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Commons Chamber

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 26 June 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 3 July.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order):

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading (12 June).

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 3 July.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 3 July.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Science Funding (Universities)

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on regional development agency funding for science in universities. (213860)

We have regular meetings with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform at ministerial and official level on a wide range of issues, including joint meetings with the chairs of the regional development agencies.

Scientists engaged in research at universities do not only produce good results but help to create an atmosphere that encourages economic activity in the regions. Given the reorganisation of the science budget and the Science and Technology Facilities Council and given the £80 million shortfall, will the Minister perhaps consider exploring avenues with the regional development agencies to make up that shortfall and allow scientists in my university of Lancaster, for example, to carry on with the excellent work that it does and create the right atmosphere for job creation throughout the country?

The budget for the Science and Technology Facilities Council is actually going up over the next three years. Compared with its baseline, it is going up by 13.6 per cent.; that is perhaps not as much as some in the community would like, but to suggest that there has been a cut is simply wrong. It is important, however, that the university research base talks to and deals with the regional development agencies. We already have commitments to Research Councils UK, for example, by working together with the regional development agencies and the Technology Strategy Board. That is happening as we speak in Manchester and in other universities in the north-west. Such links are important because we need to ensure that our strategy is co-ordinated.

Per capita, Wales has fewer than half the number of scientists and engineers working in world-class universities in comparison with England and about a third fewer than the comparable figure for Scotland. Will the Minister explain what is being done at a UK level to reduce that science gap between the different nations of the UK?

We continue to see sustained investment in science at a UK level. The science and research budget has doubled since 1997 and it will have tripled by 2010-11. What we have to do is invest in excellent science. At the Government level, we take strategic decisions about the overall direction of science funding—on full economic costing, for example—but it is really up to the Research Councils and the peer review process to determine what is the best research and to fund that accordingly.

I welcome the increase in research funding under the Government, but for a university to be a university, it needs to engage in research as well as teaching. The Government have adopted the policy of concentrating research on certain universities and markedly lessening the funding for research at other universities. Will my hon. Friend have another look at that policy in the hope of redistributing some of the research funding to universities such as the excellent university of Wolverhampton?

I agree with my hon. Friend that Wolverhampton is an excellent university. What is important for the Government is that we fund excellent research. I am tremendously proud of the world-class research conducted in our universities. We have to ensure that the people taking the decisions on what is the best research to fund are independent of the Government. That is why we have the Research Councils and why there is an extensive peer review process. That is the right approach for taking decisions on individual research projects.

In the Government’s proposals for 20 new universities or higher education establishments, how much importance is attached to getting the support of the local business community in making the bids successful?

I am sure that a great deal of importance will be attached to ensuring that businesses are involved in the bids for these new universities. I want to make the basic point that we as a Labour Government will have tripled the science budget by 2010-11—an increase way above the trend rate of growth of the UK economy. The Conservative party policy, as I understand it, is to share the proceeds of growth—

Order. I do not want to hear about Conservative party policy—at least not on the Floor of the House at the moment.

I am somewhat surprised by the gloating and boasting of the Minister about science in the UK. He will be aware of the worry and concern among university scientists, researchers and academics about their future. Given the Government’s £80 million shortfall for the STFC, the STFC has said that it will scale back the number of research grants that it provides. Will the Minister have the courage to answer this question directly, without beating about the bush: on his watch, will the number of Government-funded post-doctoral research assistants be higher or lower by 2010?

It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to accuse the Government of boasting when a campaign to save British science had to take place back in 1997. He must answer whether he is prepared to meet the Government’s spending commitments—the commitment to real-terms growth by 2014. The difference between sharing the proceeds of growth and our plans amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. The scientific community has a right to understand where the Opposition stand.

On post-doctoral research grants, the figures for astronomy and particle physics are massively up compared with 2005-06. It will be up to the STFC to take the detailed decisions on research grants. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is going through a programmatic review process, and we will await the outcomes of that.

Political Extremism

2. What recent assessment he has made of levels of political extremism at universities and colleges. (213861)

Our assessment is that there is a serious, but not widespread problem of support for violent extremist activity on university and college campuses. We are working with universities and colleges to build their resilience by raising awareness of the appropriate response, which must include the promotion of shared values and respect for free and open debate, as well as providing support for students who may be at risk from extremist groups.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. University staff have rightly been urged by the Government to challenge groups that promote terrorism on campuses. As a result, some universities and student unions have banned all political guest speakers. Dealing with that thorny issue prompts the question: where does legitimate free speech end and dangerous extremism begin?

I am not aware—I apologise to the House if I should be—of any university campus that has banned all visiting political speakers. Clearly, I would wish to know where that has happened. The Government have made it clear, including in a lecture by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education last autumn, that we regard academic freedom and the ability to have even controversial ideas properly examined and contested as a proper and, indeed, essential role of universities and colleges. Throughout, we have tried to draw the distinction between those who are prepared to have their ideas properly examined and criticised, in the atmosphere of a good university, and those who seek to propagate violent, dangerous and illegal ideas, often in surreptitious or underhand ways. I hope that there is no doubt about the Government’s support for academic freedom, not just as a good thing in its own right but as part of our defence of the values that we seek to protect.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is only too aware of the reported cases of terrorism that have been linked to British university campuses. A leading academic expert has called on the Government to ban universities from accepting money from Saudi or Islamic groups to fund Islamic studies, and has also called on all university donations to be made public. Will the Secretary of State explain why his Department’s recent report on preventing extremism in universities contains nothing about financial donations, even those from dangerous extremist groups?

Two important points need to be made. It is true that, in some recent terrorist cases, individuals have been involved who at some point spent part of their careers as students at a college or university. That statement is very different from assuming that they were drawn into violent extremism or organised it as part of their role or attendance at university. One of my criticisms of the academic to whom I think the hon. Gentleman refers is the assumption of an equation between universities as a base for organising activities and the fact that some people involved in terrorist cases have been students. Our guidance is intended to deal with that issue.

The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that any donation from Saudi sources is tainted with terrorism. I think he should be very careful about making such assertions. The Government would certainly be concerned about any donations that were associated with violent extremism, but I am not prepared to accept the equation between Saudi donations to higher education and the promotion of terrorism.

Foreign Languages (Universities)

There were 46,100 students studying languages at English higher education institutions in 2006-07, the latest year for which figures are available. Through the national languages strategy, the Government aim to transform England’s language capability by creating an appetite for language learning and enriching the opportunities available to learners of all ages.

The trouble is that not enough people are studying foreign languages at universities today, which means that it will be more difficult for children to learn foreign languages at school because there will be no teachers for them. I know that the Minister is a fine linguist. May I urge him to be a little less laissez-faire and a bit more dirigiste in his approach to modern languages, to encourage more youngsters to study foreign languages, and to encourage people on other university courses to add a foreign language element to them?

As a French graduate, I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s arguments. Our national language strategy focuses on important relationships between the world of higher education and the work being done in schools. The single biggest change we can make to promote the take-up of foreign languages is to ensure that, by the end of the decade, every young person in every primary school will have access to a modern foreign language.

A significant number of overseas students are studying at our universities, which is of considerable benefit to those universities. Throughout my discussions with Conservative Front Benchers, I have been led to believe that the Conservative party supports the promotion of such opportunities for overseas students—and they do speak English: there is no reputable evidence to suggest that people embarking on United Kingdom university courses do not have an English language capability and cannot benefit from such study.

Will the Minister take another close look at the curriculum in our secondary schools? We need to ensure that foreign language teaching not only helps comprehension and enables students to converse when they go abroad, but equips them with the building blocks and grammatical structures that they can use when they go to university to study foreign languages as an academic subject.

I think it is a question of balance. I think that the development of language-based courses that focus on communication produces exactly the skills that employers and others want and is also more likely to entice young people to take up the study of foreign languages. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the reality that those wishing to study a language in the longer term, at degree level, will need that grammatical base.

In view of the transformation of language teaching that the Minister has described, will he consider going beyond education to the world of work, and take account of the languages that are more important for the future in a globalised world—Mandarin, Cantonese and Arabic languages? I realise that he may not have the information to hand and may have to write to me, but will he give some idea of the number of British students learning such languages—as opposed to overseas students studying their home tongue—and also the proportionate increase in that number over the past five and 10 years?

I share the assumption behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. We need to promote the uptake of a wide range of languages. A welcome development in recent years is the significant increase, albeit from a low base, in the number of students studying Mandarin. The Higher Education Funding Council and the Research Councils are working together on a well-funded initiative to create a world-class cadre of researchers who will enhance this country’s understanding of the Arab world, China and Japan, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. However, although we need to encourage more study of languages, the fact remains that someone who has studied one language is much more likely to study a second.

Citizenship and English Language Courses

4. How his Department monitors the quality of teaching and qualifications provided by colleges offering courses in citizenship and in English for speakers of other languages. (213864)

The quality of ESOL teaching for Learning and Skills Council-funded courses is monitored through regular inspection by Ofsted. Inspectorate reviews have reported steady improvement since 2001, and Ofsted will publish a thematic review this summer. Citizenship materials are developed to meet Home Office criteria for naturalisation. They are not a separate curriculum and are not formally assessed, but are often used within ESOL courses. Successful learners receive a qualification from awarding bodies who are assessed and accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. There are some excellent organisations in Bristol offering ESOL and citizenship courses funded through, and supported by, the City of Bristol college, but given the plethora of organisations that are springing up across the country, particularly in areas of high ethnic diversity such as mine, how can we be sure that people wanting to take those courses are directed towards reputable organisations and do not waste their money on organisations that do not offer a proper standard of teaching and might not even be properly accredited to offer the qualifications?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. While any college providing a course needs to register, that does not of itself provide an assurance of the quality of the education on offer. I strongly advise her constituents to look for those providers who offer properly accredited awards from the recognised awarding bodies regulated by the QCA, and to look for qualifications that are LSC-funded. There are people who are willing to exploit those who want to learn English, perhaps for citizenship and naturalisation purposes. It should not be difficult to find a properly accredited provider offering the right qualifications. However, if this is an issue of widespread concern, we should discuss how we might make the choices more easily explainable to people.

Political Extremism

5. What progress has been made in his Department’s further education consultation on promotion of shared values and counteracting violent extremism. (213865)

Our consultation on further education providers’ role in promoting community cohesion, fostering shared values and preventing violent extremism closed on 6 May. We have established a network of “champion principals” to work with us on the way forward. We will revise our guidance and work with the new Learning and Skills Improvement Service and other Government Departments to create resources and support that respond to the needs expressed in the consultation and reinforce partnership working.

I thank the Minister for that answer. One of the best ways to counter violent extremism is to encourage vigorous open debate. What is the Department doing to ensure that education providers enable such open debate to take place?

My hon. Friend makes an exceedingly important point, and the arguments the Secretary of State just outlined apply to both further and higher education. In academic freedom and free and open debate, we have one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to isolate and challenge the very small minority who advocate violent extremism. We must look for every opportunity within further education colleges to promote that. One initiative that I am very pleased we are taking forward is the allocation of £2 million in each of the next three years to develop materials to promote the citizenship education within our FE colleges that will help such debate take place.

Low-carbon Economy

6. What funding his Department has allocated to the implementation of policies set out in the “Building a Low Carbon Economy” document. (213867)

As the House will be aware, the Government are today publishing for consultation plans to take the UK towards a low-carbon future. Research Councils UK expenditure on energy research and training has more than doubled since 2003 and, over the period 2008-09 to 2010-11, that will approach £300 million. The Energy Technologies Institute will invest up to £1 billion over the next 10 years, and the Technology Strategy Board is expanding its portfolio of activities through a range of initiatives, including innovation platforms that are low carbon.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I would like to help him to invest the money wisely. Although the document referred to in the question has been led by another Department—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—does he agree that it is an excellent ambition for this Government to lead the world both in the transition from high carbon to low carbon and in being successful in the future low-carbon economy? The document shows that the route to get there is through innovative technologies and world-class skills. Does he agree that it is important to make sure that we are preparing people now with the skills for then? In that context, is he aware of my proposal for a network of what I call “sea change colleges” around the country, where we could train people in those skills—and, naturally, I have suggested a location in my constituency for one of them?

I understand that the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education met my hon. Friend to discuss the “sea change colleges” proposals. The DEFRA document is excellent, as is the consultation document being launched today, which refers to the potential for creating 160,000 new jobs as a result of making the transition that we need to make towards a greener, low-carbon economy. The “World Class Skills” document sets out how we want to embed sustainability and address environmental skills as a key issue for the future. We had a major conference in Windsor last week, involving the sector skills councils, expert bodies and all those involved in the environmental industries, to help us chart a way forward as we look to implement the “World Class Skills” document.

I welcome the research programme that the Minister has mentioned. He will be aware that the Climate Change Bill is being considered upstairs in Committee and, in that context, the CBI has asked for interim targets and rolling budgets. Will he commission research to come forward with precisely that in the context of the Climate Change Bill programme?

I do not want to give any specific commitments today, but I can say to the hon. Lady that the Government are funding some major research programmes. “Living with environmental change” is a major cross-council programme that is looking at a range of areas. Through the Committee on Climate Change, a lot of research is also going on into setting targets, and work is being done on frameworks. There are tremendous opportunities here for the UK not only to do the right thing by making that transition to a low-carbon economy, but to make sure at the same time that sustainable new jobs can be created in our economy. Research and development and support to enable that to happen are in Britain’s best interests.

The Minister will be well aware that there is wide support for a low-carbon economy, but we are facing energy challenges that mean that we probably need to build some more coal-fired power stations. That will largely depend on carbon capture and storage. Can the Minister give a status report on where we are with the grant going into research into carbon capture and storage in this country, and the challenges faced?

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a deep interest in these issues, and he will be aware of my personal very strong commitment to carbon capture and storage as a new technology that needs to be deployed, at scale, worldwide if we are to be successful in tackling climate change issues. The Government will shortly be publishing further proposals on carbon capture and storage, and I will make sure that he sees those. If I can provide him with any further information, I would be delighted to do so.

Scholarships

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the provision of scholarships in the UK to students from other Commonwealth countries. (213868)

I met the Minister for Europe recently and discussed this issue. Officials in my Department and in the Foreign Office have followed up this meeting by meeting representatives of Universities UK and the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. As a result, the FCO, UUK and my Department are working together with other Government Departments and representatives of British business to look at ways of maximising the impact of scholarships, including exploring the potential for alternative funding of doctoral awards for developed Commonwealth countries.

