House of Commons
Thursday 22 January 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords]
Motion made, and Question (15 January) again proposed,
That the promoters of the Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords], which were originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2006-07 on 21 January 2007, may have leave to proceed with the Bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).
The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 29 January.
Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill
Motion made, and Question (15 January) again proposed,
That the promoters of the Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill, which were originally introduced in this House in Session 2007-08 on 22 January 2008, may have leave to proceed with the Bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).
The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 29 January.
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
Energy Act 2008
Key policies enabled by the Act, including the introduction of the banding of the renewables obligation and the roll-out of smart meters to medium-sized businesses, will be in force by April 2009. Later this year, we will consult on the feed-in tariff scheme for small-scale renewables scheduled to be introduced in 2010, and confirm details of our plans announced last year for the roll-out of smart meters to domestic users by 2020.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Although it would be churlish not to welcome today’s announcement from British Gas of a 10 per cent. cut in pricing, does my right hon. Friend have something to say about those individuals—especially pensioners—who are making additional payments because they have prepayment meters?
My hon. Friend asks about an important issue. It is right to welcome the price fall in wholesale gas and this morning’s announcement of the reduction in British Gas prices, which will commence next month. We want price reductions that go as far as possible, as fast as possible from British Gas and other energy companies because wholesale gas prices have fallen.
On prepayment meters, it is welcome that Ofgem has proposed changes in the law and in licence conditions for the energy companies. That means not only eliminating some of the problems of the past few months, but, in future, stopping the sort of practices that offend us all and discriminate unduly against the poorest people in our society.
Will the Secretary of State have a close look at the innovative scheme in the borough of Kettering, whereby Kettering borough council and E.on got together? In return for the installation of smart meters, E.on’s dual fuel customers will get a council tax rebate if they make sufficient energy savings.
We will certainly look at that. The point of the community energy saving programme, the details of which we will announce shortly, is precisely to encourage that sort of work between energy companies, local authorities and community groups, to ascertain how we can help some of the poorest people in our society with their gas and electricity bills and with smart metering, and ensure that they can get a fair deal. We will definitely examine that proposal.
What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to implement the woodfuel strategy, which straddles both Departments? Has he considered the small costs of implementing that strategy, which might contribute to our renewables obligation and improve the quality of woodland throughout the kingdom?
My hon. Friend asks about an important subject, about which he has great expertise. It is important to consider such proposals—for example, renewable heat can help us in future. Such generation is currently at a low level and we want to introduce a renewable heat incentive precisely to encourage the sort of proposals that my hon. Friend mentioned. We are undertaking work with the Forestry Commission and DEFRA, and it is important in contributing to our renewables energy strategy.
Does not the Secretary of State’s initial answer simply confirm that the Energy Act is more about talk than desperately needed action? No real action has been taken on our critical lack of gas storage or how we can make carbon capture and storage a reality. There is no urgency about creating a national grid fit for the 21st century or methods of introducing the next generation of renewable technologies. There have been years of talking about the details of smart metering and feed-in tariffs, and further delays on biogas and renewable heat. Fuel poverty has not even been mentioned. Is it not clear that, if we are to have an energy policy that is secure, affordable and low in carbon, we need not more talking shops but a change of Government?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman; he obviously practised that in the mirror this morning. The answer to his question is no. The Energy Act is facilitating progress on a whole range of fronts, including feed-in tariffs, gas storage and nuclear power—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that that is all talk, but 17 gas storage projects are planned in this country, and the Langeled pipeline has been built since 2006—since the previous dispute between Russia and Ukraine—and is now supplying a large amount of our gas. This is not about talk; it is about a party that understands the importance of energy security and fairness to consumers.
The most recently available sub-regional split of fuel poverty relates to 2003 and shows that, in North-West Leicestershire, there were about 2,300 fuel-poor households. More recent figures for the east midlands and England show that, in 2006, there were about 236,000 fuel-poor households in the east midlands and about 2.4 million fuel-poor households in England.
Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), 40 per cent. of social housing tenants are forced to pay over the odds for at least one kind of energy because they use prepayment meters. This is sharp practice resulting from utterly unacceptable laxity on the part of the regulator. Does the Minister agree that Ofgem is still failing lamentably to carry out its principal brief, which is to protect the interests of low-income consumers? This disproportionate and grossly unfair charge continues to push many of my constituents yet further into fuel poverty.
I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents who are in fuel poverty. I assure him that we are working as hard as possible to address this matter. We have made it absolutely clear to Ofgem and the energy companies that unfair pricing has to stop, in relation both to prepayment meters and to standard credit. Pressure from us has resulted in £300 million being taken out of the premiums paid by customers, including those using prepayment meters, but I agree that this has gone on for far too long. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, Ofgem is now consulting on changing the licence agreements in order to deal with unfair practices. He has also made it absolutely clear that, if the regulator does not succeed, we will act in his place.
I follow exactly the last two questions from colleagues on the Labour Benches. We have now had nearly 12 years of a Labour Government, and we still do not have a fair system for fuel pricing for domestic users. Will Ministers promise that, by the time of the next UK-wide elections—be they the European elections or the general election—there will be a pricing system under which people will not be penalised for the method by which they pay, such as a prepayment meter—
We have made it absolutely clear that it is the regulator’s responsibility to act. The consultation is under way, and it ends on 20 February. It is designed to work out a system that will bring unfair pricing methods to an end. That is what we want, and we are determined to get it, one way or the other.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I assure him that all aspects of our fuel poverty strategy are under review. It is important for us to see how best we can target the available resources and do the best job. This is an extraordinarily serious matter; we are deeply concerned, and I am looking at every aspect of the scheme.
Can the Minister tell us why fuel poverty data are always two years out of date?
The fuel poverty data take time to collect. They are based on a survey of 8,000 households in England; the devolved authorities obviously have to carry out the same work. In order to get an accurate picture, it is necessary to take two years’ data and to combine them. As I review everything else, I am perfectly happy to look into the way in which the data are collected. We are living in rather extraordinary times in terms of price rises, and that is what has so heavily distorted the numbers of people in fuel poverty, rather than the condition of the properties.
My hon. Friend will know as well as I do that among the poorest in our society are those who depend on the private rented sector. Fuel poverty in that sector is acute, because private landlords have no incentive to provide proper insulation. What can the Government do to ensure that we incentivise those private landlords?
The Government have already attempted to incentivise private landlords, but my hon. Friend is correct in believing that the response has been inadequate. We clearly need to do more. We are currently preparing documents for consultation on a wide range of energy-efficiency measures and we will look at the role of private landlords in those consultations.
We are right to address the question of prepayment meters, but another issue that affects many of the poorest people is our inability to insulate very poor housing stock, particularly when it lacks cavity wall insulation. I know that the Government are working on this, but can they redouble their efforts to find ways around this problem, which affects the most vulnerable people?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman might be aware that the Prime Minister announced a new programme in September, putting £1 billion behind energy efficiency. We have a number of such programmes, the foremost of which in terms of numbers, is the obligation on the energy companies. Over the next three-year period, we expect 6 million households to benefit from the measures already in place. We always keep them under review, and if we can do more, we will. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the programme has been accelerated and that more households are being offered help under those programmes.
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 17 December last year. Discussions included the Department for Communities and Local Government’s contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from housing.
But does my hon. Friend agree that homes are really at the heart of cutting carbon emissions and that although we want more houses, we also want them to be more sustainable? There are rumours that the Homes and Communities Agency is being pushed to concentrate on numbers and not to take so much notice of sustainability.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of homes, because 27 per cent. of our emissions come from our homes. The Homes and Communities Agency was set up and began operations only in December last year, but I can assure my hon. Friend that it is leading the way on making the zero-carbon homes agenda, which is our target for 2016, a reality. It is also leading with exemplar programmes like the carbon challenge and the Thames Gateway eco region. Over the years, the decent homes programme has brought a million homes up to decent standard, with the result that higher energy-efficiency standards exist in the public sector than in the private sector. Over the next three years, the Homes and Communities Agency will manage £2.4 billion worth of programmes to ensure that 350,000 homes are brought up to the decent home standard. I can assure my hon. Friend that the agency is committed, and that contact between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government is ongoing and specifically directed at reducing carbon emissions.
The Government are going to ban the use of incandescent light bulbs before they are required to do so. Is the Minister aware that the alternative bulbs are not only more expensive, but hazardous because they contain mercury, are unsuitable for certain applications—either because they come on too slowly or give out too little light, which can again be dangerous—and totally unsuitable for things like picture lights in galleries and so forth? Will she rethink her policy of gold-plating the EU requirement and rethink banning the use of those bulbs before that is necessary?
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I would be very surprised if his Front-Bench team did not support the use of energy-efficient bulbs in place of the inefficient ones in use today. If every household in the country changed, 5 million tonnes of carbon would be saved, so it is extremely important that we make that change. The right hon. Gentleman says that they are dangerous, but there is only a tiny amount of mercury in those bulbs and disposal facilities are available in every local authority to get rid of them safely: people can just throw them away and if they have an accident, it is simple to deal with it. These bulbs are not hazardous. A few people with particular medical conditions may be sensitive to such bulbs. We are looking into that carefully and working on it with the Department of Health, and we have made the facts known to the European Commission.
It is great that the Government have set the goal of all new homes being zero-carbon by the middle of the next decade, but is it not important for house builders and consumers to understand what is involved in a property’s being zero-carbon? Can my hon. Friend assure us that she is working across Government to set standards so that we all know what we are aiming for?
While our European competitors such as Germany are rolling out far larger energy-efficiency programmes, progress here is still too slow. Indeed, the Government have now cancelled the launch of their heat and energy-saving consultation for the second time. Given the sad failure to transform the energy-efficiency of our housing stock over the last decade, may I invite the Secretary of State to borrow yet another ambitious Conservative policy and offer all home-owners a £6,500 entitlement to energy retrofit their homes, thus creating real efficiency, real savings and real green jobs?
Let me respond immediately to the hon. Gentleman’s final point. He says that every home owner would be entitled to such a package, but when we made inquiries of the shadow Front-Bench team we were told that 1 per cent. of the population would receive it. If the hon. Gentleman has now resiled from that, may I ask him how the Conservatives will find the £150 billion that the programme would cost, given that they intend to cut the Department of Energy and Climate Change budget?
Our heat and energy savings consultation will indeed be delivered. It has certainly not been cancelled.
