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Commons Chamber

Volume 487: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

House of Commons

Monday 26 January 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Testing and Assessment

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the educational testing and assessment regime. (250608)

Ofqual monitors standards of qualifications and assessments. It reported in July that standards are being maintained. As a result of the unacceptable problems with the delivery of last year’s national curriculum tests, we set up the Sutherland inquiry, and we expect to respond shortly to Lord Sutherland’s report. We have also established an expert group to advise on improvements to assessment arrangements, and we are trialling new ways of assessing key stage 2 pupils through the Making Good Progress pilots.

Can the Minister tell us what effective contingency plans he has put in place for this coming summer?

The procurement for this summer’s key stage 2 tests has gone well, as has been reported to the House, and it has now been awarded to Edexcel. The hon. Gentleman will know that Edexcel operated the standard assessment tests contract between 2005 and 2007, delivering double the number of SATs that it will have to deliver this summer. I am confident that we have everything in place to ensure that we have a successful round this summer.

Does the Minister understand that a lot of Members of Parliament across the political spectrum have sympathy for the teachers and head teachers who think that the Ofsted regime is run by people who could never hold down a classroom and who have been promoted out of their positions? I am talking about all those people from the chief inspector downwards. They ought to be obliged to return to a teaching situation for a year, every two years, before they can make any reasonable and valid assessment of the qualities of their peers who are struggling in the profession. This needs to be looked at, because some of the assessments that are being made are grossly unfair.

Naturally, I listen carefully to the concerns of head teachers and teachers. I also listen carefully to what the Select Committee says. Ofsted is a non-ministerial department, as my hon. Friend knows, and it is accountable through the Select Committee. I have every confidence in the work of the chief inspector and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just whispered to me, to suggest that she should go back into the classroom every two years would be like suggesting that Alex Ferguson should go back to playing football every couple of seasons.

May I ask the Minister also to consider the means of assessment and, in particular, the use of course work for GCSEs and AS-levels? As a parent of teenagers, I know that many of them regard this form of assessment as laughable. It might be assessing the candidates, but it might also be assessing the work of their elder sibling, their parents or their friends—no one can be confident that it is assessing the work of the candidates themselves. Will the Minister accept that this experiment is failing, because it is not providing fair assessment, and look again at how best to obtain accurate results in these important exams for young people?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that they are important exams. Indeed, my son is currently doing his course work for his second year of A-levels. He is taking the work extremely seriously—I hope—and this is the subject of much discussion. Course work is important, and it is important that it is completed properly. It varies between different subjects, and we have reduced the amount of course work as a component of certain GCSEs. I am confident that we have now struck the right balance in each of the different subjects. For example, as someone who studied geography to degree level, I know that course work is a really important element in that subject, and it should remain so.

My right hon. Friend will realise that SATs for 11-year-olds are not conducted in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. What is the educational rationale for conducting them in England, when we know how disruptive they are for 11-year-olds? Would an alternative not be better? Will he accept the recommendations and findings of the expert group, including those that head teachers are now putting forward?

Obviously we are looking forward to hearing what the expert group has to say to us. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question about the educational rationale, because it gives me an opportunity to say that it is about success and about what works. He will be aware that the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study—TIMMS—international evaluation of maths and science showed that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe in those subjects, in part thanks to the test regime.

May I first wish the Minister’s son good luck in his A-levels? I was surprised to hear that he is sitting his A-levels, because the Minister does not look old enough to have a son in the second year of the sixth form.

The Minister mentioned the exam regulator Ofqual, which is supposed to ensure that test standards are robust. Does he support its decision to order an exam board to lower marks in the latest set of GCSEs, and to make the exams easier with a pass mark of just 20 per cent.?

I would dispute the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of that particular debate. There are three examination boards, as I recall, in respect of GCSEs, and one of them had a different view from the other two. In order to carry out its function properly, Ofqual decided that it was necessary to have some consistency across the board. That was what informed its decision. It was not about dumbing down; Ofqual has been very robust about that.

Ofqual was not robust enough. As the Minister knows, it deliberately told one exam board to lower its marks. That exam board did so under protest and said that GCSEs would no longer be comparable with exams taken in the past. The Minister also knows that one of our leading headmasters has said that the new science GCSE has a

“terrifying absence of real science”.

Another leading headmaster said that its content had been reduced so that it was no longer appropriate for intelligent students. One hundred and eighty-seven independent schools now do not take the Government’s GCSEs and they do not bother with the Government’s league tables; they prefer the international GCSE, which the Government’s own watchdog has acknowledged is “more demanding”. We now have a system that has been compared by one headmaster to that of South Africa, where richer students can take more prestigious exams and poorer students are denied the same opportunities. Will the Minister ensure that opportunity is made more equal and insist that state schools can offer the more robust IGSCEs?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Ofqual has been clear that it is confident that standards have been maintained across the GCSEs. I also remind him that the study and taking of GCSEs in science in single subjects has doubled in recent years. I further remind him—and hope he celebrates the fact—that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe at science, thanks to the education they receive in our maintained schools. As far as the IGCSE is concerned, the jury is still out. As I recall, the maths IGSCE, which is very popular among certain members of the independent sector, does not have a non-calculator paper, whereas I think it is important that we assess mental arithmetic and give people that sort of rigour, free of the calculator.


2. What steps he plans to take to increase the number of apprenticeships for 16 and 17- year-olds. (250609)

In 2007-08, a record 225,000 people started apprenticeships, and 107,000 of those were aged 16 to 18. Provisions in the forthcoming Children, Skills and Learning Bill will guarantee an apprenticeship place for all suitably qualified young people by 2013 and are key to delivering our ambition for one in five young people to be in an apprenticeship by the end of the next decade.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which is in sharp contrast to what is happening in Scotland. Is she aware that third and fourth year time-served apprentices are being laid off in my East Lothian constituency and throughout Scotland, and are unable to complete their training. Does she agree that the Scottish Executive and the First Minister need to prioritise jobs, training and skills and follow the example of Northern Ireland, where apprentices are guaranteed to finish their training no matter what?

