House of Commons
Tuesday 9 December 2008
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That Returns be laid before the House for Session 2007-08 of information and statistics relating to:
(1) Business of the House;
(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question and Allocation of Time (including Programme Motions);
(3) Sittings of the House;
(4) Private Bills and Private Business;
(5) Public Bills;
(6) Delegated Legislation and Regulatory Reform Orders;
(7) European Legislation, etc;
(8) Grand Committees;
(9) Chairmen’s Panel; and
(10) Select Committees.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Public Office (Misconduct)
The higher courts have made it clear that the threshold for the common law offence of misconduct in public office is a high one. A unifying factor appears to be the existence of some improper, dishonest or oppressive motive in the exercise or refusal to exercise a public function rather than a mere abuse of power. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, in a consultation paper in 1997, recommended the partial replacement of this common law offence of misconduct in public office with a new statutory offence of misuse of public office. In 1998, as Home Secretary, I reported to a parliamentary Joint Committee on the difficulties of defining the proposed new offence. The Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill concluded in 2003 that such a Bill was not the appropriate vehicle for giving a statutory definition of misconduct in public office. I am unaware of any representations made to me since on this matter.
The Secretary of State seems to be admitting that the law is flawed. Is it really appropriate that an offence created by a judge in 1783 that is punishable by life imprisonment is used against someone who simply receives material that may embarrass his own Government?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that a great many offences in the criminal calendar are based on common law—they trace their provenance to decisions of the courts made, in this case, in the 18th century? Such offences are continually redefined and refined by the higher courts of the land. There have been two leading authorities, among others, published on the definition of misconduct in public office—one in 1979 and another in 2004. Although the Committee on Standards in Public Life considered the matter, it recommended only a partial replacement of the offence of misconduct. As I have reported to the House, the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill considered whether to propose the inclusion of a statutory definition of misconduct in public office, but decided against doing so.
Would the Secretary of State tell us how many civil servants have been arrested under this offence, how many of those civil servants were subsequently charged, and how many of those who were charged were then convicted in the courts? If he cannot answer today, will he ensure that an answer is put in the Library as quickly as possible?
An answer was given in April of this year about the number of offences for which there have been convictions dating back to the past 10 years. I have asked the statisticians in my Department to provide further particulars of those offences. When they are available, I will make them available to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House.
This does seem to be an enormously elastic offence. I believe that the most recent successful prosecution was that of a female police officer who was operating on the side as a prostitute.
Will the Secretary of State comment on the case of Sally Murrer last week? That prosecution failed, the upshot of which appears to be that journalists are immune, as are their sources.
It is not appropriate for me to comment in detail on that case except to say that I note that the hon. Gentleman is celebrating, or endorsing, the acquittal in that case, which was made under article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. If the Conservatives are now changing their position in respect of the incorporation of the European convention on human rights, so be it.
I also point out to the House that the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill, which considered under paragraph 77 of its report making misconduct in public office a statutory offence but then decided not to propose that, included a number of luminaries from the Opposition Benches, including the Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), in whose opinion this offence did not need statutory definition. From the look on his face, he has forgotten that, but I have here a copy of the report and the minutes of proceedings.
As it happens, I am the wrong person to ask because I am not in favour of leaking and I do not do it. As far as investigations are concerned, when I was a special adviser in 1976, there was a police investigation into the leaking of a limited circulation annexe of the Cabinet minutes in respect of child benefit. I had seen that limited circulation annexe and I was therefore interviewed by Commander Haversham of the Yard and a sergeant who reminded me very much of Mr. Oddjob from the James Bond movie—those were the days before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act came into force. I was exonerated because I did not leak any more at that time than I have subsequently.
How does my right hon. Friend feel he should have been judged if, when he was at the Home Office and effectively the police authority for London, he had rung someone who was part of an ongoing inquiry by the police to discuss their case? Would that have been a matter of misconduct, and would it have been a resigning issue?
It certainly would have been misconduct with a small “m” because it would have almost certainly compromised a police investigation. I suspect that there would have been demands for my resignation not just from the Opposition, but from those on the Labour Benches as well.
My right hon. Friend was our first Home Secretary in 1997, and has extensive experience of police authorities throughout the land. There are 44 police authorities in England and Wales, including the British Transport police. Outside of London, can he think of a single instance when a chairman of a police authority has contacted a close personal, political and professional friend after they have been bailed as a potential criminal suspect? Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), should we be looking to redefine misconduct in a public office to incorporate reprehensible behaviour of that kind?
I cannot think of a single occasion when a chairman of a police authority acted in the way that my hon. Friend described. As for the definition of that common law offence, the general view up until now has been that taken by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough when he considered this matter as a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill—he decided that it did not need further statutory definition at that stage.
Given that it was the intention of the Government, to their credit, and of this House, when passing the Freedom of Information Act and modifying the Official Secrets Act, that unauthorised disclosure of information not involving national security or intelligence should be dealt with as a disciplinary matter within the civil service and not by the criminal law, if it emerges that the police have extended the meaning of the offence of misconduct in public office beyond corruption to apply the criminal law to leaks, will it be the Government’s intention to bring in statutory law to restore the intention of Parliament?
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the question whether there should be a conviction is a matter for a jury, not for police officers. They merely make arrests and, in certain circumstances, lay a charge on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service. The judicial authorities, in respect of misconduct in a public office, make the components of such offences clear. I have said that there is a higher bar in respect of such offences, but ultimately, it is a matter for a jury to judge. I understand that that is also the view of the Opposition.
With respect, the Secretary of State did not answer the question of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). The central point is this: what should be the relationship between misconduct, leaks in the civil service and national security? The one thing that we learned from the Government’s account of the events leading up to the arrest of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is that they think that there should be no police investigation unless there is some sort of potential threat to national security. Will the Secretary of State accept that there is a case for removing the possibility of the use of that offence in the case of leaks by civil servants that do not involve national security?
The issue has not arisen, but when it has been more calmly looked at, the nature of the offence of misconduct in public office, albeit as a common law offence, which the higher courts have defined and refined in recent years, has met with general approbation. I know of no direct provenance for the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that, even if there is continued, wilful misconduct by an official in breach of their office, the criminal law should apply. That would be a very odd circumstance. I do not wish to comment on current investigations, and I shall not.
I respect the Justice Secretary’s desire not to comment on current investigations, but the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made was surely that the Official Secrets Act 1989 was supposed to remove such matters from the ambit of the criminal law. The legislation removed swathes of activity by civil servants from the ambit of the criminal law. Is the right hon. Gentleman concerned that that is being undermined by an attempt to recriminalise using the common law offence?
I would point out that the revision to the Official Secrets Act in 1989 was welcomed, but the matter has been considered since then. The Committee on Standards in Public Life considered it in 1997. As Home Secretary, I looked at the matter in 1998, and it was further considered, including by Conservative Front Benchers, by the Joint Committee in 2003. It was accepted then that the offence did not need urgent statutory redefinition. I suspect that, if it were statutorily redefined, we would end up with the same definition as that currently set out in the authorities, for example, the Crown Prosecution Service’s 2007 charging manual. It makes it clear, as I have already said, that the bar for a prosecution, as well as a successful conviction, is high.
We fully accept that leaks of issues concerning national security—actual leaks about actual national security—should be subject to criminal sanction. However, is not the Secretary of State for Justice worried by suggestions that criminal sanctions should be applied when there is the potential for a national security issue leak to arise, but no such leak has occurred?
As I said to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and others, I know of no provenance for suggesting that the Government have ever subscribed to the view that there are no circumstances in which criminal investigations could take place in such matters, except when a breach of national security has occurred. That applied to the Opposition, too, until the past 10 days.