Carbon dioxide emissions are expected to be reduced to 15 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010. That will help to make Britain one of the few countries to exceed our Kyoto target, although it is short of the more challenging unilateral 20 per cent. goal. So progress has been made, but we need to do more. Later this year I shall set out a carbon budget for the coming years to enable us to make our contribution to a successful global deal at Copenhagen this December.
Let me thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in choosing to reply as well as for the content of his reply, and then move quickly on.
Will the Government be building the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change into the consultation on carbon capture and storage, and would he or his colleagues and officials be willing to meet me—along with, perhaps, the non-governmental organisations—for discussions at some stage between now and July, when my private Member’s Bill will be up for debate, to establish what further progress can be made?
I shall meet the right hon. Gentleman with pleasure to discuss his private Member’s Bill.
Lord Turner’s recommendations in his report published in December represent an important step forward in the ways in which we can drive carbon capture and storage into any new coal-fired power stations. We are examining those recommendations carefully, and will say more about them in the next few weeks.
As my right hon. Friend knows, energy generation is one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide, and if any major and worthwhile reductions are to be made, our means of power generation will have to be addressed. Will my right hon. Friend speed up our moves towards carbon capture and storage, given that people are now protesting against any form of coal burning, and will he also look at what Newcastle university is doing in connection with underground coal gasification?
My hon. Friend has made a good point. One of the important aspects of the climate and energy package that was agreed in the European Union last December was the €9 billion of investment in carbon capture and storage. That will make a huge difference to carbon capture and storage across Europe, and will build on the demonstration plant that Britain is seeking to build. I believe that we will be in a strong position to secure at least one of the European demonstration projects in addition to our own.
My hon. Friend is also right to suggest that we need to encourage the whole range of technologies and draw on the work of the academic community, including Newcastle university.
Obviously, I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s description of our programme. What has happened to CO2 emissions in the last decade is interesting: we have, for the first time, decoupled economic growth, which has been at about 38 per cent. in that period, from carbon emissions, which have fallen. That is a major step forward, and it is an indication of what we need to do in the future.
As the Government focus on the carbon reduction targets, will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to ensure that green jobs and a green new deal remain at the heart of the Government’s programme to stimulate the economy during the global downturn?
My right hon. Friend speaks as a former Business Secretary who made great strides on energy, and she is absolutely right that, as we think about the future of our economy, we have to think about the low-carbon sectors where jobs are available, such as renewables, nuclear—in my view—and carbon capture and storage. Britain has unique assets in this area, not only in terms of renewables, but also in relation to carbon capture and storage. We need to turn those unique assets into employment for people in this country.
It was the right decision, and let me explain to the hon. Gentleman why. Some may argue that people should stop flying, but that is not my opinion. I believe that we should have constrained expansion of aviation, and that is why we have been very clear in the Heathrow decision about the fact that only 50 per cent. of the slots have been granted and any future expansion beyond that will be conditional on the target we have set—we are the first Government in the world to have set it—according to which aviation emissions in 2050, at which time we have set our target to achieve an 80 per cent. cut in carbon emissions, must be back to 2005 emission levels. We have taken the right decision: constrained expansion of aviation.
The Secretary of State is an intelligent man. He knows that these mock concessions fool no one. Indeed, it is telling that the Prime Minister’s old tactic of briefing against his predecessor and claiming victory for spurious concessions is now being employed by his protégé against him. On emissions, will the Secretary of State confirm that one quarter of the progress claimed by the Government on emissions is bought in from other European countries?
Of course credits play a role, but I am surprised at what the hon. Gentleman says about aviation because he wrote a pamphlet in 2003 called “Free to Travel” and in it—I here refer Members to the position that there should be no more flying—he said:
“More people should be able to travel by air in future.”
He also said:
“We will not necessarily set our face against any or all expansion of the UK’s airports capacity”.
So once again we see that the hon. Gentleman has not thought his policy through.
The Secretary of State has mentioned support for carbon capture and storage, but is he aware that people in the industry are concerned about the slow progress that is being made and also that the demonstration projects might not be extensive enough? Is he prepared to meet me and representatives of the industry to try to resolve this?
I will definitely meet my hon. Friend. He is right that we need to make progress in this area. There is a huge amount of expertise and talent around the country, and research that we need to draw on, and I look forward to discussing those issues with him and his colleagues.
Following changes that Germany secured in the next stage of the EU emissions trading scheme, some commentators have calculated that up to 96 per cent. of processing firms could receive free credits. Has the Secretary of State identified which sectors of the UK economy will receive free credits and what impact that will have on future emissions targets?
The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. We will judge who gets free credits by a rigorous analysis of which sectors are really exposed to so-called carbon leakage—the UK argued very strongly for that in relation to the directive. What there must not be is simply a blanket exemption for everyone in relation to free allowances. This process will take place during this year, and we will then come up with the sectors that are affected. I think the import of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we must be rigorous and we must make this as demanding an EU ETS as possible, and I share that view.
Departmental officials have had discussions with the European Commission and other European countries about improved grid connections for offshore wind and to link up to European grids. A European supergrid is a big, long-term, interesting but expensive concept.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. He will be aware of the proposals for North sea grid interconnectors using direct current cables and for wider connections using such cables across the whole of Europe to connect various forms of renewable energy together. Is he willing to meet representatives of the European e-Parliament, who are promoting that latter initiative in order to connect the whole of Europe’s renewable output for resources delivered across Europe as a whole?
In principle, I am happy to meet those representatives. However, in terms of linking up renewables, particularly wind power, to the UK, we have a massive programme to link up to 33 GW of electricity, at a cost of about £15 billion. The cost is already substantial, so I would not want my hon. Friend to think that we are other than cautious about this. As a long-term concept it is interesting, but in the short term we must focus on the things that are more at hand: getting offshore wind farms properly connected to the UK, so that we ensure that we get the electricity generated here.
Is the Minister aware that more than 600 wind turbines have either been completed or are planned for sites in the Wash and along the Norfolk coast, and that those could be linked up to a supergrid? Is he aware that those offshore wind farms command widespread public support, in complete contrast to the small clusters of onshore ones, which do a huge amount of damage to the environment and are very unpopular?
It is the case that we will need both onshore and offshore wind power in order to ensure that we reach the level of capacity that we need for renewables—I see some nodding of heads on the Conservative Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman has to appreciate that although those who oppose onshore wind farms are often speaking for some of their constituents, there is a national objective of ensuring that we develop the wind and renewable generation capacity that this country needs. That means that we need to continue to develop both offshore and onshore wind power.
In his discussions with his European colleagues about pan-European energy levels, will my hon. and learned Friend also raise the issue of the UK ceramics industry, which is, and has been for a while, at a disadvantage compared with other European producers because of the energy costs in this country?
I am very happy to raise that matter. I am aware of the concerns, particularly in Staffordshire and the Stoke area, about the problems that those in the ceramics industry have had, particularly in getting access to some energy sources. I am happy to ensure that we continue to raise those issues, as my hon. Friend and some of his colleagues have been doing for some time.
In December last year, I participated in the United Nations climate change conference in Poznan, which was designed to prepare the way for a global agreement in Copenhagen this December. Over the coming year, the UK Government will try to make our own contribution to a global deal, through, among other things, our own ambitious domestic commitments, our work in the EU and co-operation with the new American Administration.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He may wish to follow President Obama and
“roll back the spectre of a warming planet”.
As such, will he ensure that the climate conference in December is not derailed by discussions over what developing countries must do and that it accepts that those who produced the most CO2 over the past century must take most of the responsibility for emission reductions?
All of us want to follow President Obama, who has certainly made an impressive start. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the commitment of developed countries. I think that they have to make strong and challenging commitments. We must find ways to ensure that developing countries are part of a global deal and can move away from a “business as usual” approach on emissions. Part of our responsibility is to find ways to finance those changes in developing countries. I agree with him about the approach that he suggests.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United Kingdom have risen in this century, the statutory target for cutting those emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050 will be impossible to meet, particularly with the continued expansion of aviation, and does he agree that 80 per cent. is an unrealistic target to achieve at Copenhagen?
No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend, which is rare. I think 80 per cent. is a realistic target. The Committee on Climate Change has shown in its report how that can be achieved through what we do with domestic transport, the power sector and the household sector. Yes, ambitious measures are required, but it is most important that they are driven by the science. The science says that the world as a whole must cut carbon emissions by at least 50 per cent. by 2050, and that developed countries must play their part in that. The target is non-negotiable. We must meet it, and I think we can meet it.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change is committed to working to ensure security for Britain. During the past few weeks, we have been working with our EU partners to resolve the dispute over the gas supply between Russia and Ukraine, which has led to states of emergency in some European countries. The end of the dispute earlier this week was welcome and overdue. It is essential that the EU now takes effective steps in the European strategic energy review to improve energy resilience, and it is always important that we remain vigilant in ensuring UK security of supply by working with National Grid and Ofgem.
Residents living in fuel poverty in my constituency often do not have a bank account, so do not have access to the cheapest energy tariffs. Will the Secretary of State consider instructing energy companies to state on their bills whether customers are on the cheapest tariff and, if not, how much they would save if they were, and, more important, how they can gain access to that tariff?
The hon. Gentleman has suggested an ingenious idea, which we will consider. Ofgem has said that it needs to provide better information for customers, and the House will agree with his point about people who do not have access to bank accounts. It is important that Ofgem is proposing changes in the law and licence conditions to prevent unfair discrimination, but I agree that better information is also important for those customers.
I have considerable concern about that—my constituency is also a mining one—and some of my constituents have been faced with solicitors who have claimed money not only from them but from the previous Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. That is a matter of considerable concern. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal recently made some decisions that I welcome, but a lot more needs to be done to ensure that we get to the bottom of what seems to be a scandal of considerable proportions.
We welcome the decision of British Gas to bring down its prices. We met British Gas on Monday, and gave it a clear message. It has now written to me saying that it has accepted that message and has responded. We now want the other energy companies to get the message that wholesale prices are going down and we want prices to follow. We also welcome Ofgem’s work in its probe to ensure that unfair pricing with prepayment meters is dealt with. We have made it very clear that if the matter is not dealt with by Ofgem and the energy companies, we will legislate to do so.
We certainly want to ensure that each decision on a development is taken after a full and proper assessment of the environmental impact. Therefore, we have to ensure that we recognise areas of particular sensitivity and the importance of the need to preserve them, while balancing that with the need to ensure the proper development of renewables for the long-term safeguarding not only of our country but of the planet.