It is certainly a disappointment that the Scottish Executive are not taking the situation of young apprentices seriously. We have recently announced an additional £140 million, which will provide an additional 35,000 apprentice places this year, many of which we hope will be for 16 to 18-year-old apprenticeships. It is a pity about the proposed cuts by the Opposition parties, as if they were to be felt in the apprenticeships—

I am slightly confused, so I want to ask the Minister a question that is genuinely about seeking knowledge. Should I be encouraging youngsters—and employers on their behalf—in towns like Bicester to stay on at school to do a diploma in engineering, or should I be encouraging them to leave school at 16 to try to find an apprenticeship? I am just a bit confused by the overlap between diplomas and apprenticeships in vocational qualifications.

What we want to do is ensure that young people have the information, advice and guidance they need to know what options are available to them. Either of those two options is a route towards a higher-level degree. The route is either through an apprenticeship, which is occupation-specific, or through a diploma, which is wider and more sector-specific. It is important to give the right advice and guidance to young people to enable them to choose the correct route for them. Either route is acceptable to a university: we have already been told by Oxford and Cambridge this year that they will accept the advanced diploma in engineering as a qualification for their undergraduate courses.

I visited TEi engineering in Wakefield this summer. The company, through apprenticeship schemes, is training the next generation of welders to build the next generation of eco-power stations. May I invite my hon. Friend to visit TEi, where apprenticeships have trebled? What assessment has she made of proposals to increase the Department’s budget by just 1 per cent. this year, which would cut 100,000 apprenticeship places nationally?

Unlike other parties, we are certainly not proposing to restrict growth to just 1 per cent. this year and it would be a real shame if we were cutting 100,000 places for 16 to 18-year-olds, which we do not intend to do. We will increase the number of apprenticeships available. I have a number of visits going forward this year, and I always like to visit places where I can see quality apprenticeships for young people.

Given that the Government intend to raise the education leaving age to 18 by 2015, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities have access in terms of apprenticeships and other opportunities to courses that will mean that the change of policy benefits rather than hurts them?

It is certainly my intention that we ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities are fully able to take advantage of all the pathways that we have on offer. The foundation learning tier that we are developing will enable people to get on to the first level and to get on to those pathways. I am also ensuring in my talks with employers who work in partnership with schools that they pay specific attention to how they will include children with special educational needs and disabilities in those programmes.

Secondary Schools (Bury)

I start by commending all those schools around the country that are this week engaged in activities to commemorate Holocaust memorial day, which is tomorrow. I encourage all Members to sign the condolences book, which is on offer in the House.

On the subject of Building Schools for the Future, in the coming month we will publish updated plans for all areas, including the 70 that are coming into the programme for the first time. I can confirm that that will include Bury.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for visiting Bury the other week, when he listened so carefully to the case made by the local authority. I thank him in particular for his visit to my old primary school, the excellent East Ward primary. Can he see anything that would put at risk the plans put forward by the local authority in Bury for the rebuilding and refurbishment of its secondary school estate?

I commend the plans, which Bury has submitted, and also commend Broad Oak college and East Ward primary for the innovative proposal that they have put in as part of those plans. I also congratulate Broad Oak college on its acceptance into the trust programme and on the large jump in results in the last year, which has taken it above our 30 per cent. threshold. As we discussed when I visited the school, there is nothing in our plans that would mean those schools not going ahead, because we are not committed to a £4.5 billion cut to the Building Schools for the Future programme, which would mean hundreds of schools not going ahead. I can reassure my hon. Friend that Labour Members will not be taking forward cuts on that scale.

But does the Secretary of State not accept that in Bury and elsewhere there are many concerns about the Chancellor’s plans to bring forward capital expenditure? Just weeks after his announcement in the pre-Budget report in November, the Learning and Skills Council put on hold future college capital building, and we now learn that many schools are affected by the hold-ups in private finance initiative transactions. Will he assure us that he will get together with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to ensure that the money that was promised to be brought forward in colleges and schools does actually materialise?

I would encourage local authorities around the country to work with us to bring forward those capital projects in the school building system. That is a vital thing to do to support the economy at this time. On PFI, the evidence, which was set out last week by the Minister for Schools and Learners, is that we have a number of PFI providers coming forward to support the market at what is a difficult time. In the case of the FE sector, there is no freeze on capital projects; in fact, there has actually been an increase in the number of projects that have been coming through. It is important that they are assessed properly, but there has not been a freeze. This party will not be cutting schools building or FE capital building. We will be expanding them, and I only wish we had cross-party support on that.

My right hon. Friend will know that following the Select Committee’s meeting last week, some people in Bury may have been temporarily rather worried about the future of their school building programme. What he has said today has provided some reassurance, but is it not the case that many of the projects involving both further education and schools are aimed at regeneration, and that to stop them now would have an enormous effect on the regeneration of our towns and cities?

That is exactly why it is important for us not to stop the plans but to accelerate them, and that is what we are doing with Building Schools for the Future, with FE capital and with the primary capital programme. It is vital that we provide those programmes, and that we support the PFI market at this time. I hope that the prospect of a loan of £300 million from the European Investment Bank will also be welcomed.