Since Conservative Members claim that they wish to go into government and that they are ready to do that, they need to reflect on what is necessary for the good governance of this country, regardless of the party that is in office. Let us consider an abstract situation, in which an official who works on a ministerial corridor continually leaks. That is deeply corrosive. [Hon. Members: “Sanctions.”] It is not just a matter of that. Such behaviour is deeply corrosive for the whole system of governance and may require a more extensive sanction than simply dismissal.
With respect, the Justice Secretary is simply not answering my hon. Friends’ questions. The 1988 White Paper on reforming the Official Secrets Act stated:
“The objective of Official Secrets legislation is not to enforce Crown Service discipline—that is not a matter for the criminal law—but to protect information that in the public interest should not be disclosed.”
Does the Justice Secretary agree that the purpose of the reform, which restricted the criminal law to information that is damaging to national security, will be completely defeated if there are prosecutions under a common law offence for matters that Parliament clearly intended should be treated as disciplinary issues?
When Lord Hurd, the then Home Secretary, originally came to the House to make his proposals for changes in the Official Secrets Act in 1988, he did so to deal with a particular mischief in the operation of the Act. He did not, as I recall, come to the House to propose a root-and-branch reform of all areas of the law relating to conduct in public office. Moreover, he had no proposals at that stage to reform the common law offence, which, as we have heard, had existed since the 18th century, of misconduct in a public office. Further, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life reported in the middle of 1997 and when I responded to the then Joint Committee in 1998, I do not recall anybody from the Opposition ever suggesting that the offence should be excised altogether from the criminal law. The only issue was whether it should be partially replaced by a statutory offence. That was turned down by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough.
When Lord Hurd, the then Home Secretary, came to the House and presented the Bill to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, he said:
“We ask the House today to agree in principle that the criminal law should be prised away from the great bulk of official information.”—[Official Report, 21 December 1988; Vol. 144, c. 460.]
The right hon. Gentleman was simply wrong in his recollection of what Lord Hurd said. The amended Official Secrets Act specifically requires the prosecution to prove that any disclosure of Government information would be damaging to national security. Leaks that reveal Home Office incompetence, for instance, may be damaging to the reputation of this Government, but they do not damage national security. Is it not typical of Ministers under this Government to confuse their narrow party interests with the interests of the country? Will the Justice Secretary now answer this straightforward question: should the common law offence of misconduct in a public office be deployed for prosecutions of recipients of Government information where national security is not at stake? Yes or no?
Lord Hurd makes my point, because he spoke about removing the criminal law from “the great bulk” of what amounts to leaking, and so it has been, and without question by a very long way. However, he did not talk about removing the application of criminal law absolutely. On the hon. Gentleman’s second question, what he is asking me to do, which is entirely inappropriate for a Minister responsible for the judiciary, is to intervene in a continuing criminal investigation. [Interruption.] That is the invitation that he is making, but I am afraid that I shall decline it. Were the unlikely situation ever to arise of his being in my place, I hope that he would decline it in the same way.
As for the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, I am surprised at his wittering from a sedentary position. It is no good his complaining: he put his name to this report from the Joint Committee on the Draft Corruption Bill in 2003, which specifically said:
“We have…considered adding separate specific offences to the Bill such as…making misconduct in public office a statutory offence (with a wider definition of public office).”
The Committee then said that it did not think that the Bill was “the appropriate vehicle”. He considered the proposal, thought about it and then rejected it. That happens to be our position, too. We have not changed our position; the Opposition have.
Shoplifting (Sentencing Guidelines)
The hon. Lady has made a number of representations on sentencing guidelines for shoplifting offences and we have met representatives of retail trade organisations to discuss available disposals for shoplifting. The independent Sentencing Guidelines Council has today published its definitive guideline on sentencing for theft from a shop.
May I thank the Justice Secretary for the kind words that he recently said about me to the Magistrates Association? May I also refer him to the representations that the association has made on this issue? Will his hon. Friend the Minister go so far as to admit that the Magistrates Association still has concerns about fixed penalty notices being imposed for first time offences, about fines going unpaid—[Interruption]—she should feel free to answer for herself, rather than conferring—and about community sentences not being completed? Does he or she therefore share my concern that there should be a court—
The hon. Lady is simply showing the great interest in this matter that my right hon. Friend was right to say that she has shown over a long period of time. We are aware that the Magistrates Association has concerns, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who has responsibility for the Courts Service, will meet its representatives tomorrow and will no doubt have an opportunity to discuss some of those concerns. I should like to point out to the House that more people are prosecuted for shop theft than receive penalty notices for disorder, that the use of custody to punish shoplifters has increased in percentage terms since 1997, and that the courts are empowered to make custodial sentences for this crime and, where appropriate, do so.
Are not the Minister’s remarks a little complacent? Paragraph 11 of today’s announcement by the Sentencing Guidelines Council makes it clear that burglars and shoplifters who steal to feed an addiction will get a lesser sentence. She must be aware that the retail sector is suffering from a chronic recession, so this must surely be the worst possible time to downgrade and devalue those offences. Is not there a danger that this will encourage even more retail crime, and a likelihood that this will be seen as a shoplifters’ and burglars’ charter?
I absolutely refute the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, as no doubt would one of his hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench, who last year was urging us—quite rightly, in my view—during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 to ensure that those who commit crime through addiction get proper treatment. Indeed, early-day motion 132, tabled by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), makes that very point, and urges the Sentencing Guidelines Council to ensure
“that the sentencing guidelines are enforced to ensure that offenders with drink or drug problems are issued with sentences that recognise those problems with an appropriate rehabilitation order”.
That is all that the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is independent of the Government, is saying—that drug rehabilitation orders should be given, where appropriate, to try to ensure that those who commit crime in part as a result of their addiction have a chance to get rid of that addiction. The evidence shows that those who complete those tough community orders are only half as likely to reoffend as those who do not complete such orders.
The interaction between the judicial system and parliamentary privilege is well settled, and specifically defined in the sub judice rules of Parliament. The rules were extensively revised by this House in November 2001, following the recommendations by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, and set out on page 437 of the current edition of “Erskine May”. The issue occasionally arises incidentally in ministerial discussions but, as it is a matter for Parliament and not for the Executive, I can recall no occasion on which it has been an agenda item for ministerial deliberation.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. He will know that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 created three categories of material susceptible to searches, one of which was legally privileged material. If the police think that a piece of evidence is legally privileged, they are unable to seize it. Has the Secretary of State considered whether it would be worth extending that definition to include items that are subject to parliamentary privilege, so as to make clear the legal position and to put it beyond doubt?
Yesterday, the Leader of the House suggested that a High Court judge might be the appropriate person to grant a warrant, if one were required, for a police search of these premises, and of Members’ correspondence in offices or homes around the country. How would that proposal be carried forward, given that, according to the Government’s motion, the Committee to consider the matter is not allowed to meet other than for the purpose of electing a Chairman, and that the Prime Minister has indicated that nothing will change until he has had the results of that Committee’s inquiry?
On the specific proposition, as the Queen’s Speech made clear, there will be a police Bill and a Bill in respect of justice and coroners. The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, and I would be astonished if he could not ensure that amendments to achieve what he suggests were in order, if he wished to table such amendments. Of course we would be happy to consider them without waiting for a particular report from a specific inquiry.
Would the Secretary of State resist the temptation to freeze into statute law the complex system of principles and precedents that constitute parliamentary privilege, as if an Act attempted to do so, it would be judiciable outside the House, whereas privilege is in fact better defended by ourselves as it has been over the centuries? In any case, many of us have little faith in the Government’s ability to deal with this in an unpartisan way, especially in the light of recent events, so any Bill that they bring forward could further weaken the powers of this House and allow outside authorities unnecessary further access.
On the issue of parliamentary privilege—in other words further defining what is in article 9 of the 1689 Bill of Rights—I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege said in 1999 that the matter was best defined by this House. However, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) spoke about changing criminal procedures and if the House wished to proceed with that—I am not committing the Government, but we would certainly be happy to consider it—it could be effected only by a change in the general criminal law because it applies not only to behaviours in the House or in respect of the House, but to outside agencies such as the police.