The Government are committed to ensuring that we do not pay fines under the landfill directive, and that has been the whole purpose of the major programme to provide more infrastructure, including £10 million for anaerobic digestion and £2 billion of private finance initiative credits to develop new ways of dealing with waste, some of which can of course include the production of energy and heat.
The Government have set environmental targets that must be met before expansion at Heathrow can go ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those targets must be independently assessed, enforceable and legally binding if we are to restore public confidence?
I do agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why we have referred the question of the new target, and how we can best implement it, to the Committee on Climate Change, the independent experts. It is a significant target and I hope that Opposition Front Benchers—especially given their past writings—will look at that target. We are the first Government in the world to set such a target, and I agree that it must be enforceable, and enforced.
The answer to that is yes. This week I met the local authority involved to discuss some of the issues. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is seeking to find out whether the NDA and Anglesey Aluminium—and Rio Tinto, which owns the latter—are prepared to negotiate a deal. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue is not only price, although that is a key factor, but what will happen when Wylfa goes and whether there is an alternative energy source available in the long term. It is a complex negotiation, but we are certainly anxious to resolve it and save the jobs involved.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people have been put into fuel poverty because the energy companies have increased their prices so hugely and have made immoral profits? The best and quickest way to take people out of fuel poverty is to reduce the price of electricity and gas alike.
My hon. Friend has been a doughty and effective campaigner on this issue. Let me put it this way: he is more right than wrong. We welcome the price reductions announced by Centrica this morning, and it is important that other companies follow suit. We need to see price reductions comparable to the price increases that we saw earlier this year. Wholesale gas and electricity prices are falling, and it is important that the benefit is fed through to customers.
Partnerships for Renewables is a rare British example of an initiative to promote the kind of community-based wind energy and renewable energy that has proved so popular in other countries and that might go some way to diffuse the opposition of local Conservative politicians. Why have the Government done so little to resource and promote Partnerships for Renewables, to the extent that most local authorities, agencies and Government Departments barely seem to know that it exists?
The hon. Gentleman often talks sense, and I think that he is talking sense on this occasion, too. We need to do more on Partnerships for Renewables. The public sector as a whole has not, in my view, risen to the challenge of building renewables sufficiently. There is more that we can do in local communities. The feed-in tariff will help in that regard, but I think that Partnerships for Renewables is a very important project. It needs to be promoted and the public sector needs to step up its game.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the raw fear in the steel sector of South Yorkshire and other manufacturing about the fact that the energy companies are not reducing prices for electricity to industry, when the price of oil has descended to a quarter of what it was six months ago? The Prime Minister is doing what it takes on banks—can the Secretary of State do what it takes on energy prices? If he cannot, will he understand that calls for the state ownership of our electricity companies will again come into play? We will not see manufacturing industry destroyed, as happened when the Opposition were last in power.
I certainly agree that we do not want to see the steel industry or other industries destroyed in the way that they were in the 1980s. However, we need to ensure that where energy prices are coming down and contracts are being negotiated—that is a key issue—those high energy consumers are able to get the best possible deals from the energy companies.
We welcome the fact that domestic energy supplier prices are coming down and the announcement from British Gas today, but we are also aware that wholesale prices are coming down. That will give some opportunities for large industrial users to negotiate better contracts. Some of them are tied into long-term contracts and that is part of the problem. New contracts will enable better prices, and I hope that that will help some of the highly intensive energy users.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The new parliamentary visitor pass system was introduced last summer. The new system incorporates a temporary photographic paper pass carried in a lanyard. The lanyards are recovered at the exits to the parliamentary estate and returned to use where suitable. About 30 per cent. of the lanyards issued are currently reused in this way.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, which follows up an answer that I received from the Leader of the House about three months ago which suggested that the items were being stored before a decision on reuse was made. It is very good news that the House is reusing them. What work is being done to ensure that we further increase the reuse of the cords for visitors’ passes? After all, we have up to 1 million visitors a year coming through this place.
We do indeed. It is recognised that the current system of putting the passes into bins is not satisfactory. A new system, with better signage and a free-standing device to hang the passes on, is being brought in. That should improve the recycling rate considerably, but we do recognise that some people take their passes home as souvenirs of their visit.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
As far as possible, we always try to make sure that the Government do not table new issues on Report and that there is plenty of time for full debate. I have been working with Ministers in charge of Bills to ensure that we do better this year, but I confess that it is an art, not a science. No matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent Members’ loquacity or prolixity.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. Does he recall that during proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, huge swathes of Government amendments and new clauses were never reached, which meant that this House failed to do its job in holding the Executive to account and carrying out the scrutiny that the Prime Minister rightly says it is a priority for him to improve? On the Coroners and Justice Bill, for example, will the Deputy Leader of the House give us an assurance that every effort will be made by Government business managers to ensure that this House can debate both Government and Opposition amendments and new clauses? If necessary, will he provide the second day on Report that is so often needed for us to do our job properly?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make sure we do our scrutiny job properly, and that means devoting enough time to every element that needs to be debated. However, he is wrong in the sense that some Government amendments introduced at Report stage are in direct response to requests from the Committee. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is chuntering again, but the truth is that that applies to the majority of Government amendments. I have spoken already to the Minister responsible for the Bill that he mentioned. We are trying hard to make sure that we are not introducing new elements and areas of debate and, if necessary, we will try to provide a second day for debate on Report.
Since 1997, there have been 66 criminal justice Bills. That is too many, and too often they merely undo improperly scrutinised earlier Bills, thereby wasting the House’s time. For proper scrutiny, and to avoid that problem in the future, may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we have two days on Report stage much more frequently?
I think that we need to have the right amount of time, but two other things can help. First, my hon. Friend has campaigned for a long time for pre-legislative scrutiny, which is an important way to make sure that we do a better job before a Bill is introduced into Parliament. Secondly, post-legislative scrutiny can identify legislation that is not working or has not been useful. For that matter, it can also be used on legislation that has not been fully implemented. We should take such legislation off the statute book and not let it lie there dormant.
The Deputy Leader of the House will know that the current regime for proceedings on Report was introduced about 10 years ago, following recommendations from the Modernisation Committee. Should they not be reviewed now? How might that happen, given that the Modernisation Committee has apparently stopped meeting?
I am not sure that this might not be a matter for consideration by the Procedure Committee; it has a splendid Chairman, who is unfortunately not able to be with us at this moment, and it does a very good job. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as hon. Members of all parties have occasionally not been satisfied with how the Report stage has progressed. Sometimes, they have confused Committee stage with Report stage, and that has made it difficult for us to do our job properly. So perhaps this is something that the Procedure Committee should look at.
It did not take long for the Deputy Leader of the House to forget that Report stage is the key moment for Back Benchers to scrutinise Bills properly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem is not that Back-Bench Members speak for too long, as he suggests, but that programme motions do not take account of the business that is to be transacted? Moreover, far too many Government amendments are introduced at Report stage, not because they respond to points raised in Committee but because, as a result of the idleness or incompetence of the Ministers responsible for the Bill in the first place, they were not ready earlier.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important for the Government to consider all the relevant issues before legislation is introduced. We should not bring in new elements after that, so it is important that the short titles of most Bills are fairly tight to render that impossible. However, he is wrong to suggest that the vast majority of the amendments tabled by the Government are new ones of their own devising. The vast majority are concessionary to the Opposition, and sometimes they are even a concession to a good point made by the Liberal Democrats.
I am afraid that I must disappoint my hon. Friend. Collating the 73,357 questions to 29 Departments, and working out a mean, median or indeed average reply rate has not been possible. However, Departments know that they should answer written parliamentary questions within a working week, and named-day questions on the day that they are for answer. I want to know about it if they are failing to do so. As it happens, the office of Leader of the House has answered 100 per cent. of named-day questions on the day that they were for answer, and 200 out of 202 other questions within five days.
Computers have been around for 60 years, for goodness’ sake. Departments are required to answer questions accurately, promptly and truthfully, but their performance is often deplorable, as I know from my protracted attempts over the past year to extract information about the recording of hospitality for senior civil servants. Does my hon. Friend support my recommendation that Secretaries of State should have their salaries reduced by, say, 5 per cent. for every day over the two-week target that their Departments take to answer the average written question?
I am not sure that I can entirely support my hon. Friend in that suggestion—although perhaps if all Secretaries of State were paid the same as Deputy Leaders of the House that would be an interesting point. The important point that I think he is trying to make is that every Department should answer questions promptly, fully and without any form of obfuscation, and I want to ensure that that is what they do.
The Deputy Leader of the House is being unusually intransparent—if that is a word; I like to make things up—untransparent. [Hon. Members: “Opaque.”] Indeed. Anyway, the point that I am making is that it is beyond belief that an average could not be worked out by taking a sample of questions. My view is that the Government are hiding something. Does he agree?
Funnily enough, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I do not think that I am being opaque. I certainly do not think that I am being intransparent. The important point is that we should ensure that Departments in every area of government answer questions properly on the named day or within the time scale. The vast majority of questions are done so. He may not be happy with every answer that he gets, but the one thing that I undertake to take on—I have been working closely with ministerial colleagues in every Department—is for instance, before Prorogation, to ensure that Ministers do not just suddenly say, “Oh well, prorogation is coming up; we’re not going to answer any questions.” We did better last year than the year before. I also want to ensure that, if there are pinch points in individual Departments and we are not getting sufficient answers swiftly enough, we deal with that.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but is it not disgraceful that some of the questions that were not answered had been tabled months before Prorogation? It is a device to allow Departments to get away with it. I retabled all my questions in the new Session, but I hope that he will look into this, because it is not right.
The Deputy Leader of the House tells us that he wishes to be informed where there are lapses. Perhaps he ought to be aware that, at the end of the 2007-08 parliamentary Session, nearly 500 questions, tabled for more than a month, did not receive a reply at all—not even the usual Prorogation reply. Will he look into these serious lapses and tell us what he proposes to do to ensure that, in future, all written questions receive a substantive reply in good time?
The shadow Deputy Leader of the House takes a keen interest in what happens before Prorogation. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I wrote to Ministers before Prorogation to try to ensure that, if anyone was thinking of using such a device to get out of answering a question, they should not do so. Perhaps my letter was sent a little late, and this year we will try to make a better fist of this.