Because the FE schemes are important, they must be assessed properly by the Learning and Skills Council, and the proper finance needs to be in place. However, along with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, we are committed to doing all that we can to proceed with those projects so that we can continue to support our economies and, as my hon. Friend suggests, support regeneration.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s detailed reply to the question from the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), but will he give a clear answer to this question? Despite warnings from the construction industry last week that the Government’s plans to refurbish schools through Building Schools for the Future had ground to a halt, and although just two new PFI schemes have been agreed in the past six months, is he sure—and can he give us a guarantee—that not a single one of the 115 PFI school projects that are due to be delivered next year, including those in Bury, will be delayed any further?

The fact is that we are ahead of schedule with Building Schools for the Future. We have already reached the 50th school, which is ahead of the objective that we set. As I said, a £300 million EIB loan is being discussed, and six new lenders are coming forward. The real threat to school building in our country comes not from our plans to expand school building, but from the £4.5 billion cut proposed by the Conservative party. Conservative Members do not like talking about that, but it is the reality on the ground for schools and governing bodies around the country.


The young apprenticeship programme for 14 to 16-year-olds is a successful pilot that has been available in selected areas since 2004. The budget for 2009-10 is £31.75 million, and is administered by the Learning and Skills Council. The programme will support some 9,000 learners.

Is the Minister aware that secondary schools in my constituency are aligning their timetables to provide a wider range of vocational opportunities for young people, partly by playing to the strengths of each school? Can she confirm that funding will continue for initiatives of that kind as well as for young apprenticeships, at least under the present Government?

My hon. Friend is a good advocate for her local authority and for young people in her local school.

Partnership working is key to all parts of our education system, but is particularly relevant to the 14-to-19 and 14-to-16 age groups. The young apprenticeship programme brings together employers and young people while they are learning at school. We are also piloting young apprenticeship schemes alongside diplomas, which, as we roll out new lines, will offer even more mechanisms for partnership working.

In her earlier answer, the Minister acknowledged that there were almost 100,000 fewer apprenticeships this year than the Prime Minister had anticipated in his announcement in 2003. If we can only achieve a figure of around 230,000 after the years of boom, how many apprenticeships does she think there will be next year, during the years of bust?

I assure the hon. Lady that we intend to increase the number of apprenticeship places. I remind her that we recently announced investment of £140 million with a target of an additional 35,000 places, many of which we are trying to create in the public sector. There is an untapped opportunity there, which the Government are looking into.

My hon. Friend is much in demand today as I, too, would like to invite her to my constituency to visit the new West Lancashire construction academy. It is a state-of-the-art facility offering training and apprenticeships in the construction industry, and we will need those skills in preparation for the return of demand in the housing market and, of course, for the building of affordable housing, especially in my constituency.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must look to the future. I also agree with something that was said at a summit I attended recently: the lesson has been learned that after coming out of downturns the biggest regret has always been that people did not invest sufficiently in training. We are certainly not going to make that mistake. If I go on a regional tour, after I have been through Yorkshire I am sure it will not be too far to visit the north-west, and I will certainly try to find time to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency.

On her tour, would the Minister care to call in at Castle Point in Essex? We should all welcome the Government’s apprenticeships initiative. It is important, particularly in the current economic environment, that we invest for the future. Will the Minister be spending any additional funding to try to get employers involved in targeting this particular age group, in order to make sure they understand both that there is relevance in what they are doing and that there is a future opportunity for them with real employees on work-based schemes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, I did not study geography at A-level, but even I would struggle to think of Essex as on the way from Wakefield up through the north-west. On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, however, getting employers involved is certainly crucial. Just last month we published our building stronger partnerships employer engagement strategy. It is important to get employers involved as early as possible in the education of young people. There are benefits on both sides—for schools and employers. By working closely together, we can get the benefits to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

AS and A-levels

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the examination regime for AS-levels and A-levels. (250612)

Changes to AS and A-levels that have been introduced this year will maintain them as highly valued and internationally recognised qualifications. We are establishing Ofqual as a fully independent regulator to ensure continued confidence in the examinations regime. We are also establishing advanced diplomas as a genuine alternative for young people who want a different learning experience.

The Minister talked about “highly valued” and “internationally recognised” qualifications. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said, however, that the coursework for AS-level modules was “laughable”. Even more risible is the fact that if a pupil does not do particularly well, they can take them again and again until they get a good result, and that contributes to their A-level result. Please will the Minister explain why so many top private schools are starting to leave the A-level system because they do not believe A-levels give a satisfactory result, and are choosing the international baccalaureate instead? Charterhouse has done just that this weekend.

I noted Charterhouse’s advocacy of the pre-U, which is an international qualification with a global dimension. It is an interesting qualification, but far and away the majority of schools are still doing the A-level and they should continue to do so. It is also still an extremely popular export from this country, and we should be proud of it. We should note, too, the reforms that are taking place to the A-level, such as its moving from six to four modules, the use of the extended project, and the introduction of the A* and more open-ended synoptic questions with longer written answers—of which I am sure that, during an examination, even the hon. Gentleman might approve.

Is the Minister as worried as we are about the growing divide in achievement at A-level and beyond? In 2007, 264 comprehensive schools failed to enter a single pupil for A-level geography, denying today’s pupils the opportunity the Minister had when he was a sixth-former. Also, 47 per cent. of the A* grades in GCSE French went to pupils in the independent sector, which educates just 7 per cent. of pupils, and 45 per cent. of children qualifying for free school meals failed to achieve a single GCSE above grade D. Are not the lack of direction in the Government’s education policy, the overloading of initiatives and the Government’s failure to understand the core problems in our weaker secondary schools letting down the most disadvantaged children in our society and failing to ensure that education for these children is a ladder out of poverty?

