House of Commons
Tuesday 8 July 2008
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I represented the UK at the June EU Transport Council where the Commission’s access to the road transport market proposal achieved political agreement. As a result of the agreement, the rules on cabotage will be simpler and easier to enforce and will limit cabotage to three operations within a seven-day period following an international journey.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I have just come from chairing the all-party group on freight transport, and the Freight Transport Association had some complimentary things to say about the Minister. UK hauliers are concerned about unfair foreign competition. Does the Minister agree that rigorous enforcement of cabotage rules and safety laws is essential? Our hauliers need reassurance that enforcement is the top priority for her Department.
I thank my hon. Friend and the association for their kind remarks. I want to pay tribute to both Roger King and Theo de Pencier, who were very helpful during the negotiations. I kept in regular touch with them about the situation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that enforcement is a key issue—not just on cabotage but on other road safety issues. That is why an important part of the agreement was to get a commitment from the Commission to look at the exchange of national databases, which would make enforcement much easier for us to carry out.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), had discussions with some of the key industry representatives last week. He listened carefully to their concerns and undertook to pass them on to the Chancellor.
I am sure my right hon. Friend is a heroine to the whole of the road haulage industry. She appears to have driven a hole through the treaty of Rome and free trade with the concessions that she has managed to get. Can she explain why, when there is unfair competition from foreign lorries that do not comply with our regulations, the graduated penalty and deposit scheme has been delayed?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks—at least I think they were kind. He is right to say that it will make a big difference in enforcement when the Commission can consider the exchange of national databases. On the other issue, I understand that statutory instruments are being drawn up to deal with the graduated penalty and deposit scheme.
According to research by National Economic Research Associates, foreign lorries operating on UK roads are imposing wear and tear costs of about £195 million a year. Do the Government still accept the principle that foreign hauliers should contribute to the cost of maintaining the UK road network?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the feasibility study that was commissioned to consider the issue was rejected by the Treasury, as it would almost cost more to administer than would have come in in revenue. However, he might not be aware that another proposal has come forward from the Commission, and we will consider it.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of meetings that Members have had over the past week with those in road haulage societies. One problem that was identified involved lorries coming from the continent that were not roadworthy. Will she have a word with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary so that there are more exercises, as we suggested in the Select Committee on Transport some time ago, whereby the police and all agencies check foreign lorries? Most of them are not fit to be on our roads.
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out some of the problems that can occur. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, recently announced some £24 million of extra investment to improve enforcement. As I have said, one of the key proposals to come out of the Council last week was to do with ensuring that the Commission would give a firm commitment to consider the exchange of databases, which is incredibly important in enforcement terms.
The biggest threat to our indigenous road haulage industry is not new cabotage rules but the difference in the price of diesel on each side of the channel. Eight years ago, when he was the leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested a vignette or Britdisc scheme, which was deemed not to be compliant with EU rules. Since then, however, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic have introduced their own schemes. Has the Department examined schemes that could be introduced in this country and that do comply with EU regulations?
That is the question that I have just answered. As I explained, the previous feasibility study was rejected because the limit that could be charged was something like £7 a day, and the cost of administering the scheme would have been greater than the money charged. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), the Commission has made new proposals, and we will of course examine them to see whether they would improve the situation.
In the past three months, I have met local MPs, including the hon. Gentleman, and local authority representatives, and received several letters from MPs seeking assurances on the progress of the A21 Tonbridge to Pembury and Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst schemes.
I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me and my colleagues. He will know that it is 11 years since the dualling of the A21 was cancelled, and every year since then the cost of the scheme has gone up. A new hospital is now being built and will rely on the road. The people of west Kent are clear that the Government should get on with it, because further delay means further costs. Can the Minister assure us that the dualling of the road will continue as planned in 2010-11?
I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I will do everything I possibly can to ensure that that process is expedited. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce updated scheme cost estimates to inform the upcoming refresh of priorities within the regional funding allocation. Once that information is available, the regional transport board will be able to reconfirm its priorities for that road if it wishes. That being the case, I will do everything that I can to ensure that progress is made.
Colchester Northern Approach Road
Delivery of the scheme is related to planning conditions and is a matter for developers to take forward in line with plans for the delivery of proposed housing, employment and leisure facilities in north Colchester. The road scheme must also complete its statutory processes. In view of that, a definite start date is not currently available, but work is expected to start in 2009 or 2010.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. His briefing will probably tell him that I asked a similar question in January 2004, which led to a productive meeting with the then Transport Minister, David Jamieson. I am pleased to say that the new community stadium, the new home for Colchester United, is nearing completion. The first fixture there is next month. The principal beneficiary of the development in north Colchester will be the national health service, which will sell land. In view of that, will the Minister meet me to consider whether there are alternative ways in which the junction can be built in advance of the land sales?
I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and delegates from his constituency if he feels that that would be useful. We can talk about this in more detail at any subsequent meeting, but he might be interested to know that I understand that English Partnerships has already applied for community infrastructure fund money, which would allow the construction of the junction to proceed ahead of any subsequent agreement to invite private developers to contribute. I am more than happy to discuss the details of that at our meeting.
The Department for Transport conducted regulatory impact assessments of both recent extensions to the statutory concessionary fares scheme. They showed that significant benefits such as improved social inclusion cannot be easily quantified, but that even without considering those benefits, on which it is difficult to put a price, the schemes could still offer value for money.
It will not come as a surprise to the Minister that I am going to ask here about the cross-border impact of concessionary bus travel between my constituency and Wales. I have been very disappointed by some of the answers that I have previously had from her. She has admitted that extending the scheme across borders would be very expensive, so we cannot rely on local authorities to do it, but I am very disappointed that she has said that she has no plans even to meet Welsh Assembly Government Ministers to discuss whether that might be possible at some point in future. Will she at least reconsider extending the scheme across the border?
I fear that I may continue to be a disappointment to the hon. Gentleman. That saddens me enormously, but he must recognise that extending the scheme into Wales or Scotland has some quite strong financial implications. At this stage, we want to make sure that the England-wide scheme is settling down. Obviously, negotiations about that are still going on and we want to wait before we proceed any further.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the situation in Chorley. Concessionary travel was initially welcomed, but the council will no longer let people use the 50p scheme before 9.30 am, and its opposition to the continuation of the scheme means that people cannot travel across Chorley into any other district in Lancashire. What can she do to help pensioners who have to go to hospital, or people who have disabilities or are on training schemes, who now have to pay either full price or half price? The council’s decision seems to have led to a real anomaly.
I certainly understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. As he knows, central Government funding provides that the scheme should run from 9.30 am to 11 pm, but some local authorities have exercised the discretion that we have given them to extend it. In my area, it has been extended to carers, and people are able to use it on local trains. In addition, the hours for which it operates have also been extended. It is unfortunate that his local authority is not doing something similar, but I am sure that he will continue to campaign for such a change.
In replying to yesterday’s debate, the Minister disappointed us yet again when she admitted that the Government intended to stop reimbursing local authorities for the administrative cost of issuing bus passes. Many councils already have to subsidise what was supposed to be a Government-funded scheme. Is this another example of the Government taking the credit for something and local council tax payers picking up the bill—in this case, one of £50 million?
I wonder whether I sense another Tory spending commitment in the air. We gave local authorities a very generous grant of something like £31 million, equivalent to about £4.50 per pass, to cover the scheme’s introduction. In the past, local authorities have produced their own passes, so giving them money for the introduction of this pass was a change. However, given that something like £1 billion goes to local authorities for the concessionary fares scheme, we think it is entirely reasonable that they deal with further applications and renewals from now on.
The concessionary fare scheme has been a tremendous success. It is popular and a credit to the Government, but does my hon. Friend recall the Prime Minister saying that he wanted to remove all barriers to people receiving training and acquiring skills? Will she encourage local authorities and other bodies to come together and extend concessionary fares to young people between the ages of 16 and 19 who are pursuing further education and training?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As he said, something like 11 million people nationwide will be eligible for concessionary fares as a result of the changes that came in on 1 April. He is right to say that local authorities, transport authorities and other organisations in some parts of the country have come together to look at the problems facing young people undertaking training; in some instances, I think they are looking at facilitating travel for young people doing the new diplomas. We have given local authorities freedom to deal with this matter at their own discretion, and I am sure that some of them will consider what my hon. Friend suggests to be a good way forward.
Does the Minister recall the meeting that we had this morning with representatives of the Doncaster youth council? They raised the possibility of extending the scheme to students, especially those attending sixth-form colleges. Will she consider whether they might be included in the scheme in future?
Fortunately, I do remember the meeting that we had not five hours ago. My hon. Friend is right to say that Doncaster youth council was extremely keen to see the concessionary fares scheme extended to young people. As I explained to the council, extending the scheme nationwide to young people would have some severe financial implications, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), some local authorities are looking at extending it to young people, especially in areas where people want to get to school or training.
Following my recent invitation to examine longer-term options, Network Rail announced in June a study of the potential for new lines to accommodate future growth on the network. This will include an assessment of the role that high-speed lines might play. I look forward to seeing the results of the study next year. Separately, the Department is leading the procurement of new rolling stock to replace the existing fleet of high-speed trains.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. What reassurance can she give the House about the Government’s welcome ambitions for a new fleet of express trains and five high-speed routes? On the route to Penzance, as a result of rising sea levels, the line 100 miles away at Dawlish always becomes threatened when high spring tides coincide with strong easterlies. Is the Secretary of State able to factor that into the plans, or to make an announcement today that the high-speed route could be rerouted?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to make such an announcement today, but I understand that Network Rail is looking at the issue that he has raised with me. Network Rail needs to be in a position over the next year or so to understand where rail is going to be most intensively used, and that is why it is undertaking a study of where there might be a need for new lines, including high-speed lines. If the hon. Gentleman has issues with the scope of those studies, I am sure he will make representations to Network Rail.
I welcome the commissioning of the study, but can my right hon. Friend tell us what criteria she has set for Network Rail for assessing the feasibility of high-speed rail?
I can tell my hon. Friend that I invited Network Rail to carry out a wide-ranging study, without constraint, of where future demand might emerge on the railway, and where there might be need for extra capacity. As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members know, it takes a long time between thinking about and planning for a new line and constructing it, as with Crossrail, so Network Rail is carrying out a study with a wide scope of where extra demands might materialise and how plans can be put in place in case such a scenario arises.
The hon. Gentleman from month to month tries to make the case for high-speed rail to Glasgow. I have not set my mind against high-speed lines; it is right that Network Rail should consider all the options, particularly how the need for extra capacity might be met. If extra capacity is needed and a new line needs to be built, it must consider whether that line should be high-speed. I do not suggest, as the hon. Gentleman sometimes does, that there is necessarily a huge carbon advantage from high-speed rail. For instance, if a high-speed line were to run between London and Manchester or London and Glasgow, one might expect a carbon advantage, but not the scale of advantage that some hon. Members sometimes suggest.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that people in Yorkshire very much want a high-speed service to the major cities of this country, not just to London? Is she also aware that recently at weekends some conspiracy between National Express and Network Rail has sealed off the northern region from the rest of the country through the disruption and damage done to the timetable?
