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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 8 May 2008

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Redundant Churches

1. What the policy of the commissioners is on redundant churches for which dioceses have found no alternative use. (204051)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. With your permission, may I draw the attention of the House to the Church Commissioners’ excellent results for last year? The value of assets has grown to £5.67 billion, and £37 million more has been returned to the Church each year during the past decade. Those are figures of which the commissioners and the Church are justly proud.

In response to my hon. Friend’s question, the arrangements for settling the future of redundant churches are set out in the Pastoral Measure 1983.

To what extent will the commissioners and my hon. Friend take account of the views of Sir Roy Strong in his book “A Little History of the English Country Church” about the variety of uses that local communities would find of value to them in using redundant church premises?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Sir Roy Strong, whose work is closely followed within the Church. He is a renowned campaigner for making Church heritage live—not just preserving the heritage, but doing things with it. That is a concept with which we can all agree.

On the essence of my hon. Friend’s question, in most cases an alternative use is found for churches that have closed down, and where not, the commissioners have to decide, after consulting their statutory advisers, between preservation in the Churches Conservation Trust or demolition.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Elections (Turnout)

2. What additional measures the Electoral Commission has considered to increase public participation in elections. (204052)

In addition to its long-standing voter registration campaigns, the Electoral Commission in advance of last week’s election piloted a text message response service, extended its face-to-face voter registration activity and undertook additional work with local authorities and community groups to encourage voter registration.

Clearly, something worked to encourage participation last week. It might have been the prospect of defeating Labour candidates—[Hon. Members: “You lost out.”] Or other candidates—that is very true. Will the hon. Gentleman talk to the Electoral Commission about whether having as places to vote the places where most people go on voting day—railway stations, bus stations and shopping centres—is the logical thing to do, rather than making people go to places that, for many of them, are not on their beaten track, which means that many of them therefore decide to choose not to visit them at all?

The Electoral Commission has indeed carried out research on that general area, and rather than deal with the detail now I would prefer to write to the hon. Gentleman to let him know the overall package that the Electoral Commission has brought to bear on the issue and the extent to which it has piloted similar efforts. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and bring that to his attention.

Although it is true that the Electoral Commission has run voter registration campaigns, we all know that there are millions of people in this country who are not registered to vote who ought to be registered to vote. The non-registration rate varies between perhaps 5 and 25 per cent. in some parts of the country. What can we do to get a much more effective voter registration scheme under way across the country, so that we get the millions who are not registered on to the register so that they can vote?

The Electoral Commission runs a three-week campaign in advance of every election to encourage voter registration. The commission has previously piloted a registration week, but its view is that a three-week campaign, rather than focusing activity on a single week or day, allows more flexibility for local authorities to participate and that the cumulative effect of advertising over a longer period generates a higher response. The Electoral Commission’s main concern is that there should be individual registration. It thinks that that would encourage registration and diminish the risk of fraud.

One of the ways in which participation is supposed to increase is by campaign spending by candidates. Will my hon. Friend please pass on to the Electoral Commission something that is a surprise outside the House as well as inside it, which is that in eight years the former Mayor of London apparently had no personal donations but they were all channelled through a political party, to the surprise of most who watched?

The rules on these matters are actually quite complicated; they overlap and the rules for regulated donees are different from the rules for candidates during the candidacy period. There is a specific question on this issue and if that question is reached, I will deal with it in some detail then.

Is it not the case that the most effective way of increasing participation in any election is by having 100 per cent. postal voting? The hon. Gentleman will know that, after the parliamentary by-election on 22 May in Crewe and Nantwich, the next most important occasion in the electoral calendar this year will be 3 July when we hold a mayoral referendum in Bury. Will he raise with the Electoral Commission whether all mayoral referendums should be required to have 100 per cent. postal voting?

As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that specific issue, I will indeed raise it with the Electoral Commission as he has requested.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House appreciate that people fought and died to get the vote. Is it not about time that people took responsibility themselves? They are able to register and it is up to them to do so. Why should we always go out of our way to make it easy for people to do something when, if they believe that voting is important, not only will they register but they will go out and vote?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our predecessors who created the system of secret voting, with a possibility of tracing that secret vote in extremis, certainly knew what they were doing and developed a system that has enormous credibility and trust. Although the number of cases of fraud may be quite small, it takes only a small number of such cases to diminish credibility and trust, with a corresponding diminution in the value of our democracy.

Will the hon. Gentleman look into the situation, such as that in Chorley, where registration in rented areas is always lower than anywhere else? Unfortunately, that does not show up because the figures are calculated on a macro-level and across council wards, which have a greater rate of registration at 70 or 80 per cent. However, the figure at a micro-level can drop to something like 30 per cent. What can we do to ensure that people in rented accommodation are treated equally to those in private accommodation?