On the subject of interaction with the judicial system, the Justice Secretary recently thought it right roundly to attack what he described as “nervous judges” for applying the Human Rights Act, which made the European convention on human rights justiciable in our courts. Although we came to expect the right hon. Gentleman’s successors as Home Secretary to abuse judges for party political advantage, are we now to expect the Lord Chancellor, whose statutory duty is to uphold the independence of the judiciary, routinely to make attacks on judges who apply the laws enacted by Parliament at his Government’s request?
I think that that is a slightly extravagant interpretation of what I said. I think that citing my comment on nervous judges as if it were an attack on the judiciary is an abuse of language. The article also made it clear that I had been extremely careful not to pass any adverse comment on the judiciary—nor have I. I recognise my responsibilities in respect of the protection of the independence of the judiciary acutely.
Civil Service Impartiality
The constitutional renewal Bill, which we published in draft in March, included proposals to enshrine in statute the core principles and values of the civil service, which include impartiality. The Government reiterated their commitment to continue to take forward their proposals in the Queen’s Speech last week.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that impartiality remains important for some quite junior civil service posts? Does he agree, for instance, that appointing a civil servant who had stood as an Opposition candidate only four years ago to work in the private office of the Home Secretary would be inappropriate?
I am obviously not going to comment—just as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused to comment—on ongoing police investigations, but I hope that the whole House will agree that, whatever party Ministers come from, they must be able to rely on the impartiality of the civil service—and at all levels. That is fundamental to the civil service: those core civil service values are set out in the civil service code and they actually form part of a civil servant’s terms and conditions of employment.
But why cannot the civil service clauses be detached from the rest of the constitutional renewal Bill and be proceeded with in this Parliament, as they had widespread support and were anticipated in several Government manifestos?
Quite simply because they do not need to be. We intend to proceed with our proposals for the constitutional renewal Bill. May I say that we published those proposals in draft because they are constitutional and we believe that they deserve the widest possible scrutiny? Indeed, we have had the benefit of extremely important scrutiny from the Justice Committee, the Public Administration Committee and, indeed, from the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. We have benefited from all that scrutiny, we are drafting the clauses as we speak and we will introduce those proposals.
I do not wish to be too critical of what we have discovered today to be the erstwhile occupation of the Minister’s boss, but does the Minister not agree that one of the elements most corrosive of civil service impartiality over the past 10 years has been the explosion in the number of special advisers employed by the Government? What would he do about that?
I certainly do not agree, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not referring to his boss, the leader of the Conservative party, when he spoke of corrosive elements in our public life. I am sure that he was not—I am glad to receive that confirmation from the hon. Gentleman.
I do not agree that the civil service is being corroded. I think that we should be proud of our civil service, which plays an extraordinarily important role in our constitution. If the hon. Gentleman reads the evidence given to Select Committees by the current head of the civil service, he will see that the latter paid tribute to the important role played by special advisers in our constitutional arrangements.
Some of us remember being special advisers and protecting the impartiality of the civil service, and I pay tribute to the Lord Chancellor for what he did in that respect long ago. However, the Minister has said once again that the constitutional renewal Bill will be coming forward. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who served on the Committee that examined the draft Bill, it is an important piece of legislation, and we were all looking forward to it. We all consider the impartiality of the civil service to be the very cornerstone of our democracy. Action has been promised again and again, yet we do not see the Bill in the timetable now. If it is really to come forward, can the Minister tell us when it will do so?
We plan to present proposals in April or May. [Interruption.] This is not news, however excited Opposition Members may be about it. We have made our intentions clear. I hope Members agree that we need to take constitutional proposals seriously, and to reflect on the scrutiny that they have been given by three Committees of the House. However, we will present those proposals, and given what the hon. Lady has said, we expect to receive the Conservative party’s support for every measure of this kind that we present in future.
The Government regularly undertake research on the effectiveness of various sentencing disposals, including both custodial and community-based sentences.
Ministers have consistently told us that tough, firm community sentences can be more effective in reducing reoffending than short spells in prison. Given that our prisons are bursting at the seams and 92 per cent. of young men given a first-time short custodial sentence reoffend within two years, does the Minister really believe that sending 34,613 people to prison in the last year alone is the best way of tackling recidivism?
The hon. Lady needs to understand that we consider both custodial and non-custodial sentences to be important parts of the judicial system, and that courts must have the flexibility to be able to pass sentences that they believe to be appropriate. Last year alone, more than 6 million hours were spent serving non-custodial community-based sentences. The hon. Lady and her party need to reflect on what is important for the victims of persistent young offenders, and what is important in terms of the flexibility of the court system.
Does the Secretary of State think it appropriate that prison staff at HMPs Whitemoor and Peterborough are, at a cost of more than £3,500 to the taxpayer, running errands to pick up takeaways for inmates in the name of diversity? Does he think it acceptable to my tax-paying, law-abiding constituents that that is happening under his Government?
Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) about custodial sentences of three months or less, can the Minister tell us what impact such sentences have on convicted offenders who are addicted to hard drugs?
My hon. Friend makes an important point in reflecting what the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), said earlier about the importance of ensuring that sentencing deals with those who are addicted to drink or drugs. That is one reason why flexibility must be at the disposal of the courts: they must be able to ensure that those who commit crimes because of their addiction can be properly dealt with in an appropriate fashion.
The Minister was right in the answer she gave to the original question, but does she not agree that, regardless of whether the sentence is three months, three years, 13 years, 23 years or 30 years, it should involve genuine rehabilitation, including education and training?
Indeterminate imprisonment for public protection—IPP—sentences are an important part of sentencing options for the protection of the public. The Government will ensure that there are prison places for those whom the court sends to custody.
I thank the Minister for that answer. As he knows, I have been in correspondence with him and other Ministers in the Department since October of last year about my constituent, Mr. W, who is in prison serving such a sentence. The time has come when he could have been considered for parole, had he been able to gain access to the courses which were a condition for that. He could have been considered in March, but he cannot access those courses. I understand that there might be up to 800 prisoners in similar circumstances.
The Minister will also know that, through the changes made in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, sentences with such attachments to them can no longer be given. Will he look at my constituent’s case and consider whether he and others like him might be brought under the terms of the 2008 Act, and thus be made eligible for parole rather than left in the current Catch-22 situation?
It is important that individuals serving IPP sentences access the courses, and I recognise that there were initially some difficulties because of the numbers coming through. We have tried to put extra resources in to prioritise IPP prisoners who are post tariff, and I am confident that in short order such prisoners will be able to undertake the courses that they need to attend to progress through the system.
The hon. Gentleman asks me to ensure that we look at Mr. W’s sentence; as he knows, that is ultimately for the Parole Board. I will certainly re-examine his correspondence and write to him again, but it will ultimately be for the Parole Board to decide whether Mr. W can be released because his offending behaviour is no longer a risk to the public.
Do we keep any data on the number of prisoners who are former psychiatric patients or who have learning difficulties? A recent report by Mind suggested that many such individuals, especially those with learning difficulties, were slipping through the health and social service net and ending up in prison and adding to the overcrowding.
My hon. Friend will know that there will be a number of people on IPP sentences who have such difficulties. He will also know that I, along with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, have given my noble Friend Lord Bradley the opportunity to examine these issues, and I expect him to report to me early in the new year on matters such as how we might address diversion of individuals with mental health problems and how we can provide better support for such individuals in prison.
Secure Training Centres
The operation of secure training centres is constantly monitored by the Youth Justice Board. Current indications are that the secure training centres are performing well.
Last year, physical restraint was used more than 2,000 times at secure training centres. That is more than 10 times for each child who was detained. Does the Minister consider that to be proportionate, and will the report, which has twice been delayed, finally be published on the deadline of next Monday?