I think that I am a little encouraged by that answer. The Minister will know that there has been great distress in many organisations in this country and around the Commonwealth at the FCO’s cutting off of the funding for postgraduate scholarships from developed Commonwealth countries. May I ask Ministers to continue those discussions and if necessary to work out a new way of providing funding from the Government if it cannot come from the old FCO source? Will they also try to have as an objective our continuing to have the best and brightest of scholars from all over the Commonwealth who could not themselves afford to come here, so that we build for the future not just the academic links but the international friendships that are fundamental to our foreign policy, as well as to international education and skill development?

The hon. Gentleman’s underlying point about the importance of the globalisation of higher education and the benefit of overseas students coming to this country and building long-lasting relationships is important. However, it is important to make it clear that, overall, Government funding for the Commonwealth scholarships is not being cut. The Foreign Office is reducing its funding, but the Department for International Development is significantly increasing its. Overall, by the end of this spending review period, funding for the Commonwealth scholarships will be £2.7 million higher than it was in 2007-08. There is an increase, but we need to get the balance right, and discussions to ensure that we manage the change effectively are ongoing.

Apprenticeships

Government plans to allocate £927 million in the next financial year to expand and improve apprenticeships were published in the Learning and Skills Council grant letter issued on 16 November 2007.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer, for which I am grateful, the construction sector has serious difficulties, as next month’s Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians’ report is likely to show. What is the Minister doing to tackle a position in which the industry needs 90,000 new recruits each year, but employers take on just 7,000 apprentices, which is many fewer than further education colleges produce? Surely this reservoir of untapped talent has to be tapped as a national priority, because apprenticeships are a firm foundation for our future success.

My hon. Friend is right. Throughout the country, cranes are up in our cities for programmes such as house building, the Olympics in London, Building Schools for the Future and new hospitals. We need construction workers for those projects and we want to see an increase in apprenticeships. I am pleased that the number of apprenticeships has increased by a third in the last year with 21,000 people starting apprenticeships in the construction industry, and yesterday we were able to announce a three-year deal with the sector skills council for the construction sector, with a £135 million investment in training and 2,000 specialist apprenticeships to increase the number further.

The Minister knows that the average number of apprentices in training overall has declined as more emphasis has been placed on other forms of workplace training, such as Train to Gain. The Government are banking on Train to Gain, even though it has emerged that the basic contract does not pay for much beyond assessing employees’ existing skills. What a contrast with the best of apprenticeships of the kind that you completed, Mr. Speaker. The Government must know that the failure to support apprenticeships and emphasise Train to Gain is in stark contrast with the LSC survey that found that the majority of employers who have signed up to Train to Gain have seen

“no financial benefit from taking part.”

Why does the Minister think that is?

I just wish that before the hon. Gentleman stood up he would check his facts. If he looked properly at what is happening in Train to Gain, he would see that the vast majority, 77 per cent., of those pursuing Train to Gain, are in the higher bracket. That includes training, new qualifications, and an increase in productivity for employers. That is why there is an 80 per cent. satisfaction rate with Train to Gain among employers. The hon. Gentleman needs to do better and might think about going on a course himself.

The Government have made huge progress in increasing the number of apprenticeships in the last decade and improving completion rates. But is it not the case that one of the reasons that young people give for not completing is the lack of portability of the apprenticeship? Will the Minister say something about the Government’s efforts to improve the transferability of apprenticeships?

My hon. Friend is right. We want to see progression, so that it is clear that the apprenticeship is about quality, and we will introduce an apprenticeship Bill to underline that. Part of that quality is progression to a foundation degree, and the clear indication is that that is linked to higher skills. We are working with the Higher Education Funding Council on matching data sets so that we can show properly how many apprenticeships are taking that route and progressing.

Our review said that we want more group training associations. With a hub and spoke model, that allows apprentices the opportunity to move across organisations, which is especially relevant for small and medium-sized enterprises.

I am sure that I speak for my hon. Friends when I say that we welcome the huge increase in the number of young people involved in apprenticeships, and I compliment the Government on that. However, it is a real problem that, in the pursuit of those ambitious targets, there are far more programme-led apprenticeships in our colleges, with no employer involved. The danger is that that will tarnish the brand of apprenticeships and short-change our young people. Will the Minister respond to that point and give the House some indication of how many apprenticeships will be programme led, as opposed to employer led, this year?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he put his question. I reassure him that all the 250,000 apprenticeships in the expansion since 1997 are proper apprenticeships: they are not programme-led apprenticeships. However, he is right that there are many programme-led apprenticeships in our FE colleges. As we all know, there is a problem with young people not in education or training. Many young people may not be ready to take an apprenticeship at 16 but, with the initial training in college of a programme-led apprenticeship, they may be ready by 17 or 18. When we scrutinised the Learning and Skills Act 2000, organisations such as the Prince’s Trust supported programme-led apprenticeships because they saw the benefits that they bring. This year’s increase of 22,000 extra learners on apprenticeships is in proper apprenticeships with a work-based element.

Aimhigher Programme

9. What assessment he has made of the performance of the Aimhigher programme against its objectives. (213874)

Aimhigher is making an important contribution to widening participation in higher education. After just 18 months, evaluation shows that Excellence Challenge—Aimhigher’s predecessor—was having a significant impact on young people’s attainment and aspirations. The proportion of university entrants from lower social classes is increasing, and the number of entrants from Ipswich has gone up from 285 in 1997 to 460 in 2006—almost 63 per cent. higher.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he draw the same encouragement as I do from surveys showing that more than 50 per cent. of pupils from all social classes now aspire to go to university, and does he agree that our job is now to turn that aspiration into achievement?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are making progress. Applications to university are up by more than 6 per cent. for next year, acceptances were up by 6 per cent. this year and the lower socio-economic group classification is also increasing. However, there is a gap between aspiration and fulfilment, which is why we are investing substantially in student grants. Two thirds of students will be eligible from this September. We have also made, for the first time, a radical commitment to guarantee that any young person receiving the education maintenance allowance will have a minimum financial entitlement when they go to university. All of us know that the big hurdle to overcome in young people staying on and progressing in further and higher education is the decision that is taken at 16, not at 18, so that is one of the best changes that we can make to drive the process forward.

Is not the real gap between the Government’s rhetoric and reality? This week, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said that degrees are being dumbed down: instead of a third of degrees being first or upper second class, as they were in 1996, two thirds are. Degrees are being dumbed down. People no longer expect to fail—they just go to university and pass. The Government’s rhetoric is that we should bring lots of disadvantaged people into university education, but we have learned this week that that is not true—the numbers have hardly changed in the past 10 years. Let us address that gap. Can the Government tell us what they will do to address it?

It is not true. The hon. Gentleman inaccurately describes the views of the QAA, and it is regrettable when comments are taken out of context and misused. We are making greater progress, but we need to do more. It is about a combination of aspiration and support. The fundamental difference between our two parties is that we agree with expanding opportunity and the Conservatives still believe that higher education is the preserve of the elite.

Engineering Diplomas

11. How many higher education institutions have indicated they will accept the new engineering diploma for admissions purposes. (213878)

The first advanced diplomas will be awarded in 2010. Entry requirements for specific courses will not be available until March 2009, so it is not possible at this stage to indicate how many institutions will accept diplomas for entry to their courses. However, UCAS is collecting statements covering the general acceptability of diplomas that are available on the UCAS website. Almost 150 higher education institutions have made statements, the vast majority of which are very positive about acceptances on to higher education courses.

I thank my hon. Friend for that very encouraging answer. He will know of my constituency’s proud tradition of engineering. Employers say to me that part of the problem with young people’s approach to engineering is that they do not know what it is to be a modern engineer. Their view of engineering is stuck in the past. They also do not understand the route to engineering. What measures is my hon. Friend putting in place to ensure that when the higher education institutions want to accept those qualifications and offer pathways into engineering young people are aware of it as an option and to ensure that they take it?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Whenever I talk to engineering employers I find that they are keen to work with the Government and the funding agencies to present a modern, up-to-date image of engineering that entices young people to take on those courses. We can do that in a number of ways, but one of the most effective is to point out to young people the higher graduate earnings premium from undertaking a science, technology, engineering or mathematics degree compared with that from a non-STEM degree. We certainly need to do more of that, but I believe that the diplomas, which target young people at the age of 14 who have talent and potential but are switched off by an exclusively academic route to educational success, can help us to make progress.

Small Businesses

13. What steps the Government are taking to improve the skills available to employees of small businesses. (213882)

Through the Train to Gain service, employers can access support to help them identify and address their skills needs at all levels, including Government funding to sit alongside their own investment. Employers with fewer than 50 employees can access compensation to help them meet the wage costs of their employees while they train.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Some 57,000 people across the county borough of Bridgend are employed in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises with a work force of between one and nine. Does my hon. Friend agree that not only apprentices and the youth but the older work force need ongoing education and skills training? Does he agree that providing that skills training for the older work force will allow small companies in my constituency to stay ahead in the global economy?

My hon. Friend is completely right, and she cuts to the heart of the matter. That was the basis of the Leitch review. We have done a number of things since then. First, we have ensured that small and micro businesses can access an increase in budget from £4 million to £30 million of leadership and management money to ensure that the owners of small businesses can match-fund and get access to courses. The union learning fund is making a huge difference, of course, providing skills for life and basic literacy and numeracy for many people who did not receive that training before. Indeed, it is important that the compensation is there to incentivise those with very small businesses to engage in Train to Gain. That suite of measures will help older employees in her constituency. I must say, too, that even though we tend to talk about apprenticeships in relation to young people, we have seen increases in adult apprenticeships over the past few years, and we are set to see more.

Copyright

14. What his policy is on the proposals of the European Commission on copyright term extension for performers; and if he will make a statement. (213883)

The Commission has not yet published its proposal. We will consider the detail of the proposal fully once it is published.

Is the Minister aware that it was the unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport that performers would benefit enormously from an extension of the copyright term to the same length as exists outside Europe? It is not just about a few big-name artists but about thousands of session musicians and small performers who rely on royalties for their income. Will he seriously consider supporting the very encouraging recommendation of Commissioner McCreevy that Europe should come into line with the rest of the world?

I am certainly aware of the views that the Select Committee expressed, although I have to say that they were not the same as those expressed in the Gowers review. We have not seen the European Commission’s proposal yet, and we will obviously want to consider it fully once it is published.

Topical Questions

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was formed a year ago tomorrow. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked me to bring together three areas of work that are, together, critical to the future prosperity and success of this country and to the chance of each person sharing in that prosperity. We have to make the most of the talent and ability of each individual, we have to sustain our world-class research and scholarship and we have to bring skills and knowledge together to create innovative businesses and public services.

I should like to take this opportunity to place on record my thanks to all the staff at DIUS and its associated agencies, who have worked so hard, through office moves, new IT systems and new ways of working with new colleagues, to give the new Department a successful first year.

In Bristol, we need to do much more to encourage young people to stay on in education post 16, but, equally important, we need to do more to give people a chance to return to education if they dropped out at 16. What are the Government doing to encourage young people and to give them that second chance, so that they can get the qualifications and skills that they need to equip them for the world of work?

Some people say that we should respond to the difficult international economy by cutting investment in young people and giving tax cuts to the rich. I do not agree. I believe that investing in our young people is the best way to secure prosperity for the future. As a result of extra money given to my Department in the Budget and of decisions that I have taken, this autumn, for the first time, every 18-year-old will know that they can get public funding for qualifications whether they choose to go to university, be an apprentice or study for their first level 2 or 3 qualification until the age of 25. That means that this Government are supporting young people whether they choose to go to university, study at college or train at work.

Further to the answer given to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), will the discussions extend to countries that, hopefully temporarily, are not members of the British Commonwealth, such as Zimbabwe? Can we do our best to help students from there, too?

I think that I am right in saying that such Commonwealth grants are not currently available, and I do not anticipate a change at the moment. I do not think that that would send out the right incentive. The situation in Zimbabwe is deplorable, as Members are aware, and we need to co-ordinate international pressure effectively. Within that context, we will undoubtedly keep the Commonwealth grants under review.

T2. Year 5 children from Lawn primary school are in the House today. They have shown an understandable interest in the Government’s plans to extend the education and training age to 18. What higher education and skills benefits does my right hon. Friend think that that initiative will have for those children, and for Swindon? (213851)

It is important to recognise that raising the participation age ensures that the most disadvantaged young people and those least likely to stay in education and training will be able to do so, in most cases while they are at work. The Opposition refuse to offer that support, and say that young people who get into trouble should be put into boot camp. Our approach, which is to equip people for future lives at work, is the right one.

No one else has done so, but may I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State on his year in charge of his new Department? I welcome him back to the Front Bench after his time chairing a Select Committee.

We are about to hear about equality, so I hope that the Secretary of State will explain why such a big gender gap has opened up at our universities. Forty five per cent. of young women now go to university, but only 35 per cent. of young men. Why is there still a social class gap of almost record size in the number of people going to our universities? I invite him to agree that one of the most disadvantaged groups in Britain today is that consisting of young, single, white and working-class men. What is he going to do to spread equal opportunities to them?

First, because we have invested in higher education, far more people go to university today than were able to under the previous Conservative Government. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a marked gender gap in universities, and that is why we are developing the Aimhigher scheme and Aimhigher Associates, the young people who go back into schools to promote the opportunities of higher education, as well as forging links between schools and universities. All that effort is aimed at making sure that young people who have the ability to go to university but who do not aspire to that—or, more importantly, apply—will do so in future.

As for the gender gap, university admissions are in line with young people’s prior attainment records—the qualifications that they get at school. To deal with the gap in performance, we must make sure that schools are able to identify, spot and nurture talent among young people, and that is what we will do.

Gaps exist in relation to both gender and social class, but increasingly there is a new ethnic gap, with some white, working-class men doing especially badly. Does the Secretary of State agree that the reasons for that are clear when we look at his record? There has been a decline in the number of people enrolling at FE colleges, while the Government have clearly failed to meet their target for university expansion. Moreover, the numbers of advanced apprenticeships—the ones that really spread opportunities to move on in life—are falling. Are not those the real reasons why we are facing the gaps that I have described, and is not the right hon. Gentleman worried that he might be prosecuted by the Minister for Women and Equality for such a failure to spread equality of opportunity?

The hon. Gentleman confuses a whole series of factors, and I shall deal with each in turn. The number of advanced apprenticeships being successfully completed is far higher than when the previous Government were in power. The previous Government put people in advanced apprenticeships, but none of them completed their courses. That was pointless. Advanced apprenticeships make up 30 per cent. of a growing programme—a proportion that has remained pretty much the same—but we are investing more money in new opportunities for apprenticeships.