One of the advantages that the Electoral Commission sees in individual registration is that it will pick up people who are not covered at the moment by the heads of households whose duty it is to register people to vote. That might be relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Electoral Fraud

3. What steps are being taken to reduce the potential for electoral fraud and inaccurate electoral registrations. (204053)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it continues to issue detailed guidance and that it works with returning officers, electoral registration officers and the police on strategies for preventing and detecting electoral malpractice.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply but, in the light of the recent London elections and local elections, will he tell us what investigations and reviews the Electoral Commission is carrying out to ensure the integrity of the electoral process, particularly with regards to postal voting? That is of great concern to a number of people because fraud has taken place in recent and past local elections.

My hon. Friend may have seen a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust into “Purity of Elections in the UK”. It highlighted the fact that although fraud is not widespread, the system remains vulnerable. The commission is continuing to work hard with those who run elections and with the police to detect and deter fraud, but it also continues to call for the introduction of individual voter registration to make the system more secure.

Although I do not describe the practice as fraud, the widespread use of personal votes in very patriarchal communities disfranchises a lot of women because the head of the household will vote on behalf of the women in his house. Are the hon. Gentleman and the commission aware of that practice, which means that I am afraid I do not agree with the proposal to extend the postal vote?

The hon. Lady’s point is one of the reasons the Electoral Commission is very keen to press the case for individual registration and for each individual—male or female—to accept responsibility for their registration and, indeed, their democratic right to vote.

Given the inaccuracies in the electoral register, is there not a special problem that is tied in with the inaccuracy of census data? There are now rather perverse but strong incentives for local authorities to keep names on the register inaccurately in order to qualify for larger central Government grants. Will my hon. Friend ensure that that issue is dealt with as part and parcel of the reforms that are urgently needed for the integrity of our electoral system?

Indeed, and in reply to an oral question on 20 March, I spelled out the Electoral Commission’s concern about the inadequacy of data. It is not possible to measure turnout accurately because there is not an accurate list of those who are entitled to vote.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that the way to increase participation at elections is to have all-postal ballots. Why has the Electoral Commission ignored its original report into electoral pilots in places such as the north-east, which resulted in a by-election in my constituency with a 67 per cent. turnout? It found that there was no great instance of fraud and that the pilots were a good way of increasing participation. Why did the commission retreat from that and possibly bow to the pressure of some of the popular press?

The Electoral Commission takes a balanced view on that. There are great advantages in postal voting. Its view is that the postal voting system should be improved and any possible fraud removed. Central to that is individual registration.

Supplementary Vote System

4. Whether the Electoral Commission has made an assessment of the effectiveness of the supplementary vote system used in the London mayoral election. (204054)

Does my hon. Friend think there may be an argument for reforming the 5 per cent. threshold whereby extremist parties such as the British National party can gain seats with a relatively small number of votes?

The view of the Electoral Commission is that its role is to report on the administration of statutory elections in the UK and to provide information to electors on the way the electoral system works. However, it takes the view that it is the responsibility of the Government to promote and for Parliament to decide on the detail of the manner in which the vote is implemented.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Carbon Emissions

5. What steps the commissioners are taking to reduce the carbon footprint of activities within their responsibility. (204055)

Within their own areas of responsibility, in 2007 the commissioners increased from seven to 18 the number of fuel-efficient hybrid-power cars provided to bishops, and they aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in diocesan bishops’ houses and offices by 60 per cent. by the year 2050 in line with the Government’s energy White Paper.

I am grateful for that answer and encouraged to learn that action is being taken. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most important thing is to have an overall assessment of the carbon footprint of all the activities of the Church Commissioners and that they are all subject to a target for carbon reduction in line with the specific target that he referred to for housing?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will remember the answer that I gave him on 23 July 2007 in relation to the National Church Institutions being committed to the Church’s shrinking footprint campaign. I am sure he would agree that there is a welcome conference taking place at Lambeth Palace on 13 May, when the Archbishop of Canterbury will host the first anniversary celebration of “Together”, a climate change campaign that aims to make the practical things that everyone can do easier and more affordable. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to the cause.

electoral commission committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Candidates (Declaration of Donations)

6. If the Electoral Commission will take steps to ensure that candidates for directly elected office declare donations made to them separately from donations made to their political party. (204056)

The rules on reporting donations by parties and candidates are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The commission’s role is to ensure compliance with those rules. The commission informs me that it publishes guidance for parties, candidates and agents, provides advice on request, and takes enforcement action in accordance with the Act if the rules are not followed.

It is unacceptable that a candidate for, and the incumbent of, a directly elected office, particularly that of, for example, the elected mayor in London, do not have to declare donations, especially if that person is a sole-person planning authority meeting in private. We really must have transparency to see who is funding that person. I urge the Electoral Commission to have another look at that.

The rules for declaring donations overlap and are not consistent. Donations over £1,000 made to an individual in connection with political activities must be reported to the commission within 30 days of acceptance. Donations over the value of £50 for use by a candidate during the regulated period must be reported in the candidate’s election expenses return. For the mayoral election in London, the expense return is due 70 days after the election result is declared. Meanwhile, donations over £5,000 received by a party must be reported in the party’s quarterly donation report to the commission.