I got a grade A. At that time, the A-level was an elite qualification, taken by a very small proportion of the population. It was taken, disproportionately, by far more people such as myself, who came from private schools rather than the maintained sector. That has radically changed as we have opened up access to education and made the system much fairer. I am proud of the improvement in A-level results that has taken place over the past 11 years. I am particularly pleased to see the increase in the number of entrants for maths, further maths and physics. We have a really good record on A-levels, and I do not want to indulge the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) too much longer in his attempt to rubbish those achievements.

Child Abuse

National data show that 29,200 children were the subject of a child protection plan at 31 March 2008. Children are given a plan where there are concerns about their safety and welfare as specified in the Government’s guidance “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, published in 2006. Some 45 per cent. of the plans arose from neglect, 25 per cent. from emotional abuse, 15 per cent. from physical abuse, 7 per cent. from sexual abuse and 8 per cent. from multiple abuses of children.

I thank the Minister for her reply, sad as it is. Sometimes it appears that the Government operate like a fire brigade when a crisis appears in a particular children’s services department. Does she agree that regular training in safeguarding for the whole of the children’s work force is crucial to ensuring that the number of incidents is reduced and that professionals recognise the early warning signs of abuse? Furthermore, what action will the Government take to give leadership to show our society that hitting and abusing children is wrong?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question—I know that she takes a great deal of interest in, and is very knowledgeable about, these issues. She will know that following the death of Victoria Climbié and Lord Laming’s review, there was a wholesale radical transformation of local arrangements, with a focus on safeguarding. Those arrangements are largely working, but they depend on effective implementation in every local area. She is right to say that that crucially depends on the quality, experience and training of the people operating the system at every level. That is why we published the work force strategy; it is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced today the taskforce that will specifically examine the training needs of, and issues associated with the work of, social workers and their managers; and it is why we announced leadership training for directors of children’s services and managers, to be provided through the National College for School Leadership.

I know that the hon. Lady is alluding to smacking, but I am sure she would not wish to bracket together good parents who feel that sometimes it is necessary to smack with those who consistently abuse children. Although it is good that parents are moving away from smacking—I support that—we have no intention of criminalising the vast majority of parents, who do a very good job with their children.

Will my right hon. Friend refer to the letter that I sent her last week about examining the failures in Birmingham’s safeguarding children services? As was revealed in this weekend’s Sunday Mercury—my local Sunday newspaper —15 children’s lives have been lost over the past four years in the local authority area, and that is wholly unacceptable. Will she intervene to provide good leadership in that local authority in order to ensure that that number is reduced?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. One way in which the 2004 legislation transformed safeguarding arrangements was that it introduced powers for Ministers to act and intervene, and we have recently seen those powers used very publicly. My officials went into Birmingham on 17 December, they have met council officials and they will be reporting to me shortly with recommendations for action in relation to that particular local authority, which, as he said, appears to be in serious difficulty.

Before Christmas, the Secretary of State kindly said that he would reverse the Department’s policy of instructing local authorities not to give me the lists of serious case reviews following the deaths of children from suspected abuse and neglect. I thank him for that, but when will it happen?

As far as we are aware, that instruction has been given, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and clarify the situation for him.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Blackpool council finds that if children are abused in families, those families also often suffer domestic violence and other problems? As a result, the council has developed inter-agency working. Will she ensure that those working not only in children’s services but in other agencies that have dealings with children are aware of the importance of working together to prevent incidents of child abuse?

Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these issues in Blackpool, which faces particular challenges from people moving in and out of the area. Any issue that impairs an adult’s ability to parent their child, whether it is domestic violence, substance misuse or a mental health problem, should raise questions about child protection or development in the minds of those working with the parent that should be explored. It is important that agencies that work with children work together with agencies that work with children and adults and that both “think family” rather than one or the other.

I deplore any case of child abuse, but on Saturday evening, as president of the Majestic theatre group in Macclesfield, I attended a pantomime production of “The Little Mermaid”, in which many young children took part—something that I greatly encourage. What surprised and concerned me was the number of chaperones that the theatre had to provide so that those children could participate. Is not that overkill, and will the Minister look at the situation to see whether the burden placed on such groups might be reduced?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman enjoyed the performance. Unfortunately, I have not seen that production so I do not know how young the children are or how many are involved. However, I am sure that he would want to err on the side of caution, as would many parents. In the case of very young children—say, under seven—a fair few adults are needed to ensure their safety, not just because of the possibility of molestation but because there are many health and safety risks backstage. I will look at the issue and if there are matters to address, we will be happy to do so.

While the massive extension of children’s centres and Sure Start by the Government must have had an impact in identifying children who are abused, unfortunately many parents still do not access those services. What are we doing to try to ensure that we access them?

Of course, one thing that we are doing is putting in additional resources for outreach workers to knock on doors and develop relationships with some of those disadvantaged families who find it difficult initially even to walk up to a children’s centre. The Opposition would cut the funding for those outreach workers, and if that were to happen, the ability of children’s centres to reach those families would be seriously impaired.

One would have hoped that the Minister would not try to make party political capital when talking about such serious issues.

I hope that the Minister will at least agree that the role of social workers in child protection is critical. How confident is she that the current level of training for social workers is adequate, and that the standard is the same across the country?

In a sense, when it comes to political commitment the proof of the pudding is in the resources that political parties put into particular issues and the focus that they place on them. That is why I drew attention to the difference between the hon. Gentleman’s party and mine—

Order. I am going to give a ruling. Let us not draw attention to the party opposite. It is the job of a Minister to answer for the Department that they represent.

I am grateful to the Minister for her comments about the action that she has taken in relation to Birmingham and for her stress on children and parents in the intervention. In some parts of Birmingham, such as Quinton, where we have a safe haven system, the police and schools work together extremely successfully. Will she therefore ensure that the education authorities where police and schools work together to prevent children coming on to the at risk register in the first place roll out their good practice across the entire authority?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the focus of the children’s trusts, which we will strengthen to ensure the integration and close working together of all those agencies, which should take responsibility locally and together for whatever measures need to be taken to protect children in their area.