As the hon. Lady will know, I have given a commitment to the House to publish the report, which we commissioned jointly with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, by December 15. Subject to the business of the House, I propose that that will be undertaken by that date. This is a complicated issue, which is why the report’s response has been delayed for some time. For the protection of staff and of some young people themselves, and for the protection of individuals against self-harm, there is, in my view, a need for restraint to be continued, but we are looking at this matter. I will report to the House very shortly, and I hope the hon. Lady will examine the report and respond to it in due course.
Criminal Justice System
The comprehensive spending review 2007 settlement agreed for the Ministry of Justice requires us to live within the funding available. Budgets for 2009-10 will be agreed shortly, and we will then be in a position to inform Parliament more fully of the impact of this work on the Ministry of Justice. We are prioritising and protecting front-line services, but we are looking at how we can improve performance and efficiency across the Department. We are, of course, involving our Department’s trade unions in ongoing discussions in this regard.
My hon. Friend will be aware that this week has been designated justice week by the justice trade unions, and they will be lobbying the House tomorrow on their concerns about future budgets. Has she seen the report launched yesterday by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, which demonstrates that although the Government have increased resources within the individual budgets of prisons, the probation service and the courts, that has not matched the work loads? Would she therefore be willing to meet a delegation from the justice trade union group to discuss the report and its implications for future budget planning?
On my hon. Friend’s last point, I would of course be more than happy to meet him and any delegation that he wishes to bring in respect of the particular point that he makes. I have not yet had a chance to see that report, but I would be very happy to read it.
The House may wish to be aware that on Monday last, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I launched the introduction of high-visibility jackets for offenders undertaking community orders of unpaid work—that scheme is called community payback—and also that an announcement has been made of a review of how legal advice should best be delivered locally, not least to take account of the impact of the recession.
The Government have again refused my freedom of information request for a list of possible sites for the new titan prisons. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), has written to me saying that the
“release of the information you seek would inevitably lead to increased speculation…thereby affecting our ability to procure land for the sites eventually chosen at a reasonable market value”.
So I must ask the Secretary of State the following question: is that not a blatant admission that any subsequent consultation involving local residents will be a complete sham, given that the Government intend to buy the sites before informing local residents? What is he going to do to put that right?
I understand that in most, although not all, areas of the country there is concern whenever there are proposals for new prisons to be built; regardless of the size of the prison, that has been an almost eternal verity. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that his party is committed—on some days, at least—to increasing the prison population. Part of his party’s Front-Bench team says that it wants to increase it to 101,000, rather than to 96,000, as we have proposed. That will mean more prisons, and they have to be placed in individual constituencies.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific issue, we have a duty to the taxpayer to protect the public purse, so we must provisionally identify sites. Typically, when the sites are identified an option is taken on them, subject to planning permission. Planning permission, and the consultation relating to it, is a very public and highly visible process. I hope that we shall not get into a situation where the Conservative party wills the end of an increase in the prison population but every time there is a proposal to will the means it opposes that increase in prison numbers.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am sure that we have all used the advice that the citizens advice bureaux make available for our constituents. He is right to say that, as we look at how we provide advice locally, their role is important. In doing some research in this area, Lord Bach will ensure that the role that the bureaux play in the local community is kept in being.
The two issues are very separate. The refurbishment was decided on back in 1999, although the name of the then Home Secretary who made that decision escapes me. If the hon. Gentleman is making a serious point about efficiency savings, I should point out to him that none of the efficiency savings that we will make would compare with the slashing and indiscriminate cuts to which his leader has now committed himself, which would make a recession into a depression by gratuitously putting thousands of people out of work.
My hon. Friend will know that visibility is important to provide confidence in community sentences. I have ensured that local decisions can be taken if there are real concerns about health and safety, but there is no evidence to date that high-visibility jackets increase the likelihood of attack. Any attacks that have occurred during community-based activities have been perpetrated by known individuals against specific individuals and would, I suspect, have happened whatever garb or attire they were wearing.
Just for the record, the Act of Settlement 1707 provided that the Lord Chancellor was the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, including Scotland. On the specific point, I am considering the results of the consultation and we will come forward with proposals in due course.
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the number of candidates for the magistrates’ bench coming forward from ethnic minorities? Are benches such as Bradford or Keighley representative of their local areas, and if not, what will the Department do about that?
The representation of those from black and minority ethnic communities and, separately, of women in the magistracy is better than in other areas of the judiciary, but it is widely recognised that we still have a very long way to go in that respect. We, the Magistrates’ Association, the chairs of the benches and particularly the advisory committees on magistrates’ appointments that operate at a county level are trying to do a great deal to improve the representative nature of magistrates.
Will the Secretary of State for Justice look at the case of Graham Key, who took his life after being sentenced to prison for two years in August of this year? The prison ombudsman is considering the case. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to consider the whole case and the circumstances leading up to that prosecution?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, coroners and the greater system are funded through the local government settlement. There is absolutely no budget line in the Ministry of Justice in respect of the operation of any coroner’s court. I am fully aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised and it is now the subject of discussion between the relevant London boroughs and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for the Home Department.
Enforcement is far better than it was 10 years ago, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in office. Sometimes sentences are not completed because people are sentenced further and end up in jail on a longer sentence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports visibility and community involvement, and that he recognises that community sentences are a strong punishment and a strong deterrent that can sometimes help to prevent reoffending.
Is the Secretary of State aware that in its attempt to save money Her Majesty’s Courts Service has frozen the implementation of an energy demand management solution of the kind produced by a company in my constituency, Plexus Technology, which would have begun to save the Courts Service money within as little as three months and would have reduced its carbon footprint? Does he not agree that on the face of it that is both nonsense and a false economy and that he should look into it?
I know that the hon. Gentleman shares our wish to see more purposeful activity in prison. He will be pleased, I am sure, to know that only yesterday I hosted a seminar in the Ministry of Justice with more than 60 employers to consider how they can link up with prison industries and provide skills and training in prison to help people to go through the gate to employment on leaving prison. That has been an important contribution, and a similar contribution has been made to managing drugs and drug use in prison, managing alcohol in prison and dealing with mental health in prison. Our objectives for 2009 are to improve our performance in all those areas in order to improve our reductions in reoffending across the board.
Is the Lord High Chancellor aware that, before the dreadful case of baby P, the number of child protection cases brought by local authorities had fallen dramatically in the period since April this year, when court protection fees were increased from a flat £150 to £4,500? As a result, in London there has been something like a 40 per cent. drop in the number of child protection cases being brought. Does the Lord High Chancellor believe that that has anything to do with the huge, swingeing increase in the fees, for which local authorities have not been properly compensated?
Absolutely not. First, local authorities have been compensated to the tune of £40 million a year for the next three years. Secondly, the number of child protection cases fell in April, before the fees came into effect, and again in May, after the fees came into effect. Thirdly, the number of child protection cases across the country is rising again. Fourthly, the Association of Directors of Social Services says that its members deny absolutely the suggestion that a local authority would not take a child protection case to court because of the size of the fee.
I undertook to look into the matter of the Wilson doctrine and access to the House of Commons server, which was raised by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on 4 December. The Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology service takes the security of its systems very seriously, and is grateful for the support that the Joint Committee on Security, the Administration Committee and the Commission give in that respect. PICT would not allow any third party to access the parliamentary network without proper authority. In the Commons, such access previously required the approval of the Serjeant at Arms. Following my statement on 3 December, if PICT receives any requests to allow access in future, it will also seek confirmation that a warrant exists and that I have approved such access under the procedure laid down and the protocol issued yesterday.
With regard to the incident involving the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), no access was given to data held on the server, as PICT was not instructed to do so by the Serjeant at Arms. No access will be given unless a warrant exists and I approve such access.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have informed the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that I was going to raise this matter.