The latest available figures show that the number of young people from the lower socio-economic groups who have been accepted for university was the highest ever. We are the first to say that there are things that remain to be done, but the previous Government cut the amount spent on students and made no serious effort to promote opportunity. Given their record, I am proud of what we have done, and I am convinced that the Labour party is the one that can tackle these problems in future.

T3. At the Department’s previous Question Time, I heard the Secretary of State tell us about the big increase in his capital spending budget. Sure enough, I learned last week that Stafford college had scooped more than £30 million to rebuild its campus in the coming years. Will he confirm that Ministers will use their sizeable public procurement programme to push our country in the right direction—that is, towards a low-carbon economy with buildings and services that are sustainable not just environmentally but economically and socially? (213853)

We are promoting the benefits of using procurement positively in our own Department and trying to spread that message across the Government. The capital programme that we announced a few months ago for further education colleges is clear on two points. The first is that we will expect new projects to meet the new Building Research Establishment environmental assessment method, or BREEAM, excellence standard, which will be published in July. It is the highest standard available to public sector buildings in this sector, which means that taxpayers’ money is being used not only to provide better buildings but to help safeguard the future for our young people and future generations.

The second thing that we have made clear is that every single one of these projects—this will apply to my hon. Friend’s local project—must include a training plan, so that those who are building the training facilities of the future are trained while they are building them.

One of the major policy initiatives that the new Department has launched in the past 12 months, jointly with the other education Department, has been the increase in the learning and training age to 18. Is the Secretary of State concerned by the latest statistical release from his Department which came out on 19 June? It shows that for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds there has been no real growth in the number of apprenticeships and advanced apprenticeships. What steps is he going to take to ensure greater employer engagement and demand for apprenticeships?

We have made it clear that by 2013 young people with the aptitude for an apprenticeship should be able to have one; we are making that a legal right. We want to get to a position in which one in five young people are able to do an apprenticeship. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers simply reflect a pretty small shift in the age at which young people start their apprenticeships. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said a few moments ago, there has been an increase of 22,000 in the number of apprenticeships available.

I am confident that we will continue to make the extra places available. In doing that, we are talking to major employers about training over and above their own requirements for apprenticeships and about developing group training associations to develop new initiatives. Furthermore, we are having a major drive to get public sector apprenticeships. The apprenticeship model works not only in the traditional industries, but in the public sector and for white-collar jobs and service jobs. There is the huge, and largely untapped, potential for the number of apprenticeships that we need in the future.

T4. As my hon. Friends will be aware, Scottish universities increasingly rely on English students to fill places on their courses, and those full-time students currently pay no council tax. The SNP minority Administration have proposed to introduce a local income tax, which Glasgow city council has estimated would have to be 5p in the pound to maintain existing services. Will the Secretary of State urgently raise the matter with the SNP Administration? The proposal would clearly have a very detrimental effect on English students considering Scottish universities for their higher education; I am thinking particularly of those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and rely on earnings during summer recesses to keep their studies going. (213854)

My hon. Friend raises an important point; I know that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland answered a similar question a few weeks ago, he estimated that 55,000 students would be affected by the change. It is also the case that raising what council tax in Scotland currently brings in would require the imposition of a 5p local income tax. That comes against a background in which the separatists promised to get rid of student debt, but turned back on their commitment. The track record is not good.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Science and Innovation for meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) to discuss the e-MERLIN project at Jodrell Bank. Does he not accept that the project, which is critical to the organisation, has received very high ratings and assessments from technical assessment panels and that it is critical that the United Kingdom should remain in the vanguard of astronomy research and development?

The hon. Gentleman will know from our meeting that we are keen to ensure that scientists in the UK, particularly those working at Manchester university, maintain their international leadership in astronomy, particularly with things moving towards the square kilometre array and analysis of that data. The peer review process carried out by the Science and Technology Facilities Council has given e-MERLIN a higher rating. The hon. Gentleman will know that that is good news from his point of view. I reject the comments of those who say, as the shadow Chancellor has said on behalf of the Conservative party, that Ministers should intervene to take the detailed decisions on which areas of science should be funded. That happens in other countries, and it means that scientists spend all their time lobbying Ministers to get funding instead of having it decided by peer group research. While I have every sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says about e-MERLIN, neither I nor my Ministers will intervene to take those decisions, which should properly be taken after peer review by the scientists in the research councils.

T5. Given the difficulties caused by the late notification of the adult allocation in further education college budgets—the allocation for South Thames college, which my hon. Friend the Minister has visited, did not come until June, four months later than expected—can he reassure the House that colleges will receive their allocation earlier next year? (213855)

I had the opportunity to visit South Thames college with my hon. Friend earlier this year. It is doing an excellent job for the local community. I do not accept that this year’s allocation was four months late, but it was later than we would have wished given that this is the first year of the new system. The vast majority of colleges are benefiting from an increased allocation of funding, but we undoubtedly want to ensure that next year’s allocations come out earlier than they did this year.

T6. The Minister will be aware that Carlett Park FE campus in my constituency is under threat and that a consultation is under way. I have some doubts about the objectivity of that consultation. What provisions does the Department make to ensure that consultations are objective, not skewed in favour of the answer that is sought, and that all relevant information, such as the options analysis, is made available to key stakeholders? (213857)

My hon. Friend is aware that we have met and discussed his concerns in detail. The college is committed to a consultation exercise. Following our meeting, I wrote to the college principal making it clear that taking this forward is his decision and responsibility, but urging as effective a consultation process as possible. In respect of the options analysis, we will bear in mind the elements for which there is a need for confidentiality, nevertheless sharing as much of it as possible with my hon. Friend.

T7. Improving the skills of people in the north-east of England is vital. What is my right hon. Friend doing to increase the availability of apprenticeships in my constituency and in the north-east of England more generally? (213858)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of apprenticeships. This Government rescued apprenticeships from their collapse and near demise under the previous Government and have rebuilt them to a stage where more people are completing apprenticeships today than for many years. In his own county of County Durham, there were 2,408 apprenticeship starts in 2006-07, which is one of the largest numbers in England. However, we are going further. For example, Nissan is working closely with Gateshead college to meet its growing skills needs, and the college is delivering 500 adult engineering apprenticeships to new recruits.

Equality Bill

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to set out to the House how the Government propose to make further progress towards the fair and equal society that we want to see.

I am pleased to announce that we are today publishing our key proposals for the equality Bill in a document entitled “Framework for a Fairer Future”. Copies are available in the Vote Office. For us, equality is a matter of principle—it always has been. As the Prime Minister set out on Wednesday in his announcement on social mobility, we want to address the serious inequalities that still exist. Addressing those inequalities and creating a fairer society is important for three reasons. First, fairness is important for the individual. No one should have to put up with discrimination. Secondly, fairness is important for our society—a society that is equal and fair is one that is more at ease with itself. Thirdly, fairness is important for our economy—an economy that sees no one pushed to the margins or excluded offers the widest pool of workers to employers. Diversity makes us outward facing and helps us to compete in the global economy.

The first equality laws were brought in by a Labour Government more than 40 years ago. Progress has been made to outlaw discrimination against people if they are black, a woman, lesbian or gay, disabled, or if they are older, but although such progress has been made, inequality and discrimination still persist. Men who work full time still earn 40 per cent. more per hour than women who work part time. Although more disabled people are working than ever before, a disabled person is still two and a half times more likely to be out of work. If someone is black or Asian, they are less likely to be in work and if they are in work, they are more likely to be earning below the level of their qualifications. Homophobic bullying still blights the lives of most lesbian or gay young people, and it is still perfectly lawful to tell someone, “Sorry, you’re too old”, and refuse anything from health care to insurance.

The Bill and package of measures that I will outline to the House today represent a radical shift in our approach to fighting unfairness, and will breathe fresh life into our equality agenda. Our package of measures includes the equality Bill we promised in our last manifesto, secondary legislation and action by the new Equality And Human Rights Commission. We expect everyone—the public sector, firms which do business with the public sector and companies in the private sector—to play their part. On pay, at the current rate of progress, it will take another 80 years before women are paid the same as men.

It is impossible to tackle discrimination when it is hidden. That is why we want a new era of openness when it comes to pay, so that women can see—in their own workplace—just how much more men get paid than them. Just as every school has to publish its exam results, so parents can see those results, and every hospital has to publish its waiting lists, so patients can see that information, I want employers to report on key equality issues, such as gender pay, so that their employees can view such information. That will put the spotlight on pay unfairness, which we all know goes on but which stays swept under the carpet.

Under its legal duties to promote equality, the public sector will lead by example. But 80 per cent. of people are employed in the private sector and the pay gap there is double that of the public sector. We must also have progress on fairness in the private sector, and we will ensure that in five ways. Given that 30 per cent. of companies do £160 billion-worth of business with the public sector, we will consider how public procurement can be used to deliver transparency and change. The equality Bill will outlaw clauses in employment contracts that prohibit employees disclosing their pay to each other. Where an employer has been found to have unlawfully discriminated, we will provide for the employment tribunal to be able to make a recommendation that applies not just to the successful complainant but to everyone in that workplace. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries under its legal powers into sectors where the most progress needs to be made, starting with the financial services sector. We are going to tackle sexism in the City. Through a new kite-mark system, we will challenge companies to report on equality.

We expect business will increasingly regard reporting on progress on equality as an important part of explaining to investors, employees and others the prospects for those companies. We will review progress on transparency and its contribution to the achievement of equality outcomes in the light of that, and consider within the next five years the use of existing legislation for greater transparency in company reporting on equality.

Many people still seem to think that it is acceptable to discriminate against someone because they are older. It is not. With the number of people over 85 set to double in the next 20 years, it makes no sense. People are not over the hill at 60, to be either refused insurance or discriminated against in health care. We will include in the equality Bill duties on the public sector to eliminate age discrimination and promote equality for older people. We will take powers to outlaw age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. We will need to allow for a transitional period for changes to be made to comply with the law before it comes into effect, but work is already under way, and we will consult on making provisions to bring the new law into force more quickly in those sectors that are ready to comply with the law.

On disability, we need to be able to see who is including disabled people in their work force and who is shutting them out. That way, we can see who is making progress year on year, compare comparable organisations, learn from the best and challenge the worst.

We need to make further progress on fairness. That is why we will legislate to give more scope for employers who want to increase the number of women or black or Asian employees to take positive action. That will help, for example, the police, who want to make more progress on diversity because they know that they can be most effective when they reflect the ethnicity of the communities that they serve. To allow progress on women’s representation in the House of Commons to continue, we will extend the permission for all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection until 2030. We will consider with the Commissioner for Public Appointments whether a specific power to encourage diversity for appointments in her remit would assist her in that task.

Next month I will publish a further paper setting out our proposals in greater detail, and, over the coming months, there will be a continuous and determined programme of further action, which will include: considering whether there is a case for representative actions to employment tribunals; working out whether we can toughen the law to give redress to people who suffer discrimination on multiple grounds; and working with the trade unions to strengthen the excellent and pioneering work of trade union equality representatives in the workplace.

The package will see us make further progress towards a fair and equal society. A single statute to replace the complex web of legislation that has grown up over the years will make it easier for people to know their rights and understand their obligations. The equality Bill will be written in plain English alongside the necessary legal language.

In the past, when Labour has brought in laws to promote equality, they have been controversial. However, I hope that now, in the 21st century, there will be agreement that we must all play our part in making this country fairer.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement and for giving me prior sight of it, although I got more notice through her appearances on television and radio this morning. I agree with the Government that there is a need to streamline and update equalities legislation and I welcome the direction that the Government are taking with the Bill. I look forward to working constructively with them on ensuring that we have workable and practical legislation to provide for a fair society.

However, today’s announcement has been a long time in coming. The Government first announced their commitment to a single equalities Bill in their 2005 general election manifesto. On 25 July last year, the Deputy Leader of the House told the House that

“we will produce a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny over the coming year”.—[Official Report, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c.1009.]

Subsequently, there have been promises of draft clauses of the measure. Now we have an announcement lacking in detail with no specific time commitments, and more discussions on action in the coming months. Why has it taken the Government so long to introduce the sensible and practical measure for which we are all looking?

We welcome the broad thinking behind the approach to age discrimination, but again, the lack of detail on implementation and exemptions is baffling and disappointing. We support fair provision of services for older people and we need to ensure that the proposals will genuinely benefit them. The right hon. and learned Lady has recognised that the health service is a key area that will be affected by the age discrimination proposals, yet she has carefully avoided going into detail about that. Will she now confirm that the proposals will affect not only the planning of health services for older people but decisions about the treatment of individuals? On the radio this morning, she also talked about the need for planning applications to take age concerns into account. Does she propose to change the Planning Bill that is currently going through Parliament to accommodate those proposals?

In her statement, the Minister said that the Government would consider using procurement contracts to deliver transparency. In her media interviews, she was more specific, saying that companies bidding for public contracts would have to publish pay gap figures. The implication of that was that if the figures were bad, the company would not get the business. What exactly is the Government’s position on this? Those proposals are far removed from the compulsory pay audits that the right hon. and learned Lady has supported in the past, and continues to support on her website. Can she therefore confirm that she has lost the equal pay battle in the Cabinet, and that the Bill will not include compulsory pay audits?

In her statement, the right hon. and learned Lady said that employment tribunals would be able to make wide-ranging recommendations when an employer was found guilty of discrimination. We have proposed compulsory pay audits for employers who are found guilty of discrimination at an employment tribunal. Are the Government adopting our proposals? If not, what does today’s statement mean?

The statement talks of the public sector leading by example, yet many Government Departments have failed to meet their own diversity targets. As the “Framework for a Fairer Future” document makes clear, there are Departments in which the gender pay gap is well above the average, including Her Majesty’s Treasury, where it is 26 per cent. We are told that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries into the sectors where most progress needs to be made, starting with the City. When will the EHRC be invited into the Treasury to look into its record on this issue?

I welcome the extension of the legislation on positive discrimination in the selection of parliamentary candidates. We have already said that we would support that move. However, the issue of allowing employers to exercise positive discrimination needs clarification. For example, if the head teacher of a primary school with only female teachers wanted to discriminate in favour of a male teacher, would that be permitted under the proposals? One area covered by the EHRC to which the Minister’s statement has made no reference is religious discrimination. Do the Government intend to include religious discrimination in their new equality Bill?