Let me bring the Minister back to her own policies. One of the common themes to have come out of the Baby P disaster and other child deaths has been the high level of case loads on social workers, the increasing time that they spend in front of computer screens filling in assessments and the high vacancy rate that a Unison report today described as a “ticking time bomb” that will lead to further child deaths. Today the Government start the £224 million computer project, ContactPoint. Which does she think is more likely to protect vulnerable children: investing in more permanent and appropriately trained social workers and reducing their case load or throwing money at another expensive data disaster waiting to happen, which will further take key professionals away from the sharp end of personal contact and the security of which she has declined to guarantee?

It is not an either/or situation. That is the difference with this Government. We are committed to both those things, not one or the other. It is very important that social workers get the training that they need. Lord Laming is looking at that and the taskforce that we have set up is looking at it in detail. It is vital—this came directly from the Victoria Climbié inquiry—that when different people, such as social workers, health visitors and police officers, are working in a family, they know very quickly who else is involved so they can put their piece of the jigsaw into the whole picture. That has been the failing discovered in almost every inquiry into a child death. ContactPoint will do that—we are funding it, the Opposition will not.

Schools (East Midlands)

So far, eight schools in the east midlands have become trust schools under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. A further 27 are in a support programme and working towards trust status.

The case for trust schools still seems rather unconvincing, in that they create a further level of bureaucracy with which heads and staff have to grapple. They can potentially fragment and undermine school collaboration. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that we are not opening doors for private individuals and organisations to exploit their curricular interests when better resourced local authorities could give the necessary advice and support to community schools to help them improve?

Of course, trust schools remain maintained schools and therefore part of the local authority family. The reality on the ground is that most of the trusts that have been set up are collaborative trusts between schools. The point is that they make it possible in a more effective way for schools to work together to raise standards and use their expertise. I would say to my hon. Friend, who is a Labour and Co-operative party MP, that we are taking forward proposals for 100 co-operative trust schools, which will take the ideals of the co-op movement with extra finance to ensure that we have more co-operative trust schools. I hope that a co-operative trust school might be something that he could support in his constituency and that might help to raise standards.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be wholly wrong for a secondary school in a constituency, whether it was a trust school or another school, to be closed, demolished and not replaced if it was in a growth area?

It would depend on the local authority’s plans. It would also depend on the results that the school was achieving. If councils are making those decisions despite what is happening to standards, that would be entirely the wrong thing to do. If they are making the decisions as part of an overall attempt to improve the school buildings and to raise standards, that might well be the right thing to do. The hon. Gentleman will have to give me more details of the particular case so that I can give him a fuller answer.

Youth Services (Derbyshire)

Local authorities receive funding for youth services from Government through the formula funding. Next year, that funding will increase by 6.4 per cent. In addition, around £1.2 million is also being allocated to Derbyshire next year through the positive activities for young people programme and the youth opportunity and youth capital funds. Over £3 million has also been secured to improve youth facilities in Chesterfield through the myplace programme.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, which is good news for children in my constituency. I only wish that such funding for youth services had been available when I was a member of Derbyshire county council between 1993 and 1997. Then, because youth services were not on a statutory footing, they were especially vulnerable to the savage cuts imposed by the Conservative Government of the day. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that measures are in place to protect the funding for youth services? That funding should be on a statutory basis and so not vulnerable to the sort of behaviour that we had from the Opposition in those years long ago.

I can tell my hon. Friend that, precisely for the reasons that he has identified, this Government have placed significant new duties on local authorities to ensure that all young people can get access to a wide range of positive activities. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 requires local authorities to secure positive activities and facilities for young people in their area, to take into account young people’s views on what that provision should be, to publicise it and to consider alternative third-sector providers. Failure by local authorities to fulfil those duties could result in intervention by the Secretary of State. That is a measure of our commitment to extending the opportunities for young people.

Youth Services (Funding)

9. If he will bring forward proposals for the funding of youth facilities to ensure their long-term stability; and if he will make a statement. (250616)

Through myplace, the Government are investing over £200 million of capital funding to deliver new and upgraded world-class facilities for young people. Each project will be endorsed by the local authority chief executive, so that so we can be sure of its long-term revenue sustainability. The Government already provide all local authorities with significant additional revenue funding to help them fulfil the statutory duties to which I have just referred and provide all young people with access to positive activities and youth facilities.

With regard to the funding of youth facilities, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a difficulty? While the amount available for new projects from both charitable and Government sources is still fairly large, the amount available for core funding is shrinking. The danger is that many very worthwhile projects, such as the Pennywell youth project in my constituency, will find themselves out of business in due course unless some long-term funding arrangements can be put in place.

My hon. Friend is not actually correct to say that the core revenue funding is shrinking. In fact, it has increased: there will be £620 million in resource funding for youth services over this comprehensive spending review period. That is an increase on the same period in 2008 of £125 million, and it shows that substantial new revenue money is going to local authorities. One problem is that, for most of the funding streams, it is largely up to local authorities how they spend the money. I know that my hon. Friend has written to me about a particular project in the north-east and I should be happy to talk to him about it. It receives substantial local authority funding, but I think that it faces some uncertainty because other funding streams outwith the local authority have been withdrawn. I am happy to see whether we can find a solution.