Perhaps I may add that the commission received a number of complaints alleging a failure by Ken Livingstone to report donations in connection with the mayoral election. The commission concluded that there was no evidence of a breach of the donation reporting requirements.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Livings (Crown Patronage)

7. How many livings in the Church of England are under the patronage of the Crown; and how many of the incumbents of those livings are women. (204058)

There are approximately 650 parochial appointments in the gift of the Crown, of which patronage for around 450 is exercised on the Crown’s behalf by the Lord Chancellor. In some cases, the patronage right is shared in turn with other patrons of the benefice; 103 of those appointments are held by women.

There is clearly still some way to go. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that it really is time that the Church of England stopped discriminating against 50 per cent. of the human race when it comes to episcopal appointments? Can he imagine this House finding it expedient to agree to any Measure from Synod that sought to discriminate against women, in the hope that it was going to allow women bishops in the Church of England—but not at any price?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He will remember that this House voted almost unanimously, but certainly overwhelmingly, for women priests way back in 1992. Given that he is a member of the General Synod, he will know that in July it will look at the options for progressing the ordination of women as bishops, informed by the recently published report of the legislative drafting group, chaired by the Bishop of Manchester. This House—in its majority, I think—supports women bishops and we urge the Church in this case to make haste less slowly.

Solicitor-General

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Migrant Domestic Workers

9. How many prosecutions and convictions there have been of employers of migrant domestic workers for offences associated with abuse of their employees in the last three years; and what steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the rate of prosecution. (204034)

The Crown Prosecution Service does not hold data on prosecutions and convictions for employers of migrant domestic workers for abuse of those employees. It has prosecuted 285 people in the last three years for employing people contrary to their immigration status, which is important because employees are of course more vulnerable if they are being employed unlawfully. The CPS continues to contribute to the development of early identification and referral mechanisms for victims of labour exploitation, in the hope of improving the rate of successful prosecutions.

I have met a number of domestic migrant workers—women—who have been savagely abused. They have been raped and beaten, they have no rooms of their own, they work seven days a week—in effect, they are on call 24 hours a day—and they are terribly paid. Some of them have been trafficked. Does the Solicitor-General agree with me that the Home Office’s plan to change the domestic migrant visa so that it cannot be transferred from the single employer to another employer will actually drive trafficking underground and prevent those women from escaping the horrors of their domestic slavery, and that this Government are committed to doing something that will save those women, not make things worse? Will she say something about the Home Office’s plans, which, if they come into force, will make matters very much worse for such women and very much better for the employers?

I am not going to comment on a Home Office matter. However, I understand from ministerial colleagues that research and analysis are in place that should report this month—the hon. Gentleman probably knows that, given his role as chair of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children—on the risks associated with the exploitation of overseas domestic workers, so that in due course, once we have proper research, we can consult on the overseas domestic workers route and how best to offer protection to exploited people.

Recently—in April—there was a plea of guilty at Snaresbrook Crown court to facilitating a young girl’s trafficking for domestic servitude; those involved will be sentenced on 16 May. There will be another prosecution in June, at Harrow, under section 4 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, concerning the exploitation of overseas domestic workers. So prosecutions do appear to be coming through.

But will the Solicitor-General take away the concern of the whole House and work with colleagues to make sure that there is a whole-Government approach to ensuring an end to the completely unscrupulous levels of servitude and exploitation by employers, which are on a mediaeval scale? Will she further try to ensure that Ministers introduce measures soon to make it more difficult for such employers to bring people into this country and undercut the conditions that ordinary British people would expect as only fair and just?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As he knows, the problem with prosecuting on behalf of exploited employees is the difficulty in getting those employees to come forward. We have to work hard on that. He knows that Operation Pentameter 2, which started last October, has a focus on labour-exploited people. There have been discussions involving the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which is likely to have the ability better to recognise unscrupulous gangmasters and to be involved in identifying cases. We are taking considerable steps to tackle the issue and all suggestions will be gratefully received on that basis.

We now come to Question 10 to the Solicitor-General. Before I call the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) to ask his question, I remind him and other Members that the case involving the termination by the director of the Serious Fraud Office of its investigation into BAE Systems is sub judice and so should not be referred to directly.

Serious Fraud Office

10. What role the Law Officers play in decisions by the Serious Fraud Office on the conduct of legal proceedings. (204035)

The Serious Fraud Office exercises its case work functions independently, subject to the statutory superintendence of the Attorney-General. This may include consultation on particularly difficult cases. For certain offences, including offences of corruption, the Attorney-General’s consent is required by statute. She exercises that consent role as a Law Officer independently of Government, applying well-established principles of prosecution.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and of course I accept absolutely your very proper direction. The House may wish to consider at some later date whether it is well served by a sub judice rule that is so wide in its application that we are the only people who are not able to question the conduct of Law Officers.