Until now, the Government have rightly sought to stamp out discrimination. The Bill takes a different approach. It will include measures to prevent discrimination, and measures to allow discrimination in certain circumstances. It introduces further complexity and confuses the Government’s message. After all these years, this is a huge missed opportunity. The Government could have introduced a revolutionary approach to equalities legislation, promoting fairness and diversity within a positive and sensible framework. Instead, the right hon. and learned Lady has been quoted as using phrases such as “empowering the resentful”. The Bill should seek to unite, not to divide. It has good intentions, but its lack of detail and clarity is disappointing. I am willing to work with the Government on this matter, because the issue of equalities is one that deserves to be looked at above and beyond the emotions of party politics. I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will join me in endeavouring to ensure that we can do just that.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her broad welcome for the package and for our endeavours. I also welcome the fact that she has ignored the cries from her own Back Benchers that the proposals are rubbish. I welcome the fact that she wants us to streamline and update the legislation—we intend to do so—and that she wants to work constructively with us. There will be an opportunity for further discussion before the Queen’s Speech later this year, and before the Bill is brought before the House. If she has proposals to bring forward, I would ask her please to do so. We will consider them carefully, as we want to work together on this.

The right hon. Lady said that the paper that we published today lacked substantive proposals, yet it announces that we intend to legislate for the first time to put a duty on all public authorities not to discriminate against people on the ground of age, and to promote equality for older people. That is new. We are also proposing for the first time to put into law the right of people not to be discriminated against in the provision of goods and services because they are older. That is also new. We have announced that we propose to put into law positive action for those employers who want to diversify their work force. We have brought forward new proposals on public procurement, public appointments and ending gagging clauses. If the right hon. Lady has an alternative list of substance, let her bring it forward. We would welcome that, as we want to make further progress.

The right hon. Lady asked whether I propose to change the Planning Bill in respect of public sector duties on local and other authorities. The whole point of the public duty is that it overrides and infuses the approach to everything. We do not have to put in a public sector duty, Bill by Bill, Act by Act, because it is there and it runs through everything that is done. That is how the public duty works. We do not need to change legislation, as all public authorities will have to have due regard to how what they do affects older people.

The right hon. Lady mentioned public procurement, which will work like this: there is a public duty on public bodies not to discriminate and to promote equality of race, gender, disability and now age. That applies not only when they employ people and provide services or goods, but when they do public procurement, using the £160 billion of public money. Spending public money is a public function, and the equality duties apply to the public function. That way, public bodies can say, “If you want to do business with the public sector, you need to tell us what your pay gap is. How many disabled are you employing? What is the percentage of black and Asian people in your work force?” Then, if a number of companies are equally qualified for that contract, the authority, in its duty to promote equality, will pick the one doing best on equality.

The right hon. Lady mentioned disclosure of the gender pay gap. We have explained that that will be mandatory in the public sector. It will then be driven through the public sector, into that 30 per cent. of business that is publicly procured from the private sector. If the private sector does not voluntarily conduct the gender pay audits and checks, we have powers in legislation to require it to do so.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Treasury. The whole point about producing league tables is that we can see who is lagging behind and who needs to make a bit more progress. I certainly do not think that women are not good enough at numbers or incapable of being financial experts; rather, there are patterns of entrenched expectations. Once we make them clear and expose them, we can take action on them.

The right hon. Lady asked about primary school head teachers. If there was an all-female work force and the head teacher, having a number of equally qualified candidates, wanted to ensure that there were some men teaching in her school, she would be able to do that. The proposals clarify the law, so that employers have more ability to promote equality and diversity within their work forces.

The right hon. Lady said that we had not done enough. However, we have introduced civil partnerships and flexible working, and we have eliminated age discrimination against older people in employment. We have done all that. I remind her that for the 18 years in which her party was in government, it introduced not a single piece of equality legislation. The Conservatives’ version of equality legislation was clause 28. I know that those on the Opposition Front Bench have changed, so I hope that the right hon. Lady will bring her Back Benchers along to join the 21st century.

I welcome today’s statement, which certainly goes a lot further than the previous Green Paper on equality. The gender pay gap in Aberdeen is one of the largest in the country—the average female take-home pay is 60 per cent. that of the average male take-home pay. I am interested in what my right hon. and learned Friend said about public procurement. In Scotland, public procurement comes not only from central Government, but from the Scottish Executive and local authorities. Can she explain how her proposals will apply in Scotland and whether they will cover all public procurement there?

The primary legislation applies throughout the United Kingdom, but secondary legislation is the responsibility of the devolved Administrations. If, for example, there is a Scottish public body that operates only in Scotland, any statutory instrument that applied the primary legislation to that organisation would be the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. However, all organisations that work across the border between England and Scotland would be covered by reserved powers. We want to work closely with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland, the devolved Administrations and all sides in the Scottish Parliament.

I very much welcome today’s statement and thank the Minister for allowing me early sight of it. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome a new equality Bill that will bring together all the various strands of equality legislation and further the equality agenda, which sure needs some furthering.

We particularly welcome the eleventh hour inclusion of a grey charter, with the overdue outlawing of age discrimination in the provision of goods and services and the extension of the public equality duty. Can the Minister confirm whether that will cover young people?

I would also be grateful to know the exact date, or as near as we can get, when older patients will be legally entitled to the same treatment in our hospitals as the rest of us.

Allowing employers to discriminate positively when candidates are equal is a good thing and has the potential to effect change in the workplace, but mischief is being made on the airwaves. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that all under-represented groups are covered and that it is for an employer to improve the situation where the current legislation means that they could be sued.

The move to make public sector suppliers more accountable in their equality polices is certainly a step in the right direction, but it raises some concerns. It is one thing to tick boxes on procurement questionnaires, but if there is no realistic chance of any claims being verified, those measures will indeed be a tick-box exercise. What estimates have the Government made of the number of people employed by their suppliers, notwithstanding simply the £160 billion that goes to private sector employers?

What extra resources are being allocated by the Government to their procurement departments, so that they can monitor and verify the claims made by their suppliers? Given that so much public sector work is now out-sourced to private sector companies, will the public equality duty be extended to cover them in full?

The proposals are a step in the right direction, but it is disappointing that the Government have stopped one step short of compulsory pay audits. I would like to know from the Minister the criteria for when the Government would enact compulsory audits, should the softly-softly approach fail. What will it take? How will we know when the moment has come?

Some of the problems with the lack of equality are to do not solely with legislation, but with the queues at the employment tribunals. What extra resource will the Government commit to clear the backlog? On the Bill as a whole, will any exemptions or exceptions to the equality principles in it be explicit, detailed and decided by the House?

Finally, we have jumped from a Green Paper to a Bill without any formal Government response to the hundreds of organisations that participated in the original consultation. Are the Government ever going to publish a response? What confidence can stakeholders have that they will have their say on the Bill?

In conclusion, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches are happy to work constructively on the equality Bill. I will take the Minister up on her offer of discussions before the Bill is published, as we have quite a list of things that we would like included.

The provisions will not cover people under 18. It is right to treat children and young people differently, for example through age limits on alcohol consumption, and there is little evidence of harmful age discrimination against young people. Harmful age discrimination is basically against older people.

The hon. Lady asked when the duty on age would come into effect. The public sector duty in respect of the provision of health and social care will come into effect as soon as the legislation is brought into effect, but the Department of Health is already working on this issue before that happens. It has conducted research to identify where discrimination exists and it is taking forward action to tackle it, so the process is already under way, even before the legal obligations come into effect. Yes, if a particular gender—say, men—is under-represented in a particular area, positive action can be taken in relation to those under-represented groups.

The hon. Lady also asked about the backlog of tribunal cases, and one thing that we are considering is the issue of representative actions. The Ministry of Justice is working with the Civil Justice Council to see whether representative actions could play a role, rather than requiring people to lodge claims individual by individual. Discrimination and unfairness are not mostly about the individual, but about the structure and the employer. We are looking to see whether representative actions can play a part.

We will publish all the replies we received to the consultation, along with our formal responses to them, at the end of this month.

The hon. Lady asked about pay audits. We are adopting a new approach. One problem with what have been described as job evaluation gender pay audits is that we could end up paying consultants tens of thousands of pounds to go around an organisation, re-evaluate every job, tell the employer that everything is fine as there is no unlawful discrimination and issue a clean bill of health. They might then leave without telling anyone in the organisation what the gender pay gap is. We need much more focused pay audits, which actually tell people what they want to know. We could then find out not whether the Treasury has been signed off as non-discriminating, but whether the pay gap in the Treasury is 26 per cent. and what it is likely to be next year.

We are taking a new approach in a more focused direction. We will set out for employers how to comply and then review progress. I think that once we set out the information that employers should be expected to give, they will have no excuse for not producing it. It is very easy to produce, so the only reason for employers not to provide such information is that they want to keep it hidden because it is just too embarrassing. When the pay gap is swept under the carpet, it will be evident that the employer has a great deal to hide. We think that a good culture of openness will emerge from this.

I would like to thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) for welcoming the proposals; I know she will work constructively with us. I am sure that she and her party will make good proposals. Unlike some Conservative Members, the Liberal Democrats have not been a drag anchor on this agenda over the years. Far from it. Some Liberals in the House and people such as Lord Lester in the other place have been champions of the equality agenda. Although the Labour party has taken this forward in government, important contributions have been made by voluntary organisations and all sorts of people outwith the Government to deliver on the equality agenda. That is what we will do.

Some companies in the private sector have a gender pay gap that is double that of the public sector and they may well resist moves to become more transparent. How will my right hon. and learned Friend encourage such companies to become more transparent about the pay of their work force?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have discussed this with the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and other employer organisations. It is the easiest thing to add up the average pay of men and the average pay of women to find out the difference. There is no bureaucratic or administrative difficulty in doing so, so there is no justification for refusing to do it. If employers do not do it—they obviously have no excuse for that—we have the power under the Companies Act 2006 to require that information to be made public. I hope that we will not have to use that power, but it is there if we need it.

Is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that, despite what she said, what she proposes will be an extremely harsh burden on smaller businesses because of the extra amount of red tape and bureaucracy with which they already have to deal? The Bill will be a further blow. I come from a small business background, so I know that better than some on the Government Benches who have never had any experience of running a small business. May I say that I am completely at odds with my own party because I have never believed in positive discrimination? But it will reassure the right hon. and learned Lady to know that her plans for older workers will perhaps protect me from any retaliatory action.

We do not plan to place any additional burden on businesses, big or small. By bringing all the legislation of the last 40 years together in one piece of legislation—heavens above, it is even going to be written in plain English—the Bill will make it possible, in a way that is not possible now, for employers and employees to read the provisions and understand their rights and obligations. That streamlining will make a big difference to business, which will not have to employ an army of lawyers and consultants to tell them whether they are complying with the law. This is a major streamlining that will reduce red tape, not increase it. I take it then that the hon. Lady welcomes the provisions for extra duties, obligations and rights on age discrimination.

Arising from that last question, is it not the case that, 40 years ago, it was a Labour Government who legislated amidst tremendous controversial opposition to outlaw race discrimination, which many of us had strongly urged? The current proposals are intended, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, to deal with various outstanding forms of discrimination against women and the disabled and certainly against age prejudice. Without in any way wishing to be misunderstood, would it not be a good thing if we took it as normal that there should be people in the Cabinet of pensionable age? That would certainly give a lead against age discrimination.

I will make sure that the Prime Minister gets to see my hon. Friend’s comment. He is absolutely right to point out that whenever we have introduced legislation to tackle discrimination, there has often been a huge row. But yesterday’s controversy becomes today’s conventional wisdom. We are confident that we can work with all sides to ensure that our proposals are as easy to apply as possible. It is a modern society that is a fair society and a modern economy that is a fair economy.

This Bill has nothing to do with equality. It is the most politically correct Bill ever, proposed by the most politically correct Minister that this country has ever seen. If she were so bothered about equality, she should have enshrined in law the fact that people should be given a job and candidates selected on merit—irrespective of their gender and irrespective of their racial background. How on earth can she justify in an equalities Bill a provision that allows people to be selected solely on the basis of their skin colour or their gender? That is completely and utterly outrageous. The party that, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, introduced anti-discrimination laws is now reintroducing discrimination into the workplace. How many of the Minister’s hand-wringing white male colleagues have offered to give up their seats in the House to make way for more women and more ethnic minority MPs?

When only 3 per cent. of MPs were women, the House of Commons was not representative. When John Major’s first Cabinet had not a single woman in it, what did that say about the merit, talent and ability of women in this country as he saw it? The point is that it is not about doing a favour to individuals; it is about tackling discrimination and patterns of unfairness and making sure that our institutions and our businesses are not just entrenched in the old boy network, but face the future and recognise that everybody can play their part. I suggest to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), in her place on the Front Bench, that she should induce a bit more political correctness in her Back Benchers.

May I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on a set of proposals that will come to be seen as a major landmark in the long march to equality? Will she also ensure that the Government do everything possible to support the French presidency in its attempt to get early agreement on proposals for a European framework directive on equality, which will set minimum standards for all European citizens, across the European Union?

I can certainly assure my right hon. Friend that that will be the case. I pay tribute to our Members of the European Parliament, particularly Michael Cashman, for their pioneering work at European level. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all her work as a Secretary of State and Minister for Women, and for introducing a right for those with families to request flexible working. Her comments today remind me of our happy days when she was the director of Liberty and I was its legal officer, and we were together on the women’s rights committee.

The right hon. and learned Lady has referred to the Scottish Parliament, but the Welsh Assembly Government will have a key role in delivering the equalities agenda in health and education, also as an employer and a major source of work for the private sector as third parties. Does she intend to include framework powers for the Welsh Assembly Government in the Bill, or will they have to apply using the legislative competence order procedure, which entails inevitable delay?

We will discuss the matter with the First Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales. Many in Wales will champion the agenda, work with us and take it forward. I pay tribute to women Members of the Welsh Assembly who have led on issues from child care to human trafficking, and to partnership organisations such as Chwarae Teg. I hope that what the House and the Government are doing will strengthen their arm in Wales.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on what could be an epic, historic piece of legislation. I am sure that Help the Aged and Age Concern will welcome it with open arms. I cannot say that the elderly will be dancing in the streets tonight, because of functional problems, but I am sure that they will welcome it too. [Interruption.] I eliminate myself, of course.

On the implementation of anti-age discrimination in terms of goods, facilities and services—it is a big problem—is there an end implementation date, because some of us do not have a lot of time left?

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Help the Aged and Age Concern, and I pay tribute to the persistent and dedicated work of those organisations, which have been determined advocates for tackling this unfairness and discrimination, and have produced the evidence that has made it imperative for us to act. As for old people dancing in the streets, has my hon. Friend not seen “Strictly Come Dancing”? Does he know how old Bruce Forsyth is? Of course, we will get on with the implementation.