Topical Questions

In written ministerial statements today, I have confirmed that ContactPoint, the online directory recommended by Lord Laming after the Victoria Climbié inquiry, has been activated today. Training has begun, as we prepare for it to be fully operational across the country by the summer. I have also announced the membership of the new social work taskforce, and more details of its reform remit. I can tell the House that I have asked the taskforce, specifically and as a priority, to carry out a review of the effectiveness of integrated children’s systems, as well as of their procurement and the IT systems used in them. The aim is to help social workers to strike the right balance between keeping detailed records of their cases—as they must—and spending more time with vulnerable children.

We will publish Lord Laming’s progress report on safeguarding next month. Alongside that, the actions that I have announced today will be vital to keeping children safe. I hope that we can achieve a consensus on all the reforms, not just between practitioners and children’s experts but on both sides of the House.

The recent Sutton Trust survey found that just a quarter of teachers think that the upcoming diplomas are suitable for academically able children, while only 20 per cent. thought that they were appropriate to would-be university students. After a morning talking to admissions staff at Oxford university, may I ask the Secretary of State how we can avoid the danger of an ever-widening social divide between students of the best state and independent sector schools, who are set on academic paths, and the rest, who never get remotely close to such golden opportunities?

Given the Conservative party’s obsession with private schools today, may I tell my hon. Friend that I am very pleased that Wellington college will indeed offer the engineering diploma to advanced students and that Cambridge university has said the engineering diploma and its maths component will provide better preparation for engineering at Cambridge than doing maths A-level? It will take time to build up the programme—we are taking a careful step-by-step approach—but the fact is that this is our best chance to break the old two-tier divide between academic and vocational qualifications. That is why I hope that that will gain support not only from all teachers and all universities, but from all political parties—again, something that is proving elusive.

T3. The Southend Echo has recently highlighted that truancy in the Southend area is three times the national average in some cases. What can the Department advise Southend, looking at best practices from other areas that have had poor truancy levels and that have turned the situation around? (250669)

Certainly, we look carefully at best practice in respect of truancy. That is one of the reasons why, for example, we have introduced text-messaging software in schools with high attendance problems. That has led to a significant improvements. Sir Alan Steer, who before he retired was in a school in the east of London, perhaps not a million miles away from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, continues to do his work with us on improving behaviour generally. Obviously, attendance and learning best practice are a key part of his work.

T6. Manor Church of England secondary school had the third best exam results for a secondary state school in Yorkshire. Its brand new school, funded with more than £13 million of Government money, is nearing completion on time and to budget, thanks to the leadership of the diocesan board of education and the school itself. When the Tories were in power, they spent less than £1 million a year on capital for schools in York; this Labour Government have been spending more than £10 million a year. Will the Secretary of State come to visit that fantastic new school to see just what that money is buying for pupils and parents? (250672)

I would be honoured to do so, to see the way in which our capital investment programme is improving standards right across the country, including in York, and if my hon. Friend needs to discuss any issues about that school, I will take them up at that time. We will expand capital investment in our schools. We will not cut the Building Schools for the Future programme.

T4. The Minister for Schools and Learners spoke earlier with justifiable pride of his A grade in geography A-level, but is he not aware that huge numbers of academics—not just from private schools, but, for instance, the authorities at Cambridge university—are very unhappy with the devaluation of A-levels, as they see it? Does he not accept that the fact is that the devaluation of exams harms the pupils who take them, who can no longer be proud of getting an A grade, because people no longer hold them in the same regard? (250670)

We are setting up Ofqual as an independent monitor of examination standards to give confidence. We are confident that the standard of the A-level is being maintained, but it is important that that should be independent of the Government. I hope that, using his offices, the hon. Gentleman will ensure that the Conservative party supports the establishment of that independent authority.

T5. Are Ministers aware of the concern about the consultation on the new school admissions policy, which follows the Education and Skills Act 2008 coming into force at the end of November? The consultation deadline is 1 March, and the new admissions policy has to be in place by 15 April, so many schools are finding it difficult to hold a reasonable consultation. More widely, many parents are worried that as there will be every sort of admissions policy under the sun in one area, the system is becoming very unfriendly to parents and pupils who want to find out how to navigate a way through it. (250671)

That was a problem last year, as we discussed in this House, and we strengthened the law last year. It is essential that every school consults properly and makes sure that its admissions arrangements properly comply with the code. It is the local authorities’ duty to make sure that every school does that. We cannot have a situation in which parents are picked by schools; that is what happens in the private sector, where people pay for the privilege. In the state school system, we want parents to be able to choose schools, and that will happen only through fair admissions. That is our commitment.

T9. I heard the Secretary of State give guarantees to Bury about future spending. Nottingham city council is not in the first two tranches for primary school capital expenditure. We have been reassured that the money will still be available when it is our turn, but may I ask the Minister for Schools and Learners whether that is the case? Will he give us that guarantee, and say that there is no possibility of the future capital programme being cut? (250675)

Certainly, we are working closely with authorities such as Nottingham city council to ensure that its primary capital programme is up to standard, in terms of achieving the educational transformation that we want. I am grateful for this chance to encourage local authorities across England to take advantage of the opportunity that we have afforded them of bringing forward spend to invest in primary capital now, rather than having to wait until next year. We are continuing to encourage authorities to take up that offer.

T8. My constituent, Mr. Geoff Blurton, wishes to return to teaching after another career. He has four years’ teacher training experience, four years’ teaching experience overseas and two degrees. Despite the helpful intervention of the Minister for Schools and Learners, who looked at his case, the situation remains unresolved; Mr. Blurton is told that he has to undertake initial teacher training and go through the whole process again. As a result, he is considering taking up a teaching post in the private sector, rather than going back into state education. (250674)

I cannot comment on that particular case, but I hope that we can persuade the hon. Gentleman’s constituent to stay in the state system. I want to make sure that we do everything that we can to bring in all the people who want to do so, and who have the qualifications, to teach in our schools system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman was pleased with his meeting this morning with the Schools Minister—[Interruption.] I apologise; it is happening this afternoon. The meeting is to discuss the teaching of ocarina-playing in state schools. Following popular demand—people had no idea what an ocarina was in our last topical questions—I have brought one along to demonstrate. This is an ocarina.