Can the Solicitor-General give the House an assurance that there has been and will be no case under consideration by the Serious Fraud Office where she has intervened to prevent the advancement by the SFO of an argument in support of its position that could be politically embarrassing to the Government?

The Liberal Democrats have ears to hear, but they never do hear when I say—I have already asserted this and I now repeat it for about the 50th time to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues—that the Attorney-General exercises a consent role when it is statutorily demanded of her, totally independent of Government interest. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, a series of proposals in the White Paper “The Governance of Britain” will look at all the issues that he wants to raise. It is absurd to suggest that there is no opportunity to question the conduct of the Law Officers because of course that is exactly what is going on now.

As the Law Officers have responsibility for the prosecuting authorities, will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that they are advised to ensure that, in taking fraud cases, they do not always make the petitioner the big gun in the case, as it were? In my constituency, there is a case in which a small company was a victim of fraud, as were other companies. Because the case was taken with that of a big company—the major petitioner—the small company did not get its proper recompense out of the case. Will she advise prosecuting authorities to make sure that the way they conduct cases takes into account the vulnerability of the petitioners?

My hon. Friend, in characteristically defending the rights of her constituents, has raised the issue before. She makes the powerful point that a relatively small company, for which the victimisation in the case was very serious, was not able to get the sort of compensation received by the major protagonist, the big company. The Crown Prosecution Service well understands that point, which she has made well. We have received it and passed it on.

I am not sure whether the Solicitor-General answered the question put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). He asked whether the Government were proposing sufficient measures in the Constitutional Renewal Bill to guarantee the independence of the prosecuting authorities from the Law Officers. Who is responsible, as between the Law Officers on the one side and the director of the SFO on the other, for responding to the ridiculous suggestion that I gather has come from a certain quarter that there be a “legal review”, whatever that is, of the uncompleted investigation into BAE Systems?

I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about yesterday’s “PM” programme, and about BAE senior management making some sort of proposal. It is likely that the new director of the Serious Fraud Office will respond to that, if indeed a response is merited. The position of the Law Officers vis-à-vis the director of the Serious Fraud Office is very clear. It is of course part of the constitutional renewal proposals that it should be made even clearer, and there should be a protocol, which will be a public document, to regulate the relationship between the two.

Crown Prosecution Service (Northamptonshire)

11. What assessment she has made of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in Northamptonshire against its targets in the most recent period for which information is available; and if she will make a statement. (204036)

I am pleased to say that CPS Northamptonshire is a high-performing area. All CPS areas are monitored every quarter against 15 key performance indicators, and the hon. Gentleman’s own CPS is performing at or close to its target in 13 of those 15 areas.

In congratulating the chief Crown prosecutor of Northamptonshire, Grace Ononiwu, on being awarded the OBE in the new year’s honours list, will the Solicitor-General comment on the overall assessment of the CPS in Northamptonshire as “fair”? Will she also comment on the outcomes of cases in magistrates courts, which are assessed as being below the national average?

Yes, I understand that the CPS in Northamptonshire narrowly missed achieving a “good” score, achieving a “fair” score instead. In four of the five critical aspects of performance, the inspectors judged the direction of travel to be “improving”. I had not understood there to be difficulties in regard to the outcomes in the magistrates courts. The magistrates courts and Crown courts certainly appear to have achieved successful outcomes, as their targets require. They have reduced ineffective trials, which is another key target related to both kinds of court, and they appear to be applying their case work quality assurance satisfactorily, so I am not sure that they are failing in that regard. In fact, they have been slightly under par in the way in which they have dealt with the issue of no witness, no justice—which deals with witness care material—but they have failed by only 0.4 per cent. in that area, so they really are doing quite well and going in the right direction.

On the CPS in Northamptonshire, what measure does the Solicitor-General have of its success in tackling human trafficking?

The quarterly assessments do not break down in that way. They show performance by category of case, and show only broadly how the duties are being carried out. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to make a specific inquiry into how the chief Crown prosecutor is doing in that regard, I have no objection to doing so.

Monarchy (Male Primogeniture)

12. If she will include provisions in the single equality Bill to end the practice of male primogeniture in succession to the throne. (204037)

The equality Bill will combat discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services, in public functions and in employment. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, who has responsibility for issues of succession, has made it clear that the Government are ready to consider the arguments about primogeniture. This is a complex area, and any change in the law governing succession to the throne would require the consent of the other Commonwealth countries of which Her Majesty is Head of State. The Government will keep the position under review.

But why will the Government not let us have a discussion about the institution of the monarchy? Many of us find offensive the fact that our Head of State has to be of a particular religion. In a modern democracy, the Head of State should be able to be of any religion or none. We do not want to tinker with this matter just to suit some members of the royal family. The rule of male primogeniture is offensive, but so are the rules relating to the religious faith—or lack of it—of the Head of State. It is time for us, and the other countries that are subject to the Statute of Westminster, to be radical and to address this matter. Let’s get on with it!

I hear what my hon. Friend says. He says it loudly and he says it strongly, so he has just proved any suggestion that we do not discuss these issues to be incorrect.