Under the positive discrimination aspects of the Secretary of State’s proposals, will it be legal for an employer to choose a white woman over an equally qualified black man?

We are just allowing for a permissive measure, so that if an employer with a number of equally qualified candidates wants to promote diversity in their team, either because women are under-represented or they have too few black and Asian people, on that basis they can choose the under-represented group. There is also the question of the discrimination against black and Asian women, which would not happen in the same way against black and Asian men, or against white women. Given the hon. Gentleman’s question, I hope that he will back us in solving such problems of multiple discrimination.

I welcome this new push on equality, including on tackling age discrimination and the issues raised by the cross-party reports from the Business and Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committees on tackling the gender pay gap and public procurement. Will she confirm that no specific legislation will be needed on public procurement? Does the Office of Government Commerce, which has been too timid in the past, now accept the Select Committee’s view that public bodies are required to pursue their equality duty when putting out contracts for goods and services? If progress remains slow on the gender pay gap, will she consider whether the equality duty needs to be extended to the private sector?

As I said, we will expect the private sector—including private firms doing work with the public sector—as well as the public sector to play their part. We are working with the OGC and the Treasury. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary and to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) for leading the work of the Select Committee in making proposals on such issues. On procurement, there is detail to be worked out, and we will consult on it. We are clear, however, that spending public money is a public function, and that the equality duties must apply to that every bit as much as they apply to direct employment and direct provision of services.

Although her statement meets with denunciations that are as furious as they are predictable from Members of the Taliban tendency, may I tell the Minister that her statement does right by those who have long suffered discrimination, and is right in the interests of the country as a whole? Will she confirm that the equality Bill will contain robust measures to tackle homophobic bullying and to deal equally robustly with the gender pay gap among part-time workers in the public sector, and that the legislation will be on the statute book by the summer of 2009?

I think that I can confirm all those points to the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for his question. He has proved that not all Conservative Members are still stuck in the stone age. Given his comments, I would say—although I would have to reflect on the matter with my colleagues—that he ought to be regarded as an honorary member of the sisterhood.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments on outlawing age discrimination in goods and services, which would give effect to one of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report on the treatment of the elderly. May I press her, however, on the timetable for the transitional period, particularly in relation to the health service? I fully accept that a transitional period is necessary, but what number of years is being considered?

Just as when the Labour Government introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970 and said that because of entrenched patterns of discrimination it would not be brought into effect for five years, at the outset we will discover the extent of discrimination in the public services through the equality duty, so that we can make determined progress on sorting it out. We will work closely with the Joint Committee, and I pay tribute to its work in that respect.

In the recruitment and employment process, it should not matter which group an applicant happens to belong to. People should be recruited and employed on the grounds of their merit and capability. To employ somebody for any other reason would be discriminatory. On all-women shortlists for parliamentary seats, the suggestion is that women can succeed only if men are excluded from the process, which is demonstrably untrue, discriminatory and offensive to women.

The evidence is in front of the hon. Lady’s eyes. If she thinks that there is not a systematic, structural problem, how does she account for the fact that, per hour, women who work part-time are paid 40 per cent. less than men? Surely she cannot believe that a woman who works part-time is 40 per cent. less intelligent, less committed, less experienced and less hard-working than a man who works full-time. There is structural discrimination, which has been swept under the carpet, and we must expose and tackle it. Of course, the group that people belong to should not matter, but it does. That is why there is a pattern of entrenched pay discrimination, which we are determined to expose and sort out.

As for the question of women in the House of Commons, as I have said when I was first in the House only 3 per cent. of Members of Parliament were women. There were 10 Labour and 13 Conservative women MPs. We resorted to positive action, and we now have 96 Labour women MPs. The Conservatives did not resort to positive action, and over those 25 years they have increased the number of Conservative MPs from 13 to 17. At that rate, we shall never see equality. We must take positive action to ensure proper representation.

Forward-thinking businesses, both large and small, understand that the provision of equal opportunities in recruitment will benefit them, because it will make them more likely to secure the best candidates. However, I am concerned by the rather light-footed way in which the Minister appears to be treading when it comes to forcing private companies to publish the gender pay gap. I urge her not to wait too long before using the powers in the Companies Acts to ensure that all of them do so. As she said, it would be a very easy and non-bureaucratic task, and would be extremely effective in exposing the companies that have still not entered the 21st century.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work as chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee. I expect the work of her Committee, along with that of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, to play an important part in helping us to develop our proposals. Our intentions are clear, and we intend to make progress with them.

Britain’s faith communities will have noted that the Minister’s statement contained nothing about religious discrimination. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the Government’s intentions in that regard are not clear.

The Minister will be aware that when the word “equalities” is used, it is not always clear whether it refers to equality of opportunity, equality of outcome or equality of esteem. She will also be aware that those equalities can sometimes conflict. What is clear from her statement, however, is that the Government’s general intention is to increase opportunities and life chances, which is a laudable aim. If a Bill is indeed introduced, ought she not to consider entitling it the equalities and opportunities Bill or, even better, simply the opportunities Bill?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point: if people start from very unequal positions, they do not have equality of opportunity. I thank him for supporting our overall aim. As he will know, we have already outlawed discrimination on grounds of religion and belief, and we plan to exemplify that in the Bill by embodying it in the public sector duty. However, we shall have to have further discussions on how that will work out, because it is less straightforward than including the public-sector duty on discrimination in relation to age.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her welcome statement. We have seen some mischief-making on the Conservative Benches, and today’s Daily Express has commented “White Men to Face Jobs Ban”. I should have thought that the Express would welcome the age-discrimination element in view of the age of most its readers, but will my right hon. and learned Friend please assure the House and the wider public that this is not a proposal to ban white men from jobs?

I certainly will. I share my hon. Friend’s frustration at the deliberate misunderstanding that certain people want to engage in. The Bill is about promoting fairness and equality of opportunity.

Some people say that now that the economy is in some difficulties we cannot afford fairness—that we cannot afford to treat women or black and Asian people fairly. My response is that it is precisely when things are difficult—when the family budget is under pressure and people are feeling the pinch—that fairness becomes even more important.

The Minister said in her statement that the public sector would lead by example on pay. Does she agree that although the public sector has tried to lead by example over the past 10 years, it has not been able to do so because it has not had the funds, the flexibility or the systems to do so? Does she accept that there will be a cost, and that it should be borne by the Government, in ensuring that funds are available to close the equal pay gap in the public sector?

Different parts of the public sector have made varying degrees of progress. When there is proper transparency in relation to the gender pay gap, the disability employment level and the employment rate of ethnic minority staff, public authority by public authority, we shall be able to see who has been making progress.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to make further progress on settling the backlog of equal pay cases. As he will know, the Department for Communities and Local Government has made available £500 million of capitalisation to enable local employers to do that. Half of them have already done it, but more progress is needed.

It is always difficult to sort out entrenched patterns of discrimination, but the best option is to sort them out and then move forward on an equal basis.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her statement. The Dumfries and Galloway elderly forum will be delighted by what she has said. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who quoted a headline from the Daily Express. Today’s Daily Mail says that

“women will be more equal than men”.

Does that not belittle the work that the Government are trying to do, and does it not also show that those who write banner headlines of that nature have never been on the receiving end of discrimination?

I am glad that there will be a welcome for our proposals in the Dumfries and Galloway elderly forum. I hope that all the elderly forums in the country that bring together the various agencies, voluntary organisations and pensioners’ action groups will work with us to ensure that they are implemented swiftly and effectively.

The challenge that I would issue to the Daily Mail is: who did actually write that headline? Who actually thinks, with a gender pay gap of 40 per cent., that women are more equal than men? That day might arrive, but it is certainly a long way off.

In the last generation massive progress has been made in some professions, such as law, medicine and accountancy, but there remain unreconstructed areas such as financial services, on which my right hon. and learned Friend has focused. Perhaps she could also include information and communications technology. How will she tackle the defence from some employers in those sectors that there is a lack of suitably qualified and trained women to take the higher-level jobs? Should she not move further upstream, to the universities and elsewhere, to ensure that there is a reasonable range and mix of students entering courses on those subject areas? That is the problem that she may find in financial services and ICT.

My hon. Friend is right: patterns of discrimination go back a long way. He mentioned universities. Fewer than one in 10 universities are led by vice-chancellors who are women, and although many women and black and Asian people are going into the legal profession, the higher echelons of the profession—as will be confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General—still qualify as unreconstructed. Only one judge at High Court level or above is black or Asian, despite the existence of many able black and Asian lawyers. We really do need to make progress in tackling and exposing entrenched discrimination.

Witness Anonymity

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement following the judgment of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, issued last Wednesday, in the case of Davis.

As the House will know, the Law Lords decided that there was not sufficient authority in common law to provide for the current arrangements for the admission of anonymous evidence, and said that this was a matter for Parliament to deal with by statute. The Government will therefore present a Bill to rectify the situation as a matter of urgency. I hope very much that it will be published next week, and that, subject to the usual channels, it will be debated and complete all its stages in the House of Commons during the following week. For reasons that I shall explain, it is essential for it to receive Royal Assent and come into force before Parliament breaks for the summer recess.

I am extremely grateful to the Opposition parties for their co-operation in this matter. I also fully appreciate that, like other Members, they will not be able to judge the merits of the Government’s proposals fully until the details are available.

The background to this statement is as follows. As long as there has been crime, criminals have sought to intimidate witnesses in order to avoid punishment. Criminal justice systems across the world have sought to deal with this problem. Criminals do not operate by the rules, but the rule of law requires that justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done. The right of a defendant to confront his or her accusers in open court has been a key feature of all systems of justice worthy of that name. That right should be modified only where it is fully justified.

In recent years, witness intimidation has become an all too common feature in crimes of a serious nature, especially those involving guns, gangs or drugs. Such is the fear that can be engendered by such criminals that entire communities in an area may be reluctant to come forward to give any evidence about what they know.

In the Court of Appeal judgment in Davis, the president of the Queen’s bench division, Sir Igor Judge, quoted the evidence of a detective who specialised in murder investigations. He said the following—I hope I shall be permitted to quote at some length:

“Most people opt not to co-operate and do not get involved. Doors are not opened, arranged meetings result in a witness not turning up, telephone messages go unanswered...This is not a problem that exists on an occasional basis…it is a problem that exists in practically every investigation in one way or another. Such problems exist on a daily basis. I have spoken to witnesses about a reluctance to give evidence. The common factor between all of them is fear. They are in fear of their lives and that of their families and friends. There is a very real danger to such persons of death or serious injury, either to prevent them from giving evidence, or to punish them for giving evidence and to send a warning to those who may be thinking of assisting the police. This risk, I know and the witnesses know, is not necessarily at the hands of the defendants themselves, but at the hands of the associates of the defendant. If the defendant is in custody, it is often the associates who are the physical threat. In many but not all cases, the witness knows of the defendant and their associates. They know they have easy access to firearms and the ‘ease’ with which they are prepared to use them”.

To deal with this situation, our courts had developed careful and proportionate measures by which the trial judge, where he or she believed it necessary, could order that evidence be given in such a way that the identification of certain key prosecution witnesses was disguised. In some cases, the key witnesses concerned may themselves have been involved in crime; others will be innocent bystanders, and still others may be, and are, undercover police officers or agents. In the Davis case, key witnesses were screened from sight of the defence, were given pseudonyms and had their voices electronically distorted.

In the Davis appeal, the Court of Appeal reviewed all of the circumstances, the common law authorities and the Strasbourg jurisdiction, and held that measures of this kind were both necessary and just to defendants in this case. Their appeals were therefore dismissed. In the House of Lords, their lordships took the opposite view. In the lead judgment, the senior Law Lord, Lord Bingham, said:

“By a series of small steps, largely unobjectionable on their own facts, the courts have arrived at a position which is irreconcilable with long standing principle”

and common law authorities.

Lord Mance, who extensively reviewed the Strasbourg jurisprudence, said that he did not believe that the Strasbourg Court would

“accept that the use of anonymous evidence in the present case satisfied the requirements of article 6”.

However, Lord Mance went on to say that the

“admissibility of evidence is primarily a matter for national law”,

and that the Strasbourg Court has repeatedly stated that the use of anonymous evidence is

“not under all circumstances incompatible with the Convention”.

And importantly, Lord Mance said it is not certain that

“there is an absolute requirement that anonymous testimony should not be the sole or decisive evidence”.

In other words, there should be caution about treating the convention, or apparently general statements by the Strasbourg Court, as containing absolutely inflexible rules.

All of their lordships accepted fully what Lord Bingham said was the “reality of the problem” of witness intimidation, “vividly described” in the Court of Appeal judgment. Lord Bingham went on to say that,

“this is not a new problem, but it is a serious one. It may very well call for urgent attention by Parliament”.

Lord Rodger said:

“Parliament is the proper body both to decide whether such a change is now required, and, if so, to devise an appropriate system which still ensures a fair trial”.

Lord Mance echoed these views. He referred to the experience of New Zealand and the Netherlands, which have introduced statutory frameworks for the use of anonymous evidence, and said that

“it may well be appropriate that there should be a careful statutory modification of basic common law principles. It is clear from the Strasbourg jurisprudence…that there is scope within the Human Rights Convention for such modification”.

Since the judgment was handed down last week, we have been looking urgently at how a statutory framework could operate, taking account of overseas experiences, not least that of New Zealand. Because of the urgency of the matter, the Bill is literally being drafted as I speak. The House will, therefore, excuse me if I now simply outline our thinking—although I may say that this unusual situation at least has the advantage that the draft can take account of comments made in the House and in the other place today, and it will do.

The essence of the scheme that will be published in the Bill is that the trial judge will have to be satisfied that the need for anonymity is established, that a fair trial will be possible and that it is in the interests of justice to make such an order for anonymity. There will also be other factors that the judge will have to consider in reaching this decision.

Parliament should never legislate at the speed at which I am proposing unless it is convinced that there are overwhelming reasons for doing so, but I suggest to the House that this requirement is satisfied in this case. Anonymous evidence is these days fundamental to the successful prosecution of a significant number of cases, some of which involve murder, blackmail, violent disorder and terrorism. Such cases could be jeopardised if we do not quickly fill the gap created by their lordships’ judgment. The Crown Prosecution Service is urgently conducting an assessment of the total number of cases in the prosecution pipeline that may be affected. Neither my noble Friend the Attorney-General nor I can yet give definitive estimates of the number of cases involved, but as soon as we do have such accurate estimates we will, of course, make them available to the House.