My hon. Friend will know that there is huge investment in the network at present, including an extra £10 billion allocated to invest in capacity over the five-year period to 2014. Clearly, from time to time there will be disruption on the route, some of which may be unavoidable as a consequence of the upgrading of the line. If it is not unavoidable that is clearly unacceptable, and I am sure my hon. Friend will make representations to Network Rail, as indeed shall I on his behalf.
Does the right hon. Lady understand that it is not much fun standing on a platform and a high-speed train sucks you off because of the turbulence—[Laughter]—or whatever. The important thing is that the train should stop, so will she bear in mind the fact that high-speed trains should go not just from major centres of population to other major centres of population but, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, to some of our great cities, including the great city of Lichfield?
The hon. Gentleman is of course right; it would not be much fun, but nor would the train be very high speed if it were to stop at every station. Clearly, there is a trade-off between reductions in journey time and the number of stations where trains stop, but I am sure those issues will be taken into account.
My right hon. Friend is aware of my support, and that of many of my hon. Friends, for the reopening of the Woodhead line over the Pennines. Will she give us an assurance today that the economic benefits to the north of such a link will be given serious consideration as part of the study being conducted by Network Rail?
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State assures me that she has met both National Grid and Network Rail to discuss precisely those issues. A freight study is being carried out to assess whether the Woodhead tunnel might be needed in future to carry freight trains, and there could of course be passenger benefits, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) has ensured that the issue has been put on the table, and I can assure her in response that it is being studied seriously.
I am advised by Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation that the information is not available in the form requested. Since 1997 the channel tunnel rail link has opened, and there have been no significant closures over this period. However, we have committed to investing £10 billion in increasing capacity over the next five years, which at this stage can be done most effectively by investing in additional rolling stock and improving the existing network.
Is not the likely answer zero if the channel tunnel rail link is excluded, and is it not astonishing that the Government can spend £11.5 billion building 405 miles of major new road network, yet not put any money into extending rail? Given that the rail network will approach maximum capacity in the next few years, what plans do the Government have to expand the network and provide capacity beyond 2014?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s argument is completely misleading. If we want to put extra capacity on the railway, the most important thing is to lengthen platforms and invest in new carriages. If we want to increase capacity in the road network, the most important thing is to widen roads or turn the hard shoulder into an extra running lane. However, when we look at the facts on investment, we see that last year alone an extra £3.5 billion was invested in rail capacity and just over £1 billion in roads. There was nearly three times as much investment in rail, so I do not think anyone can accuse the Government of starving the railways of investment.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most effective ways of increasing the number of miles available for the passenger network is reopening existing freight lines for passenger transport? She will be aware of a number of such schemes nationwide, but will she look again at the considerable potential for passenger use of the heavy freight line that links Leicester and Burton? Will she support the feasibility work being done on a line that could take a significant number of cars off the congested roads of Leicester and Leicestershire?
I know how interested in and passionate about the issue of freight my hon. Friend is. I assure him that as part of its new line study, Network Rail is thinking about whether there is a need for a dedicated freight line, which would not only benefit the freight industry but potentially increase capacity for passengers. Also, in the rail White Paper, we allocated an extra £200 million for investment in the strategic freight network. Together, those measures will, I hope, provide much greater reliability for the freight industry, which is incredibly important, and deliver passenger benefits.
When considering the extra capacity and lines that are needed, particularly for high-speed train services, will my right hon. Friend consider the needs of Northampton and the surrounding growth area, which will urgently need more train services as the population increases in the coming years?
My hon. Friend is persistent in making the case for her constituents in Northampton, particularly on the need for more investment in capacity. I know that Northampton is being considered as a stop for the new inter-city express trains, which would provide substantially more seats than current trains do. I am sure that we will be able to take her representations into account when we decide on the best use of those trains.
The Highways Agency classified roads in the strategic roads network as national or regional roads in 2005 to support the regional funding allocation process. Roads were assessed against set criteria, and the A1 north of Newcastle was judged to be a route of regional importance. There are no plans to carry out a review of those classifications for the forthcoming round of advice on regional funding allocations.
Well, is it not time that there was a review of the classification, especially as the regional transport board, the regional development agency and all the local authorities involved think that the A1 north of Newcastle should be treated as a national strategic road? The traffic patterns—the distances travelled—seem to support that view. The Highways Agency itself spent £5.25 million working up schemes before the classification was changed.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, it may be helpful to the right hon. Gentleman and the House if I briefly set out the four criteria. The first is an average daily traffic flow of more than 60,000 vehicles along the length of the route. Secondly, the road must link at least two of the top 20 English cities by population, or link one of those cities with an airport or seaport, or with Wales or Scotland. Thirdly, heavy goods vehicles must make up 15 per cent. or more of the traffic, on average, along the length of the route. Fourthly, the road must be part of the European Union’s trans-European transport network. I have to tell him that the A1 north of Newcastle does not meet those criteria.
May I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter in the light of the opening of the second Tyne tunnel, which is due to take place in 2012? The Tyne tunnel road was originally the A1, and the A1 was routed round to the west of Newcastle, but that was some 20 or 30 years ago. May I ask him to reconsider the matter, as some of the information to which he just referred would look entirely different if we considered the future of the trunk road network through the built-up area of Tyne and Wear?
My hon. Friend is right inasmuch as, to quote John Maynard Keynes,
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
Of course, if the facts change, the Government will look at the matter again, but we have to make sure that the criteria are consistent across the whole country. I advise my hon. Friend, and other right hon. and hon. Members, that simply reclassifying a road does not create any extra resources with which to upgrade and expand it. The amount of money in the pot stays static. Of course, if we have to fund a particular scheme from central resources, that means fewer resources for the regional funding allocation.
The Driving Standards Agency is working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and other interested parties to design a course that young people and potential employers will value. Our plans are for the qualification to be available in Scotland from this autumn, and then become available in the rest of Great Britain.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that the overall casualty rates for young people have not changed since the mid-1990s? In contrast, overall, serious accidents and deaths have fallen by over 30 per cent. How does he think the initiative that we are discussing would reduce the casualty figures?
The whole House will welcome the data published two weeks ago by the Department showing that road deaths in the UK fell below 3,000 for the first time since 1926, when records were first kept. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that incidents in which young drivers are killed or suffer serious injury are not falling at the same rate. The learn-to-drive consultation that the Department is running to try to improve the standards of skill for our young drivers is very much part of the drive to make sure that those figures keep moving downwards, and we are confident that the qualification will help in that regard.
The multi-purpose test centres have been designed, first, to comply with the European directive on testing motorcyclists and, secondly, to comply with our safety ambition to cut the numbers of motorcyclists who die on our roads. In 2006, there were 599 such deaths; in 2007, there were 588. They are the biggest single category of deaths on the road, and many motorcyclists are victims of other road users. We are trying to make sure that the MPTCs are as close as possible to where people live, and targets have been set. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and he knows, too, that we are engaged in that examination.
While I applaud what my hon. Friend said about reducing deaths on the roads, there have unfortunately been several deaths on the A23 in Sussex in the past year. Can he fit what he said about safety on the roads with the closure of both test centres in Brighton and Hove, so that learner drivers must travel to Burgess Hill, not just to take their test, but possibly to familiarise themselves with the roads? The most direct route to that test centre is on the dual carriageway on the unfortunate A23.
My hon. Friend raises the question of the journey to the test centre for people who want to take their driving test. Some ADIs—approved driving instructors—spend a lot of time with their trainees on the test course, but we are trying to say that that is not what they ought to be doing. Rather than teaching people how to pass the test, they are supposed to teach them how to drive. Some people will have to travel longer distances, but for the majority, the centre will still be within 45 minutes of their home. We are trying to improve the centres, which will be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and will be better for staff and examiners. We want to achieve the objective of cutting the number of people killed and injured, which is why we are revising the whole exam course.
Obviously, demographics are important: we are living to an older age, and we have an ageing population. There is a question mark over people living to a very old age and their ability to drive. We have an arrangement whereby, once someone reaches the age of 70, they have to re-qualify, and there is a three-yearly recertification process. We will consult on that, and on health aspects in due course. At this point, however, we have no plans to change the existing arrangement.
My hon. Friend makes the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood). Newly qualified drivers, particularly young men, feature disproportionately among those who are killed and seriously injured. The new qualification that we will take into schools and youth clubs will address the culture of being a passenger as well as the prospect of being a driver. It will deal with how someone should act towards other users in a courteous manner, as well as how to deal with peer pressure, because their girlfriend or boyfriend is in the car, or their mates are in the back trying to gee them up. That is very much a matter of trying to make people more mature in their approach to driving, and the qualification about which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr asked is very much part of preparing people for driving. In addition, by fundamentally reviewing the exam, we will test whether people are able to drive, not just manoeuvre a vehicle.
Protecting learner drivers from sexual offenders must be an important consideration for the Department, but two years ago I alerted it to the loophole in the law that prevents the suspension of recently convicted sexual offenders from the approved driving instructors register. That meant that sexual offenders who were driving instructors would be allowed to continue for a further 45 days after conviction, and I was told by the Minister at the time that that serious loophole would be closed. Why has nothing been done during that period? Why are women now at risk throughout the country? The Government have failed to act to close the loophole.
Prospective approved driving instructors must provide enhanced-level criminal record checks. Existing ADIs must undergo such checks when re-registering every four years, and the position of driving instructor has the status of a notifiable occupation, so the Driving Standards Agency is informed of convictions. The DSA is seeking a suitable Bill to allow for the suspension of ADIs. The hon. Gentleman has quite correctly drawn attention to the matter and it has been under review. There have been changes, but clearly further matters must be pursued.
Regional airports generate regional growth, jobs and investment, and we support their development provided that environmental considerations are addressed. Our White Paper, “The Future of Air Transport”, invited airports to publish master plans outlining how their future development proposals would help regional economies, and many have now done so.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will know the tremendous benefits to industry and commerce not only in Greater Manchester but throughout the north-west of England of having a large regional hub airport based at Manchester. Will she ensure that the vital economic role played by regional airports such as Manchester is properly considered in the current aviation policy consultation and in the current debate about the expansion of Heathrow?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. In fact, I think that about 35,000 jobs are supported by Manchester airport alone, and businesses choose where to locate in Britain partly because of international connectivity. The economic impact of transfer passengers has been widely debated inside and outside the House, and when we consider the issues about Heathrow expansion, it is important to take into account the impact of such passengers within the UK. After all, one quarter of all transfer passengers at Heathrow come from regional airports. That is one factor that we must take into account, but obviously the decision will be based on local environmental considerations as well as on the overall economic impact.
I agree with the Secretary of State that regional airports make a very important contribution to the economic development of the regions in which they are located, but does she agree that it is also important that, like all other forms of economic activity, regional airports are subject to proper planning controls and constraints in the interests of the communities around them? In that connection, does she think it reasonable for the Government to plan for East Midlands airport to become a major air freight hub, with the implication that there will be an increased amount of night flying, without any controls on night flights in and out of the airport to reflect the balance of interests between night-flying operators and the communities around the airport?