I suspect that there are universal views across the House that male primogeniture is an aspect of the royal succession that could be sensibly changed. Could the Solicitor-General confirm that the major issue is that the Act of Settlement applies not only to this country but to all other Commonwealth countries that have the Queen as Head of State and that, in the circumstances, for us to move without moving at the same pace and in the same fashion as those countries would cause problems that are probably best avoided?

I was grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman’s support, but then he backslid a little bit in the last sentence. However, he pinpoints the problem, which is about the Commonwealth countries.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Milton Keynes Racial Equality Council

16. What funding the Government provided to Milton Keynes racial equality council in each of the last two financial years.[Official Report, 5 June 2008, Vol. 476, c. 11MC.] (204060)

Milton Keynes racial equality council received around £50,000 of Government funding in 2006-07 and around £60,000 in 2007-08. That represents 28 per cent. of the total amount received by all racial equality councils in the country during those years. In addition, Milton Keynes racial equality council received a grant of £45,000 from the Commission for Racial Equality in 2006-07 and another of £42,000 in 2007-08.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I know that she values the work of Milton Keynes racial equality council as much as I do. However, she did not mention that this year that grant has been cut from £42,000 to zero, so there will be no money this year. That is having a major impact on the council’s work in Milton Keynes. Is the Minister prepared to meet a delegation from Milton Keynes to discuss the impact that the cut is having and to see what can be done in future? I hope that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) will join that delegation and come and see her to discuss the matter.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Milton Keynes racial equality council has got £60,027 from central Government, but I agree that its funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been cut this year. That is because the commission awarded £10.9 million to successful applicants in its first grants this April. That was a competitive process because, as usual, the numbers of applicants exceeded the amount of money available, and entries were rigorously assessed. Milton Keynes REC can apply again later this year for the 2009-10 programme. However, Milton Keynes council has received £105 million from the Government office for the east midlands extremism fund. The allocation of those funds is obviously a matter for the local authority, but it might be wise if Milton Keynes REC approaches it. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

Milton Keynes racial equality council has already had a meeting with Milton Keynes council, so I hope that the option of the prevention of terrorism fund has already been explored. However, there is an issue about how the EHRC has allocated grants, and I wonder whether the Minister might put pressure on it to work with Milton Keynes REC to ensure that the grant application that it puts in next year is better attuned to the criteria used by the EHRC than it appears to have been this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that considered question. The EHRC is an independent body, but I will speak to its chair, Trevor Phillips. On this occasion, the grants had to come up to a very rigorous set of requirements, and unfortunately Milton Keynes did not quite make it. I will talk to the EHRC about the help that it could give to Milton Keynes, but I also suggest that both Members of Parliament ask their local authority to give help, as I know that my own local authority has set up a grants adviser because this has become an area where expertise is needed.

Single Equality Bill

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has made it clear on several occasions in this House that we would seek to publish some of the clauses of the equality Bill in draft when they are ready. If we are to publish those draft clauses, we want to make sure that they are as near final as possible before we do so.

I thank the Minister for that interesting answer, although if the draft clauses are “as near final as possible”, it does not sound as if minds are open to having them changed based on contributions from elsewhere. I have a very simple question: given that it is now May and the draft clauses still have not been published, is it still the Government’s intention to introduce the Bill in the Queen’s Speech in November 2008?

The short answer to that question is yes, and the slightly longer answer is that one of the reasons for the delay is that we are considering the many hundreds of replies that we had to the consultation. Policy changes have been made that we need to consider carefully.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government on the single equality Act and on how its provisions will affect devolved matters?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has been to speak to the Scottish Government and to MSPs, and I will be going there later this year to discuss the matter.

With regard to the consultations that have taken place on the draft Bill, will the Minister tell us what consultations have taken place on primogeniture and the line of succession? What representations have the Government received from those who may be affected by it?

Here is a representation for the Minister. Next weekend, Peter Phillips is due to marry Autumn Kelly; she has had to convert to the Church of England to preserve his place in succession to the throne. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the happy couple well on their big day, but would it not be better to send them a wedding present by using the equality Bill to abolish that institutional discrimination against Catholics?

I think that I will confine myself to congratulating the happy couple, and wishing them well in their marriage, which, as hon. Members know, requires a lot of adjustments on both sides at the beginning, middle and end.

The Minister may be aware that I referred the case of Lady Louise being bumped out of line to the throne to the European Court of Human Rights, and it has responded positively, supporting the principle of getting rid of male primogeniture. The Solicitor-General made positive comments about that change being in the Act, and I congratulate the Government on that and welcome it. Does the Minister agree that it is very disappointing when those on the Tory Benches slide backwards and say that because it is difficult in the Commonwealth—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not for the Minister to concern herself with Conservative party policy. The hon. Lady has been called because she is a Liberal spokesman, so she should put her question to the Minister.

You are right, Mr. Speaker, as always. Will the Minister assure me that the difficulties of working this through the Commonwealth should not stand in the way of its being done? It is right that it should be done, and we have heard from all parties that it should be done, so will the Minister confirm that view?