Yesterday, my local paper, the Evening Telegraph, reported a ministerial visit by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to my constituency last Friday. I received no prior notification from the right hon. Lady about that ministerial visit. As she was visiting my constituency in her role as a Minister, I and my local councillors would have appreciated the opportunity to speak with her to discuss local issues. What is more galling is that I had formally invited the Secretary of State to Wellingborough to discuss with me the overdevelopment of my area. She had not replied to my invitation.
You will appreciate, Mr. Speaker, that only a few weeks ago another Minister visited my constituency without giving me prior notice. I would appreciate your comments.
Every hon. and right hon. Member knows of the convention that notice is given if there is a public engagement in a constituency. As for invitations, if the hon. Gentleman gave out an invitation that is not taken up, perhaps he should be a little more persuasive—but that is nothing to do with me. The point that I make is that everyone knows the conventions and I expect every hon. Member on every side of the House to respect them. It is important that they do.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I am sure you are aware, last Wednesday I wrote to you inquiring whether the police had had access to the servers. Today, you clarified whether police were given permission to access the servers. Is there no way in which the police could have accessed the servers without the permission of PICT?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are about to debate European matters preparatory to the European Council meeting, which is to be held at the end of the week. Draft conclusions of that Council meeting are already in existence; I obtained a copy from the website of the Danish Parliament. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will undoubtedly refer to issues itemised in those conclusions, which have not been made available to the House, although they have been made available to other member states, where the same culture of secrecy does not prevail. Is it in order for us to proceed with a debate on those terms, given that I have the draft conclusions? I could easily circulate them, under your authority, Mr. Speaker.
I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to draw me into any arguments; I think that I have had enough for this week. There is about to be a debate, and if information is available to the right hon. Gentleman, he can raise the issue in the debate, so long as it is in order to do so. Of course, it is up to Ministers what information they make available.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of European affairs.
I am sure that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) will have tempted many Members with his suggestion that the debate be abandoned, and I am sorry to see some hon. Members taking up his suggestion immediately, but I, for one, am pleased to open this traditional pre-European Council debate. The agenda for this year’s December European Council reflects the preoccupations of Europe’s citizens: the global economic crisis and the European Union’s role in addressing it; the challenge of climate change and the need for European leadership in promoting the twin goals of lower carbon emissions and increased energy security; and the modern threats to security and the role of the European Union in addressing the root causes of conflict and its symptoms.
That agenda is welcome. It reflects the Government’s belief that after years of institutional negotiation, it is time for the EU to look outward, to recognise that the major threats that its citizens face are global, and to respond to them. Let me start on the subject of the economic situation. Today perhaps more than ever, the prospects for the UK economy are affected by the policy choices being made in other countries.
The Foreign Secretary failed to mention something in his review of the agenda, and is now going on to the subject of the UK economy. Can he tell the House a little about what might happen on 17 December to the EU opt-out on the working time directive? If that opt-out is removed, what will be the impact on British workers and the UK economy?
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but the minutes of that decision have not yet been published on the Danish Parliament website. He will have to wait until the 17 December discussion in the European Parliament. However, the position of the UK Government is very clear: the Council compromise position should be defended, as that is very much in the interests of the British economy and British workers. I look forward to that happening.
The G20 meeting in Washington last month was an important step in securing a decisive and systematic international response to the economic crisis. Governments around the world have recognised that a globally co-ordinated stimulus, in terms of both monetary and fiscal policy, represents the best response to the current crisis. The managing director of the International Monetary Fund has said:
“If there has ever been a time in modern economic history when fiscal policy and a fiscal stimulus should be used, it’s now.”
President-elect Obama said on Sunday:
“We’ve got to make sure that the economic stimulus plan is large enough to get the economy moving.”
The place where this stimulus matters most to the UK is in the rest of Europe—
Not in the middle of my sentence, but if the hon. Gentleman waits I am happy to help him.
The place where this stimulus matters most to the UK is the rest of Europe, because Europe remains our most important export market and the home for the largest portion of overseas investment in the UK. As the world’s largest single market, the European Union has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the world’s response. It is therefore absolutely in our interests that EU member states act together.
No, it is not for the reason given by my hon. Friend. She was not invited to the meeting, because it was a meeting with the president of the European Council—President Sarkozy of France—and the President of the European Commission. In the same way, Mrs. Merkel could have meetings with the president of the European Council—President Sarkozy—and Mr. Barroso.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly mentioned the economic climate. What effect does he believe that it will have on the principles and decisions in the Lisbon agenda? Are the Government still committed to the benchmarks that were agreed at Lisbon?
I can absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that the principles that were set out remain very important, and we want to develop them. As I shall explain, there is a particularly important discussion to be had about whether the current crisis is a reason to rein back the open markets that have been an important feature of European growth or whether the lesson is that free trade and a further renewal of the Doha trade round is in our interests and that this is precisely the time at which we should open up our economies rather than close them down.
If hon. Members will allow me to make progress, I am happy to accept their interventions in a moment.
The European Council offers an important opportunity to take forward European co-ordination on the basis of the Commission’s European economic recovery plan, which was published on 26 November. It is very much in line with the Government’s thinking, as set out in the pre-Budget report, and it will be an important tool in encouraging EU partners to take the bold action necessary to fight the downturn.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make this point, I shall give way to him afterwards.
I am very sorry that the shadow Chancellor has denounced that package as a “concerted attempt to deliver a euro-area spending splurge”.
In fact, it is plain common sense that during an economic downturn it is not just we who need economic stimulus but the rest of Europe. It is common sense to kick-start the economy through fiscal stimulus while setting out clear plans to ensure fiscal sustainability over the medium term. The European Commission therefore advocates VAT reductions and the front-loading of public expenditure; extra help for the most vulnerable and low earners; and, importantly, because we need to prepare for the upturn as well as protect ourselves in the downturn, support for small businesses, enhancing access to finance, ensuring prompt payment, and improving public procurement for small and medium-sized enterprises. Those are all sensible proposals. Far from being a spending splurge, they are the right response to the economic downturn. I promised to give way to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), and I shall do so.
Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), does the Foreign Secretary agree that the real reason why Angela Merkel could not come to that meeting is that she takes a completely different view of the pre-Budget report? Indeed, she believes that it is essential that we have proper balancing of the accounts, not the kind of wild extravagance to which the Foreign Secretary referred. Will he just tell us what the Government’s position is, and stop nodding his head? Will he tell us the position with regard to the statement today by the Irish Foreign Minister regarding the Irish vote and the deal that was obviously entered into by the Government to betray the British—
I shall answer the part of the question before the abuse started by giving the hon. Gentleman the figures on fiscal stimulus around Europe. He cited 1.5 per cent. of GDP stimulus in this country. The figure is 1.3 per cent. of GDP in France and more than 1 per cent. of GDP in 2009 and 2010 in Germany. The idea that the German Government are standing against the sort of stimulus that is being practised in this country is frankly nonsense.
Notwithstanding the Foreign Secretary’s last comments, is it not the case that Chancellor Merkel has not signed up to the Government’s borrowing binge? Is that a failure of the Prime Minister’s fiscal policy or of the Foreign Secretary’s diplomatic skills, or is it both?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman formulated the question before I gave the figures in answering the hon. Member for Stone—he is an honest enough man to blush at the fact that he has been caught red-handed. The German figures for 2009 and 2010 show an increase in fiscal stimulus of 1 per cent. or so of GDP.
I am sorry, but it is true. The hon. Gentleman can say that it is not true until he is blue in the face, but the stimulus will come from a reduction in unemployment contributions—the unemployment insurance scheme—extra lending to small and medium-sized enterprises, a tax holiday on new cars, tax incentives for investment by firms and household investment in energy efficiency. There is no point in his saying that that is not true, when voluminous documents on the German Government website show how true it is.
Is the reality not that the impact of the financial crisis has changed public opinion? More than ever, the British people understand that we can start to solve the crisis only through co-operation with our European partners, which is the point that the Conservative party cannot stomach.