The right of Members of Parliament to speak without fear or hindrance, and their duty to speak without favour are essential parts of our parliamentary democracy and will always need a stout defence.
I am pleased that the Deputy Leader of the House rightly considers parliamentary privilege to be essential, critical and vital if Members of Parliament are to carry out their duties and responsibilities without fear, hindrance or favour, but does he not agree that implementation of the statement made some while ago by Mr. Speaker that a Committee should be set up to look into this matter is very long overdue? Bearing in mind not only the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) but the more recent case—I am not entering into its merits—of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), it clearly is time that the House had an opportunity to look deeply at how parliamentary privilege might be safeguarded.
As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know, parliamentary privilege has been fiercely debated for many centuries; indeed, elements of it go back to 1515. It is important that we have a clear understanding of parliamentary privilege. Any hon. Members who have not read the 1999 report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege should do so; it is a fine exposition of the issues. On the question relating to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), I think that you, Mr. Speaker, are likely to cover the matter in your statement in a few moments. On the Committee that was set up, we would be more than happy for it to meet. Unfortunately, we have not had the support of Opposition parties on that. The Committee could choose a Chairman, and as soon as police or any other investigations are completed, it will be able to get on with its business.
I am glad that the Deputy Leader of the House referred to the 1999 report; I was a member of the Committee that produced it. The Government have never implemented the recommendations, even though they indicated sympathy with them. May we have an early debate on that report, with some definitive statements from the Government?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, not least because the report highlighted the significance of freedom of speech, which is vital to our parliamentary democracy. The report reiterated article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1689, which says that
“freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”.
There were a series of recommendations. Some of them have been followed through in the business of the House, and some of them have not yet been put into law. The hon. Gentleman perhaps makes a good point about the need for us to have a full debate, so that people can fully understand the nature of parliamentary privilege, which is not quite as some members of the press have suggested it is.
I have a statement to make. Yesterday evening, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) raised a point of order in which he reported that police had entered his office without permission and demanded that he release to them correspondence from his constituency. The House authorities have looked into the matter. I can tell the House that the case concerned general inquiries in the course of an investigation into a serious crime that may involve threatening behaviour towards Members and other public figures. It did not involve the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham or his staff.
In the course of the investigation, a police officer assigned to duties in the House, but exercising her responsibilities as a constable, sought assistance from the staff of the hon. Member and agreed a time to meet them. Assistance was given by the hon. Member’s staff after the officer had explained the nature of the inquiry. At a point in their discussion, the hon. Member was contacted by his staff because it was thought necessary to seek his permission for the police to obtain a single-sheet document from his office. The purpose of the investigation was explained to the hon. Member, and after discussion, he agreed to supply the document. [Interruption.] Order.
I can confirm to the House that at no time during those proceedings did the police exercise any compulsory powers to require the document to be supplied. The hon. Member and his staff were not the subject of the police inquiry. It was not a matter that involved the seeking of a search warrant. I can confirm that the document is not privileged, but for reasons related to the sensitivity of the police investigation, I make no further comment about the details of the case.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham was made aware of these details by the police. While I accept that, in this case, the police officer acted with good intentions, I have instructed that any police officer assigned to duties in the House must advise the Serjeant at Arms of the intention to seek the assistance of a Member and his staff in his offices. The Serjeant at Arms will in turn approach the Member before the police take further action. I shall, of course, keep the House informed of any details concerning the case in-so-far as it affects the privileges of the House.
Business of the House
With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week:
Monday 26 January—Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill.
Tuesday 27 January—Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill.
Wednesday 28 January—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a full day’s debate on an Opposition motion about the Government’s proposals for Heathrow.
Thursday 29 January—Topical debate: Holocaust memorial day, followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel.
The provisional business for the week commencing 2 February will include:
Monday 2 February—Remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill (Day 1).
Tuesday 3 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Wednesday 4 February—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 5 February—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on food safety.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for February 5 and 12 will be:
Thursday 5 February—A debate on the report from the Justice Committee entitled “Towards Effective Sentencing”.
Thursday 12 February—A debate on the report from the Transport Committee entitled “Delivering a Sustainable Railway: A 30-year Strategy for the Railways”.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and, in turn, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your statement just now.
Apart from a short exchange on a point of order yesterday, this is my first formal encounter with the right hon. and learned Lady. May I say to her and the House that I am delighted to have been appointed her shadow? I have always held a dangerously romantic affection for the House of Commons, and it looks as though my teenage years spent reading Hansard and “Erskine May” under the duvet might now finally pay off.
I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will allow me while I hold this position to work towards three principal objectives: to explore all ways of making Parliament work better for Britain; to help overcome the low reputation of Parliament in the eyes of much of the press and the public; and to take an understanding of Parliament and our democracy into schools, so that younger people can overcome their instinctive derision for politicians. As shadow Leader of the House, one must work on many levels. One must be able to work on a non-partisan basis of trust as well as take part in vigorous exchanges of political difference. I undertake to do both.
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us a debate on Holocaust memorial day; I hope as many Members as possible will participate in it. Given the Government’s complete change of heart yesterday about disclosing expenses, in the event that the House passes today’s motions, will the Leader of the House confirm that she will continue to take further steps to ensure that we as MPs are open and accountable for all the expenses that we claim from taxpayers’ money?
The UK’s relationship with India is potentially one of our most crucial strategic alliances. Yesterday, however, we learned that senior Indian officials have officially complained about the “condescending” and “totally tactless” behaviour of the Foreign Secretary during his visit there last week. Given that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has also been in India this week, may we inquire whether he has been sent there to clear up the damage caused by the Foreign Secretary’s visit—or is he there to make things worse? May we have a debate on the relationship between India and the United Kingdom, to remind the Foreign Secretary of the immense value that the whole House places on our continued friendship with a country that will become more powerful and prominent in world affairs?
In their national security strategy, the Government have highlighted the probability of a pandemic influenza outbreak and the risks associated with it. Yet despite that danger, the Government have consistently denied Members the opportunity to raise their concerns about the matter in the House, even though we have been requesting time to debate it for well over two years. Given the importance of that risk, may we have a debate on it in Government time?
Yesterday, we saw the release of the latest figures which show unemployment racing towards 2 million, and most forecasters predict that this year it will burst through 3 million. Today, the value of sterling is at its lowest point for nearly 25 years. The exchange rate is the price tag put on our country’s value by the rest of the world, and it is plummeting. Why, if this is a global phenomenon, is Britain in so much worse a position than other countries across the globe? It is increasingly difficult to persuade the Government to debate the future of the economy in Government time. Only last week, we had to drag Ministers to the House to explain the announcement of their loans guarantee scheme. Given that the Prime Minister is so keen on telling everyone how brilliant he is, the Government’s reticence on the economy seems rather strange. In the interests of recognising the saviour of the world’s achievements over the past few months, may we now have a full debate in Government time on the state of the British economy and how we can escape from the Government’s mishandling of our livelihoods?
Finally, did the Leader of the House see this morning’s headline which says, “What planet are they on?” Ministers have been seeing strange things—green shoots, booming houses and flickering lights at the end of imaginary tunnels. Has the right hon. and learned Lady had any similar hallucinations, and will she now come down to earth and speak of economic reality instead of the fantasy of Government headlines?
I warmly welcome the shadow Leader of the House to his new position and pay tribute to the work done by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I agree with his enunciation of the principles that he is going to stand by as shadow Leader of the House, and I look forward to working with him on them.
The hon. Gentleman welcomed the fact that we have chosen Holocaust memorial day as the subject of next week’s topical debate. Last year’s debate was one of the best attended, most heartfelt and important topical debates on a Thursday that we have had. As the fallout from Gaza affects all communities in this country and everybody has heartfelt concern about it, on Holocaust memorial day we will particularly reflect on the increased anti-Semitic attacks that there have been on the Jewish community and synagogues in this country. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the Holocaust memorial day topical debate. Any time that he wants to suggest a topical debate, I would be more than happy to hear his suggestions. That is an offer that I made to him when we met privately at his request. I was very grateful to him for offering me a man-to-man chat, and I am happy to have one of those chats with him on any occasion.
On freedom of information, we have had no change of heart. We want there to be clear rules, robust audit and proper transparency so that the public can know how much MPs spend and can have that information every year. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to get on his moral high ground against me on the question of transparency, because I have been perusing the transparency on his website. I have had trouble as Leader of the House with my own website, because somebody hacked into it and put all sorts of things on it which I had not said. I think that he has been having the same problem, because on his website—I am sure that he could not have written this himself—it says:
“Alan Duncan has been a pivotal influence in the fortunes of the Conservative Party in Britain for well over ten years.”
I am sure that he will want to correct that. When it comes to transparency, he has been busy putting that sort of thing on his website but has failed to mention his financial interests in oil companies. I really do think that he should put his website where his mouth is.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of relations between India and the United Kingdom, and he made an important point. Our relations with India are important: it is a global player that is important to our economy. There are strong relations between the Prime Minister and his Indian counterpart, and with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There are close links between the communities of Indian origin in this country and those in India, as well as the important relations that the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office Ministers have. I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion as the subject for a future topical debate.
I will discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health whether we ought to have a debate on the question of the protection in place for flu epidemics.
The hon. Gentleman raised the worrying issue of the rise in unemployment, and as the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, when someone becomes unemployed it is not only a devastating blow for them, but of concern to everyone, and it is of great concern to this House and the Government. That is why we have been determined to take action to recapitalise the banks, to have a funded loan guarantee scheme, to have a fiscal stimulus into the economy and to ensure that we bring forward capital infrastructure projects. We will never say, “Let the recession take its course,” or that unemployment is a price worth paying. As far as the opportunity for the House to debate the economy is concerned, we are not backward in coming forward to ensure that it can debate the economy. Every week, we need to have substantive debates, statements and questions, and we make sure that that is the case.
I shall conclude by saying that the hon. Gentleman brings a dash of sartorial elegance to his Front-Bench team, who are otherwise sometimes a bit drab; drab he is not. On a personal note, I would just like to say that I really love his watch. I understand that he was given it by the Sultan of Oman. It is absolutely lovely. Also, I really like the cufflinks that he is wearing today; are those the ones that the Sultan gave him? They are absolutely great.
These are my own cufflinks, Mr. Speaker.