In addition to those cases in the prosecution pipeline, there is great concern among the CPS, the police and the wider public that a number of serious criminals convicted by a jury, whose trials satisfied article 6 and common law requirements, and whose appeals have failed, would seek to make use of the technicality of their lordships’ judgement to have their convictions quashed. The Bill will, therefore, contain measures to ensure that the appeal courts should not quash convictions solely on the basis that the trial court lacked jurisdiction under the common law to provide for anonymity measures. The aim is to ensure that defendants cannot take unfair advantage of this technical defect in the law, which until last Wednesday had been unidentified and unsuspected.

I will publish this Bill just as soon as it is ready, and I will arrange to hold an open meeting for Members of both Houses in advance of formal consideration in this House.

Let me finally provide an additional but important reassurance. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already announced in the draft legislative programme for the next Session the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill. We had for months planned in this Bill to provide a statutory basis for anonymous evidence. I can, therefore, give the following undertaking of what amounts to a sunset clause for this urgent measure: the provisions of this Bill, if passed, will be included in next Session’s Bill as well, so there will be a full opportunity for both Houses to give further consideration to this important area of the criminal process.

I commend the statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Justice Secretary not only for early sight of his statement but for the open way in which he and the Attorney-General have consulted the official Opposition as they tackled what we all agree is a very difficult question. We recognise that the Law Lords’ judgment revealed a dilemma. On the one hand, the use of anonymous evidence has allowed witnesses to be protected and successful prosecutions to be brought. As Sir Igor Judge said:

“Without witnesses, justice cannot be done.”

On the other hand, it must be paramount that trials be fair. However valuable anonymous evidence can be, it cannot be justified if its use undermines justice.

Does the Justice Secretary agree with me that while the judgment of the Law Lords has caused immediate problems that must be addressed, their duty is to uphold justice and the law, and that some of the personal attacks on the judiciary that we have seen this week are wholly unjustified? The Law Lords have invited Parliament to settle this question. Indeed, as the Justice Secretary noted, Lord Bingham said that the problem of witness intimidation may very well call for Parliament’s urgent attention. We appreciate the danger that trials will collapse. No one wants to see a situation where violent criminals evade justice because of a hiatus in the law.

We recognise our constitutional duty to scrutinise as best we can all legislation, especially emergency legislation, and not to attempt to hinder the Government improperly. However, for emergency legislation to be justified, the House will want to be assured that there is a pressing need and to understand the scale of the problem. Estimates of the number of cases affected have varied widely—from the claim of around 40 by the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, to other suggestions of hundreds. Can the Justice Secretary say when he will be in a position to indicate more clearly the number of cases affected and their nature? Will he also undertake to publish an assessment of the growth and nature of witness intimidation, so that judgment may be exercised about the severity of the problem? Can he tell us what the Government are doing to ensure that victims and witnesses receive the support and protection they need, beyond the granting of anonymity during a trial?

We welcome the Justice Secretary’s indication that these measures could be refined in the forthcoming law reform, victims and witnesses Bill, but will he accept that the sunset clause to which he referred in this emergency legislation should be an express time limit on the face of the Bill? The House should be wary of emergency legislation with an open-ended time scale.

My party is committed to working with the Government in a constructive way to deal with this problem, but will the Justice Secretary consider carefully whether it is wise to rush through all stages of the Bill in this place in one day? The history of one-day legislation is not a happy one. Even if we need to pass laws urgently, we must do so carefully, particularly where public safety and the liberty of the individual are concerned.

Can the Justice Secretary provide more clarity on the Bill’s application and how it will apply retrospectively? In particular, what will happen in cases in which anonymous evidence has already been given but the trial is still in progress? Will these provisions act to ensure that existing convictions are not threatened unless the trial was otherwise unfair? Where the adversarial system cannot operate fairly because one side is denied vital information, is there not a case for adopting a more inquisitorial approach? In the New Zealand legislation, the judge is permitted to appoint special counsel to investigate important considerations of witness credibility. What consideration has the Justice Secretary given to granting similar powers to English judges?

The use of anonymous witnesses in criminal trials should always be a last resort, not a first response. Does the Justice Secretary therefore agree that the purpose of the legislation that he has announced today should be not simply to allow the use of anonymous evidence, but to ensure above all that justice is done?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and, as I said earlier, for the co-operation that the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats separately have offered the Government. I of course accept what he says—that there is a balance here, with two competing considerations: the need for the public to be protected from serious and dangerous criminals, and the paramount need to ensure that the trial process is fair and that those for whom the evidence does not exist are not convicted. That has to be the paramount consideration, but what the courts have sought to do over some decades is properly to balance those considerations. I had never been aware of any complaints about the way in which the courts, up to and including the Court of Appeal, had secured the anonymity of witnesses but the fairness of the trial process. Just one indication of that is that my parliamentary branch tells me that it knows of no parliamentary questions on that, and I have had no ministerial correspondence on it. That contrasts with the hundreds of parliamentary questions and thousands of letters on all the issues that concern the British public and Members of this House.

Let me run quickly through the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. I am very grateful to him for what he says about the gratuitous attacks on the judiciary; they are totally unjustified. As in any country that runs by the rule of law, we have to have a judiciary that is separate and independent from the Executive and the legislature. By definition, that means that there will be occasions when an independent judiciary make judgments that are inconvenient to the Executive and the legislature. That is their job. Ultimately, this is the high court of Parliament, because central to our constitution is the sovereignty of Parliament and we, ultimately, can decide. But within that system, that independence must be respected and preserved.

On the issue of the numbers, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the president of ACPO suggested that there could be 40 or so. What I understand—it is for him to say this, not for me—is that he was describing the police estimate of the number of really serious cases involved. The other estimates that have been around are all-encompassing ones of any potential cases in the pipeline—they could involve, for example, test purchases of drugs—which I think could be more. However, it is precisely because there is a definitional problem that I do not wish to give this House estimates, unless I am satisfied that they are reasonably accurate.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether we can provide an assessment of the growth and nature of this problem. I will do my best—there is simply an issue of time here, and the capacity of the officials involved. I understand the point that he is making.

Great steps have been made, going back to the early 1990s, progressively to improve victim and witness protection. Victim Support funding has greatly grown, there are measures in a whole series of statutes going back to 1997, and there will be further measures in the Bill in the Queen’s Speech at the end of this year. That said, however effective witness protection and witness support measures are, there will still be some cases where the only effective protection to ensure that the witnesses come forward is to anonymise their evidence.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the sunset clause. The promise that I have made is an absolute promise, and if I may, I might consult him and the Liberal Democrat spokesman outside this House about some of the difficulties in putting that on the face of the Bill, but I promise that that does not detract from the absolute commitment that I have already given. On the question of taking all the stages in one day, I will discuss that with the usual channels, without any commitment, because the usual channels are a law unto themselves—always have been, always will be. [Interruption.] And often anonymous.

On the Bill’s application, it will apply to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. On how it will apply retrospectively, the question is how it will apply for the future in respect of out-of-time appeals, appeals that may be in time, and trials that are under way in respect of events that have already happened, which may involve a conviction. That way forward is as I described towards the end of my statement, which is that there will be measures to ensure that the appeal court will not quash convictions solely on the basis that the trial court lacked the jurisdiction under the common law, as is now known but was not known before Wednesday, to provide for anonymity measures. More detail will obviously be given in the Bill.

We have considered the inquisitorial approach in New Zealand. The New Zealand drafters, although not formally subject to the convention, took full account of it in their drafting. There is a lot to learn from that. Whether to shift further from an adversarial to an inquisitorial approach in our courts is a big issue that is not for an emergency Bill.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement on a difficult issue. He is doing the best that he can in an urgent position. Clearly, we have to respect the human rights of the victims, their families and the witnesses in this process, but will the legislation include as part of the framework a list of factors that the judges ought to take into account in exercising their discretion? Will he also confirm that the legislation will not be inconsistent with what the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords has said is required by article 6?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is extremely well versed in human rights legislation as Chairman of the Joint Committee. There will be a list of factors. The overarching principle will be that the trial judge has to assess whether the arrangements that he or she is making will be fair. Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires me to sign a certificate on the face of the Bill stating whether I judge the Bill to be consistent or inconsistent with the convention, and I will do that.

I also thank the Secretary of State for early sight of the statement and for the informal consultations that have taken place. It is a basic principle that defendants should be able to confront the witnesses against them, but it is also fundamental that the rule of law must be defended against intimidation and threats. Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that Liberal Democrat Members also fully recognise that the law has to strike a balance between those two fundamental principles, and that ultimately the details of how to do that lie with Parliament, not with the judges?

I also want to associate Liberal Democrat Members with the comments that have been made about the attacks on the judiciary, which have been scurrilous and completely misunderstand the constitutional function of the judges. In this case, the judges are doing their job well because they are forcing us to think clearly about something that has not been thought about clearly up until now.

May I take it from what the Secretary of State has just said that he does accept what Lord Carswell said in the Davis case—that there should be a presumption in favour of openness, and that anonymity should be allowed only where a clear case is made out for its necessity?

I agree fully with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the risks of legislating in haste and I have some detailed points to make, but they are designed to help the Bill rather than to hinder its progress. First, I must urge him to go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) about the New Zealand Evidence Act 2006, which includes the provision for independent counsel to make a report about credibility. Not only is that an important safeguard for the defence, but it is important for the prosecution in safeguarding the case against the accusation that it is unfair.

Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the Bill will be essentially temporary. Its most important provisions will be those transitional provisions about the pending and recent cases. I shall be grateful for the figures about how many cases there are when they are available, and I am already grateful for what he said about overruling the House of Lords’ decision only prospectively. That is quite proper in such circumstances. However, the right hon. Gentleman did not properly cover the problem of cases that have started now and will continue after the new law is in place. What he said about the common law situation does not apply to those cases. He might want to think about that further.

Lastly, I am far from convinced that anonymity is required in the magistrates court for less serious crimes. I know that there is the Al Capone point that sometimes very bad people can be nailed for only quite minor offences, but how frequent is that? Could the right hon. Gentleman tell the House, either now or later, how many of the pending and recent cases are magistrates court cases?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Liberal Democrat Members will do what we can to help the passage of the emergency legislation that he proposes, but we reserve the right to revisit the details of the scheme in the permanent legislation in the autumn.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was glad, although it was not wholly unexpected, to hear him join the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman and me in deprecating the attacks on the judiciary that have taken place. I do not think that anyone argues with Lord Carswell; it is not a point exclusive to him, but is common to all the judgments in this case, by the Court of Appeal as well as by the House of Lords, and it is a central part of the way in which we operate, that there has to be a presumption in favour of openness. That is the basis on which the trial courts and the Court of Appeal have always operated and is not particularly in issue. The question is on what basis courts should move against that presumption and how they judge that. We are looking at the issue of independent counsel. There are circumstances in which use is made of special advocates in our system, which amounts to the same thing, but there are problems with that.

We should not get ourselves into a huge lather about transitional arrangements. There is a world of difference between legislation that is retrospective to create substantive criminal offences, which has been regarded as totally out of order in all circumstances, and legislation that changes criminal procedure, which can operate only from the day when it comes into force but then makes a difference as to how cases are judged prospectively, including cases that are in the pipeline, whether that pipeline is trial or appeal within the normal time limits, and cases that come into a new pipeline, which are cases in our system referred well out of time by the Criminal Cases Review Commission or which gain direct access to the Court of Appeal.

The Bill is effectively designed to say that from the time that it comes into force, which will be very shortly, the courts will not have to quash a conviction, nor, by the same token, will the trial be aborted, simply because the arrangements made might have been regarded as outwith the Law Lords’ judgment. That is the point of it. We are working hard on the drafting, but it is so that there is as little disruption as possible to trials currently taking place and in the pipeline, to normal-time appeals and to out-of-time appeals.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which he has dealt with what I am sure all hon. Members appreciate is a difficult issue. Does he agree that if the Government were not taking this immediate action to overturn an irresponsible judgment, hundreds of cases would be in danger of collapse?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As in her area in the north-east, which is no different from many other areas throughout the country, most people—an increasing majority—are law-abiding, but there are some serious criminal gangs, and it is vital that those involved in such gangs are brought to justice, but they will receive justice only if the trial process is fair. As I have already explained to the House, I have not given numbers today because we have not been able to pin down precise estimates. The ACPO president, Ken Jones, has provided the police’s best estimate of the serious crime cases, and there have been some other estimates, which are much more all-embracing, of any cases that potentially come within this category. As soon as we can pin down the estimates, we will bring them forward.

In his statement, the Secretary of State said that it was essential that the Bill receive Royal Assent and come into force before Parliament enters the summer recess. Can he explain to a layman the practical consequences if we do not get Royal Assent by the summer recess, and might he consider delaying the start of the recess if we need more time to consider the Bill?

Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am always happy for the House to sit longer, and I recall that he and I were on the same side on the issue of hours, Thursdays and such matters. I would be happy to see those issues revisited, but the question of delaying the start of the recess is a matter for the usual channels.

The need for urgency arises because some cases are currently in court, and others in the pipeline. Given the clear intention on both sides of the House to rectify the gap created by the Law Lords’ judgment, we do not want to see applications made by the defence in those cases either for acquittals or for very expensive retrials. Although this is entirely a matter for the judiciary and not for me, I hope—in the light of what I have said today and of the Bill, if it is passed as I hope it will be—that at worst, cases will be adjourned until the Bill comes into force.

I thank my right hon. Friend and his colleague for taking time yesterday to discuss this serious and urgent issue with me. I have a real concern about this in relation to events in my constituency that involved anonymous witnesses. There is huge fear in the community that if the ruling continues, people will be allowed out to intimidate more people. As the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) says, the problem is not only the cases before the courts now, but possible future cases in which defendants may seek to intimidate, bully and victimise people to ensure that no one comes forward to stand up against them. That is why it is important that we get this measure through as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend had a meeting with me to express his concerns on behalf of his constituents in Perry Barr, and I am well aware of the cases to which he refers. There is real concern in his area, as in others, that witnesses who have been guaranteed anonymity might find that the cases in which they were involved have altered. The purpose of my statement, and of the Bill that will be introduced shortly, is to ensure that the guarantees that the police and the prosecution made to those witnesses continue. That is our urgent intention.