My hon. Friend has made a very good point. One Conservative Member of the European Parliament famously referred to the “poisonous fungus” of Euroscepticism in the Conservative party. The poisonous fungus is growing fast, because the Conservative party now opposes common-sense proposals from the rest of Europe to help to build the economic future on which we all depend.
The Foreign Secretary is discussing the economy, and I am sure that he agrees that one thing that will not help the British economy is our joining the euro. However, President Barroso has recently been making some very public statements that Britain is inching its way closer to having the euro. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us which of his colleagues is telling the President that, because it is simply unacceptable?
Exactly. We have made it plain that in principle we support entry into the euro, but that in practice the economic conditions must be met. Eight years ago, the now shadow Foreign Secretary said that there were 10 days to save the pound. Two thousand days later, the pound is alive, well and kicking. He was wrong then, and he is wrong now, in the absurd allegations that he is making.
My right hon. Friend has made an important point about the fiscal stimulus package in Germany as well as across the European Union. In January, we will see a similar fiscal stimulus package on a massive scale in the United States of America, when President-elect Obama takes over. Does he agree that the real disaster for Britain would be if we had a Government who isolated us from both our European allies and the new leadership in the United States?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and I differ in only one respect: she has mentioned a similar package in the United States, and all the indications from the Obama team suggest that there will be a massive stimulus on an even grander scale. When the Leader of the Opposition said on the radio that borrowing was
“going to make the recovery more difficult”,
he was in a minority of one compared with every other Government in the industrialised world.
Just let me make this point. The proof of how out of touch the Opposition are comes from the shadow Chancellor. One week before the Bank of England made the largest reduction in interest rates in British history, he said that Government policy
“makes it more difficult for the Bank of England to achieve a sustained reduction in interest rates.”
He said that one week before the 1.5 per cent. cut in interest rates and one month before the further 1 per cent. cut in interest rates.
While my right hon. Friend is on the subject of themes raised by Labour Members, may I ask him whether he saw the interesting article in the New Statesman that reported on the conversation between the Leader of the Opposition and President-elect Obama? The Leader of the Opposition condemned Europe and the European Union and Mr. Obama said afterwards that he was a “lightweight”. We do not want a lightweight Leader of the Opposition at this time of grave economic crisis.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. I thought that he would refer to one of his own New Statesman articles, which I am delighted to commend to the House. I am happy to confirm that the report in the New Statesman, an august journal of record in many ways, did indeed use the word “lightweight”—not about the European Union, but about the Leader of the Opposition.
No. I did say that I would make progress, and I really must. The package also sends a clear signal that the European Union’s response to the crisis must lie in openness, not protectionism. That point was raised by my now-departed right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). [Interruption.] Oh, there is he is; he is still here.
The clear lesson of the 1930s is that the response to the banking crisis, not the crisis itself, will determine the depth and duration of this recession. We will continue to resist pressure to raise barriers to trade and investment and vigorously promote market access for all businesses. The second main item on the Council’s agenda is the climate and energy package. If we are to avoid dangerous climate change, it is vital that the European Union should work towards finalising the details of its ambitious climate leadership programme.
Let me make a bit of progress; after that, I will be happy to give way to my hon. Friend.
The aspirations that European Union leaders signed up to in March 2007—to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent. by 2020, and by more if there was a global deal—have placed the European Union firmly at the forefront of the battle against climate change and the drive to build a low-carbon economy. We need to sustain the European Union’s leadership to capitalise on President-elect Obama’s promise to green the US economy and build momentum globally towards a deal at Copenhagen. It is fair to say that the difficult economic context has made that agenda more challenging; some have argued that we cannot now afford to be so ambitious. They see climate change as a second-order priority, to be deferred until the global economy gets back on track.
I will bring in the right hon. Gentleman after I have set out my argument.
The Government are clear that the argument that I have just mentioned would be the wrong response to the slowdown, because only a low-carbon recovery will be a real recovery. Oil prices may have fallen in recent months, but as and when demand picks up they will rise again. The International Energy Agency believes that oil prices will remain volatile for some time, and that by 2030 rising demand could push them to more than $200 a barrel. Unless we act decisively now, we will emerge from the credit crunch only to face a more fundamental resource crunch, which will fuel inflation and act as a brake on growth. That is why the fiscal stimulus package needs to be smart to rebuild the economy on low-carbon lines.
Is my right hon. Friend troubled by reports in the European press—not just in Germany—that some of the Heads of State and Prime Ministers are arguing that climate change has to take second place and that fighting it should not be done on the back of a risk to competitiveness? Will my right hon. Friend be careful to resist allowing climate change to take second place, as the issue is very important for the long term?
I am troubled by that, and I will do my best with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to resist those pressures. It is evident to me that unless we build a low-carbon recovery, it will not be a sustainable recovery—either in economic or financial terms. That is why we must achieve such a recovery.
Does the Foreign Secretary see the irony in the fact that, at the very time when the climate change conference is happening in Poznan in Poland, Poland is one of the countries that is reported to be dragging its feet and arguing that we do not need such deep cuts in emissions? What steps is he taking to try to convince our European partners that Europe needs to continue the leadership that it has shown on this issue if we are to ensure that we have a successful result in Copenhagen next year?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I had a long and detailed bilateral meeting with the Polish Foreign Minister about this last month in Brussels. Poland is very dependent on coal. I therefore hope that what I am about to say about carbon capture and storage speaks directly to her point.
The Prime Minister will argue at the Council for a durable funding mechanism to encourage investment in carbon capture and storage. The 2007 agreement included a commitment to build up to 12 demonstration plants by 2015. With global emissions from coal set to increase by 73 per cent. to 2030, it is critical that we develop the technology and apply it at scale. The European Parliament has proposed that allowances from the new entrant reserve of the emissions trading scheme should be set aside to support CCS projects. We have given this proposal our full support, and it goes a long way towards meeting the Polish fear about its very unusual coal dependency and offers a way to square the circle of energy security and tackling carbon emissions.
The particular accounting standards for Northern Rock are the subject of a long and detailed debate. I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman about that, but I will not get into it now. I would just say that the Government have been defending the current state aid regime precisely because of the balance that it seeks to strike and the limits that it places on Governments right around Europe.
Let me make the point about the link to the economic recovery plan. The European Commission document puts on the table a €5 billion public-private European green cars initiative. It proposes to focus structural funds on new energy-efficient buildings, with an increase of up to €6 billion a year in the European Investment Bank financing for climate change, energy security and infrastructure investment. This is precisely the sort of transformational change that the European economy needs.
Could my right hon. Friend say a little more about what the European Union is doing on the other side of the equation to adapt to climate change? For example, almost every member state of the EU has a land border with another member state, as does the United Kingdom in Ireland, and there are issues to do with water flows, flooding and such like. What is the EU doing to assist with the co-ordination of adaptation policies for climate change?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is fair to say that we have only scratched the surface of this, but the European budget review from 2013 provides a major opportunity to green the European budget as regards not only the mitigation of climate change but adaptation.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of meetings that have taken place between the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and my right hon. Friend Lord Mandelson. Will he ensure that the weight of his Department is put behind those talks? It is vital to the British economy that we have some genuine partnerships that will bring this green transformation in the vehicle industry into our UK plants. In my constituency, we need to get less of the nonsense that we have had from The Times about secret meetings that did not take place and more positive action such as that coming from the SMMT.
My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for a modern car industry, and therefore, by definition, a green car industry. The €5 billion public-private green cars initiative in the European Commission’s proposals speaks directly to that.
I need to address some of the external relations issues that will be tackled this week. The modern insecurities of terrorism, the chaos in parts of Africa and the long-standing challenges of the middle east will dominate foreign policy discussion on Thursday and Friday. I attended the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Brussels yesterday in preparation. We discussed and denounced the attacks in Mumbai, and agreed that the European Union needed to enhance its relationship with Pakistan given the economic and political problems there. The potential for political co-operation, improved trade relations and development assistance with the still relatively new civilian Government in Islamabad more than merits EU attention, and I welcome the prospect of an EU-Pakistan summit next year.