Would my right hon. and learned Friend consider allowing time for a debate on the accountability of local government? A few weeks ago the chairman of Gloucester City football club and I approached Gloucestershire county council for some money to put towards a new football stadium. The council said that no money was available at all, but overnight it has announced the use of £7.4 million to purchase of a piece of land on the edge of my constituency for a 10-storey incinerator, despite the fact that those involved said in their manifesto that they opposed incineration.
May I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) to his new position? I am sure that he is indeed a pivot. In the spirit of his congratulations to the Leader of the House on her change of heart on the freedom of information, I also thank him for the change of spirit in the Conservative party from the position adopted in respect of the former Conservative Chief Whip’s private member’s Bill only a couple of years ago—or even the position last Monday, actually.
I ask the Leader of the House to consider seriously the point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about a debate on the economy. When I last held my current position, I regularly asked why there were no debates in Government time on the two conflicts in which we were engaged, which were the subject of many statements, but few debates. We have now had debates on those conflicts, but we have not had debates on the economy in Government time. This is a serious issue. We have had statements that refer to mouth-wateringly large amounts of money that have been given to the banks regularly, but that is no substitute for a debate. Apart from anything else, we need to know where that money has gone and why it was not conditional. It seems to many of us that it was not so much capitalisation as capitulation to the banks. We need an urgent debate on the economy.
The Leader of the House has announced that on Tuesday 3 February we will debate motions relating to the police grant and the local finance report. May I ask, as I have in previous years, for those two debates to be separated? It is unhelpful to Members who wish to raise matters about policing not to have the opportunity to engage directly with the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, and a similar point could be made about those who wish to discuss local authorities.
Many district councils, like those in my constituency, will be concerned about the widening gap between the amount provided to support the free bus scheme and the amount that it actually costs. I have nothing against the free bus pass scheme, which is an excellent policy, but it is not being funded. South Somerset district council tells me that there is a gap of £567,000 this year, and that it will be £730,000 next year. That is a colossal hole in the revenue of a small district council, and we need to consider how to close it.
I wish to mention the very serious matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on a point of order yesterday, column 753 of Hansard. He told the House that there was evidence of a calculated, pre-meditated conspiracy to subvert the procedures of the House and our ability to scrutinise Ministers in underwriting a contingent liability of more than £250,000 in respect of Sellafield, and to prevent Members from challenging it. That seems an egregious abuse of the House and its procedures. You, Mr. Speaker, gave an answer to the point of order, but I now ask the Leader of the House to undertake a proper investigation, report back to the House and make a statement. We simply cannot have the financial scrutiny afforded to Members diverted by Ministers in such a way.
Finally, may we have a debate on the Government’s concept of social mobility? I have in my hand the Government’s response to the report of the Select Committee on Justice on the appointment of lords lieutenant. The Government congratulate themselves on the progress that they have made, stating:
“However, over the last thirty years the social diversity of the lieutenancy has widened considerably. For example, thirty years ago, 20 Lord-Lieutenants were peers and many were retired senior military officers. This year, out of a total of 55, only 7 are peers”.
Well, that is progress. May I suggest to the Leader of the House that if the slogan in the United States is “Yes we can”, it appears that in this country it is “No we can’t”?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the economy. As I said to the shadow Leader of the House, we will ensure that there are opportunities every week to discuss the No. 1 priority and concern of all of us, which is helping the British economy through the difficult and uncharted waters caused by a global banking crisis.
The hon. Gentleman asked for the debates on the motions relating to the police grant and local government to be separated. I shall consider that request and get back to him, and make any announcement in next Thursday’s business statement.
The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of Sellafield. We have just had Energy and Climate Change questions, and I do not know whether he sought to raise the matter, but I suggest that he take it up with DECC Ministers.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the social mobility White Paper, and I thank him for his support for social mobility, which is something we should all be concerned about. In that context, he mentioned the lords lieutenant, and I shall certainly add them to the list of institutions that really need to sort themselves out and get themselves into the 21st century.
May I make my annual plea to the Leader of the House that Government drivers coming on to the estate should be provided with a warm place to sit while waiting for Ministers, so that they do not have to sit in the car park outside Speaker’s House in their hybrid, environmentally friendly cars, with the motors running to keep warm? Symbolism is important, and it is a pretty bad show. They need somewhere warm to sit.
I will raise that important point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and ask him to write to my hon. Friend, after having also consulted the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, as it is not just a matter of personal comfort but an environmental issue.
The Leader of the House may well be aware of the increasingly serious disturbances that are occurring outside the Staythorpe power station in my constituency. That is not the only site where such disturbances are occurring. May we have a debate on the subject, perhaps entitled, in the Prime Minister’s words, “British jobs for British workers”?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks a meeting with the relevant Secretary of State on that important issue for his constituency. I shall alert the Secretary of State that such a request might be forthcoming, and I think that that would be a good way for the hon. Gentleman to take the matter forward in the first instance.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the launch of the “Time to Change” campaign. It is intended to bring awareness of mental health issues and provide support for people with mental health problems. Many constituents with mental health problems have written to me about the Welfare Reform Bill, which is to be discussed next week. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a discussion of the wider problems that such people face and of how to raise awareness of them and create more sympathy?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on mentioning the “Time to Change” campaign, and, like her, I give it my backing. That is why we are taking measures in the equality Bill to strengthen the law and protect people from discrimination on the grounds of mental health problems, why this is a major issue for the Department of Health and why the Welfare Reform Bill will ensure that help is available to get people into work, irrespective of their disability. We will ensure that they are able to take up opportunities to work. I shall consider whether we should make the matter the subject of a general or a topical debate, because how we support those with mental health problems is very important.
Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), is it not the case that the drivers sit in their cars with the engines running not because they have nowhere else to go but because Ministers complain about being driven home in cold cars?
May I raise a point about topical debates? Next Thursday, we are to have a topical debate on Holocaust memorial day, which I welcome, but that inevitably erodes the time available to debate the subsequent business. Today, there is no topical debate and so no erosion of the business that we are shortly to debate. What criteria does the Leader of the House use to decide whether the business needs to be protected from a topical debate? Surely she is not saying that the debate to come today is more important than the debates to be held on the two following Thursdays.
Each day, and therefore each Thursday, I look at the business to try to ensure that we have the right amount of time to debate a number of competing issues. For example, I originally picked the Gaza debate last week as a topical debate, which would have lasted just an hour and a half. So many Members wanted to speak that I moved the armed services personnel debate and made the Gaza debate a whole day’s debate. All such issues are important, and we try to make enough space for them. There will be a topical debate before the armed forces personnel debate, but that was always going to be the case even before it was moved. There will be further debates through the year on armed forces issues, whether they concern procurement or other matters.
Can I put it to the Leader of the House that it is very important to have further urgent debates on the banking crisis? They should be led by the Prime Minister, not least because he has been criticising certain erstwhile bankers, particularly Fred Goodwin. That would give us an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister whether that is the same Fred Goodwin whom he knighted, lunched at Chequers and put on his international business advisory panel.
The right hon. Gentleman, like all hon. Members, has an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister questions every week at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I do not think that there has been a single Prime Minister’s Question Time when he has not answered questions on the subject and sought the opportunity to explain the action that we are taking to ensure that we give real help to businesses and to people who are worried about their jobs and their ability to get a mortgage. He explains that we are laying the basis for a sounder future for our economy. Our economy and the global economy will not always be in recession, and we need to ensure that we build for the future. That is why we are bringing forward capital infrastructure projects, instead of doing what the right hon. Gentleman’s party is urging and cutting them.
Last December, in a press release, the Home Secretary told us that knife crime involving teenagers carrying knives had halved. Today, in another press release, which Sky News picked up, she informs us that the number of teenagers carrying knives has increased by 18 per cent. and that murders involving knives have increased by 10 per cent. Although the Home Secretary gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs on Tuesday and spoke in the House on the Policing and Crime Bill on Monday, she did not mention those statistics. In the words of the shadow Leader of the House, could my right hon. and learned Friend have a man-to-man chat with the Home Secretary to ascertain whether she could make a statement to the House? If we are to have a serious debate about crime and policing, we need proper statistics, which the House can scrutinise.
Of course statistics on crime are important. The Home Secretary has been holding discussions with the senior statisticians in her Department and the head of the independent National Statistics organisation. We want to ensure that we get the figures absolutely right so that we can be as clear and open with people as possible about an issue of great concern to everyone. Let me reassure my right hon. Friend—I hope that what I am about to say is not also a matter for statistical discussion: the British crime survey, which asks people whether they have been a victim of crime, year after year shows people reporting that they are less likely to be a victim of crime. That is important.
Hon. Members know that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) has secured a Westminster Hall debate next Tuesday on the Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. Following the Government’s announcement last week, and the continuing concern by many policyholders that the response has been weak and inadequate, does the Leader of the House agree that Government time should be found for a full debate, so that all hon. Members who have raised the issue repeatedly have the opportunity to ask questions, and to express their constituents’ concerns?
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a statement to the House about Equitable Life and answered questions on it for an hour last week. It is an important issue; it is important that those who need compensation must get it as swiftly as possible. The hon. Gentleman could recommend the subject to his Front Benchers for an Opposition day debate.
May we have an early debate on community cohesion so that Members of all parties can emphasise that we are one nation and that we stand together, regardless of our faiths and backgrounds? In that context, may I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to two matters? First, a Respect party man, Abdurahman Jafar, is misusing the name and money of the Government-funded organisation Redbridge against Islamophobia and Extremism for his Respect party political purposes—he is standing as a candidate in a by-election next week. Secondly, the Conservative candidate, Ikram Wahid, has distributed a leaflet in the same Valentines ward by-election. It is being delivered only to Muslim households and advances no reason for Muslims to vote for him apart from not splitting the vote of the Muslim community.
The points that my hon. Friend raises are of the utmost importance. We should all recognise that party political advantage must not and cannot be gained from hatred and anger that divides different communities. I will raise my hon. Friend’s points with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. In difficult times, it is important that we all stand together and work together.
One aspect of the Planning Act 2008 was a community cohesion fund to put money back into the local community. One of the first big infrastructure projects that will probably come under the Act is the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Both district councils for the area are concerned that the Government have provided no guidelines on the matter. May we have a debate about how the Act will work in future—it is a long-term measure—to ascertain how the community projects will be administered, who will look after them, who will be on the boards and what their remits will be?
The Act develops even further an innovative approach of ensuring that local communities benefit from developments in their area. The approach is being developed in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Perhaps I may suggest that the hon. Gentleman assists with that by seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State. He could help to shape the blueprint by saying how he thinks it should work in his area to ensure that the local community has a big say in how it will benefit from a development that is nationally important but has a big local impact.
