and values of the Civil Service; believes that this decision builds on previous improvements, including an enhanced role for the Civil Service Commissioners, the publication of a code of conduct for special advisers and an updated code of conduct for civil servants; welcomes the improvements in efficiency of the Civil Service, which have allowed its size to be reduced in line with the Gershon recommendations; further welcomes the Government’s continuing commitment to effective public information campaigns; supports the other steps to strengthen the accountability of government, including a new Ministerial Code and a new independent adviser on Ministerial interests, as well as pre-appointment hearings for key public appointments; and believes that all these measures contribute to a more efficient, transparent, accountable and effective government to better serve the people of this country.”
The speech made by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) has left me somewhat speechless. I want to put this in the kindest terms, but he has been shadow Chancellor, shadow Foreign Secretary and chairman of his party; one is tempted to ask, “Has it really come to this?” He and his party want to try to make this House a more serious place, yet he has come here and brought out a few recycled press cuttings that have very little to do with the debate. I hoped that he would talk about the civil service legislation that we are planning in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, and give us some suggestions about how the Bill might change. If he wants to raise the standard of debate in this country and the House, he will have to do better than he just did.
The first extraordinary thing about the right hon. Gentleman’s speech is that he seems to be unbriefed about the central fact underlying this debate—that is, that we are legislating for a civil service Bill as part of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.
It has been 155 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report; and the right hon. Gentleman was part of the Government who had 18 years to legislate for a civil service Bill. If he had known that we were legislating for a such a Bill, he would have been the first to criticise us if we had not allowed proper scrutiny.
I am looking forward to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, and I am pleased to see him in his place. I am also looking forward to the contribution of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who is a former special adviser and thinks deeply about these matters—which is more than can be said for my opposite number.
The context for this debate is that we recognise that Parliament needs more power to hold the Executive to account. That is why we are legislating to limit the royal prerogative on war powers, treaties, the role of Ministers in appointments and the management of the civil service—as I say, an act first promised 155 years ago. That is why we are opening up public appointments, including nominees for the chair of the Statistics Board and other important public appointments, to scrutiny by the House. That is why, for the first time, we legislated for the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and why we are establishing the UK Statistics Authority, which is independent of the Government.
I am a member of the Public Administration Committee under the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). One of the intensely frustrating things during my six and a half years in Parliament has been that we had to write our own civil service Bill, which was drawn up with the advice of a lot of former Cabinet Secretaries. Does the Minister agree that that Bill is in principle the right way to go? Will he incorporate a lot of that Bill into the legislation? It is a good Bill and will protect the civil service for the next 150 years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am sorry that I missed him when I was discussing the Bill with the Public Administration Committee last week; he was no doubt elsewhere. He will be pleased to know that we have published a draft Bill, which is going into pre-legislative scrutiny. I will be interested in his comments and those of hon. Members throughout the House. In reply to a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, I said that we wanted to invite comments on the Bill. We are open to suggestions about ways in which it can be improved.
I had hoped that we could have a constructive debate today, and that is why it is so disappointing that the right hon. Member for Horsham came forward with a bunch of recycled allegations. He complained about Government information campaigns and their cost. Let me tell him what the three most expensive Government advertising campaigns were on: road safety, Army and Territorial Army recruitment, and anti-smoking. Is he seriously suggesting that he would cut any of those? I assume that he would not. His motion calls for a stronger ministerial code; we have just introduced one with a new independent adviser on ministerial interests. I have to bring him up to date on that as well.
Instead of carping from the sidelines, the Opposition should engage seriously in the opportunity to legislate for the impartiality of the civil service. That is precisely what we are doing.
The Minister will know that Short money, which has increased dramatically since Labour came to power in 1997, is spent on employing an awful lot of people, who to all intents and purposes are special advisers for Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend think that they should be ruled by a code of conduct, as Government special advisers are?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. In an act of generosity, the Government have significantly increased the money that goes to the Opposition as Short money. As I understand it, there is no accounting for that money and how it is spent. That issue is certainly worth considering.
I turn now to the substance of the Bill and civil service impartiality. It is important, and I am interested in Members’ views on this. During the sitting of the Public Administration Committee that I attended last week, the Cabinet Secretary said:
“the challenge for Parliament is to…keep it very focused and allow the civil service the flexibility to meet what will be the challenges”
of the future. We have drafted the Bill with such considerations in mind.
The Bill establishes that Parliament, not the royal prerogative, provides the basis for the work of the civil service. That is an important change; currently, the civil service is governed by the use of that prerogative. The Bill guarantees recruitment to the civil service on merit through fair and open competition, with the independent civil service commission upholding the process through its recruitment principles. The Bill will also incorporate the rule, set out for the first time in June 2006 in the new civil service code, that the civil service commissioners can take a complaint or concern directly from a civil servant about an issue under the code. The Bill strengthens transparency: it requires a code of conduct for the civil service to be published and laid before both Houses of Parliament.
Yes, and that is why we repealed it. The first act of the new Prime Minister was to repeal that Order in Council. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Member for Horsham referred to special advisers, and that brings me to my next point. I should declare an interest, because I am a former special adviser. However, it is not a small club.
Indeed, there are more former special advisers who are Conservative MPs than there are women Conservative MPs. No doubt the party will try to make amends for that at the next general election, but we shall do all we can to stop it.
What is interesting about the old system governing special advisers is that there was no code of conduct, no transparency and no annual statement about their numbers, costs or work.
First, there was full transparency in the role of advisers, and, secondly, the decision by the Labour Government to start issuing such details was squeezed out of them only after I and a number of others had pressed them vigorously for several years, and the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, finally agreed to provide some of the basic information being demanded.
It cannot be the case both that this information was always provided and that it arose only after several years of pressing by the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to him for pressing us to provide the information, and I take credit for the fact that we are doing so.
The nub of the issue is this: do 70 or so special advisers in government overwhelm the work of 500,000 civil servants across Britain? In this regard I rely on, among others, Lord Wilson, the former Cabinet Secretary, who said in his evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life:
“I do not think the senior civil service of 3,700 people is in danger of being swamped by 70 special advisers. That is not what is happening and I do not see it as a creeping politicization.”
Given that large numbers of civil servants are supposed to be told what to do by very small numbers of Ministers, a simple comparison between the number of special advisers and the number of civil servants does not take us very far. What matters is the amount of influence that those special advisers have. Will the Minister accept the fact—and it is a fact—that during the final years of the Conservative Administration most Ministries had only two special advisers; a few of the lesser Ministries, if I dare describe them in that way, had only one; and only one Ministry, namely the Treasury, had three? How does that compare with the current situation?
The current norm is that most Cabinet Ministers, including me, have two special advisers. I do not think that that is an excessive number, but we can probably debate that.
Another important aspect of this debate is that special advisers are not a threat to the impartiality of the civil service—in fact, they help to protect its impartiality because they can do political things that it would not be right for civil servants to do. That is why the Cabinet Secretary said at the Public Administration Committee last week
“this point about good special advisers being good for the civil service is really important”.
I say to the House, in all genuineness, that on special advisers and on other aspects of the Bill, we look forward to detailed scrutiny by this House, and even perhaps to some constructive suggestions.