The right hon. Gentleman will know about our proposals in the air transport White Paper. There are clearly issues in respect of East Midlands airport, but he would not expect me to touch on them in the House, partly because they are being contested. The fact is that regional airports are hugely important for regional and UK economic growth, and the provision of specific places for air freight is also important for the country’s economic growth. Clearly, they need to be properly planned, and clearly we need to take into account the local environmental impact, including the impact on noise and air quality.
Could the Secretary of State impress on her Treasury colleagues the concerns of regional airport operators, who feel that they are being asked to set up a cumbersome and expensive bureaucracy to collect the new aviation tax, instead of that being left to the airlines, which currently collect the aviation air passenger duty that the new tax is replacing?
I take that as confirmation that the Conservative party supports the Government’s proposals for an aviation tax that reflects the impact of aviation on the environment. The Treasury is consulting on the detail, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is thinking about the issues with a view to making decisions later this year.
Multi-purpose Driving Test Centres
The Driving Standards Agency plans to establish a network of 66 multi-purpose driving test centres. The capital budget for the project is £71 million and revenue costs will be £13 million per annum.
The Minister has rightly confirmed that the Government are planning to spend £71 million because of a European Union directive. However, if the Government had applied for a derogation from the directive so that 50 kph was translated to 30 mph, no expenditure would have been necessary. Why did the Government waste £71 million rather than apply for a derogation?
We do not see it as wasting £71 million, but as something that improves the test and the facilities for examiners and the examined. It will enable the tests to be conducted off-road because of the manoeuvres that are expected to be required. That will enhance safety because it will improve the skills of those who go to the new multi-purpose driving test centres.
I sincerely hope that Crawley will have a multi-purpose test centre. It is vital that the new centres should allow people to take a variety of tests, provide safety and comfort to those taking their tests as they wait for people to arrive and provide secure accommodation for those who are teaching. I hope that all those things will be achieved at Crawley.
The new purpose-built MPTCs are environmentally friendly and compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. They provide improved facilities for customers and staff. When my hon. Friend visits her new centre, I am sure that she will be impressed by the facilities on offer.
My apologies, Mr. Speaker; I had not seen that the previous three questions had been withdrawn. In that case, may I ask whether the Secretary of State thinks that the management and accountability structures of Network Rail are satisfactory? If her answer is yes, will she seek some early medical attention? If the answer is no, what does she propose to do about it?
The Government have no plans to look again at the structure of the railway industry. I am confident that the current governing procedures for Network Rail are satisfactory. They are delivering for the passenger and the railway industry.
I am delighted to tell the House that, on 9 June, I was pleased to announce the Government’s support for a £2.8 billion investment package for public transport in Greater Manchester by awarding its transport innovation fund bid programme entry. Last month, I announced that Bristol had been appointed Britain’s first cycling city, alongside an additional 11 cycling demonstration towns winning a share of a record £100 million to increase cycling in their areas. Yesterday, following the publication of Professor Gallagher’s review of biofuels, I announced my intention to consult on slowing down the rate of increase of the renewable transport fuels obligation to take into account emerging evidence about the sustainability of biofuels and to establish international sustainability standards and controls. Today I made a statement on the timing of the Heathrow consultation process that set out how I intend to ensure that all the evidence can be considered before crucial decisions are taken before the end of the year.
I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend confirm in yesterday’s statement that the Gallagher review has rejected a moratorium on biofuels development. Will she acknowledge and accept that by slowing down the rate of use of biofuels, which according to the targets set will be 5 per cent. by 2010-11, we will undermine investment and research in the world’s leading biofuels company on Teesside?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Partly underlying the Gallagher conclusions on the renewable transport fuel obligation and the decision to keep the 5 per cent. in place, albeit on a slowing timetable, was the desire to keep innovation in the industry and to encourage the investment in the north-east that has already been found. Importantly, Professor Gallagher said that we should amend but not abandon our biofuels policy. The RTFO is set to rise to 5 per cent. I hope that the industry can now have some certainty that that will happen, albeit at a slightly slower pace.
EU limits on NOx pollution become legally binding in 2010. At the weekend, Professor Mike Pilling, who chaired a Government expert group on Heathrow air quality, disputed DFT claims that an expanded Heathrow is capable of complying with those limits. The Environment Agency has also highlighted the impact of NOx and worsened air quality on mortality and morbidity around Heathrow. Is the Secretary of State planning to listen to her environment advisers or ignore them?
Of course we are planning to listen to our advisers, just as we are planning to listen to all the responses to the consultation. This morning, I told the House that we were going to carry out a rigorous process and ensure that we analyse all the responses to the consultation and provide a full impact study—including on equalities, which is another issue that has been raised—in order to make an appropriate decision based on the science before the end of the year.
The right hon. Lady’s environmental calculations on Heathrow are under sustained attack. The flight path proposals from NATS could destroy the tranquillity of much of rural England. Her plans for Stansted make no sense and command no support. Is it not time for her to rethink her “predict and provide” approach to aviation, go back to the drawing board on the environmental data on Heathrow and drop her deeply misguided proposals for a second Stansted runway?
I do not agree. I find it quite surprising, that the Conservative party has turned its face against any expansion of aviation in the south-east. That view is not supported by the business community. The clear evidence is that there would be a substantial negative impact not only on the London economy but on the UK economy. Clearly, we have to balance that impact against any local environmental considerations. Our modelling at the Department for Transport shows that, even with the third runway, NOx emissions from Heathrow would fall by almost 50 per cent. between 2002 and 2030. We have been very clear about our intention to put that modelling into the public domain, to have it scrutinised and challenged, and to reflect on the outcome of that. It is absolutely imperative that we make our case based on the scientific evidence, not on some arbitrary political positioning.
My right hon. Friend probably has more influence than I do, but of course I am willing to take up the case. My hon. Friend is right—all the evidence is that the more car parking space is provided at railway stations, the more people will use public transport, particularly the railways. Virgin and Network Rail are aware of the situation at Warrington Bank Quay, which remains problematic unless new land is bought or the car park is double-decked. Nevertheless, I am informed that Virgin and Network Rail aim to provide 140 new car parking spaces by November 2009.
Essentially, the hon. Gentleman is asking that new, low-noise surfacing should be imposed on particular stretches of motorway, even when they do not require resurfacing as a result of wear and tear. The Government’s position is that the best value for money for the taxpayer is to use low-noise surface material when it is necessary to resurface a motorway. If the hon. Gentleman believes that a huge extra expenditure in his area is justified, he should speak to those on his Front Bench, but I do not think that they would be willing to put their hands in their pockets and make that commitment.
My hon. Friend obviously feels strongly on this matter, but the issue in question is devolved to the Mayor of London. No doubt my hon. Friend will make his views clear to him.
That decision is a matter for the CAA, which makes the recommendations. There is an outstanding legal case, in which easyJet is undertaking a judicial review of certain decisions made, and those matters will be resolved in the courts shortly.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the investigation of alternatives. There are various ways in which we can assist in that process. Research programmes have been undertaken to look at some of the alternatives and, in some instances, we are assisting businesses in that respect. With the reform of the bus subsidy for operators, we will be able to look at what can be done to encourage alternative, more efficient vehicles.
I do not want to disappoint my hon. Friend, but we do not have plans to make such schemes compulsory. As she has outlined, we have given guidance, and we hope that local authorities take up the opportunity to introduce 20 mph speed-limit zones, where they think it appropriate. That could involve nurseries or shopping precincts and not just schools. The matter is very much under local control, depending on the profile of road safety in that area.
To help with take-up, we plan to collect data from towns and cities where such schemes have been introduced. That project is now in hand. The preliminary evidence shows that where zones have been introduced with physical restrictions—be they road humps or chicanes—we have seen about a 60 per cent. reduction in crashes and a 67 per cent. reduction in crashes involving children. There is great value in the introduction of 20 mph zones. Local authorities throughout the country have shown great interest in them, and we hope that many more will take up the option.
Yet again this year, as in every year, the Government are pushing up train fares above the cost of inflation, with their flawed retail prices index-plus policy. At the same time, franchised train companies are having to pay a premium—a kind of stealth railway tax—for their franchises, which might account for the fact that the Government’s expenditure on railways is due to fall next year, according to their own figures. When are the Government going to get off the fare escalator, abandon the RPI formula and give fare-paying passengers a fair deal?
I certainly understand the pressure on people’s personal finances. I am determined that we shall restore passengers’ confidence in rail fares, and the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of regulating rail fares. We cap fare increases after inflation to protect passengers from unduly high fare increases. It is worth remembering for a moment that almost half of all rail journeys are made with regulated fares, which are no more expensive in real terms than they were at the time of privatisation, so clearly the regulatory cap is serving a purpose. It is important that we simplify the system and ensure that people are confident that they receive good value for money when they pay a rail fare. The Association of Train Operating Companies has promised to promote price simplification and, ultimately, bring in a price promise, but I think that we may need to go further. That is why I have asked Passenger Focus, the rail passenger representative group, to conduct a study to see what further changes are necessary.
My right hon. Friend issued a statement this morning that will delay the decision on Heathrow until the end of the year at least. For my constituents, that means continued blight. I have families with young children living in overcrowded accommodation in my constituency who cannot sell their properties. Lenders are no longer lending to people in my area, blighted by Heathrow, to enable them to purchase and sell properties. The solution is to drop the madcap scheme for expansion but, in the meantime, will my right hon. Friend meet a delegation of constituency MPs from the area and consider the introduction of an emergency blight package to compensate those people affected by the Government’s delay in their decision-making processes?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern on behalf of his constituents. Whichever way the decision goes, he is clearly concerned about delay in the process and its impact locally. It is important, however, that we rigorously analyse the consultation responses. We have an independent process for doing that, which will be peer reviewed to ensure that all the responses are taken into account. I have promised the House that I will give an update later this year. We have to look, too, into the impact on the demographic groups and equalities in the boroughs likely to be affected by any change. However, I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s comments about the detriment that his constituents are facing to those involved in the consultation, so that they can think about how best to improve the situation locally.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming today’s decision by the east of England regional planning panel to recommend prioritisation of the A11 upgrade from Thetford to Fiveways corner? Will she also assure me that the Government will take account of the East of England regional assembly’s advice and confirm funding without delay, thus bringing an end to years of waiting for a dual carriageway linked to Norfolk?
The Government have already pledged £8 billion to regional transport boards throughout England over a period of 10 years. We always accept and take seriously the advice of regional transport boards, and things will be no different in this case. However, it remains up to the regional transport board in the hon. Gentleman’s area to look into the priorities that it has already established, in the light of the refresh that will take place in the second half of this year.
I take my hon. Friend’s points on board. Obviously the TIF bid presents an important opportunity for the people of Greater Manchester, but it also involves a very big decision, and it is vital for all those affected to be able to have their say. I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that it not for me to comment on each specific aspect of the consultation, but it is important for it to be full and thorough. I urge him to continue to pursue the matter with the Greater Manchester authorities.