Across Africa, there are deep-rooted problems in Zimbabwe, Somalia, Sudan and Congo. I hope that we can have more thoroughgoing discussion tomorrow in our debate on the Humble Address, but I welcome the additional EU sanctions on individual members of the Mugabe regime. His is a rogue Government spreading death and destruction around his country, not just a rogue state spreading disease to its neighbours. Our humanitarian aid now totals £47 million, and it is helping 3 million people, but none of us can rest until the people of Zimbabwe get the real hope that comes from a Government of their own, delivering for them. That requires the active engagement of African states and the UN, which will be our continuing focus.
Apart from the Zimbabwean diplomats and politicians with whom the European Union has dealt already this week, have the Government received any representations from the South African Government, or other Governments contiguous to Zimbabwe, on the efforts that they believe the EU can make to tackle the cholera outbreak?
There is certainly discussion about European humanitarian aid, but beyond that and the sanctions, my answer is no, not to my knowledge. That reveals the centrality of those neighbouring African states. In all of our extensive discussions, the levers are in their hands, rather than those of the European Union. We do supply humanitarian aid, however, and we have imposed sanctions on individual members of the regime. My hon. Friend will remember that we tried to get global sanctions imposed on the regime in July at the UN Security Council, but we were rebuffed by two vetoes. We warned at the time that Mugabe was playing for time, and I am sorry to say that we have been proved right.
On terrorism, I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary to consider whether the forthcoming EU summit is a good opportunity to consider whether collectively we might seek to address the motives of terrorism without condoning its methods. It seems to me that on a collective basis, it would be a good strategic opportunity to apply the lessons of Northern Ireland on an international basis.
The hon. Gentleman makes a profoundly important point, but it is not what I was actually talking about. The way in which the European Union can play its greatest role is to help the weak states—notably Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also others elsewhere—to build some sort of national capacity for good governance.
That point relates directly to the issue of Somalia, where today is a significant day. Although the problem of piracy is one of the oldest foreign policy problems in the world, today there is a very modern variant in the gulf of Aden. Yesterday, the EU launched its European security and defence policy mission, with contributions of ships and aircraft from eight EU member states, under British command. The aims and objectives of the mission are to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Somalia and to protect other vulnerable shipping by deterring and disrupting piracy in the region. At the moment, 19 ships have been taken hostage in the bay of the gulf of Aden—testimony to the current insecurity of shipping that affects all of us through its impact on global trade. This ESDP mission is no substitute for a political and security process on the ground in Somalia, but it is vital none the less. I look forward to a wider discussion of Somalia as a whole in due course, but the mission ultimately depends on proper political progress on the ground in Somalia.
The Foreign Secretary is right to say that the ESDP mission is the first naval deployment of European forces, working together. Is that not exactly the sort of operation that people in his party and in mine foresaw, with European nations working together in a military form—or in this case a naval form—for the benefit of all our communities? It is exactly the kind of operation that the ESDP is designed for, and I hope that it will be successful.
The hon. Gentleman has long taken a principled stand in favour of the ESDP, and I applaud him for it. In Aceh, the west bank, Darfur, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Chad, the ESDP is proving its worth and I will say more about that in a moment.
In the middle east, all sides recognise that the promise a year ago of a Palestinian state in 2008 will not be delivered this year. That means more misery for Palestinians and more insecurity for Israelis. However, as well as continued suffering, in the past year there have been serious talks across the Israel/Palestine divide, a new Israel/Syria track, and progress—notably in the west bank—on economic development and security. EU Foreign Ministers will discuss on Thursday night the role of the EU in 2009. I will advocate the following points. First, we need continued clarity that security for Israel and a state for the Palestinians, based on 1967 borders, are key to a stable middle east. Secondly, there must be continued focus on all meeting their road map commitments, including practical help on the ground for humanitarian assistance, economic development, including through next week’s Palestinian investment conference in London, and Palestinian security capacity. Thirdly, renewed engagement with Arab states in the region is key to a comprehensive process and a comprehensive peace. That is what I call a 23-state solution, not just a two-state solution, using the Arab peace initiative as an important building block.
Leaders’ summits are also an opportunity to take a step back from the immediate problems and crises and adopt a more strategic view. On Friday, High Representative Javier Solana will report to the Council on the implementation of the 2003 European security strategy. That will show how closely the EU’s security strategy is aligned with ours. Like the UK’s national security strategy, it will address the wide range of security threats that we now face—from terrorism and nuclear proliferation to economic and energy insecurity.
NATO is and will remain the cornerstone of European defence. However, as the US ambassador to NATO said:
“An ESDP with only soft power is not enough…the US needs, the UK needs, NATO needs, the democratic world needs a stronger, more capable European defence capacity.”
No. I am sorry, but I enjoyed that so much that I will have to read it again. The US ambassador to NATO said:
“An ESDP with only soft power is not enough…the US needs, the UK needs, NATO needs, the democratic world needs a stronger, more capable European defence capacity.”
That means a more joined-up civilian-military strategic level planning structure in Brussels to ensure greater coherence between the EU institutions, civilian and military planners, and the EU and NATO. It also means measures to encourage investment in the right kind of capabilities, and a new ESDP ambition to reflect the wide range and complexity of the missions that Europe is increasingly undertaking, whether through the EU or NATO—involving not only soldiers, but policemen and judges, aid workers and customs officials.
Perhaps the Foreign Secretary could read the quote a third time because it shows the disarray in the Conservative position on defence policy, especially with respect to the new Administration in Washington. May I take him back to his point on the middle east? He did not refer to an issue that I thought he would mention—the Government’s policy and what they have argued in Brussels on the trade agreements between the EU and Israel, and exports from the Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. What is the Government’s position on those exports?
The Government’s position is to defend the EU-Israel trade agreement of 2000, as amended in 2004, which offers preferential trade for Israeli goods. It also offers—or should offer—preferential trade for Palestinian goods. It does not offer preferential trade benefits to goods from settlements. We are defending that agreement because it is the right thing to do—in legal and political terms. I hope that hon. Members of all parties support that position.
The Foreign Secretary gave me the lead that I needed when he mentioned civilian involvement in some of the issues that he described. I want to ask him about Russia and Georgia. Will the summit take the opportunity to discuss the continuing issue there, because EU monitors are involved? If we are to make a contribution, is it not essential that those monitors have access to both sides of the de facto border? We must also realise that violence is starting again and unarmed monitors may not be the long-term solution.
On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I completely agree that there must be proper access, and not just for EU monitors, but for Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitors. The OSCE summit last Thursday in Helsinki, which I attended, addressed that issue directly, including with the Russian Foreign Minister. It is vital that all sides respect all aspects of the August and September agreements. The European Union has dispatched its monitors with good speed and they are ready to take their place alongside OSCE monitors. However, the OSCE monitors are not being allowed into South Ossetia and are certainly not being given the freedom of manoeuvre that they should be given.
I am grateful that the Foreign Secretary is so well briefed. On Russia, clearly the Sarkozy plan should be implemented, so why are the British Government, despite the fact that four of the six points of the plan have not been implemented in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, offering rewards without repentance and, potentially, an EU partnership deal? Why are the British Government going soft on Russia?
That really is a foolish way to describe the position. The Government are not going soft and we are not offering rewards without repentance. First, the partnership and co-operation agreement to which the hon. Gentleman refers is in our interest—it is the European Union that wants it. Secondly, the partnership and co-operation agreement has in its preamble precisely a reference—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should listen to my answer before he starts shouting back. The preamble precisely includes a reference to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, which means that we can properly discuss it. Thirdly, on the position of the British Council, on which he has supported the Government in the past, the culture section of the partnership and co-operation agreement allows us to raise the issue. Far from rewarding Russia, we are addressing the issues of concern that exist between us.