This kind of change in our country, which has a long tradition, is always difficult. Before any change is brought in, we will try to build a cross-party consensus, and a cross-Commonwealth consensus. Primogeniture is a problem, and it is offensive, but we have to approach the matter cautiously.

Women into Business and Enterprise Initiative

18. What discussions she has had with regional development agencies on their support for the women into business and enterprise initiative. (204062)

The regional development agencies have a vital role in tackling inequalities, as I know as Minister for the East of England, including delivery of the Government’s new package of support for women that was outlined in the enterprise strategy. That is why the Minister for Women and Equality wrote to the RDA chairs on 1 May to ask about the progress that they had made on this vital agenda.

I thank my hon. Friend for her response. Does she agree that support networks, such as Women Into the Network, which is hosted by the business school of Durham university in my constituency, have a vital role to play alongside the excellent initiatives that the regional development agency, One NorthEast, undertakes in unlocking women’s business skills? Does she also agree that that is necessary if we are to continue to grow entrepreneurship in the north-east and exceed current trends?

We women came to networking rather late. We are doing it now in politics and business as fast as we can. I am pleased with the work that Durham business school has done and the partnership that it has forged with the RDA, One NorthEast. The latter has funded Durham business school’s networking initiative and, with Business Link North East, helps to sponsor its annual awards. That is the way forward for women—getting together, mentoring and helping each other as far as we can.

All RDA chairs are charged with taking forward equalities. However, I am sorry to say that I do not know the answer to the hon. Lady’s question. I will have to write to her.

Carers (Flexible Working)

19. What steps the Government are taking to increase awareness among carers of their right to request flexible working. (204063)

The right for carers to request flexible working is important, with the number of those aged over 85 expected to increase by 50 per cent. in the next 10 years. Despite the fact that most of them will be in better health, they will need some care and support. Employers are granting many requests for flexible working, but there is a low level of awareness of the right, which we will tackle with an information campaign.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that response. My constituency of Brent, South is the most diverse in the UK. As such, it is tradition that many people look after elderly relatives. However, they do not understand that they have a right to request flexible working. Can my right hon. and learned Friend expand on what the Government will do to ensure that people are aware of their rights when caring for elderly relatives?

We want to ensure that, in every community throughout the country, people are aware of the right, which the House introduced, to request flexible working if they provide any care for an older relative. Of course, it is important to have good public services to support older people, most of whom live independently in their own homes. However, family care is very important, and the stay-at-home daughter who used to provide that care is now a going-out-to-work daughter. Flexibility for those who are working as well as caring for relatives is therefore important. That will be part of the consultation on the carers’ strategy, which the Prime Minister established and is being led by the Department of Health. It will report later in the summer.

I apologise for not being present at business questions later, but I shall be attending the funeral of that redoubtable parliamentarian, the late Gwyneth Dunwoody.

The Minister previously promised that the Government would follow the Conservative party’s policy of extending the right to request flexible working to parents of all children under the age of 18. Will she guarantee to follow our policy of flexible parental leave, which would allow parents to have parental leave that they could share and give them the opportunity to take it simultaneously?

It is important for both fathers and mothers to have appropriate leave and flexibility in their work. The Government have led the way on that, and we will take it further. That is why we set up the review under Imelda Walsh to ascertain how we could build on the legislation that we introduced at a time when the Opposition called it an example of the nanny state. I am grateful to Imelda Walsh for her work. We will publish her report shortly and, at that point, will look for all-party support. The right hon. Lady is a bit of a Jenny-come-lately on the matter.

I am delighted to hear that there will be an advertising campaign to make people aware of the right to request flexible working. However, when someone suddenly has to become a carer, they sometimes drop out of the workplace. It is then quite difficult for them to get back in, because they have to have worked for an employer for six months before they can make that request. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into that, to ensure that people with caring responsibilities are not forced out of the workplace in the first place and to make it easier for them to return?

The question of people who have been out of the workplace with full-time caring responsibilities who need to get back in is something that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is concerned to include in his contribution to the carers’ strategy, which will be published later in the summer. The key thing, as my hon. Friend said, is that people should not have to choose between giving the care and support that they want to give to an older relative and remaining financially independent by going out to work. With the growing number of older people, which is a demographic revolution, we need to ensure that that is recognised in the structure and patterns of work. As for the 26 weeks, my hon. Friend will be aware that it is the normal condition across the board under employment law, and we do not propose to change it in that respect.