I do not think anyone could honestly claim that the Government have done anything other than put their money where their mouth is in developing the railway network. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents are set to benefit from the upgrading and restructuring of Reading station, which is costing more than £400 million. It will relieve a crucial bottleneck on the Great Western line, which is also where I expect the new inter-city express programme trains to be piloted from 2015.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there any way in which, within the rules, I can convey the House’s congratulations to Sir Igor Judge, who has just been appointed Lord Chief Justice? As you will recall, Sir Igor was one of the judges who decided that MPs’ home addresses should be made publicly available. Does not this promotion illustrate the fact that one silly mistake need not wreck a promising professional career?
Public Contracts (UK Tax Requirements)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place certain requirements relating to payment of tax in the UK on companies bidding for public contracts; to prohibit the transfer of such contracts overseas; to require companies bidding for public contracts to provide certain information relating to tax payments; and for connected purposes.
I am glad to have the opportunity to present a Bill that is motivated by fairness and justice—values that are, I am sure, important to every hon. Member. I am not the first to raise the matter in the House: my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) tabled early-day motion 1108, for which I commend him.
Let me begin by informing the House of the Bill’s bald and brief title. It is called the Public Contracts (UK Tax Requirements) Bill. If I wished to translate that into the vernacular, I could do no better than direct Members’ attention to an article by Professor Prem Sikka on the private finance initiative that appeared in the May edition of the magazine Chartist. Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex, and I am indebted to him and his research on the complex workings of the PFI for much of the illustrative detail that I shall use to explain the purposes of my Bill.
I referred to the vernacular. The main heading that appears over Professor Sikka's article reads “Biting the hand that feeds them”. As if that were not sufficiently clear, the subheading is even snappier and more explicit: “Prem Sikka on the tax avoidance scam operated by some PFI companies”. Not much ambiguity there! Furthermore, tax avoidance is readily understood by the general public, and, in the United Kingdom, condemned as being unfair and unjust.
That is important. One of the selling points about PFI among the general public is how easy it is to understand in terms of our own lives in a modern, property-owning democracy. The vast majority of people, when buying a house or a flat, take out a mortgage. They agree to pay off their loan plus interest over a period of years, according to the terms of the mortgage. That is why many of the opponents of PFI talk in terms of mortgaging the future of our country. Be that as it may, the concept of borrowing and paying off the loan plus interest has become acceptable to the vast majority of the British people, who, until comparatively recently, even trusted the lender to behave both honourably and competently.
The private finance initiative is a partnership between public services and private companies. Private companies are paid from the public purse to build, and often to maintain, projects for what may well be a period of 30 years—a bit like our mortgage, the general public might be thinking. The problem is that some companies that have won PFI contracts would appear to have transferred their ownership to a tax haven. In this way, they could avoid paying UK tax on their income and profits. What I find particularly outrageous—and I think the electorate do, too—is that these profits come from the public purse; in other words, the untaxed profits come from hard-earned taxpayers’ money.
The real difficulty is that there is a lack of transparency, and that currently those awarding contracts in the public-private partnerships or PFIs are not required to request sufficient explanation and detail about the tax arrangements of the companies bidding for these contracts. We all understand that large companies will have projects and businesses in many different countries, but the British public want to be sure that their tax money is not going to fund schemes by paying companies that are somehow not paying their full dues in UK tax. There will always be a suspicion that an investment company such as 3i Infrastructure Ltd—which has a 50 per cent. equity stake in Alpha Schools, a company formed to bid for a £134 million project to build and refurbish 11 schools in the Scottish highlands—has a specific reason for being registered in Jersey. A company spokeswoman is reported as saying:
“Alpha Schools is a company registered in the UK and liable to UK tax. It has two main shareholders: 3i Infrastructure Ltd and Galliford Try—a leading construction firm.
3i Infrastructure is a Jersey-based investment company. However, the PFI companies in the portfolio of that company are registered and taxed in the UK in the normal way. The post-tax profits from these PFI companies are simply aggregated by 3i Infrastructure, before being passed on to investors.”
Is this really sufficient to allay the public’s fears? I suggest not, and that is why we need this ten-minute Bill.
It is not sufficient that Treasury rules state that Government Departments should pay attention to the “propriety of tax arrangements” of companies involved in public-private partnerships or PFI deals. To reassure the public that such firms are paying the appropriate UK tax for the money that they make on public-private partnerships, we must require firms to make more information available. It is important to note that these proposals do not impose any additional costs on companies, as they already have the information that is required.
A few minutes ago, I gave what I described as the “bald and brief title” of my Bill. Let me now describe what the Bill would mean in practice. It would mean that public contracts could not be awarded to companies or investors resident outside the UK for tax purposes. It would mean that companies would be forbidden to transfer any aspect of PFI contracts to a location outside the UK. It would mean that all companies bidding for public contracts would have to include a public account of tax payments for the preceding five years. This account would have to include copies of their tax returns and a table showing the jurisdictions that they operate from, together with sales, costs, profits, employees, liabilities and assets in each.
In conclusion, my Bill is not only designed to tidy up an accounting anomaly. It is, rather, motivated by a sense of the unfairness and injustice that can be allowed by the current arrangements, and, perhaps just as importantly, by a wish to restore the public’s confidence that the accounting is transparent and that untaxed profits cannot come from hard-earned taxpayers’ money.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of the underlying principles of PFI, it cannot have been the intention of those who originally gave us the concept to have allowed such tax-funded tax avoidance, but that, in effect, is what we have. This, surely, is a blatant example of the law of unexpected consequences. Having had it brought to our attention, it is surely our duty to put right what has gone wrong, and to replace injustice with justice and inequity with fairness. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Nia Griffith, Gordon Banks, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. David Chaytor, Michael Connarty, Linda Gilroy, Kelvin Hopkins, Mr. Kevan Jones, Ian Lucas, Rob Marris, Ann McKechin and Dr. Alan Whitehead.
Public Contracts (UK Tax Requirements)
Nia Griffith accordingly presented a Bill to place certain requirements relating to payment of tax in the UK on companies bidding for public contracts; to prohibit the transfer of such contracts overseas; to require companies bidding for public contracts to provide certain information relating to tax payments; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 135].
Orders of the Day
Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith, and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Bill (Allocation of Time)
I beg to move, That the following provisions shall apply to the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Bill:
1.–(1) Proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall be completed at this day’s sitting in accordance with the following provisions of this paragraph.
(2) Proceedings on Second Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(3) Proceedings in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
2. When the Bill has been read a second time—
(a) it shall (notwithstanding Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order)) stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put; and
(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
3.–(1) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(2) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
4. For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 1, the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions (but no others)—
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded.
5. On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
6. If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph 4(d) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
7.–(1) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(2) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
8.–(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 7.
(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question already proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.
(3) If that Question is for the amendment of a Lords Amendment the Speaker shall then put forthwith—
(a) a single Question on any further Amendments to the Lords Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown, and
(b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.
(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith—
(a) a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown to a Lords Amendment, and
(b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.
(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House disagrees to a Lords Amendment.
(6) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees to all the remaining Lords Amendments.
(7) As soon as the House has—
(a) agreed or disagreed to a Lords Amendment, or
(b) disposed of an Amendment relevant to a Lords Amendment which has been disagreed to, the Speaker shall put forthwith a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown and relevant to the Lords Amendment.
9.–(1) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(2) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
10.–(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 9.
(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.
(3) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister for the Crown which is related to the Question already proposed from the Chair.
(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown on or relevant to any of the remaining items in the Lords Message.
(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Proposals.
11.–(1) The Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister for the Crown for the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons and the appointment of its Chairman.
(2) A Committee appointed to draw up Reasons shall report before the conclusion of the sitting at which it is appointed.
(3) Proceedings in the Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion 30 minutes after their commencement.
(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with sub-paragraph (3), the Chairman shall—
(a) first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair but not yet decided, and
(b) then put forthwith successively Questions on motions which may be made by a Minister of the Crown for assigning a Reason for disagreeing with the Lords in any of their Amendments.
(5) The proceedings of the Committee shall be reported without any further Question being put.
12. Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.
13.–(1) The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
(2) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to those proceedings.
14. Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
15.–(1) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to recommit the Bill.
(2) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
16.–(1) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(2) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
17. The Speaker may not arrange for a debate to be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates)—
(a) at this day's sitting, or
(b) at any sitting at which Lords Amendments to the Bill are, or any further Message from the Lords is, to be considered,
before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.
18.–(1) Sub-paragraph (2) applies if the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(2) No notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.
19. Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
The motion provides for all the stages of this Bill to be taken today. It provides for six hours of debate in two segments: the first three hours for the debate on this motion and on Second Reading, and the second three-hour segment for Committee, Report and Third Reading. I would be the first to acknowledge that six hours to debate the important issues addressed in this Bill is less than ideal, and it would certainly be undesirable if the emergency legislation today were not to be superseded by a Bill in the next Session allowing much fuller parliamentary scrutiny. However, I would like to explain briefly why we need to press ahead at such speed.
Following the decision by their lordships in the case of Davis, there is a broad consensus—indeed, we saw it at the time of the statement to the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor following that judgment—that we need to legislate urgently to restore the power of the courts to make witness anonymity orders in appropriate cases. That is widely accepted by Front Benchers in both Houses, by outside commentators and experts of various kinds, and by the Law Lords themselves. They, in the leading judgment by Lord Bingham, said that urgent legislation might be appropriate. I accept that not everybody would think that, but there is a broad range of people who do. Failure to act quickly could lead to a significant number of ongoing and pending trials having to be abandoned and, potentially, to a large number of appeals against convictions secured, to a greater or lesser extent, on the basis of evidence provided by anonymous witnesses. That is the basis of the need for urgency and the reason the timetable motion is as it is today.
I completely understand the general drift of the hon. Lady’s argument and do not quarrel with it. However, I understand that the House of Lords will have two days for the Bill and we have only one. Surely the elected House should have at least as much time as the House of Lords.
The hon. Gentleman is slightly misinformed. The other place will have two half days, equating to one full day, so there is a basic equality in the time allowed. I appreciate his general point about the undesirability of having a short time, but we need to move swiftly.
Having read the Davis judgment and listened to the beginning of the Minister’s speech, I agree that time is of the essence. Would it not be appropriate, therefore, to have a sunset clause? We know that the Bill will be superseded at some point, but we could make absolutely sure—belt and braces—through a sunset clause. I think that that would be accepted on both sides of the House.
The hon. Gentleman is stealing my thunder. The Government have tried to act consensually, given the need for speed, and in consultation with other parties we have accepted the principle that the Bill should contain a sunset clause. If the House agrees, it will be added to the Bill later. No doubt, we will have some discussion about what form it should take, and we have several options to consider.
We all agree that it is a good idea to provide protection for brave witnesses who want to give evidence to put criminals into prison. However, does the Minister agree that legislation passed in such haste can cause more problems than it provides solutions? Will she reflect on the fact that slightly more time might be needed to get it right? It could still go through relatively quickly.