Clearly society cannot allow people to escape the rule of law by virtue of their known ability to intimidate witnesses or terrorise whole communities. I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s careful and proportionate attempt to address the problem. But what course of action would be open to the defence if they had good reason to believe that a witness given anonymity might be someone whose credibility the jury would seriously doubt were the full facts about them to be known?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. The issue that he raises is inherent in the problem of whether to grant anonymity. Some categories of witnesses do not raise questions of credibility, such as innocent bystanders—as often happens in gang and gun-related crimes—or undercover police officers. In either case, the defence may still try to challenge their character or credibility, but they are unlikely to succeed. In other cases, crucial evidence that is believed by the jury can come from the mouths of people with a criminal past and probably present, and whose character is certainly open to challenge. That was one of the main issues in the Davis case. The trial judge sought to make, and the Court of Appeal laid down, arrangements by which the nature of the witness’s character and antecedents could be brought out, so far as humanly possible without directly identifying him. Warnings were given to the jury, but ultimately the essence of our trial system is that the evidence is put before the jury, with appropriate warnings where necessary, and 12 good people and true—it used to be 12 good men and true—make their judgment. On the whole, and especially with all the other safeguards that we have in place, the system rarely allows for anybody who is innocent to be convicted.

Each and every one of us has dealt with constituency cases in which people are frightened to give evidence for fear of intimidation and reprisals. Today, with support from both sides of the House, my right hon. Friend has made an important statement in respect of the more extreme cases. However, whether anonymity is granted or not, can we not use the forthcoming legislation as an opportunity to make it unambiguously clear that this House accords the utmost importance to the protection of witnesses and encourages them to do their civic duty? Should we not use the opportunity to make it clear to all public authorities that the duty of care that they have towards people who have been witnesses in serious crime cases should be as high as possible?

My hon. Friend is right. I dare say that there is no constituency in the country—whether inner-city, urban or rural—where that issue has not been faced at one time or another. I agree with him about the importance of the legislation and the duty of care that the police, the prosecution and everyone else involved with such witnesses owe. In fact, I cannot think of any case in which the undertakings given to witnesses in respect of anonymity have been broken. There may be some, but it is very rare because not only is the witness involved put in jeopardy, but so is the credibility of the whole system. We will use the opportunity of the emergency legislation to deal with the immediate gap created by the Law Lords’ judgment, and then more slowly, as is appropriate, we will think about other measures that might be included in the Bill that I will introduce just before Christmas.

As I am sure the Secretary of State will agree, it is important to recognise that all those accused in our courts are innocent until they are proven guilty. One of the most effective tools for the uncovering of an unjust allegation is cross-examination, but that can be emasculated if the defendant does not know who his accuser is. However, I welcome the approach that the Government are taking, and provided that the measures taken are “careful and proportionate”, in the words of the Law Lords, I am sure that my colleagues and I will support whatever the Government propose.

Will the Secretary of State clarify two points? First, to what categories of case will the new provisions apply, and how will they be defined? Secondly, will the Secretary of State give consideration, at least, to applying the new provisions to defence witnesses? There are cases in which defence witnesses can experience the same types of intimidatory pressure as prosecution witnesses, especially if the defence run is one that is in conflict with that of a co-defendant.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for what he has said. He asked what categories of case would be involved. I do not intend the change in the law, to bring it back as far as possible to where we thought it was, to apply to specific categories of case. In a sense, the categories of case define themselves. For that reason—I am sorry, I was asked this question earlier and did not answer it—I do not propose at this stage to restrict the cases to Crown court cases. I am open to representations about that, but the law as applied at large is the best way. There have been some cases in the magistrates court where, I am told, these measures have been used. It is for judges and magistrates in individual cases to make the judgment about whether such measures are appropriate. We intend to ensure that proper guidance is made available to the courts and prosecutors about the circumstances. That might meet the hon. and learned Gentleman’s concerns. On the point about the availability of such measures for defence witnesses, I agree. He will be pleased to hear that yesterday, in determining the instructions to parliamentary counsel, I decided that such provision should be made available to defence witnesses, too.

Business of the House

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

Monday 30 June—Opposition Day [16th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on energy security followed by a debate on food security. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 1 July—The House will be asked to approve Ways and Means resolutions on the Finance Bill followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill—day 1.

Wednesday 2 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 3 July—Topical debate on Zimbabwe followed by motions relating to MPs’ pay and allowances.

The provisional business for the week commencing 7 July will include:

Monday 7 July—Estimates [3rd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee. At 10 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Tuesday 8 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill.

Wednesday 9 July—Opposition Day [Unallotted Day] [First Part]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist Party, subject to be announced, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument, followed by all stages of the Statute Law (Repeals) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 10 July—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [Lords].

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 10 and 17 July will be:

Thursday 10 July—A debate on the report from the International Development Committee on reconstructing Afghanistan.

Thursday 17 July—A debate on the report from the Defence Committee on medical care for the armed forces.

My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has just announced that we will be bringing forward emergency legislation on witnesses. We anticipate that that will be in the week beginning 7 July, and there will be consequences for the timetabling of other business that week. I shall give full details next week of the business as it has changed for the week beginning 7 July.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement. Earlier, she made a statement on the equality Bill. As Leader of the House, she has a responsibility to ensure that Ministers take Parliament seriously. Indeed, on 10 January she said that

“it is important that Ministers are answerable to this House rather than the media.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 538.]

Will she explain to the House why, as the Minister for Women and Equality, she gave details of the equality Bill to the press yesterday, and on television and radio this morning, before her statement to the House?

Last month, I tabled a written parliamentary question to the Cabinet Office asking whether it had met its self-imposed senior civil service diversity targets by the April 2008 deadline. The Cabinet Office replied that the figures would not be published until the autumn. Soon after, in a desperate attempt to stop The Guardian from publishing an article on diversity target cover-ups, the Cabinet Office released its figures to that newspaper. Does not the Leader of the House agree that it is unacceptable for a Government Department to refuse to give figures in a written parliamentary answer but to disclose them to a national newspaper? Will she undertake to write to the Cabinet Office on behalf of all Members who expect proper answers to their written parliamentary questions?

May we have a debate on the workings of the Government Equalities Office, for which the right hon. and learned Lady has responsibility? It was set up to ensure equality and fairness, yet it is the only Government Department that has failed to set up a database to monitor its equality performance. In the paper “Framework for a Fairer Future”, the table on the percentage of staff who are disabled shows under the title “Government Equalities Office” not a figure but the words “Under review”. The Government are very willing to point the finger at the private sector, but they would do well to set their own house in order first.

We had a statement yesterday on the Pitt review of last summer’s devastating floods, which recommended urgent action that needs to be taken to prevent a recurrence. The Government have announced that they will publish draft legislation in 2009, which might not be in force until 2010. The two-year timetable suggests that the Government have failed to grasp the urgency of the recommendations. As the Government’s business manager, will the right hon. and learned Lady make a statement to the House to explain that delay?

May we have a debate on the property market? Many would-be first-time buyers are not only being turned down by mortgage lenders but faced with having to pay higher rents, which eat even more into their savings. Home ownership is getting beyond the reach of many more people under this Government, so may we have a debate on the subject?

May we have a debate in Government time on the structure of Government Departments? We learned yesterday that the loss of the personal details of 25 million people was a direct result of the reorganisation of Departments brought about by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. We also know that the changes that he introduced to banking supervision through the tripartite approach to supervision were a factor in the failure to identify Northern Rock’s problems at an earlier stage. The Midas touch turned everything into gold, but the Brown effect turns everything into chaos.

Speaking of the Prime Minister, and given that we are at the anniversary of his taking over, may we have a debate on the effect of his first year in office on the state of the nation? That will enable us to discuss the 2,500 post office closures, the first run on a bank in 150 years, soaring food, fuel and energy costs, overcrowded prisons and the early release of criminals, the doubling of violent crime, the closure of maternity departments and accident and emergency departments, and the loss of the personal details of half the population. In a year, he has gone from Flash Gordon to Crash Gordon. When will he accept that it is time for change?

The right hon. Lady asked about this morning’s statement on equality. As she will know, a year ago a consultation document was published, and since then there has been a great deal of debate and discussion in both the public and the private sector about the different measures that should be taken forward. There has been a lot of public discussion and debate, which I, as well as many others, have taken part in. The document that we have published today was not circulated to or seen by anybody before it was placed in the Vote Office of this House.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the release of information in relation to the senior civil service targets on equality. I shall look into the sequence of events following her written question. Obviously, if information is available it should be given. I shall write to her to let her know what the sequence of events was.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Government Equalities Office and said that the public sector must set its own house in order. Indeed it must, and that is why we have published for the first time the gender pay gap between different Government Departments so that we can see where things are, take stock and make progress.

The right hon. Lady asked about the legislation arising from the Pitt review on floods. Her point was answered when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made his statement yesterday. I leave her with the answer that he gave: that we need to legislate as swiftly as we possibly can, while ensuring that we get it absolutely right. I cannot add to his extensive and detailed statement.

The right hon. Lady asked for a debate on the property market and expressed concern about the situation for first-time buyers. I remind her that last Thursday, the subject of the topical debate was eco-towns, and the increased supply of housing was very much an issue of debate. The House had a full chance to raise that subject for an hour and a half.

The right hon. Lady asked about the review of data protection, published yesterday. The House had a full statement from the Chancellor on the details of the Poynter review and the Government responses to it, so I do not think that it would be right or necessary to have a further debate. If hon. Members want to make any further points on the matter, we will have the opportunity this afternoon to debate the draft legislative programme and the range of legislation included in it. Members might find the opportunity to make their points.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the review of the use of restraint in secure training centres, which was set up following the death of Gareth Myatt and was supposed to report quickly, reported to the Government last week? However, it is not to be published until October, when the Government will publish their response. Does she agree that by any stretch of the imagination, taking a year to publish is not very quick? Will she arrange for publication to be brought forward to before the recess, so that people have the opportunity to read the report before the Government publish their response, which may well be in October?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has raised this issue persistently. She will know that we are considering how young offenders are treated as part of the youth crime action plan. The use of appropriate, but not excessive, restraint is being considered as part of that. On 8 October the Minister of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), announced the appointment of Williamson and Smallridge as independent co-chairs of the review. On 20 June it was announced that they had reported their recommendations. The Government have welcomed their report and will give its recommendations careful consideration. We will consider my hon. Friend’s point about getting the response of hon. Members before the Government publish their response.

May I repeat a request that I make fairly frequently of the Leader of the House? She has announced that two Bills will have their Report stage in the next two weeks—the Finance Bill and the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill. Has she yet been able to come up with a formula to allow Opposition amendments and new clauses to be considered, but to allow additional time if the Government wish to make changes to their own legislation, rather than time being taken out of the normal, agreed time for considering the Bill that has come from Committee?

The situation in Zimbabwe is desperate and ever worsening. The Leader of the House has announced that there will be a debate on Zimbabwe. Can we find a way of ensuring that that debate is given the time necessary for colleagues in all parts of the House to express their views? I am sure that that will be agreed to across the House. I do not think that there is a single person in Britain who would not think it perfectly proper for us to spend a full day, after questions, debating Zimbabwe. I am conscious that there are to be motions on Members’ pay and allowances the same day, but I do not think that the public will understand if we do not have adequate time to debate Zimbabwe, and instead take up time debating our own pay and allowances. I am sure that colleagues throughout the House would be willing to sit later to deal with our own domestic arrangements and remuneration. Like the public, we would think it far better to give Zimbabwe the time that it needs. There are many links with Zimbabwe in the House and there is huge concern, and next week presents an opportunity to debate the matter properly.

As other hon. Members will, I welcome the work of the Leader of the House and her colleagues on the Members Estimate Committee in producing their report, which we are to debate. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is also on the Committee. Given that one of the objectives that it has set is to get public confidence in the new systems for dealing with our pay and allowances, if the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life makes comments and observations on the report in good time before next Thursday, will the Government take them into account and be willing to reconsider specific proposals in the light of that external advice? That way, we could see that we were doing something that not only commanded confidence among MPs, and was put to MPs to decide on, but had support outside the House.

Last week, the Prime Minister went to Jeddah to discuss the global energy crisis. May we have a debate on that issue and on the profits of oil companies? Ideally, we would have the Prime Minister here so that we could quiz him on the benefit of that trip and whether it will make any difference in the short, medium or long term to families in Britain. They are still seeing their bills go up, without any immediate prospect of the energy companies contributing to their going in the opposite direction.

Finally, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead pointed out, it would be wrong for us not to mark the fact that this week is our Prime Minister’s first anniversary in office. He told us a year ago, and told the nation again in September, that he wanted to carry on rather than call a general election so that he could set out his vision for Britain. As he has had 12 months of doing that, and as Labour’s ratings in the opinion polls have gone down in that time by a record 13 percentage points to their lowest ever recorded figures—

Ours have not gone down at all in that time, just so that the hon. Gentleman is clear.

In view of all that, may we have a debate on the highs and lows, and successes and failures, of the Prime Minister’s first year in office? In particular, could we link that to considering whether it would have been better for the Prime Minister and the Government to have signed up long ago to fixed-term Parliaments? In that case, the Prime Minister would not have had the embarrassment of last September—will he, won’t he, and then no election happening at all. We would all have known that four years after the previous election there would have been another, so that we could have decided whether we really wanted this Government to continue in office in any longer.

The hon. Gentleman raised the point about having sufficient time to discuss amendments on Report. We timetable Report stages with programme motions precisely to take into account the issues that need to be debated. Obviously the timetable varies from Bill to Bill, but his distinction between Opposition and Government amendments is sometimes quite blurred. Quite often, the Government table amendments because we have undertaken to do so at the request of Opposition Members or our own Back Benchers.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Zimbabwe. The House had a chance to hear from the Foreign Secretary in his statement on Zimbabwe on Monday. On Wednesday the Prime Minister answered questions on the matter and reported his and the Government’s action. Next Thursday the House will have a one-and-a-half-hour debate, which will be the first opportunity to debate the matter after the elections. Unfortunately, I doubt that that will be the end of the matter, and no doubt we will need to have further debates, but I thought it important that we should have one as soon as possible after the elections. I think that we would all welcome Nelson Mandela’s comments last night denouncing Mugabe and the Zimbabwean regime as a total failure of leadership.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Members Estimate Committee and whether the Government could take into account the comments of the Committee on Standards in Public Life when bringing the matter to the House. Perhaps I could make it clear to him and to the House that the Members Estimate Committee reports to the Speaker, and it is therefore not for the Government to bring that matter forward. As Leader of the House I am a member of the Committee, but next Thursday’s debate on the report will be led by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I pay tribute to the three members of the MEC—the MEC three—for all the work that they have done in conducting their root-and-branch review. We must ensure that there is proper transparency and public confidence in Members’ allowances, which should be commensurate with their ability to live both in London and in their constituencies, and run effective offices, in the interests of our democracy and of their constituents.