May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the method whereby the Audit Commission arrives at the star rating for some council departments? Conservative-controlled Birmingham city council recently wasted £1 million on a mass eviction of a high-rise block of flats that never happened. A survey that I conducted in my constituency on repair services showed serious failings time and again, yet the Audit Commission has given the department a rating of two stars with excellent prospects. Surely something is wrong.
I think that the most important benchmarks against which local housing authorities can be judged are whether they deliver for their tenants—my hon. Friend gives an example of a local authority doing the opposite—and whether they spend public money wisely; again, from what my hon. Friend says, it sounds as though the council is doing the opposite. Perhaps she could take the opportunity in the debate on Tuesday week about local government finance to raise that point. It is sad if her local authority is behaving in that way.
May we have an in-depth statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on sentencing policy in the light of the horrific case of the multiple rape of a 15-year-old girl with the mental age of eight or nine by up to 10 assailants? Only four of those assailants would probably have been convicted—six had to be let go. One of those who would probably have been convicted was killed in a street brawl because he was out on bail—incredibly—after the multiple rape. The other three were sentenced to between nine and six years each for not only raping the poor young woman but dousing her with caustic soda in an attempt to cover the evidence. There are no mitigating factors, given the total contempt that they showed for their victim even during the court case. The Attorney-General is rightly considering whether the sentences should be increased, but surely we need a statement so that we know whether they are increased and whether such villains would be considered for release halfway through their sentences, which would make nonsense of imposing the sentences in the first place.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes an important set of points. When a sentence causes public outrage or sends out the wrong message about the criminal justice system’s attitude to a particular offence, there is provision for the Attorney-General to consider the judgment and the sentence and decide whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. As the hon. Gentleman says, we are in that position—the Attorney-General is considering whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal as an example of an unduly lenient sentence.
On the wider point about sentencing policy, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity on Thursday 5 February to try to catch the Chair’s eye in Westminster Hall in the debate on effective sentencing.
Earlier this year, the Government refused to support a Bill which had cross-party support in the House and would have staunched the flow of illegal timber into the UK. Their cover for that refusal was that the EU would introduce proposals. After three years of prevarication, the EU has presented proposals which are without content—they are procedural only. They do not achieve the advantage of establishing a universal scheme for all 27 regimes in the EU. Will the Government now urgently discuss what national legislation can be introduced to stop the flow of illegal timber into the UK and ensure that pressure is put on the EU to get the matter right?
We already have rules on the importation of timber, but there is obviously a need to consider strengthening them. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, although we will always seek to work with EU partners, there is never an excuse for waiting for them if we could be getting on with taking national action. We will always take national action on our own account, while at the same time pushing our European counterparts to go as far as we have gone. Perhaps this is something that I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, as well as with Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
May we have a debate on the impact of the ending of the UK opt-out from the working time directive for retained firefighters? Some 321 of the 391 fire stations in Scotland are staffed by part-time firefighters. A strict application of the directive would mean that they would often be left unable to provide the necessary cover, and the stark fact is that many of our more remote communities simply do not have the critical mass of population required to maintain a full-time service. Surely it is wrong that the law of unintended consequences should be allowed to leave some communities without effective fire cover in this way.
The hon. Gentleman has made a detailed and complex point, although it is actually about the simple and important issue of providing adequate fire cover at all times for all communities, including isolated rural communities. Perhaps I could raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman, to see whether he can allay his concerns.
May we have an urgent debate on the current status of the EU-Israel trade agreement? The House has been repeatedly reassured—starting with William Waldegrave, a Minister in a previous Conservative Government—that a breach of the human rights clauses in the agreement could lead to the agreement’s suspension. It is clear from the events in Gaza and from the suspension of the Arab parties in Israel that those human rights clauses have been breached. Parliament needs an opportunity to debate this matter, so that our Ministers can take it into account in their work in the European Council of Ministers.
I know that my hon. Friend has played a leading role in the quest for justice for the Palestinians, and that she has visited the region on many occasions. She will be aware that we had a full day’s debate on this subject last week, and a statement from the Foreign Secretary earlier this week. I will be speaking to the Foreign Secretary to find out when he will next come to the House to report on this matter, because it is an issue of concern not only internationally but in this country, and I will bring my hon. Friend’s points to his attention.
Yesterday, Ofcom produced its report on the future of public sector broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The report contained proposals to cut news services from Scotland, and to see the south of Scotland being served from Newcastle. May we have a proper debate in this House on the future of public service broadcasting, to ensure that we get the best possible service for all the nations of the UK?
We are grateful to Ofcom for its well-considered report. We are in no doubt about the importance of public service broadcasting, but we are also in no doubt that an important dimension of that is broadcasting from the different regions and from Wales and Scotland. This is a matter that the Government keep under close scrutiny. I take the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will try to work out what to do about this.
May I refer my right hon. and learned Friend back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) about yesterday’s announcement that Gloucestershire county council has decided to obtain a site in my constituency to build an incinerator? This is an issue of probity, and I wonder whether she will look into it. The county council said that it was conducting a full-scale consultation on the options for waste, and that is why it took up the opportunity for a private finance initiative arrangement with DEFRA, although that does not seem to have happened. I hope that the Leader of the House will look into this key issue and allow us an opportunity to debate the matter.
Waste management is an important issue generally. I was going to say that the incinerator was a hot topic, but I shall not do so. It is a very important topic in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I do not know whether he has had a chance to ask for a meeting with the relevant Secretary of State, but perhaps he should do that in the first instance. Perhaps I can talk to him later today, after the next debate, to discuss how he can take forward his concerns.
May we have a debate on access to mortgages? Borrowers are finding it almost impossible to access mortgage finance, and if they can, it is only after paying a very high deposit. The Halifax is now asking for a deposit of 40 per cent., which is pretty much impossible for many people, and the Council of Mortgage Lenders says that it expects mortgage finance to decline for some months to come. It is difficult to see how we are going to get the housing market and the house building and construction industries moving again until the whole question of mortgage finance is sorted out. The Government say that they have done certain things, but the mortgage lenders and the building societies just do not seem to be acting.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there has been a big fall in capacity in the mortgage market, which has come from the collapse of banks in Iceland, in Ireland and internationally. A lot of our mortgage market was already dependent on loans and mortgages that came from abroad, in what is a global financial market. He will also know that the mortgage companies and banks in this country depend on loans from other banks abroad, and that inter-bank lending has, to a degree, frozen up. This is a matter of working nationally to recapitalise the banks and put them in a position where we can expect them to lend again, and of working with our international counterparts to ensure that there is confidence across the banking system internationally. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the lack of mortgage finance going into housing, and about the effect of that on construction, which is absolutely evident. This is a top priority, and if he has any further suggestions that are properly backed with funds and thought out, we will obviously consider them.
May we have a debate on the use of statutory consultation in the Building Schools for the Future programme, given that councils such as Stoke-on-Trent city council take no notice whatever of the outcome of consultations or, sadly, of people’s opinions?
I am sure that we all strongly back the Building Schools for the Future programme, and it is obviously important to get the consultation right, to ensure that the massive capital investment that is going into schools, which we all support, goes to the right place. I suggest that my hon. Friend meets the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
May we have a debate on Warm Front? It is an excellent scheme, but it could be greatly improved. Some of the quotations that people are now receiving are outrageously high. The number of people in Essex who are having to pay a top-up has increased from 304 to 1,429 over the past three years. Those very vulnerable people are now having to pay an average of £640 per top-up for work that could be done by local contractors at half the price. May we have a debate on that?
Energy prices have recently fallen, and that is very welcome, but they are still higher than they were 12 months ago. That is a serious concern for many people. Energy conservation is also an important environmental issue, because of carbon emissions. We have had a topical debate on the cost of energy, environmental protection, insulation and the Warm Front scheme, but I will look for a further opportunity as these issues are very important to households up and down the country and, no doubt, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
May we have a debate on the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995? I tabled early-day motion 510 a couple of days ago.
[That this House recalls the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s recommendation in 2003 which called for the repeal of the exemption from stunning prior to slaughter for animals killed by Moslem Halal and Jewish Shechita methods; notes that these exemptions remain; further recalls the Council’s scientific evidence showing that sheep become insensible within five to seven seconds of the incision whilst adult cattle may take between 22 and 40 seconds, and calves may take up to two minutes to become insensible; abhors all forms of racism and religious intolerance; proposes that the stunning of an animal post-cut addresses animal welfare concerns whilst remaining compliant with the theological tenets upon which halal and kosher are based; supports the existing use of pre-stunning in the slaughter of over 90 per cent. of animals killed in the UK for halal meat; observes that bans on slaughter without pre-stunning in Norway, Sweden and New Zealand have been in place for over five years without harming religious freedom or community relations in those countries; and calls on the Government to work actively and constructively in co-operation with the Muslim and Jewish communities in the UK to address the animal welfare implications of all religious slaughter and to amend the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 accordingly.]
The motion draws attention to the well-argued and scientifically validated report of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, produced back in 2003, which urged the repeal of the exemption from pre-stunning before slaughter of animals destined to be used as halal and kosher food. Will the Government open up discussions with the Muslim and Jewish communities to see how we can make progress on this affront to animal welfare which, among other things, fires racism and religious intolerance among some communities?
The reputation of our politics has suffered a severe blow this week as a result of the Government’s antics in trying to hide MPs’ expenses. I thank the Leader of the House for eventually withdrawing the order in response to protests from tens of thousands of people across the country as well as many Members of this House. Can she confirm that this shameful attempt to exempt MPs from freedom of information legislation has been dropped not just for today, but for good?
There is going to be a full debate on these issues straight after business questions. I think that what really causes a blow to the reputation of all Members is when any individual Member abuses the House allowances to line their own pockets. That is what undermines the reputation of the House, which is why we are bringing forward tougher rules, a more robust audit and more transparency.
The hon. Lady’s party has been consistent in arguing, as we did, for a Freedom of Information Act, which we actually brought in, and her Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), was quite right to criticise the Johnny-come-latelies in the Tory party who never did freedom of information when they were in government. As I say, at least the Liberals have been consistent and I would say to the hon. Lady that it is right for her, along with the rest of her party, to continue to call for greater transparency, but it is also very important not to get into a party political Dutch auction as to who can do most to besmirch the reputation of MPs.