I appreciate the general point that the hon. Gentleman makes in that there is some danger in hasty legislation. We have said, and will say again later, that the Bill will be a stopgap. There is to be a sunset clause, as I have said, and we will consider amendments to include it in the Bill later. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has made it clear that further legislation will be introduced next Session—the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill—that will subsume the contents of this Bill and enable full parliamentary scrutiny. At the same time, we will have cover for the urgent problems caused by the sudden arrival of the judgment in Davis.
The amendments tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) have not been selected, but I know the substance of what he suggests—and he will no doubt make his own contribution later. He suggests that we should take the summer recess to consider the issues raised by the Davis judgment in more detail and not take the Lords stages of the Bill until the spill-over in the autumn. I fully understand his concern about the undesirability of hasty legislation, as I have already said, and about the timetable motion we are considering, but I cannot commend such a delay to the House as it would cause added distress and worry to many vulnerable and intimidated victims and witnesses, and undermine confidence in the criminal justice system generally, which none of us would be happy to see. Such confidence is vital if justice is to be done and the guilty brought to book.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that courts should adjourn these cases for four months, while we take the time to consider more fully, and ask the Law Commission and other experts for their views. But many victims of serious violent offences, or their relatives, or intimidated witnesses looking forward to the day when the trauma of giving evidence is behind them, would not agree that four months is a short delay. They would want the trial completed as soon as possible. What of a defendant remanded in custody? He, too, would want justice to be done with appropriate speed. While it may be true that if found guilty he will get credit for the time that he has spent inside, not all those tried are found guilty. Therefore, in some circumstances, people could be locked up for longer than necessary, even if they are not found guilty. Moreover, such a delay would leave the whole issue of anonymous evidence in legal limbo. That is not a sensible or acceptable way, in my judgment, to proceed.
We have, I believe, a sensible way forward that will meet the concerns of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham about the speed with which the timetable motion seeks to take the Bill through all its stages. As I have mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has given a firm undertaking that he will repeal and subsume the provisions of the Bill into next Session’s law reform, victims and witnesses Bill. That will allow further and fuller debate of these important provisions, but with the cover of the arrangements in this Bill to prevent the mischief of courts having no power to grant anonymity to witnesses in the intervening period.
I hope that I have explained the urgency that we face today.
I fully understand why the hon. Lady wants to accelerate proceedings. I have listened carefully to her, but I do not entirely understand why the apparent desire to finish proceedings at 10 o’clock should take precedence over the need to scrutinise every clause of the Bill. Why do we not simply accelerate but maintain our proceedings until such a time this evening when every clause has been properly scrutinised and every amendment has been considered?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. The workings of the usual channels have always been a complete mystery to me, as I have never been a part of them, but there we are. There has been some sort of agreement and it is incumbent on us to get along and debate the important points of the Bill as swiftly as we can. On that basis, it is probably time I resumed my seat.
I want to make it clear at the outset that the official Opposition do not accept the Government’s timetable, although we accept the principle behind the need for the legislation. The Bill has not come upon us by surprise. The decision of the Judicial Committee of the other place was made two or three weeks ago, but the trial took place as long ago as 2004, the murder took place in 2002 and the Court of Appeal considered the matter in 2006. Throughout that time, I suspect that lawyers within the Government will have been anticipating—if they were not, they should have been—one result or the other. That is to say, a confirmation—[Interruption.] If the Home Secretary would keep her mouth shut briefly, we could get on. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I mean that quite seriously, Mr. Speaker—
I could not be more grateful, Mr. Speaker.
As I said, the Court of Appeal decision was in 2006 and it must have been within the contemplation of the Government that the House of Lords would either disagree or agree with the Court of Appeal and that contingency arrangements should therefore be arranged. However, we do not deny that there is urgency, artificial or otherwise, when it comes to dealing with the problem. We therefore think that there is some ground for the Government’s case for urgency. However, what we are about is a fairly fundamental change in the law as it is now declared to be.
We are not talking about a pro forma Bill. Before we got on to this business, we dealt with the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill, which went through all its stages in about five seconds—
The hon. Gentleman is quite right; it only deals with the money.
Since the 1979-80 Session, 60 Government Bills have gone through the Commons with all their stages being dealt with in one day. They were largely uncontroversial Bills, such as those to do with consular fees, friendly societies, the Commonwealth Development Corporation—there were two such Bills in that period—the borrowing powers of British shipbuilders and international monetary arrangements. There was the Caravans (Standard Community Charge and Rating) Bill, the Community Charges (General Reduction) Bill, the Australian Constitution (Public Record Copy) Bill, the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Bill, the Stamp Duty (Temporary Provisions) Bill, the Welsh Development Agency Bill and so on. There was a Bill to amalgamate county and European election dates, and others that were more controversial in their implications if not in their deliberation, by which I mean those to do with the peace process in Northern Ireland.
I suggest that although there is some urgency for the current Bill to be dealt with before the end of this term, there would be nothing to prevent the Government from urging the House to sit beyond 22 July if it were thought appropriate for the Bill to be given greater consideration.
The Minister is right that the House of Lords will consider the Bill on two separate days, but they will be half-days. The importance of that is not so much the amount of time available on each of those days but the gap between them, when outside interests and their lordships will be able to consider better the implications of the Bill. We will not get that advantage. We are to go from Second Reading to Third Reading by 10 o’clock. I suggest to the House that that is not a sensible way to deal with this extremely important Bill.
Like the Minister, I am not a member of that secret society, the usual channels, so I have absolutely no knowledge of what has been going on behind the scenes. I can say, as she did, that there have been discussions between our party and the Government, and I dare say between the Liberal Democrats and the Government, about the content of the Bill. Given the constrained timetable, we wanted to reach as much agreement as possible. However, legislation should be made in this Chamber, not in ministerial meetings outside it. Although I thank both the Secretary of State and the Minister for their consideration in being as open as they can with us, that does not undermine the thrust of my argument that the timetable is inadequate for this important Bill.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not accept that there is a certain contradiction between the two limbs of his argument, one of which is that the Government have had plenty of time to consider the matter since 2004, and the other of which is that he feels stampeded? He and his party have had plenty of time to consider the issue, too.
There we are—nor did the Government. Perhaps unwittingly, the hon. Gentleman has made my point about the lack of preparedness that the Government are guilty of.
I shall stop there, because I know that others wish to speak and we need to get on with the Bill. I understand the parliamentary arithmetic, but as a matter of principle the official Opposition will resist the motion.
I, too, accept the need for speed in this situation. A large number of cases pending, or recent cases pending appeal, were decided on the basis of the law as it was believed to be before the Davis decision. In addition to the factors that the Minister mentioned, there is the fact that custody time limits might well run out while a resolution of the legal position is awaited. I would not want a lot of defendants to find themselves with a presumption in favour of bail because we had acted too slowly. It is reasonable to say that if we fail to act swiftly, a lot of people might be released who should not be.
Additionally, as the Minister said, the House of Lords invited Parliament to act quickly on the Davis case, and that is what we are doing. Members of all parties agree that there should be some rules; it is simply a question of deciding what those rules should be, and there is a good deal of urgency to that.
However, I accept that there are grave dangers in legislating too quickly. Knee-jerk legislation is one of British politics’ besetting sins, especially in the area of criminal justice. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 are just two examples, although the original Official Secrets Act 1911, passed by the last Liberal Government, was also far too quick. Slow politics, rather like slow food, tends to be healthier and more productive.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) asked one question that I hope the Government will answer at some point. I hear what other hon. Members have said about this Bill being an opportunity for other parties, but the Government seem to have been taken by surprise by the Davis decision. Various legal practitioners thought that there was at least some possibility that the decision would be as it was, so I am surprised that the Government have been in such a rush to get legislation in place.
Given that we are where we are, however, we have to act quickly. Because of the two factors that the Minister mentioned, I am far less inclined than I would otherwise have been to oppose this rather brutal allocation of time motion. The first factor is the promise that the entire debate will be rerun quite soon in the forthcoming law reform, victims and witnesses Bill, although I hope that the Government will be able to tell the House when that Bill will be introduced. Will it be early in the next Session’s legislative programme, or late? I would be more reassured if I knew at least approximately when that would happen.
Would the hon. Gentleman be further reassured if the Government were to say that adequate time will be given to consideration of that Bill? Does he agree that the successor to this Bill and all the welcome provisions in it should not be shovelled into a portmanteau Bill considered in one day?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important suggestion. On various occasions, especially in Committee and on Report, we have found ourselves discussing newly arrived Government amendments rather than the original proposals. Some reassurance on that would be welcome.
The second important point that the Minister made was that the Government were including a sunset clause in this Bill. It is not the one that we would propose, although it is closer to that than I expected. However, the Government have accepted the principle, and that shows that they accept that this legislation is temporary.
The one thing that I am confident of is that we will make some mistake or other with this Bill. I do not know what it will be, but at least we will have the chance to put it right soon.
There was an interesting exchange at the end of the speech by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). He said that he had not seen the draft Bill until the end of last week, and the Minister made a sedentary intervention to the effect that Ministers had not seen it either. That means that we are actually dealing with Government by decree, or enactment by officials. We are so truncating the parliamentary process that, broadly speaking, we are dealing with a Bill drafted exclusively by officials, and I am against that.
I am going to say something about the timetable motion, although I am sure that that will cause people to say, “You’re taking time out of the substantive debate on Second Reading.” That is perfectly true, and there are three answers to that point. First, if we are doing something that is wrong, we should say so, and the only place for that is on the Floor of the House. Secondly, and differently, the Government have chosen to draft the allocation of time motion in such a way that this debate comes out of the time for Second Reading. They did not have to do that, but that was their choice, and I suspect that they made it to truncate debate. In my view, that is scandalous.
The third answer is that the Government are determined to get this Bill passed today in the form that they want. Anything that we say or do in this Chamber today is utterly irrelevant because the Government have the troops and they intend to push the Bill through. So I make no apology about speaking to the allocation of time motion or for taking time out of the Second Reading debate.
I move from those points to the substance of what I want to say. This is an important Bill for the kind of reasons that my hon. and learned Friend outlined. It is the kind of Bill that requires serious consideration. It is the kind of Bill that normally would fall within the ordinary parliamentary process—pre-legislative scrutiny, Second Reading, delay, Committee, Report, Third Reading and up to the other place. All of that would allow the Government and hon. Members to consider where they stood and to receive representations from outside. That is not happening today.
This thing was published on Thursday, rather late. We have had little opportunity to do research and have received little comment from outside. The Government have had little chance to reflect further. That does not alter the fact that they have already tabled five amendments and a new clause, and doubtless they will table others in the other place as well. I am conscious even as I speak that there are amendments that I should have tabled but have failed to do so. I tried to table them in manuscript this morning but, understandably, they were not accepted. The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said that we were going to make mistakes, and by God we are. That is the inherent characteristic of legislation of this kind.