I want to help the House by explaining what will happen next Thursday. After the Zimbabwe debate, we intend to move a motion making it clear that the first debate will be on the Baker review proposals, which we will table in the Government’s name—in fact, they should already have been tabled today—for the House to see and for hon. Members to try to amend. The Government’s approach has been set out in our written ministerial statement. Thereafter, there will be votes on the question of MPs’ pay, and the future comparator and review systems. We propose that they will be followed by a debate on the MEC and also, following the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), on the question of the privacy of hon. Members’ addresses. That is how the debates will go, and I shall bring forward a proposal to the House to that effect. If colleagues want to make different proposals, perhaps they will do so as soon as possible.

May we have a debate on the insane competition among developers to build taller and taller buildings in London? A proposed 38-storey block in Clapham Junction and a 39-storey block in Wandsworth high street are to be joined by a tower that is 1,000 ft high—equivalent to 100 storeys—next to Battersea power station. That will be exceeded only by a tower in my right hon. and learned Friend’s own borough, which will be 1,117 ft high. May we have a debate about reintroducing height guidelines to stop that madness?

My hon. Friend raises a matter that is important in his constituency and all other London boroughs, but perhaps he should seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

What is the point in having an independent review body on Members’ pay if its recommendations are always turned down, however modest they may be?

The point of an independent review is that it can be reported to the House, as has happened with the review by Sir John Baker, whom I should like to thank once again most warmly for his work. The House will have a choice whether to accept his proposals or the alternative resolutions tabled by the Government. That will be a matter for the House, but I pay tribute to Sir John Baker: he has given the House a review, which it can choose, if it so wishes.

May we have a debate on the role of the third sector in international disaster relief? Last Saturday I was in Porthcawl, where members of Rotary were collecting money for that organisation’s Shelterbox scheme. A Shelterbox contains a 10-person tent, a water purification system, bedding, cooking equipment and a small toolkit. The boxes are pushed out of the back of aeroplanes flying over inaccessible regions and are used to help families survive until international aid efforts are put in place. The kits save lives, and we should acknowledge them. Can we debate that?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster led a debate a week or so ago on the important role of the voluntary sector. It focused on the work done by many organisations such as Rotary in Porthcawl. This country makes a great contribution to development through the work of the Department for International Development, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development recognises that that is added to many times over by the work done by individuals and organisations in constituencies around the country. I shall draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

May we have a debate, or at least a statement, on today’s reports that the powers of the Criminal Records Bureau are to be extended? As I understand it, people who have foreign exchange students in their houses would have to be subjected to a CRB test, as would I if my children’s friends came for a sleepover. We could also then look into the fact that most child abuse takes place within families, including extended and step families. We could consider whether parents or step-parents—or girlfriends and boyfriends—should have CRB tests, and determine whether there is a real issue, which would be addressed by the proposed powers.

I think that we would all agree that if a person with a criminal record, especially one featuring sexual offences against children, applies for a job with an organisation, especially one involved with the care of children, it is important for the relevant data to be kept and shared. In that way, paedophiles who seek out work with children will be prevented from getting jobs with organisations that are unaware of their criminal background. It is very important that we support the CRB’s work in that respect. I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman setting out what changes to the CRB are likely to be forthcoming, but it is most unlikely that parents will be subject to criminal record checks before their children bring friends home.

May I press the Leader of the House on an issue raised by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), which she elegantly sidestepped? It has to do with the views of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that we are to debate next Thursday. I remind her that at business questions last week she said:

“It would help the House’s debate for Sir Christopher Kelly to have an opportunity to put forward his views on the proposals on which the House will decide”. —[Official Report, 19 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 1092.]

Does she agree that it would not be in the interests of good governance if this House were to take a final decision on allowances and salaries next Thursday, only to find that the Committee on Standards in Public Life was dissatisfied with the process and then reopened the whole issue? Will she do all that she can to ensure that we have the Committee’s views before next Thursday’s debate?

I understand that when the MEC three drew up their report they had discussions with the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. However, the right hon. Gentleman raises a good point when he asks how the House will know what that Chairman’s views are when the debate is held. Perhaps I will invite the MEC to liaise with the Chairman to see whether he wants to write a letter to hon. Members, so that they will know his position before the debate. That would be better than having the House debate the matter and come to decisions, only to see on the television that something had been missed that the Chairman would have wanted to draw to our attention.

May I ask the Leader of the House to clarify a little more the procedures that we can expect in the various debates to do with Members’ own concerns on Thursday?

First, it has been proposed that MPs’ private addresses should not be published. In no small part thanks to the robust support exhibited by the Leader and the shadow Leader of the House, it is clear that that proposal will be carried overwhelmingly. Indeed, there is a danger that it may not come to a vote at all. Given that one of the purposes is to express on the record the strength of feeling in the House, can arrangements be made to ensure that, one way or another, a vote is held on the matter? In that way, Mr. Speaker will be able to gauge how many hon. Members feel strongly that our private addresses should not be disclosed.

That is a rather simple matter, but my second question has to do with the much more complex issue of the additional cost allowance for hon. Members’ second homes. Is the Leader of the House satisfied that enough time has been allocated for us to debate all the complexities involved? For example, one might want to raise the hypothetical situation that would arise if there were a change of Government. In that case, certain Opposition Members would become Ministers and therefore have to spend many more nights in London than previously. As a result, they might fall foul of the rules that say that their main home must be the one in which they spend most nights.

Unless we get rid of the wretched allowance system, those are the sort of complexities that we will need to consider next week. I am not happy that we will have enough time.

The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise those points in the debate. If he wants clarification before then on the detail of the Members Estimate Committee report—on what it intends and what lies behind it, but is perhaps not explicit in it—he should get it from the House authorities. The hon. Gentleman has time to do that before the debate next Thursday; there is plenty of time, as the report came out yesterday.

The hon. Gentleman said that a vote would assist the Speaker and everybody else to understand the strength of feeling about the privacy of Members’ addresses—and about the protection of democracy in this House, so that Members can speak up without fear or favour and without looking over their shoulders. All the hon. Members who have signed his early-day motion have contributed to that understanding, and no doubt signatures can still be added to it. It is important for there to be an opportunity for a formal motion of the House.

If no one votes against a motion, that is not because people do not feel strongly about it, but because there is unanimous support for it. I am sure that we will not need to debate it at huge length next Thursday, because there is a fair degree of unanimity across the board. Even some of the usual suspects, who can usually be counted on to be on the other side of the argument, are on the side of the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion.

May I, too, support the calls for some sort of parliamentary review? I agree that now is an appropriate time, given that the Prime Minister and the right hon. and learned Lady have taken over the helm and so effectively engaged the public with a range of popular policies. She will know that this is not the only parliamentary anniversary: it is also one year since the Scottish National party Scottish Government came to power. Has she any explanation for why we are experiencing high satisfaction in the opinion polls, while her Government are at historic lows?

I must draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to another forthcoming anniversary: 60 years of the national health service.

May we have a debate on the future of the Post Office card account? Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their concerns about the potential impact on the Post Office Network should the franchise not be given back to the Post Office. I should like to highlight one particular concern: the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions, which appears to be ringing Post Office card account holders and encouraging and coercing them—perhaps even misleading them—about the supposed need to have a bank account rather than the Post Office card account. Is that fair? Is it fair to the Post Office?

I cannot comment on what is happening in relation to the Post Office card account contract, as it is subject to the rules on public procurement. However, as the Post Office has made clear, I can say that it has put in a strong bid for the contract and regards it as very important in respect of the services that it provides through its extensive network.

The cryptosporidium outbreak at Pitsford reservoir in Kettering constituency this week has caused widespread alarm across Northamptonshire and is forcing some 250,000 people to boil all their drinking water. It is the largest-scale contaminated water scare in Anglian Water’s history. May we have a statement, verbal or written, next Thursday from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the response of Anglian Water and other agencies to the outbreak?

I understand that the Secretary of State was asked about that issue yesterday during his statement on the Pitt report. The House has already had an opportunity to hear his views on the matter. However, I understand that the drinking water inspectorate will investigate the incident. As the hon. Gentleman has said, it is important that in the meantime customers consider the information that the water company has given them.

Draft Legislative Programme

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the draft legislative programme.

This is the second time that the Government have published their legislative programme in draft for consultation. This opens up the legislative process, increases its transparency and, most important, enables Parliament and the public to have their say and feed in their views before the programme is finalised in the Queen’s Speech. This year, we have improved the process. We have published the programme two months earlier in the year to allow more time for comments and discussion and to take comments into account. We have also included non-legislative actions in the draft legislative programme report to set the programme in its wider context, following recommendations to that effect from the Modernisation Committee.

The work of the House and the Government is about a great deal more than legislating. Many things can be done by non-legislative means and it is important to allow the House the time to spend on its other roles such as scrutinising Government, debating key issues affecting the country, considering private Members’ Bills and engaging with our constituents. The Government are therefore committed to improving and simplifying the legislative process from beginning to end. The draft programme sets out our aim to publish nine Bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny this Session. We have also begun publishing draft bills in plainer English alongside the statutory language, to make our laws easier to understand and debate.

As well as improving the openness of legislation at the outset of the process, we have this Session introduced a systematic process of post-legislative scrutiny, to look back at past legislation. Departments are now required to assess Acts passed three to five years ago to ensure that the legislation that we pass is measured against what it was intended to achieve.

We have so far received more than 450 comments through the Leader of the House of Commons website since the draft legislative programme was published on 14 May. That is already considerably more than last year, and I am sure that the process will build year by year.

The Leader of the House talked about the importance of Parliament in not just legislating but in holding the Government to account and examining other measures that go through Parliament. In judging the legislative programme, an important consideration for Members is the length of time over which the programme is to be implemented. The Queen’s Speech is not until December. Does the Leader of the House have an idea of how long a legislative year she is planning to allow for the programme to be delivered? In the following year, will the Queen’s Speech be in December again, or will it go back to an earlier, more normal date?

I can give the hon. Gentleman the time of the Queen’s Speech this year, but I cannot give him the date of next year’s. He will see from the draft legislative programme that some Bills are due to appear in draft and then to be taken forward in the Queen’s Speech after next; some are ready for more immediate implementation. There are different time tracks for the different Bills in the programme.

As well as the detailed consultations that Departments undertake on proposals that form the Bills in the programme, the Ministers for the English regions and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are holding a number of events in their areas to consult a range of different sections of the public, including businesses, the third sector and local authorities. We have arranged for ministerial colleagues to engage in a co-ordinated national day of consultation on 11 July, with events held across the country, involving local Members of Parliament and stakeholders. The consultation will run until 6 August and I will publish a summary of the comments made in the autumn, ahead of the unveiling of the final programme in the Queen’s Speech on 3 December.

Given the extent of the scrutiny before the Queen’s Speech, do we really need five days debating the programme all over again after the Queen’s Speech has been made? Could that time not be put to better use?

That suggestion has been made, particularly as some hon. Members would like to see a debate on the pre-Budget report. I shall take the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion into account, and we can discuss it through the usual channels.

We will explain how the final programme has changed as a result of the consultation and, when we are not acting on comments, we will explain why. For example, we acknowledge that, in the time available, it will not be possible to bring forward completely new ideas into legislation for the next Session. However, we can explain our view on new ideas and whether it will be possible to develop them in future years.

The purpose of the programme is to build a more prosperous and fairer Britain. Our first priority is to help hard-pressed families and to ensure economic stability. A banking reform Bill will ensure that Britain underpins its banking system with the best protection for depositors. A savings gateway Bill will give 8 million people on low incomes access to a national savings scheme, with each pound saved matched by a contribution from the Government.

We also want to equip this country to meet the challenges of the future by making the most of people’s potential. The Education and Skills Bill will seek to reach the highest standards for schools and lifelong learning. It will also create a statutory right for every suitably qualified young person to obtain an apprenticeship. A welfare reform Bill will place a duty on the unemployed to have their skills needs assessed and to acquire skills. We will consult on further reforms to ensure that no one with the ability to work is trapped on benefits for life.

We are committed to personalising and improving our public services. This is the 60th year of the NHS—a very proud anniversary to celebrate. We propose to introduce an NHS Bill to enable the NHS to offer a higher standard of care and to focus on prevention as well as treatment, and to make it more accountable to local people and patients. The Bill will establish a constitution for the NHS that sets out what patients can expect to get from the health service, including entitlements to minimum standards of access, quality and safety. It will also set out the right of NHS staff to be consulted and involved in taking services forward.

Protecting the safety of the British people is paramount for any Government. A policing and crime reduction Bill will create directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing priorities and responsiveness. A law reform, victims and witnesses Bill will give the victims of crime more legal rights. A citizenship, immigration and borders Bill will put in place our new and tougher test for permanent residence or British citizenship.

We are also committed in this programme to safeguarding and enhancing our heritage and our environment. A heritage protection Bill will increase protection of our historic sites and buildings. We will consult in draft on legislation to implement the recommendations of this week’s Pitt review on the 2007 floods, so better to protect vulnerable communities in the future. A marine and coastal access Bill will protect our seas and our shores with new powers to designate marine conservation zones and to create a path around the whole English coastline, with public access for walking. We are also committed to a constitutional reform Bill, to a community empowerment Bill, and to the equality Bill, on which I made a statement this morning.

We will build on the themes of this programme—economic stability, making the most of people’s potential, personalised and improved public services, and constitutional improvement and fairness—through legislation and a range of other Government action. The draft legislative programme not only sets out the Government’s plans and priorities but enables this House and the wider public to consider and give their views on these plans before they are finalised. I commend it to the House.

This draft legislative programme is a massive disappointment for the people of Great Britain. It does not deal with the real problems of our country, such as the causes of poverty, falling educational standards, and the need to improve social mobility. In his speech to the House on 14 May, the Prime Minister spoke of choice and freedom for people, but a closer look at the proposals shows that there is little to give people more control over their lives and the communities in which they live.

Nor does the programme show that the Government have any understanding of what people really want. For example, their plans for polyclinics could lead to the closure of 1,700 doctors surgeries throughout the country—although not in the Prime Minister’s constituency, of course—and there is no comfort for people who will see their local post offices close. The shutting of surgeries and post offices will rip out the heart of many communities. It affects not only my constituency but the constituencies of Members across the political divide. I note that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) is smiling. I hope for her sake that no post offices are closing in her constituency and that she will not be losing any surgeries.

Is the hon. Gentleman’s party prepared to put the funding into the post office network that we have put in? Has he received, as I have, representations from constituents who are working families and who are trying to juggle home and child care? They welcome the chance to have a doctor’s appointment between 8 o’clock in the morning and 8 o’clock at night, seven days a week.