LEADER OF THE HOUSE

The Leader of the House was asked—

Treaty Ratification Procedure

26. What consideration she has given to the modernisation of parliamentary procedure relating to the ratification of treaties. (204041)

Proposals on parliamentary scrutiny of treaties are included in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which is currently being considered by a Joint Committee of Parliament. Under the proposals, the Government would be legally required to lay treaties before Parliament for 21 sitting days prior to ratification. A vote by either House against ratification would mean that the Government could not simply ratify the treaty without further steps. In particular, the Government could not ratify a treaty that the Commons had voted against, unless they relaid the same or a revised proposal and the House did not vote against it again. The Government believe that the right of Parliament to scrutinise treaties before ratification should be based on statute. This will transfer power from the Executive to Parliament and make the rules clearer and more transparent.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for that answer, but in a previous case where we had parliamentary scrutiny of a treaty—namely the Lisbon treaty—it was not a rip-roaring success. The Government broke their promise on having a referendum and then we were promised detailed line-by-line scrutiny in the House, which was also not delivered. If the Government are going to bring forward the proposals that the Deputy Leader of the House described, they had better listen, learn from those experiences, deliver on their promises and ensure that the House has a genuine say in the ratification of treaties, because if the Lisbon treaty process is any example, people will be left feeling let down by the Government yet again.

The hon. Gentleman has not taken account of the fact that European treaties will not be covered by the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, because they have a higher barrier to pass. European treaties must be incorporated into a piece of legislation and go through all the normal legislative processes of the House, and that is precisely what the Government did with the Lisbon treaty.

The statement by the Deputy Leader of the House on the Government’s plans for the future is welcome. However, she will be aware that even since the beginning of this Session, the UK has entered into five international treaties, including an important one on sentencing with the International Criminal Court. Will she consider a proposal to allow us to look at treaties that will come down the pipeline between now and the eventual passage of a Constitutional Renewal Bill, which could take two or three years to come into effect? All colleagues, in both Houses, would welcome the chance to see the treaties in draft and express a view on them, and that cannot be too difficult to arrange.

As the hon. Gentleman understands fully, the procedure for treaties currently follows the Ponsonby rule. The convention is that they are laid on the Table in both Houses for 21 days. Obviously that will continue until we have the Constitutional Renewal Bill. As he may also be aware, on some occasions there are time limits that make giving full notice particularly difficult. However, I will look into the suggestion that he made.

New Technology

27. If she will propose to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons that it inquire into the use of new technology to connect Parliament with the public. (204042)

The Government and the House attach great importance to promoting parliamentary engagement with the public. There are no current plans for the Modernisation Committee to examine the specific issue of the use of new technology in support of that, but the Committee has frequently examined it within its other work—for example, in the recent reforms to the legislative process.

I thank the Minister for that answer. There are many ways in which new technology can help Parliament better to connect with the public, as highlighted by my own campaign to allow parliamentary video clips to be shown on YouTube and other websites and also by the “Free our Bills” campaign to make legislation more easily accessible, searchable and understandable online. Will the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House further consider asking the Modernisation Committee to undertake an inquiry specifically on that issue, taking into account the two subjects that I have mentioned?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that television proceedings and subsequent use on Members’ websites are subject to a licence issued by the Speaker. The licence stipulates that material must not be hosted on a searchable website and must not be downloadable. The reason for that is to ensure that it is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of mySociety’s “Free our Bills” campaign and it is obvious that great strides have been taken recently in improving the parliamentary website. She is right to suggest that if our constituents can gain easier access to the progress of Bills, it will enable them to intervene as they wish. That work is ongoing. The specific proposals of mySociety, however, have some disadvantages. It wants to be able to provide explanatory material and to reorder some material, but before we went that far we would need to look into it in much greater detail.

The most important way in which the public can access the parliamentary system is by accessing their MPs. I want to commend those who organise the IT system, or—as it certainly went through difficult times—those who are now running a much better system. Will my hon. Friend make it clear—it may have to be done through parliamentary procedures—that we really should not be shutting down the system? When we are trying to work through remote access, it is very annoying when neither our constituents can access us nor we them.

Like my hon. Friend I have a rural constituency, so I understand the particular difficulties faced by Members whose IT access collapses, if only temporarily. I will take up my hon. Friend’s points with the Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology department.

Draft Legislative Programme

28. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s publication of a draft legislative programme. (204043)

May I first apologise, like the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), for the fact that because I will be attending the funeral of my good friend and doughty parliamentarian, Gwyneth Dunwoody, I will be unable to remain in my place for the conclusion of these questions I will leave the business statement in the competent hands of the Deputy Leader of the House.

Following the publication of last year’s draft legislative programme on 11 July 2007, the Government published in November a summary of the consultation carried out and the comments received in “The Government’s Draft Legislative Programme— Taking a Wider View”. As Leader of the House, I contributed to the Modernisation Committee’s inquiry on the draft legislative programme. That Committee reported in January 2008, and the outcomes from those exercises have informed the consultation process for this year’s draft legislative programme, which will be published shortly.

While the Government are now apparently full of empathy and listening, does the Leader of the House recall the fanfare greeting of last year’s draft legislative programme, which said that it was all about

“improving the public’s opportunity to have a say in that process”?

How many members of the public actually had their say and what difference did it make?