The Bill is actually an example of where we could learn considerably by experience because there is other legislation in place. There is a New Zealand Act—the Evidence Act 2006—which I believe was a consolidation Bill, which means that the legislation had been in place there for some time. It would have been interesting to know the experience in New Zealand and the extent to which the legislation worked for justice or injustice. That is research from which we will not be able to benefit. I understand that in the Netherlands a counterpart piece of legislation is in place. I would have been interested to know what the experience of the Dutch was on a Bill of this kind, but we are going to be denied that.
There is another point that we need to keep in mind. The House of Lords did not merely decide that the common-law power did not exist; it also decided that the protective measures put in place by the trial judge in the case of Davis rendered the trial unfair. So the House of Lords decided the case on two bases—the absence of the common-law power and the fact that in any event the protective measures rendered the trial unfair. We need to reflect seriously on how the powers that we propose to take unto ourselves would not have an unfair consequence.
Let me suggest what we should do. In an ideal world, yes we need to legislate. I am perfectly willing to accept that there is a small number of cases in which witness anonymity orders are appropriate. We need the Law Commission’s advice, in my view, and we need research too. I do not believe that we need to get this thing through by the end of this sitting. It is true that there are cases under way. I do not know how many, but there will be some. They can be adjourned. It is quite usual for criminal cases to be adjourned for several months. My proposal is that they should be adjourned until the back end of this year. The appeals could be relisted for the same sort of reasons.
If there is urgency, I would like to see happen something like the following. The Bill should clear the House by the end of July and go up to the other place, which would consider the Bill in October. Meantime, the Government could embark on proper consultation and seek the advice of the Law Commission. If the Bill needed to be changed as a result of that advice or consultation, amendments could properly be tabled in the other place in October and brought back to this House in October or November. The Bill would then become law by the end of this Session—by December. I believe that that would provide for the degree of urgency that the Government say they require and give this House the opportunity to make a more informed decision as to the merits of what we are doing.
The Government know that is my position; the Minister perfectly fairly set out my proposals, but I fear they will not be accepted—she made that point plain. In that case, and for that reason, I shall vote against the timetable.
After listening to this brief debate, I rise to support what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said. I speak as a non-lawyer but I accept the need for legislation in this case, although I, too, cannot understand why a Government who have introduced dozens of criminal justice Bills since 1997 could not have foreseen the problem and prepared accordingly.
I, too, am aware that it is when the House legislates in a rush that it makes mistakes. Some of us remember the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and realise that when we all agree rather quickly about something we often make mistakes. That Act has certainly been widely found unworkable and inappropriate, so I have a strong prejudice against doing something quickly.
We are not dealing with a matter of trivia, but with a constitutional matter; the rights of the accused are, in my view, constitutional. We are dealing with the coercive power of the state, and such matters should be approached with great humility and care. In other countries, the rights of the accused form an important part of the written constitution. The sixth amendment to the United States constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights, actually forbids anonymous evidence altogether, and has been strictly interpreted by the American courts, although they may get round it by using witness anonymity programmes and suchlike.
Doubtless the framers of the American constitution were responding to previous abuses; the inquisition, for instance, regularly denied the accused knowledge of the charges against them or the names of their accusers. As a result, subsequent written constitutions have made protecting the rights of the accused a matter of prime importance.
I am not satisfied that this matter has been properly ventilated. For instance, we normally receive a good many representations from human rights organisations and outside lobby groups, but I have received very few, so I must ask the Minister whether she is satisfied that the normal process of scrutiny, not just in Parliament but outside, has been carried out. Are we certain that a statutory right to anonymity will not gradually be expanded over time, for the convenience rather than the safety of witnesses, and become fairly routine? It would undermine a cardinal principle of the safeguard that in normal circumstances the accused should be confronted by his or her accusers, who can thus be cross-examined.
My final point is that although the Secretary of State says that the measure is compatible with the European convention on human rights, my reading of the convention is that it is very strict indeed about this matter.
If that is true—I defer to my right hon. and learned Friend’s opinion—it is very serious indeed, because the House is being misadvised on an important matter. We have heard nothing about it, although perhaps we shall on Second Reading.
All these things should not simply have been left to exchanges in the Chamber on a single day, but should have been explored outside with legal bodies and human rights organisations. We have not been given time to do that. The process is objectionable, and I agree with the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend: this is exactly how mistakes are made.
I agree with almost everything that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has said. Every Member of this House knows—not thinks—that legislation made in haste is almost inevitably bad, but here we are, producing such legislation again, and doing it with our eyes open. That says something very serious about the House. This short debate has revealed certain extremely worrying aspects of the matter. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) said that there was nothing that she could do about the timetable, because although she did not understand the usual channels—well, she has only been in the House for 10 years or so—she was powerless before them. Whose usual channels are they? They are our usual channels, and they are the servants of Secretaries of State and Ministers. We are not the creatures of the usual channels; they do the bidding of Ministers, in co-operation with the Opposition Whips. To say, “There’s nothing we can do, because the usual channels make it impossible for us,” is ridiculous.
The Secretary of State said that he had not seen the Bill until last week. What on earth is going on? I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier): what on earth are we doing looking at legislation when the Secretary of State says that he did not see it until a few days ago, and asks us to nod it through?
My hon. Friend knows very well why we are introducing this emergency legislation. Their lordships did not reach their judgment until 18 June. We have acted with great rapidity, and most people are willing to give us credit for that. We then had to agree instructions to counsel. There were detailed consultations with the other parties, and with others outside the House. If we had rushed ahead without those consultations, we would have ended up with a far less well drafted Bill. I fail to understand the criticism, given that everybody in the Chamber, bar one or two Members, accepts the need for speed in this case. I will explain that need when we move on to Second Reading.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. Yes, I think that everybody does accept the need for haste, but not necessarily breakneck haste, with the Bill having to complete all its stages this evening. Also, we do not need to finish at 10 o’clock. There is nothing in our Standing Orders to say that debate has to finish then. Indeed, most of us who have been in the House for 15, 20 or 25 years know that many times, when it was necessary, we have debated matters far into the night. Nobody likes doing that, and it does not necessarily make for very intelligent debate or very good consideration, but it is certainly better than having an artificial limit, and saying, “We must go home to our beds at 10 o’clock, and we’ll confine and constrain consideration of the Bill simply to get us out of the building by then.” That is not how matters should be conducted in Parliament. We should give legislation the time that it needs. As the right hon. Member for Wells rightly said, we are not talking about any old legislation; we are talking about criminal legislation. We are deciding on measures that will determine whether people are at liberty. We owe criminal justice legislation rather more respect and caution than normal legislation.
We are rushing things through totally artificially. We do not need to finish today, or at 10 o’clock, yet we are saying that we will accept all that. That is not right. Surely that demonstrates that one of the things which is so desperately wrong with this Parliament, and recent Parliaments, is that we are becoming completely supine before the view of the Executive. If the Executive say that they want something straight away, we give in to them. The House should start to assert itself. It should ask, “Is this right? Do we consider this to be the right way of doing things?” It should make its will felt. Unless it does so, and unless we take control of our business and our agenda, the whole parliamentary system will be brought into disrepute. That is quite apart from the issue of the validity of the Bill and of the way in which we are considering it. We are becoming supine in our own Chamber, and it is about time that we asserted ourselves.
I have listened to what has been said, and I agree that we need to act. We cannot allow the situation to remain in limbo. Everybody across the House understands that. I am not party to the discussions of the usual channels. I was once a Whip, but that does not mean that I got involved in their murky dealings and black arts. Having said that, the point was well made that we are not dealing with the wrongful prosecution of a dog owner whose dog is of a slightly different breed to those listed in an Act that was rushed through. We are dealing with people’s liberty. We are dealing with the right to a fair trial, and we are dealing with a defendant’s right to be confronted by his accuser.
As a practitioner, it is sometimes vital that one knows who the accuser is, because one may know something about the accuser that renders the accuser’s evidence unreliable. If that is the case, one defends one client with all one’s vigour, and one ensures that that person’s character is brought into question thoroughly and without exception. However, from my reading of the Bill, it is not possible to do so in this instance. People who are far more learned than me are concerned about the matter. I read the New Zealand statute, largely because the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) suggested that I do so, but I am extremely concerned about this measure. If it is to be restricted to a small minority of cases—as I hope it will be—we can accept that, because overall, the judge will decide on the fairness of the process.
I fully accept what you say, Mr. Speaker, and I hope to catch your eye at a later stage. In conclusion, if the power is to be used sparingly and only in very rare cases, all well and good, but learned counsel tell me that in 500 to 600 cases a year, it is routinely used by the police. If we are opening the gates up to that, we are opening the gates to injustice.
I would like far longer to discuss this, and I hoped that the timetable motion would allow more time, perhaps even an extra day. I understand the pressure on Government, and the need to move, but an extra day would help all of us in our research. To plonk this on us at the end of last week, and expect us to go through all the Bill’s stages today, is unreasonable. As has been said, when we make law in haste, we get it wrong. I am sure that we will get it wrong today, but I am heartened by what the Under-Secretary said about the sunset clause. At least that is something that we can look forward to in the next 12 months. All in all, I believe that we deserve more time to discuss these important matters.
I, too, was somewhat reassured by what the Minister said about the sunset clause. I was partly reassured by what I took to be an indication that there will be no pressure on the House when that major piece of legislation is introduced in the next parliamentary Session. She is nodding assent, for which I am grateful.
I am entirely persuaded of the need for the Bill, much as I accept the points that were about to be developed by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) when you rightly cut him short, Mr. Speaker. That is partly because of the knowledge and experience of Northern Ireland that I have gained in the three years for which I have chaired the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I am delighted that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) is in the Chamber, because we both know that there are times when it is absolutely necessary to protect the anonymity of key witnesses.
There is an interesting point to be made about Northern Ireland, because in 1992 Lord Diplock, and then Lord Gardiner, held that the anonymity of witnesses could not be allowed in Northern Ireland, because that would impugn the criminal process in the Northern Irish courts.
I appreciate the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), but does the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) accept that increasingly, the evidence in Northern Ireland suggests that those who were involved in paramilitary activity, or who are still involved in it, interfere with witnesses on a regular basis, which makes it difficult for the due process of law to be carried out?
I shall not do that, Mr. Speaker, save to say that I accept what the hon. Member for East Antrim says.
We are, indeed, discussing the timing, and although I accept the need for urgency and—unlike my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham—the need to get the legislation through before the House rises for the summer recess, I do not accept that we have to do it all in one day. Some intricate arguments will need to take place. I am not a lawyer and I shall probably not take part in those, but I am mindful of the fact that when we legislate in haste, we often get it wrong, although, as the hon. Member for East Antrim reminded me from a sedentary position a while ago, sometimes we can take four years over legislation, as we did on hunting, and still get it wrong.
Although I accept that the legislation is urgent and necessary, the fact is that we could have had, at the very least, two days. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) quite correctly put me right when she said that the other place was having two half days rather than two days of debate, but my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) responded from the Front Bench by saying that two half days with a period for reflection in between is better than six hours on the trot.