The Foreign Secretary referred to civilian missions, but he has not yet referred to what has happened in Kosovo. Yesterday, the European Union rule of law mission in Kosovo, or EULEX, took over responsibility for policing. However, as I understand it, that mission is status-neutral with regard to the position in Kosovo. How does he think it will be able to operate in practice, including in Mitrovica and the other Serb-populated areas of Kosovo?
My hon. Friend has anticipated the exciting denouement to my speech and my paean of praise to the European Union rule of law mission, which is the largest European security and defence policy mission ever. However, I will address the issue now—and thereby take away the excitement of the conclusion to my speech—because he asks a specific question to which I want to give an answer. Just to be clear, the rule of law mission is deploying across the whole of Kosovo, with unanimous support from the UN Security Council, the Kosovo Government and Serbia. That is thoroughly welcome and will help the region’s progress towards eventual membership.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of status. Status is for nations to decide. It is up to our country to decide whether to recognise Kosovo. We have done so, along with 52 other countries. UN resolution 1244 was status-neutral. If he looks at the wording of the agreement that was signed two weeks ago, he will see that it refers to the status-neutral nature of resolution 1244. However, EULEX is there to protect individual citizens, whatever their ethnic origin, and not to decide on status questions. Therefore, although the text of the agreement has been carefully gone over, it is important that confusion does not arise. I hope that my explanation today—that EULEX is there to offer individuals protection, whatever their ethnic origin, and not to decide on questions of status —is understood in the context of status-neutral UN resolution 1244, which set the stage for the political process, which eventually led to the declaration of independence by Kosovo.
Let me conclude. I will not have time today to talk about the very important eastern partnership that the EU has now developed—with countries to its east, obviously—as part of the European neighbourhood policy, but we can talk about that tomorrow if it is of interest to hon. Members.
At the summit, the UK will continue to be an advocate for a reformed European Union, honouring its origins as a grouping of nation states who choose in some areas to share power. That means that the Government of Ireland will be able to decide for themselves whether and how to follow up the decision of the Irish people in their referendum on the Lisbon treaty earlier this year. Our position on this is clear: the treaty can come into force only if backed by all 27 member states, and we do not propose to reopen this Parliament’s passage of the Lisbon treaty.
The advocacy will also continue for a complete overhaul of the common agricultural policy. That is worth mentioning in the light of the recent health check, which will end half the remaining coupled payments, direct more money towards activities to address the new environmental challenges, help to level the playing field on modulation, and simplify the rules for farm payments. But it did not go far enough. In next year’s budget review, we will be pushing for a complete overhaul. Direct payments should be phased out, because markets should provide farmers with their incomes, and we should instead focus subsidies on delivering the environmental benefits that markets cannot deliver.
This European Council agenda demonstrates that the EU is now a critical vehicle for the UK to pursue its international agenda for the benefit of the British people—
Let us, for the record, be absolutely clear that what the hon. Gentleman said “ Never” to was the claim that the European Union should be a critical vehicle for the UK to pursue its international agenda for the benefit of the British people. That is what he said “Never” to, and we thereby know where he is coming from and where he wants to go to.
The truth is that, to forge an effective global response to the economic downturn, to drive a successful low-carbon economy to curb climate change, and to address the security threats that we face, from Russian aggression in Georgia to piracy off the coast of Africa, we have to work with the EU and our European allies. It is only through co-operation and engagement that we maintain the level of influence that we do in Brussels.
The Finnish Foreign Minister was recently in London, and he met the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The Finnish Foreign Secretary said that
“what we are seeing with the current British Government is one which has a voice and which is at the heart and leading edge of the debate”
in Europe. He added that
“true engagement means that you have to work in the mainstream European political parties, such as the European People’s party”—
That is—[Interruption.] The Conservative Finnish Foreign Minister is being jeered by the Conservatives. That tells us a lot about the modern Conservative party. This is how—
The hon. Gentleman says that they are a bunch of communists. That says a lot about—[Interruption.] What he is in fact saying—[Interruption.] I did hear the word “communists” correctly. I now understand that he is talking about the socialist group. What the hon. Gentleman should realise is that, in the left-of-centre parties, the Euro-communists are terribly right wing by comparison with the social democrats. His knowledge of left-of-centre politics should tell him that.
I do not want to leave the Finnish Foreign Minister yet, however. This is what he concluded:
“If you marginalise yourself, you simply do not have a voice.”
We would not have a voice on the leading edge of Europe; we would be on the hard shoulder of Europe. The truth is that this Government have a vision not just for Britain in Europe, but for Europe in the world. The Conservative party offers only a path to Britain’s isolation in Europe, and to a Europe with less power and influence on the world stage. The choice is simple: deal with the realities of an increasingly interdependent world or deny them. I look forward to the debate, and to the decisions in the weeks and months ahead.
There has often been a ritualistic air to our six-monthly debates on European matters, and the closing moments of the Foreign Secretary’s speech were a reminder of that, although it was not so ritualistic to confirm that Euro-communism is on the right of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, which puts some of the positions and views of Labour MEPs into perspective. The Foreign Secretary quoted what the Finnish Foreign Minister said to him—
And, indeed, what he said in public a few weeks ago. However, the Finnish Foreign Minister then came round to my office and I have to tell the Foreign Secretary that the Finnish Foreign Minister and I concluded that there was plenty of scope for easy co-operation between the Finnish Government and a Conservative Government after the next general election, so the Foreign Secretary needs to be a little careful with his quotes.
I believe that the significance and seriousness of events over the past six months make our present debate a little different from usual. Since our last debate on these matters, the economic downturn has intensified, there has been war in Georgia, the situation in the Balkans has in some respects deteriorated and the Lisbon treaty has remained becalmed after Ireland’s rejection. All those matters require some examination in the debate.
The Foreign Secretary raised some broader issues that I hope to turn to if I can catch your eye again tomorrow, Mr. Speaker, in the Queen’s Speech debate on foreign affairs and defence. For now, let me refer to what the right hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech about Zimbabwe and yesterday’s discussion among EU Foreign Ministers. We—and, I imagine, all quarters of the House—very much welcome the discussion and the agreement to add 11 more regime officials to the EU travel ban and assets freeze list. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that if the bans are to carry any weight with the regime, they must be scrupulously enforced by all countries of the EU. Banning more than 100 officials from the EU had very little point when Mugabe himself was welcomed to Lisbon last December, notwithstanding the fact that all the bans were supposed to be in place. I know that the Government felt as strongly about that as we did and the Prime Minister did not attend the summit.
The Foreign Secretary was also right to seek to take this matter back to the UN Security Council—he referred to that in passing today—and to say that African countries now have a particular responsibility to bring about positive change in Zimbabwe. We certainly welcome the robust statements of the Governments of Kenya and Botswana, urging Mugabe to go. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition spoke yesterday to Botswana’s Foreign Minister, who has called for a ban on fuel supplies to the Zimbabwean army and police. We hope that the Government will lend their support to such proposals that target the regime and urge African countries to implement them.
We also hope that the Foreign Secretary will intensify the preparations, for which we have called, for the days after Mugabe, so that when a new Government are in place in Harare, arrangements will already be in place, backed by EU nations, for the massive programme of aid that will be needed, for the establishment of a contact group to provide diplomatic support and for assistance to rebuild the economy, reform the security services and so forth. We particularly hope that Ministers will raise with African nations the need to develop the capacity to deploy a humanitarian force in Zimbabwe at short notice if required—an over-the-horizon force that would be ready to make sure that the basic functions of the state could continue and that aid reached those in need.
I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks about Zimbabwe, especially his point about post-Mugabe preparations. Does he agree with us, however, that one thing that the Government could do right now, here in the UK, is to give Zimbabwean asylum seekers, pending the decision on their cases, the right to work so that they can gain experience of employment, earn some money and engage in education and training? Will he support our call on that?