Last year, for the first time, instead of merely producing the list of Bills that would comprise the Government’s legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech, we published our programme in draft in advance, in order to make transparent a process that had hitherto been carried out only behind closed doors. That allowed people to see what we were doing and to have their say. We conceded that we did that late in the day because it was brought in by the new Prime Minister, who had only taken up his office in June. We thus undertook to do it earlier this year in order to allow people more of a say, and that is what we intend to do.

Are we going to have a special referendum Bill relating to the future of the United Kingdom? I remind the right hon. and learned Lady that my constituents and hers have as much ownership of, and interest in, the future of the United Kingdom as do people in Edinburgh or Glasgow. If it is true that the United Kingdom Cabinet has not discussed this matter, then it should. Its failure to do so would be an abdication of its constitutional responsibilities, and this House has a duty, for the sake of the future of the United Kingdom, which needs to be addressed.

The contents of the draft legislative programme will be announced shortly. However, on scrutiny by this House of English regional issues, my hon. Friend will know that the Modernisation Committee is conducting an inquiry into English regional Select Committees and will make its proposals shortly.

The Leader of the House said that the draft legislative programme would be published shortly. The Modernisation Committee report of January supported the proposal that she had put forward that the draft legislative programme should be published at Easter. I note she said that that would provide enough time for the Government to have sensible measures to put forward. Are we to read into the fact that the programme has not been published at Easter this year that the Government have nothing sensible to say?

The right hon. Lady will have to make up her mind, along with everybody else, when we publish our draft legislative programme, but perhaps she will also remember that Easter was very early this year.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Crèche Facilities

29. What recent consideration has been given by the House authorities to the provision of crèche facilities for staff and hon. Members. (204044)

There are no current plans for a crèche, but if there is an unmet need or demand, this can be looked at again. Members’ staff and staff of the House are eligible for child care vouchers. The Members Estimate Committee has recently considered extending the voucher scheme to Members, and will return to the subject shortly.

Will the hon. Gentleman talk to the Commission about undertaking a survey of staff and Members to establish whether there is a demand for a crèche? Also, as an immediate measure, would it not be possible for staff and Members to be able to pay to use nearby departmental crèches as and when the need arises, given the nature of their jobs?

I am sure that the possibility of using nearby departmental facilities could be investigated. I will refer the hon. Lady’s remarks about having a more general survey to the Administration Committee. A survey was conducted in 2003, which led to the conclusion that it was more convenient, particularly for members of staff, to have child care vouchers that did not have to be redeemed here at Westminster, but which could be used nearer to where they lived, such as in outer London boroughs—or, indeed, in the constituencies, because Members’ constituency staff are eligible for the vouchers and can redeem them in the constituencies.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Topical Debates

As set out in the written ministerial statement of 7 February announcing the review, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has asked for comments to inform the review by 23 May. The results of the review will be published to the House before the summer recess. This will help to inform any decision of the House on whether to make permanent the Standing Orders that introduced topical debates on an experimental basis for the 2007-08 Session, or whether any changes to the Standing Orders may be necessary.

The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that the Procedure Committee is undertaking an inquiry into this matter, in addition to the review by the Leader of the House. Will the Deputy Leader of the House not concede that the current method of choosing topical debates is not transparent, and that it appears to be the decision of the Government when it should be the decision of Back Benchers—and would it not be sensible to have a Committee set up, under the chairmanship of a Back-Bench Member?

I will take the hon. Gentleman’s remarks as his contribution to the review. I have seen the Procedure Committee report on this question. I would like to point out to him that topical debates are held in Government time, and that if he were to look through the subjects that we have addressed over the past six months, he would see that they have been suggested by Members from across the House, including many Back Benchers. Therefore, until we have examined the matter, I cannot promise him that we will change the way in which the choice is made.

Private Members' Bills (Westminster Hall)

31. If she will propose to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons that it inquire into using Westminster Hall as well as the main Chamber for debate on Private Members’ Bills on Fridays. (204046)

The House has, from time to time, looked at the time made available to private Members’ Bills and the best ways for them to be considered. The issue is complex. For example, it includes the question of how much time hon. Members want to spend on parliamentary business at Westminster, and within that, on private Members’ business, and the place of that time within the working week.

I understand my hon. Friend’s proposal to involve parallel Friday sittings in the two venues so that more Bills can be considered. I am not aware that that specific idea has been proposed before, but it is clearly one that any Committee examining this issue could consider.

I am very glad to hear that the issue may get consideration. Private Members have brought some very important legislation through the House, legislation that Governments of the day have been too frightened to introduce—one thinks of the abolition of the death penalty or the abortion law reform. Legislation on more of these difficult issues, including, perhaps, legislation to deal with the question of primogeniture, could be brought through by a private Member if more time were available. I urge the Modernisation Committee to examine my proposal seriously.

I agree with my hon. Friend that much private Members’ legislation has been extremely important and groundbreaking. I know that an hon. Member could apply every year for 10 years and still have only a 50/50 chance of being selected in the ballot, but sometimes issues that initially appear in private Members’ legislation find their way into Government legislation in the end.