Could we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the continuing crisis in Darfur and western Sudan? Given that aerial bombing, mass shooting, widespread rape and the chaining together and burning alive of people—to give but four examples—have been recurrent facts of life in the region for well over five years, is it not high time that this House debated how the British Government, working in concert with President Obama and the international community, can secure the full 26,000 UN-African Union troop deployment to the region—before the genocide of Darfurians has been completed?
As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary acknowledged, the attention of the international community has rightly been focused on the terrible ordeal, death and devastation happening in Gaza. At the same time, however, the situation in Zimbabwe is deteriorating and things remains dire in the Congo, while the circumstances are still terrible in Darfur. I am looking for an early opportunity for the House to debate Darfur, Congo and Zimbabwe. We cannot forget the role that this country and the international community must play. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the written ministerial statement issued today by the Foreign Secretary, which talks about developing relations with China and making sure that we influence that country to play its role in the international community. It will be very important if we can make sure that China plays its part in helping to end the struggle and strife in Africa.
May I reiterate the calls for an early debate on Ofcom’s public service broadcasting review? Given that the BBC has a never-ending guaranteed increase in its income and given that it is still happy to pay Jonathan Ross £6 million a year, surely the time has come to top-slice the income going to the BBC from the licence fee and give it to other broadcasters whose income is going down and down, which is totally unsustainable. May we have an early debate so that we can understand the Government’s thinking on that important issue and so that the Government can understand the views of hon. Members?
A Government paper on digital Britain will deal with a number of those issues. It seems to me that the questions of public service broadcasting, digitalisation, regional news, Channel 4 and the BBC might well be grouped together in order to provide an opportunity to debate them.
This week, Mr. John Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said of the new EU working time directive that it was “an impending disaster” that would “devastate” medical training and lead to “dangerous” lapses in patient care. He went on to say that some hospitals and some hospital units will close. May we have a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Health on the Government’s position in relation to the directive?
I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s question to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health. I would say, however, that what certainly caused dangerous lapses in patient care was junior doctors being absolutely knackered from not having any sleep. We have increased the number of doctors and nurses and the number of doctors in training, but we also need to ensure not only that they build up the necessary expertise over the course of their training, but that they have a reasonable working life. That applies to dentists, as well.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would like to thank you very much indeed for the statement you made regarding the police coming into my office yesterday. I was notified of their being in my office while I was in the Chamber speaking in an Opposition debate. My junior members of staff and researchers felt under a certain duress to hand over documents. I am extremely grateful, Mr. Speaker, for your saying that in future, even if it does not involve parliamentary privilege, the Serjeant at Arms should first be told if a police officer wishes to enter the office of a Member of Parliament.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but he must understand that things are sometimes done in good faith—and the approach made by the police officer to the hon. Gentleman’s staff was done in good faith. Other hon. Members have been put in a dangerous situation because of the particular investigation that is going on. I would ask that before hon. Members rush to points of order and make statements that can reflect badly on professional people who are doing a decent job of work, it would be better for them just to sit and wait for a while and get the facts together. That would have been the best thing, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s approach would have been different if he had given himself a breather and thought about what was going on.
Business of the House
That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to Payments to hon. Members (Publication Scheme), Members’ Allowances (Green Book), Members’ Allowances (Audit and Assurance) and Committee on Members’ Allowances not later than 5 pm; in each case such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Chris Bryant.)
Members’ Payments and Allowances
I beg to move motion 2—Payments to Hon. Members (Publication Scheme)—
(1) That, subject to the provisions of paragraph (2) below, for the purpose of the publication scheme adopted and maintained by the House under section 19 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, such information about payments made to, or on behalf of, hon. Members which is already published routinely in accordance with the scheme shall continue to be published;
(2) In addition, information relating to Members’ expenditure from the beginning of the current Parliament shall be published in relation to each financial year, to the extent that such information is separately identifiable, under the following categories:
(a) Administrative and Office Expenditure:
(i) accommodation costs for offices, surgeries, etc;
(ii) office equipment and supplies;
(iii) telephones and other telecommunications;
(iv) professional fees and charges;
(v) agency and other staff costs;
(vi) travel costs;
(b) Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure:
(i) mortgage interest;
(iii) hotel costs;
(iv) council tax;
(v) fixtures, fittings and furnishings;
(vii) other household costs, including service charges, utilities, telecommunications, maintenance and repairs;
(c) Communications Expenditure:
(ii) reports and surveys;
(iii) delivery charges, postage and stationery;
(d) Staffing Expenditure;
(e) Travel Expenditure in relation to travel by Members:
(i) car, including third party vehicle rental and mileage;
(iv) other UK and European travel;
(f) Resettlement Grant;
(g) Winding-up Expenditure;
(3) The Committee on Members’ Allowances shall keep the categories listed in paragraph (2) above under review and may modify them from time to time as the committee may think necessary or desirable in the interests of clarity, consistency, accountability and effective administration, and conformity with current circumstances.
With this we shall discuss the following:
Motion 3—Members’ Allowances (Green Book)—
That this House approves the Guide to Members’ Allowances (the Green Book), published as Annex 1 to the First Report of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee (House of Commons Paper No. 142) and endorses the Principles set out in Part 1 of the Green Book as the basis for all claims made by Members;
That the rules set out in the Green Book shall govern all expenditure on Members’ allowances with respect to all claims for expenditure arising on or after 1 April 2009;
That the Members Estimate Committee shall carry out a review of the provisions of the resolutions of this House relating to such expenditure, make such modifications to them as are necessary to ensure that they are consistent with the provisions in the Green Book, and report to the House; and
That this House thanks Ms Kay Carberry CBE, nominated by the Trades Union Congress, and Mr Keith Bradford, nominated by the Confederation of British Industry, for having acted as the Speaker’s external appointees to the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances.
Motion 4—Members’ Allowances (Audit and Assurance)—
That this House approves the arrangements for the audit and assurance of Members’ allowances set out in the report of the Members Estimate Audit Committee to the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee, published as Annex 3 to the First Report of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee (House of Commons Paper No. 142).
Motion 5—Committee on Members’ Allowances—
That the following new Standing Order and amendments to the Standing Orders and Resolutions of the House be made:
A. New Standing Order
(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Committee on Members’ Allowances,
(a) to advise the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee on the discharge of its functions; and
(b) to advise the Speaker, the Members Estimate Committee and the Leader of the House on the potential development of the arrangements made by or under the Resolutions in force from time to time regarding Members’ allowances &c;
(2) The committee shall consist of eight members;
(3) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament;
(4) The committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to appoint specialist advisers and to report from time to time.
B. Amendment to Standing Order No. 152D
In Standing Order No. 152D, leave out lines 23 to 25;
C. Amendment to the Resolution of the House of 5 July 2001:
Members’ Allowances, Insurance &c.
Paragraph (5) of the Resolution of the House of 5 July 2001 relating to Members’ Allowances, Insurance &c. shall cease to have effect.
I first want to set out the basis on which we approach this issue. I want this debate to proceed not as a Dutch auction of which party can do most to besmirch the reputation of MPs. I am not going to do that, because it would be wrong. We are public servants committed to our public duties and that is how we should approach this debate.
There should be proper resources to enable MPs to carry out our work, and we need to be sure that those allowances are not abused and that no MP uses them to line their own pockets. When that happens, as it did so disgracefully in the case of one particular Member last year, it is not only the public purse that suffers. What suffers is the reputation of this whole House and of every single Member who works hard and abides by the rules. It is to take further steps to prevent the possibility of that abuse that I bring these motions to the House today, so that the public and the whole House can rest assured that public money is properly spent.
For 11 years I have been conscientiously filling in expenses claims forms, attaching copies of invoices and taking very seriously the words on the certificates that I sign, which read:
“I confirm that the payments requested are in respect of costs incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of my Parliamentary duties.”
I was therefore shocked to hear the police explain last year that there would be no prosecution of an hon. Member caught fiddling his expenses because the rules of this House were—they felt—not clear enough. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the legal advice that she has states that no such excuse will be given by the police in future, and that someone who fiddles his or her expenses with dishonest intent will be prosecuted?
My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point. One of our aims in introducing the new Green Book, which is the subject of the first motion, is to ensure that the rules are absolutely clear and detailed, and that the required evidence is supplied before payments are made. That will apply whether the amounts concerned represent reimbursement for items bought or, more important, payment of staff. Staff will not be paid unless there is a signed contract of employment and a job description, so that no one can say afterwards, “Oh, yes, actually they were doing that job, but I did not have any evidence because I did not need any evidence.” It is precisely to protect hard-working, law-abiding, conscientious public servants such as my hon. Friend, who are stained by those who abuse the rules, that we are introducing the tougher rules in the Green Book today.
I thank the Members Estimate Committee and the officers and staff of the House of Commons Commission for their contribution to the work that lies behind the motions that we are debating. I should not have been able to present the motions to the House without their advice, expertise and many hours of meetings and work since last December, when I first outlined to the Members Estimate Committee the approach that I am taking today.
When I became a Member of Parliament in the 1980s, there were three major problems, which have been addressed bit by bit over the years. First, the resources for our offices were wholly inadequate. That has been addressed over the years, and rightly so. Last year my office handled 6,300 individual constituents’ cases. Each letter, e-mail, phone call or surgery visit was handled within, on average, 10 working days. My constituents have a right to expect us to have the resources to do the job for which we are elected.
The second problem was that the rules governing payment of the claims of Members of Parliament were—as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney)—loose and unclear, giving scope for uncertainty as a result of which abuse could take place. The third problem was that the public were given no information at all about who claimed how much and for what. The rules were published, but the outcome of those rules was not.
Over the years, we have increased the resources needed to enable us to do the work that our constituents expect. We have begun to publish information about Members’ allowances annually, and have broken it down into 14 categories. However, we need to do more. There has been concern about three issues, which we sought to address through the work that we did in July last year and that we seek to address again today. We need to address the problem that the rules are not clear enough; we need to address the problem that audit is not robust enough; and we need to address the problem that not enough information is published. The propositions that we have put before the House today address each of those problems.
I approach this issue in the belief that the public are entitled to be confident that the public money that is being paid out is being paid out on the basis of a clear and reasonable set of rules, that they should be confident that those rules are properly enforced and that money is not paid out other than within them, and that the public should be able to know in respect of every Member—not just some—every year, as a matter of routine, how much has been paid in allowances and for what.