I realise that the legislation will go through. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) made an impassioned plea for the House to assert its authority, but he knows better than I that the House cannot exert its authority if the Government have a majority and whip the legislation. It is as simple and as depressing as that. On the Liaison Committee last week, I reminded the Prime Minister that if he really wanted to put Parliament back at the centre of the nation’s life, he could take away the power of the Executive to impose a timetable on every Bill. I do not know precisely what happened in the usual channels—once famously referred to as the most polluted waterways in Europe—but I do know that it would have been better if the timetabling of this Bill, as of any other Bill, had been in the hands of those who are not entirely the creatures of the Executive or of the shadow Executive.
So, we will proceed with the Bill. I do not want to make a long speech and delay the debate about the substantive issues, but it is a great pity that the timetabling did not allow for a period of reflection so that we could have returned to the Bill tomorrow or on Thursday. We could have sat one day longer—on 23 July—without any great inconvenience to people. It is fairly inconvenient to come back for two days, a Monday and a Tuesday, so to have added the Wednesday would, frankly, have made the week more justifiable. I rest my case—but I think it is a pity that we are doing things in this way.
In the Lord Chancellor’s oral statement to the House on 26 June, he said that if the Bill before us were passed, it would be repealed in the next Session and subsumed into the forthcoming law reform, victims and witnesses Bill. Will the Minister assure the House that when that Bill comes before the House, we will have at least two days on Second Reading?
Order. My advice is that the question that the Minister has been asked has nothing to do with the matter before us. There may be an opportunity for it to be dealt with at a later stage.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In my statement to this House on 26 June, I set out the reasons why the Government found it necessary to bring forward this emergency legislation following the Law Lords’ judgment in the case of Davis. There is no need for me to rehearse at length the arguments that I presented to the House on that occasion. I will just outline briefly the background. It is as follows.
On 18 June, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords—the Law Lords—unanimously overturned an earlier and also unanimous decision of the Court of Appeal criminal division that had allowed the use of anonymised witness evidence in certain criminal trials. The senior Law Lord, the noble Lord Bingham, looked at the common law and found that the courts had arrived at a position on anonymised evidence that was
“irreconcilable with long standing principle”.
Their lordships also held that the processes used in the particular circumstances of Davis had rendered the trial unfair under article 6 of the European convention on human rights, although they accepted that, in principle, anonymised evidence was not inconsistent with article 6.
Overall, Lord Bingham said that the matter may now
“very well call for urgent attention by Parliament”.
Lord Mance endorsed that approach, to deal with what he said was
“the undoubted—and there is reason to think growing—threat to the administration of justice posed by victim intimidation”.
The Government—and, I am glad to say, the House—have accepted their lordships’ invitation urgently to consider filling the void that was left by their judgment of 18 June. Although many points were raised when I made my statement on 26 June, there was widespread approbation across the Chamber for the necessity of introducing an emergency Bill.
There has been an intensive period of consultation since my statement, the product of which is reflected both in the Bill as introduced and in the Government amendments standing in my name. I am very grateful indeed to the spokesman for the official Opposition and to the Liberal Democrats for the constructive approach that they have adopted in the course of the consultation. In the intervening period, too, we have sought the most up-to-date information available from the Crown Prosecution Service regarding the scale of the use of anonymous witness evidence. A paper including that information was published Thursday last alongside the Bill.
In a snapshot survey, the CPS identified around 580 cases that it considered current. Of those, 290 involved undercover police officers completing test purchases of drugs, approximately 40 were live cases involving undercover police in other investigations and 50 were live cases involving members of the public as witnesses. The balance, of approximately 200 further cases, include those in which the defendant either has been convicted but not yet sentenced or is still able to appeal under the 28-day limit. It is the live cases that will attract the greatest concern if we do not legislate immediately. It is essential that we legislate, for those cases typically involve the gravest of crimes—crimes relating to guns, gangs and drugs, for example—which give greatest cause for public concern.
Does the right hon. Gentleman know in how many of the live cases the defendants are in custody or on bail, which may make a difference to the House’s view?
I do not have that information offhand, but I shall seek to find out whether it can be provided to the House later today. However, judging by the seriousness of the offences involved, there is a high probability that almost all those defendants will be in custody.
There is much else that we are doing to tackle those crimes, which strike so much fear among the public. We have upped the minimum sentence for knife crime, from two years to four, and established a minimum sentence for the carrying of guns. Last September, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set up a guns and gangs action programme in parts of four cities—London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester—where the problem has been most prevalent. Since the announcement, there has been a 51 per cent. drop in firearms-related injuries and a 27 per cent. drop in all recorded firearms offences in those four areas. In the programme area in London, there has been a 53 per cent. drop in firearms offences and a 68 per cent. drop in such injuries. Sentence lengths generally have increased, too. One key driver of the dramatic increase in the prison population over the past 11 years has been a 60 per cent. increase in the number of serious and violent offenders brought to justice and then incarcerated for long periods.
Anonymised evidence and the safety of key witnesses are fundamental to getting the nasty, greedy and ruthless criminals who perpetrate those crimes off the streets. Assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, John Yates, said in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 21 June responding to the Davis judgment that, as a result of the provision for anonymised evidence taking, the detection rate for such murders—yardie, Operation Trident murders—had risen to about 85 per cent., up from, he said, around 40 per cent. in the mid to late 1990s.
However, the proportionate use of such evidence goes much wider than that. Undercover police officers and agents need protection if, for example, drug dealers and terrorists are to be brought to trial. So do communities where criminality and intimidation may not have quite the same life-threatening consequences, but can still ruin the lives of decent people. Closing down an off-licence that is selling drink to juveniles and acting as a magnet for drug dealing and disorder could be dismissed as trivial from the comfort of a leafy part of town, but not if it is down your street. The Bill seeks to ensure that when there is witness intimidation of a serious kind, and when other measures of witness protection, many of which have been put on to the statute book in recent years, are not adequate for the task, the evidence of the witness can be anonymised if the court accepts it and it is regarded as fair.
Like the Secretary of State, I do not want to see any more knife or gun crime on our streets, and I understand the serious problem of witness intimidation. However, will he address a problem that many people have raised: that an anonymised witness system makes it possible for old scores to be settled in a totally different way, and for a miscarriage of justice to take place? That will create two problems. First, the wrong person is in prison; secondly, the wrong person—the wrong ’un—is outside causing mayhem in the future. We could end up with something worse than the present system.
My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to one of the dangers of taking anonymised evidence. It would serve no purpose for us to pretend otherwise. In principle, as the Law Lords accept—along with everyone else—it must be right, and fundamental to a fair trial, for someone accused of any crime, particularly a serious crime but self-evidently and by extension a trivial one, to have the right to confront his or her accuser, to know the accuser’s identity and to challenge his or her motives.
One of the challenges with which the courts have had to deal in the past, having established before the Law Lords’ judgment that in certain circumstances it was permissible in common law to use anonymised witnesses, and also the key challenge that we faced in drafting the Bill, is the need to ensure as far as possible first that a witness anonymity order is not granted unless and until the judge considers it necessary under the scheme of the Bill, and secondly that the circumstances in which it is granted give the defendant the maximum opportunity to challenge the credibility of the witness, although the identity of that witness has been kept from him or her. It is not unusual in some of the very serious cases with which we are dealing for the witness for the prosecution to have a grudge, and he or she may well have previous convictions for violence. That does not necessarily render his or her evidence unworthy or untrue, but of course it raises questions about it, and we must be very careful for that reason.
Let me explain the scheme of the Bill; this may give my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) some reassurance. Clause 1 introduces the concept of statutory “witness anonymity orders” and abolishes the common-law rules. The Bill deals only with criminal proceedings because the House of Lords judgment in Davis concerned criminal proceedings alone. There is no change in the position in relation to civil proceedings. Clauses 2 to 8 set out the nature of the orders and who can make them. As I told the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) after my statement on 26 June, they can be sought by either the prosecution or the defence.
A key part of the Bill is contained in clauses 4 and 5, which relate to the conditions and considerations involved in the making of an order. Clause 4 sets out the three conditions: that the order is necessary to protect the safety of the witness or other person or to prevent any serious damage to property or real harm to the public interest; that the measures would be consistent with the defendant’s receiving a fair trial; and that it is necessary to make the order in the interests of justice.
Clause 5 sets out the considerations to which the court must have regard. These include whether the witness’s evidence could be properly tested without his or her identity being disclosed—a point I make to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North; whether there are reasons to believe that the witness may not be credible; and whether alternative means short of a witness anonymity order could be used to protect the witness’s identity.
Would it be possible for the anonymity not to be complete? For example, if the witness were to be screened, would it be possible for the screen to apply only to the defendant, or certain people in the court, but not to the judge and jury, who may need to take into account the demeanour of the witness in deciding on the truthfulness of their evidence?
I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. In all the cases that I am aware of, the identity of the witness is known to the judge, and the screening—and, for example, the mechanical disguising of the voice—is for the defendant and his representatives, but the jury can see the witness. Therefore, such special measures are put in place—and precisely those arrangements were put in place in the case of Davis, which was the subject of the Law Lords’ judgment. [Interruption.] My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General points out that clause 2(4) sets out the conditions. It states: “Nothing in this section”—or, indeed, in the Bill—
“authorises the court to require—
(a) the witness to be screened to such an extent that the witness cannot be seen by—
(i) the judge or other members of the court (if any);
(ii) the jury (if there is one); or
(iii) any interpreter or other person appointed by the court to assist the witness”,
and the witness’s natural voice has to be heard by those three.
In addition to the five conditions in clause 5(2), following suggestions I have received, an amendment tabled in my name proposes that courts must act so as to have regard to whether the evidence might be the sole or decisive evidence before granting anonymity. That was a concern for the Opposition parties and others, and it was central to the judgment in Davis. This is not a bar on the granting of an anonymity order, but it will be stated as a consideration in the legislation.
The Bill will come into force on Royal Assent, hopefully before the summer recess. The House, however, is well aware that there are a number of cases in the pipeline, and that there may well be defendants who have already been convicted who would seek to make out-of-time appeals, either directly or via the Criminal Cases Review Commission, in the light of their lordships’ judgment. Clauses 10 and 11 will therefore ensure that the new law can also apply to any proceedings in cases of this kind.
Clause 10 applies to proceedings and trials that are already under way. In essence, the judge has to look at existing common-law orders, which are already made, and decide whether they could have been made under the new law. If the witness has already given, or has started giving, his or her evidence and the judge concludes that the defendant cannot receive a fair trial, subsection (7) tells the judge that he must make suitable directions for bringing the trial or hearing to a conclusion, and that includes the possibility of a retrial.
Clause 11 applies to proceedings that have been completed. The appellate court then has to consider whether the new statutory anonymity order could have been made under the new law. It must treat the conviction as unsafe if it concludes that the defendant had not received a fair trial.
The remaining clauses relate to interpretation, commencement and extent.