In respect of the first point on the need for clear rules, we submit the new Green Book to the House for its approval. Let me take this opportunity to thank the members of the Members Estimate Committee, the members of the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances—including its two independent members—and the many hon. Members who have contributed to the new Green Book. I also thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for specifying the level of evidence that is necessary for us to be confident that the rules are indeed clear, and can form the foundation for a robust audit. If we pass the motion endorsing the new Green Book, we shall have a clear set of reasonable rules for the payment of allowances.
The second issue is the proper enforcement of the rules. It requires robust audit, and that is the subject of a motion that will provide for what is described as “full scope” audit, on the same basis that applies to other public bodies. This will be the first occasion on which the House has been subject to “full scope” audit.
The House authorities will—as they do now—check each claim before payment is made, but that work will additionally be subject to the scrutiny of a new internal unit, the operational assurance unit. There will also be supervision by the National Audit Office. That scrutiny will consist of examining not just the claim form that the Member has signed, but the evidence submitted with that claim—for example, invoices, receipts, statements, or any other documentary evidence that supports the evidence of the transaction. The NAO will be in a position to carry out the “full scope” audit because, as well as clear rules in the Green Book, there will be a requirement for no claim save those under £25 to be met unless it is submitted with a receipt or other evidence confirming the transaction.
I thank the Members Estimate Audit Committee, including its four independent members and, in particular, its Chair, the former shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). This is not glamorous work, but it is very important and the right hon. Lady’s report contains the proposals for the robust and independent audit for which the motion seeks the House’s support.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend now believe, on reflection, that it was not correct for anyone to try to secure an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act? Will she give a commitment that, while she is Leader of the House, no attempt will be made by Members of Parliament who passed the legislation on freedom of information to exempt themselves?
As a member of the Members Estimate Audit Committee, I want to make one thing absolutely clear, given comment in the media about the £25 threshold. That threshold has the full support of the National Audit Office and the independent members of the Members Estimate Audit Committee, and the NAO has confirmed its belief that it is a proper and proportionate figure that allows it to make a full and comprehensive estimate, to its satisfaction, of the allowances that we claim.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the Members Estimate Audit Committee. As I have said, it is not glamorous work—it does not involve members of the Committee being carried through the streets of Sheffield to be thanked—but it is very important work, and the Committee has produced a substantial report.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The National Audit Office has said that as 99 per cent. of the amount paid in allowances is paid in response to claims for more than £25, only 1 per cent. of claims will be submitted without receipts. That means that 99 per cent. of claims can be subject to a full audit with the full documentary evidence behind it, which is normal auditing practice.
It is easy to become confused about all the various bodies involved in this process. As my right hon. and learned Friend says, it is good and right and true that there is an independent element in the Members Estimate Audit Committee, but there is no such element in the Members Estimate Committee, nor will there be in the new Committee of the House whose establishment is proposed. The body that did advise on allowances and did have an independent element—the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances—is to be abolished. If we are to secure confidence in the system, is it not important for us to ensure that there is a robust independent element in the procedures according to which we set the allowances?
It is right that there should be a robust independent element, and the “full scope” NAO audit should provide bottom-line confidence in, and reassurance on, that. It has been involved in our deliberations on, and construction of, the rules that we have drawn up with the independent advisers on APMA. If we pass the motion, the NAO will henceforth be permanently involved in scrutinising the allowances and making sure they are paid out only in accordance with these rules.
If we make APMA a Committee of this House, only Members of this House will be able to be members of that Committee; external, independent people will not be able to be full members of the Committee. The proposal is that those who have served so well as independent members of APMA will be advisers to the Committee on Members’ Allowances. I can say that the CAM will have no Government Members on it. APMA had members of the Government on it, but the CAM will not have a Government Member on it, and nor will it have a Government majority—it will not be constructed as Select and Standing Committees are, with a Government majority. Therefore, I think we have the right level of independent input and the right reassurances for the future.
May I add to what the Leader of the House has said in response to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)? Is it not also the case that whereas the previous Committee met in private and gave private advice, the great advance in what is proposed here is that this Committee will be open, so it will be able to take advice openly and everything it does will be subject to open scrutiny? Does she also agree that it will therefore have a much stronger and more open influence than the closed Committee that used to exist?
I absolutely agree with those points. In addition, the new Committee will be able to require evidence to be brought to it and to publish reports. I take nothing away from the work of APMA in the past; since it was set up in 2001, it has done a very important job. However, the next stage is to move it on to a full footing as a Committee of the House. I will deal with this matter a little later in my speech.
The third principle is that, over and above the clear rules and robust audit, the public should know who is spending, how much and on what. The motion before the House would effect a publication scheme that would put into the public domain more information than has hitherto been published, and in a form that is consistent year on year and comprehensible to the public. Until now, we have published information about expenses broken down into 14 categories. This motion would lead to publishing information in greater detail and in 26 categories. For example, the House authorities currently publish a single figure for “office running costs”, but under the proposed publication scheme, the House authorities will publish the information broken down into accommodation for offices and surgeries, “office equipment and supplies”, phones, “professional fees and charges”, “agency and other staff costs”, travel costs and utilities. So the single figure would be broken down into seven detailed categories for every Member for every year.
Can the Leader of the House reassure me that if, in line with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, any member of the public requests a detailed breakdown of the claims a Member makes against the public purse in any of these 26 categories, there will be full disclosure and people will have full access to that information?
The House authorities will comply with all the requests that are before them under the Freedom of Information Act—I think some 180 are in the pipeline—in the same way as they complied with the High Court judgment in respect of freedom of information requests for all the receipts of 14 Members.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that if we can show during this debate that a slightly different breakdown—and, perhaps, a more detailed breakdown, splitting one or two of these subjects—would provide even greater transparency and end confusion to the public, she will accept such an amendment?
I am aware that the hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment, which was not selected, that breaks down one of the categories by separating “service charges” from
“utilities, telecommunications, maintenance and repairs”.
That makes sense, and it will be possible to review the categories from time to time. If the hon. Gentleman’s amendment had been selected, we would not have opposed it—we would have accepted it—and then that change to the categories would have been made. However, we should not change the categories too often, because it is important for the public to be able to see year by year how things change, and if we change the categories, they will not be able to see that broad picture. Therefore, because the hon. Gentleman’s perfectly sensible amendment was not selected, we will go forward—with, I hope, the support of the House—with the 26 categories that we have listed in the motion.
Like everyone else I am sure, I am very pleased there will be greater transparency, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that had we been foolish enough to have continued with the earlier attempt to exempt ourselves from the freedom of information legislation, there would inevitably have been a feeling that we were trying to hide various amounts? That would have undermined all the good work that is rightly being done to let the public know all the necessary information. Bearing in mind last year’s attempt to exempt ourselves completely from the freedom of information legislation—the very law we passed for other people—can my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear that there will be no attempt at any stage in the future to exempt ourselves from that legislation?
The private Member’s Bill to which my hon. Friend refers sought to remove the obligations of the Freedom of Information Act from the House authorities in respect of Members’ allowances, but it did not put anything in its place. Our approach would have been to introduce a publication scheme that would have provided the public with the information they need about Members, and therefore it could have taken the place of those provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. For reasons I will come to later in my speech, we are not bringing that forward. What I am proposing to the House is the four motions before us today. I am not proposing the Freedom of Information Act statutory instrument; I am proposing the new Green Book, the audit and assurance, the publication scheme and the new Committee of the House.
I was interested by the answer the Leader of the House gave to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that if freedom of information requests seek to go further than her 26-category scheme, the House will accede to those requests. The House announced last July after the High Court ruling that we would publish down to receipt level. Today, the right hon. and learned Lady is introducing a 26-category scheme. If we are to be compelled to answer queries going down to receipt level in the way she has described, will we not in fact be leaving randomly in the hands of freedom of information applicants the decision as to which Members’ information comes out to receipt level and which Members’ information simply comes down to a category level? Has not this House previously always taken the view that the rule for one is the rule for all?
If, as I hope, we pass this motion on the publication scheme, every year the public will be able to see this information on every Member without there being any freedom of information request. As a matter of routine, information on what each Member has actually spent in any year will be brought forward and published, and broken down into 26 detailed categories.
There is also a question to do with Freedom of Information Act requests—both those that have already been made and have not yet been complied with and those that might be made in the future. The House authorities, the data holders, will decide, according to the law as it stands, what their obligations are in responding to those requests for information.
Precisely so. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) is a long-standing member of the Members Estimate Committee, to which I pay tribute. He rightly points out that the MEC has said that if it is fair for information to be given out in respect of one Member because somebody has requested it, the same information should be given out in respect of every Member. It is my understanding that nobody need worry that any Member will be left out, because the 180 Freedom of Information Act requests in the pipeline cover every Member of the House. We will decide the publication scheme and the House authorities will implement it. It is important that the public are able to see the information according to these categories.
The other aspect is the request for receipts down to individual receipt level. I understand that 1.2 million such receipts have been the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests. The House authorities have been scanning the receipts since last summer, so that they can be disclosed. The scanning—a massive task—has not yet been completed, but it will be soon. Of course, the receipts have to be redacted before they are published. Before anybody thinks that there is any sort of cover up in relation to the redaction—redaction means crossing out things with a black felt tip pen or with the electronic equivalent—may I point out that the receipts contain information that it would not be right to put into the public domain? For example, an hon. Member might buy a ream of paper from a stationer’s and at the same time purchase a Valentine’s card. Of course they would pay for that themselves, but the receipt showing “purchased: one lurid Valentine’s card” should not be put into the public domain. The claim for a ream of paper on the allowances, however, should be put into the public domain. Information about things that Members have paid for themselves must be crossed out on these receipts.
Indeed, we identified that need when we saw the claims made by the hon. Member for North Devon. The House authorities gave us an example, from which we could see where he shopped—he is a man of regular habits—and how he paid, and at what time and on what day. That information need not be put into the public domain—unless one wants to meet him at one of his regular shopping venues. Intriguingly, we were also able to learn what shampoo and hair conditioner he buys; clearly he was not claiming those purchases on the parliamentary allowance, but they caught my eye when I saw the unredacted receipts. The serious point is that the House authorities have been hard at work making sure that the public are given the information to which they are entitled under the freedom of information provisions, but we must not tip into the public domain a load of personal and private information in respect of which no claim has been made.