They do things differently, and they always have done. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who is present, is a good Scots lawyer, and one of the things I learned on almost the first day I began studying English law was that I would gradually become acquainted with the legal systems of Ireland, Australia, Canada and Malta, but never of Scotland. [Interruption.] Yes, and of Essex, too. My hon. Friend will therefore forgive me if I do not go down a path—
I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the interesting report produced by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).
The Bill will cover England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Scotland and the Crown dependencies as well in respect of the service courts. We have, by the way, asked the Scottish Administration whether they would like us to include reference in this Bill for them—they are fully entitled to do so—but their current view is that that is not necessary.
A week ago, a leading Queen’s counsel opined that far too many of these anonymity orders are being made. He said that between 500 and 600 are being made, and that the police are routinely going a bit over the top. Ken Jones of the Association of Chief Police Officers said that the figure is only a handful a year. Under this legislation, does the right hon. Gentleman foresee fewer applications than 500 or 600 a year, or does he think that figure will be about the same or even that there will be an increase?
I think it inherently improbable that there will be an increase in the number of orders, because we are now laying down a statutory scheme that is broadly based on past practice, subject to this really important caveat: we have also had to take account of what their lordships said in the Davis judgment, particularly in respect of Strasbourg jurisprudence. Time will tell, but I suspect that the figure will almost certainly not be more, and could be fewer. The courts and the prosecutors will be looking at whether, in certain cases where a witness anonymity order has been made in the past, it would be adequate for the task for a witness protection order to be made.
I was very glad to hear what the Lord Chancellor just said. Would he therefore care to comment on paragraph 50 of the explanatory notes? It states:
“The Bill will not generate new costs. It aims to restore the law to, broadly, the position it was believed to be prior to Davis.”
Surely it cannot go back to the position prior to Davis, precisely because of the point that the right hon. Gentleman made about the human rights position.
Virtually everyone recognises the unfortunate necessity for anonymity in a very limited number of cases, and a lot of people will have been rather disturbed to discover just how many cases there have been under the common-law arrangements. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to make sure that every single order issued under the new legislation will be logged, and that there will be regular reports to the House on the numbers? We certainly would not want this legislation to allow the police to start using what is proposed as a routine response in the odd difficult case.
The Crown Prosecution Service has collected a good deal of information so far about the number of cases. There is a very strong argument for its keeping a proper log of all of them, and it is important that the House should know what has happened, not least when we come to debate the Bill later in the year or early next Session. I will therefore raise that matter with my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General, because it will be a matter for the CPS.
If my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) looks not at the explanatory notes but at the background note on the number of cases, which we published alongside the Bill, he will see that the number that raised a concern of the sort raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North—cases in which the credibility of witnesses is an issue, because they could well have been accomplices to other crimes and could have as criminal a past as the defendants in the dock—is relatively small. It is thought to be about 40 or 50. Of the total, a large proportion involve undercover police officers or agents, and I do not think that anybody would argue that we should not routinely protect their identity.
The Director of Public Prosecutions gave evidence to my Committee this afternoon, and he said that the CPS is now logging the cases, the reasons for the applications and the outcomes. It had no reason to do so before, because the procedure was considered lawful. He also told us that he expected to see roughly the same number concerning undercover operations, but fewer instances relating to what he called the civilian cases, especially those involving gun crime under Operation Trident.
That is extremely helpful information, fresh from an evidence session, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
I said in my statement of 26 June—it is repeated in the explanatory notes—that it is our intention that this emergency legislation will be repealed by legislation that is to be included in next Session’s law reform, victims and witnesses Bill. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), has already referred to the representations that have been made that this undertaking should be reflected in the Bill, and we have tabled amendments to that end, so there will be a sunset clause.
I have signed a statement under section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998 that in my opinion the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the European convention on human rights.
On the issue of testing the credibility of witnesses, which is germane to the Human Rights Act 1998, is it the Lord Chancellor’s understanding that under the terms of this Bill, judges will be able to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the credibility of a witness before granting an anonymity order? If that is the case, why has he resisted adding such a provision to the Bill?
It is certainly the case that courts have an inherent jurisdiction to appoint special counsel or advocates, and they have used that in the past. Indeed, one was used in the case of Davis. That inherent jurisdiction will continue. Given the time constraints on Second Reading, I will explain when we come to the amendments on that issue why the Government intend to resist its inclusion in the Bill at this stage.
Not for the first time, the Lord Chancellor alleges that the courts have an inherent jurisdiction to appoint a special advocate, as distinct from an amicus or counsel to an inquiry, for example. When he deals with the special advocate proposals, will he please arm himself with some authority for that view? I know that he mentioned the Davis case—[Interruption.]
I shall do my best to do so. I see that the hon. and learned Gentleman has been given “Archbold” to read on the subject: perhaps we can share the page.
Further background in relation to our ECHR responsibilities is included in the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill, but permit me to quote Lord Mance from the House of Lords judgment. He noted 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”.
He went on to say that
“it is not certain that there is an absolute requirement that anonymous testimony should not be the sole or decisive evidence”.
For good measure, I might add that I found out from the ever-helpful Library research paper that there is international support—with conditions—for accepting anonymised evidence, described in the United Nations good practice guide.
The late Lord Denning once warned that
“in the very pursuit of Justice our keenness may outrun our sureness and we may trip and fall”.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned the law reform, witnesses and victims Bill, which will shortly come before Parliament and will act as the sunset for these provisions. The Bill that we are considering is creating new special measures. Is he aware that there is considerable and widespread concern in the legal profession, on both sides—prosecution and defence—that all special measures are widely overused to the point of abuse, particularly screening and the use of video links for younger witnesses, who can be as hard as any witnesses in a court? Juries do not like those measures, and they are having a contrary effect to that which was originally intended.
I am aware of that, not least because of representations that my hon. and learned Friend has made to me. I do not have a sense at the moment of the extent to which special measures, which are distinct from witness anonymity orders, are used. I am happy and ready to follow that up, as we ought to, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, the prosecuting authorities and others. It is important that the measures should be used as an exception and not as the rule.
In conclusion, I have quoted Lord Denning’s warning that too much haste can lead to mistakes. Hon. Members from all parts of the House are well aware of the significance of the legislation and the short time in which it has been prepared and introduced. There is a practical need for it to be passed as soon as possible in order to prevent some of society’s most dangerous criminals from escaping justice.
I am mindful of the principles at stake. More prosecutions do not necessarily mean more justice unless those prosecutions are fair. That is the balance that the legislation seeks to strike. In the time available, we have done our very best with the Bill. I am clear that it is consistent with the European convention on human rights and will ensure a fair trial for the defendant while ensuring protection for victims and the public, which is also very important. I commend the Bill to the House.
The House finds itself in an invidious position. In June, the House of Lords held in the case of Davis that measures taken to protect the identities of witnesses were incompatible with common law. As a consequence, a number of current criminal cases have been thrown into doubt and, whatever view one takes, that uncertainty needs to be addressed quickly.
The Law Lords made it clear, however, that subject to the overriding need for a fair trial, there is scope for Parliament to legislate to allow by statute greater use of anonymous evidence than common law permits. The legislation must be consistent with the right to fair trial, not least because it would otherwise be incompatible with article 6 of the European convention on human rights.
As I said in the House two weeks ago:
“We recognise our constitutional duty to scrutinise as best we can all legislation…and not to attempt to hinder the Government improperly…My party is committed to working with the Government in a constructive way to deal with this problem”.—[Official Report, 26 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 517.]
That is what we have sought to do, and I am grateful to the Justice Secretary for his approach. Accordingly, we support the principle behind the Bill, but we have concerns about its scope.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who spoke before, have said that the official Opposition support in principle the reasons behind the Bill. Does not the hon. Gentleman see a contradiction in a party in official opposition wrapping itself in the Magna Carta on the issue of 42 days but discarding it when it comes to this Bill?
I shall address the balance that we need to achieve. I shall not dignify that intervention to any greater extent.
Even if circumstances dictate that we must legislate swiftly, that does not mean that we should do so lightly. As the Secretary of State said, important principles are at stake. As long ago as 1720, the English courts recognised confrontation as
“the most effectual method of establishing the truth”.
In 1641, this House moved to abolish the Court of Star Chamber, which, once praised for its speed and flexibility, gradually evolved into a body in which the interests of justice were subjugated to the convenience of the Crown. In the United States of America, a defendant’s right to confront his accusers is recognised explicitly in the sixth amendment to the constitution. Like much of the US Bill of Rights, that provision merely reflected contemporary English law.
The right of defendants to confront their accusers is not a mere historical nicety. It was developed in our common law precisely to ensure that justice was done. The overriding principles of justice are clear and simple: to convict the guilty and acquit the innocent. It is in no one’s interests if, in the interests of securing convictions, we risk convicting the innocent. Miscarriages of justice result in the truly guilty going unpunished and leave the public at risk. There can be no utilitarian argument for setting aside the principles of justice. That is why, with all due respect to Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick of the Metropolitan police, for whom I have the highest personal regard, his call for emergency legislation on the grounds that there is
“too much principle and not enough pragmatism in the criminal justice system”
is seriously misplaced.
Nevertheless, we recognise that a consequence of the Law Lords’ judgment may well be that the guilty go free. That, too, would be contrary to the principles of justice. If justice can be done only through the use of anonymous evidence, the courts should have the power to hear that evidence. However, it should be used out of necessity to secure justice, not out of convenience to secure convictions. Its use should be exceptional, not routine, and the court must decide whether the risk of intimidation justifies it. The assessment must be objective, and it cannot be left to the defendant. That is a weakness in the Bill and needs addressing.
I have been listening carefully to the arguments that have been advanced. One problem that I have is that both the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend talk about the need to have a fair trial. How can an accused person have a fair trial if he does not know the identity of his accuser?
That goes to the heart of the dilemma that we are confronting. The principle set out in the Bill is that a judge must be satisfied about a number of considerations, including a defendant’s general right to know the identity of a witness, before allowing the use of anonymous evidence. Those tests are in the Bill precisely to restrict the use of such evidence. Some may disagree, but I think that most Members agree that the use of anonymous evidence will not necessarily be a bar to a fair trial. The Opposition believe that it is right to allow judges to make the decision, subject to the tests that Parliament will set out.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that article 6 of the European convention on human rights provides a long-stop defence to ensure that judges do not abuse anonymity orders? Like him, I am concerned that we must not repeat the most ghastly miscarriages of justice of the past through the misuse of those orders.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Law Lords made it clear in their judgment that there would be circumstances in which anonymous evidence could be used in a way that is consistent with article 6 of the convention. The Government are introducing this Bill to try to ensure that consistency, but they accept that challenges to it are very likely.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem with the Bill, and it is a problem that affects us all, is that the Davis judgment will be examined to determine witness credibility? The judgment makes it plain that the Davis case was sent back to the Court of Appeal because the common-law power that had previously been thought to exist did not in fact exist. Another reason why the case was sent to the Court of Appeal was that the exercise of the protective measures—they were precisely the same as those contemplated in the Bill—made the trial unfair. That problem will arise very often when the credibility of witnesses is at stake. It may stand in the way of the use of the protective measures, because Davis shows that they render a case unsafe.