With regard to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about ContactPoint, is he aware of, and does he give support to, the broad coalition of supporters of that important measure, which includes Barnardo’s, Action for Children, and the Association of Chief Police Officers? Can he give me any indication of whether that support among professionals who work with children and wish to keep them safe will be reflected by support on both sides of the House?

We will invest hundreds of millions of pounds in ContactPoint, which is designed to keep children safe. That is why it was proposed by Lord Laming, and is supported by Barnardo’s, the Association of Chief Police Offices, the chair of the Children’s Inter-Agency Group—which includes the Local Government Association, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health—and the Youth Justice Board. In fact, it is supported by practitioners and voluntary organisations across the children’s world. It is only the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who are out of step on this important child safety issue.

Will the Government encourage the regular, informal classroom testing of children? It has a good track record in instilling discipline, learning and competitiveness, and gives quick feedback to pupils, teachers and parents.

The answer is of course we will. We do not give formal guidance to schools on how to do informal testing, but we give advice. It is vital that it is done, and done well. It needs to be used to track the progress of every child. It is what good leaders do to raise standards, so of course we support it.

The project to transform special needs education in my constituency, the Thorns learning village, has been delayed owing to the bizarre decision of Dudley council not to apply for Building Schools for the Future money. Also, it has been reported that the council will not apply for money for free school dinners. What advice will my right hon. Friend give to my constituents, who are amazed by that decision—apart from advising them to vote Labour?

I could advise my hon. Friend to advise her local authority to apply again for the money that we have available. She should remind it that under this Government, there will be no cuts to expenditure such as she outlined, particularly on our pilots for free school meals and for special educational needs. Once again, I advise her local authority to reapply. The money is available for the particular constituents about whom my hon. Friend is concerned.

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families referred to youth facilities, which I understand the Thirsk Clock project will benefit from, but it is still left without permanent premises—a permanent home—and I understand that it is always difficult to get volunteers for the project. How can we work together to encourage more funding, long-term premises and a good stream of volunteers for the project, which helps homeless youngsters in Thirsk?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is talking about a youth facility such as a youth centre, or a specialist facility such as a foyer. The local authority should be leading on the project and bringing the agencies together, including, importantly, as she said, voluntary sector organisations with a great deal of expertise in working with disadvantaged young people. If there is an issue with a particular project and she would like to talk to me about it, I am happy to do so, but the responsibility initially lies with the local authority to bring those people together.

In view of the very tragic stabbing in east London last weekend, what are Ministers doing to bring down the disproportionate levels of school exclusions among young black men? There is a clear link between permanent school exclusion and gun and gang crime. We know that giving those boys and their parents the right support early on can bring down the level of exclusions, so what are the Government doing?

It is always important to listen in class, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I commend to her the work of Sir Alan Steer, who has not only made proposals and recommendations on how to tackle the issue, but in his career as a head teacher was an exemplar in reducing exclusions by motivating and supporting young men, including young black men, in his school in north-east London. He did a brilliant job, so his proposals to take those initiatives forward across the country deserve support, including from my hon. Friend.

Personal Statement

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a personal statement.

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for his fair and accurate report and to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for its equally fair conclusions. My failure to declare to the Registrar of Members’ Interests, within the time required, all the donations to my campaign for the deputy leadership of the Labour party was wrong. I note that the Committee fully accepts that I acted with “commendable speed to rectify” this once I had discovered the problem—indeed, a month before any complaint was made against me—and that there was “no intention to deceive”. I have always accepted full responsibility for this honest mistake and I apologise unreservedly to the House.

Bills Presented

Pharmaceutical Labelling (Warning of Cognitive Function Impairment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Mr. Virendra Sharma, John Austin, Clive Efford, Mike Gapes, Ms Karen Buck, Siobhain McDonagh, Judy Mallaber, Rob Marris and Mr. Chris Mullin, presented a Bill to make provision for a warning symbol to be prominently displayed on the packaging of pharmaceuticals which act on the brain and central nervous system so as to impair dangerously the consumer’s ability to carry out certain activities; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 30).

Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Shona McIsaac, Mr. Virendra Sharma, John Austin, Clive Efford, Mike Gapes, Ms Karen Buck, Siobhain McDonagh, Judy Mallaber, Rob Marris, Mr. Chris Mullin and Jim Sheridan, presented a Bill to make provision for the creation of an employers’ liability insurance bureau comprising an electronic database and a fund of last resort; to make provision about employers’ liability insurance; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 March, and to be printed (Bill 31).

British Museum Act 1963 (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Mr. Edward O’Hara, Clive Efford, Siobhain McDonagh, Rob Marris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, John Austin and Ms Karen Buck, presented a Bill to amend the British Museum Act 1963 to permit the transfer of artefacts in the British Museum; to confer powers on the Secretary of State to require the transfer of artefacts in specified circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 March, and to be printed (Bill 32).

Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Shona McIsaac, Clive Efford, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Mike Gapes, Ms Karen Buck, Siobhain McDonagh, Judy Mallaber, Rob Marris, Mr. Chris Mullin and Jim Sheridan, presented a Bill to provide that certain asbestos-related conditions are actionable personal injuries; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April, and to be printed (Bill 33).

Land Use (Gardens Protection Etc) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Shona McIsaac, Mr. Virendra Sharma, John Austin, Clive Efford, Ms Karen Buck, Siobhain McDonagh, Rob Marris and Mr. Chris Mullin, presented a Bill to make provision for the protection of gardens and urban green spaces; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 8 May, and to be printed (Bill 34).

Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Mike Gapes, Ms Karen Buck, Siobhain McDonagh, Rob Marris, Mr. Chris Mullin, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mr. Virendra Sharma and Mrs. Louise Ellman, presented a Bill to provide for the transfer from public museum and gallery collections of arts, artefacts and other objects stolen between 1933 and 1945 by or on behalf of the Nazi regime, its members and sympathisers; to provide for the return of such artefacts and objects to the lawful owners, their heirs and successors; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 May, and to be printed (Bill 35).

Crown Employment (Nationality) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Dr. Tony Wright, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Mike Gapes, Shona McIsaac, Rob Marris, Mr. Chris Mullin, John Austin, Clive Efford and Siobhain McDonagh, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the removal of general restrictions as to nationality which apply to persons employed or holding office in any civil capacity under the Crown; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 June, and to be printed (Bill 39).

Torture (Damages) (No. 2) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Mr. Virendra Sharma, John Austin, Clive Efford, Ms Karen Buck, Siobhain McDonagh, Rob Marris and Mr. Chris Mullin, presented a Bill to make provision for actions for damages for torture; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 June, and to be printed (Bill 40).

Illegally Logged Timber (Prohibition of Sale) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Mr. Virendra Sharma, John Austin, Clive Efford, Mike Gapes, Siobhain McDonagh, Judy Mallaber, Rob Marris, Mr. Chris Mullin and Barry Gardiner, presented a Bill to prohibit the sale in the United Kingdom of timber and wood products that were obtained or produced illegally in their country of origin; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June, and to be printed (Bill 41).

Human Rights Act 1998 (Meaning of Public Authority) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Mr. Virendra Sharma, John Austin, Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, Mike Gapes, Shona McIsaac, Siobhain McDonagh, Judy Mallaber, Rob Marris and Mr. Chris Mullin, presented a Bill to clarify the meaning of ‘public authority’ in section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July, and to be printed (Bill 42).

Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by John Austin, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Clive Efford, Ms Karen Buck and Rob Marris, presented a Bill to introduce a national day to learn about and remember the Armenian genocide.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 43).

Broadcasting (Television Licence Fee Abolition) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Christopher Chope, supported by Mr. Peter Bone, Philip Davies, Mr. Mark Field and Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, presented a Bill to make provision for the abolition of the television licence fee; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 44).

Sovereignty of Parliament (European Communities) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Christopher Chope, supported by Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. William Cash, Philip Davies, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Andrew Turner, Sir Peter Viggers, Sir Nicholas Winterton and Mr. Roger Gale, presented a Bill to provide that Community treaties, Community instruments and Community obligations shall only be binding in legal proceedings in the United Kingdom insofar as they do not conflict with a subsequent, expressly inconsistent enactment of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 45).

European Union (Audit of Benefits and Costs of UK Membership) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Christopher Chope, supported by Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. William Cash, Philip Davies, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Andrew Turner, Sir Peter Viggers, Sir Nicholas Winterton and Mr. Roger Gale, presented a Bill to establish a Commission to carry out regular audits of the economic costs and benefits of the UK’s membership of the European Union; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 46).

Drugs (Roadside Testing) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Christopher Chope, supported by Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. William Cash, Philip Davies, Mr. Nigel Evans, Richard Ottaway, Mr. Greg Knight, Mr. Graham Stuart, Sir Peter Viggers, Sir George Young and Sir Nicholas Winterton, presented a Bill to make provision for roadside testing for illegal drugs; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 47).

Pedlars (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Christopher Chope, supported by Philip Davies, Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger and Sir Paul Beresford, presented a Bill to amend the Pedlars Act 1871.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 48).

Broadcasting (Public Service Content) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Christopher Chope, supported by Mr. Peter Bone, Philip Davies, Mr. Mark Field, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Brian Binley, Mr. Roger Gale and Mr. Andrew Tyrie, presented a Bill to define public service content for the purposes of public service broadcasting.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 49).

Safety of Medicines (Evaluation) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Dr. Ian Gibson, supported by Mr. Mike Hancock and Mr. David Amess, presented a Bill to make provision about the evaluation of methods of testing the safety of medicines; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 50).

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At the weekend, I received within just a few hours more than 6,000 e-mails in relation to the debate on Heathrow. They were apparently organised or encouraged by Greenpeace and came from e-mailers right across the south-east; none were from my own constituency. Will you advise me whether the Standing Orders of the House can be amended to reflect such new developments? I think that what I have described is called e-mail bombing, which is designed to overflow e-mail inboxes and interfere with the legitimate work of MPs at what for most of us are busy times. The e-mails took many hours to deal with. I am sure that you personally find the practice reprehensible, Mr. Speaker. Are there ways in which we can prevent it from happening to other Members? Indeed, it may have already happened to them; I do not know.

My first piece of advice is this. The hon. Gentleman works hard throughout the week. Sunday is a day of rest, and he should not look at e-mails on that day. Seriously, I should say that the House authorities are looking at the matter.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you had a request from any Government Minister to make a statement concerning the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for the people of Gaza?

Coroners and Justice Bill

[Relevant Document: The Second Report from the Justice Committee, Session 2008-09, on the Coroners and Justice Bill, HC 185.]

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The measures in the Bill are designed further to strengthen and to improve confidence in our justice system, building on more than a decade of record investment and substantial cultural and institutional reform. As a result, crime is down by more than a third since 1997. This is the first Administration since the war to preside over a significant and sustained reduction in crime. The chances of being a victim are now the lowest since accurate recording began more than 25 years ago. This means that there were 4 million fewer victims of crime in 2008 than there were in 1998. Over the same period, many more offences have been brought to justice—nearly 1.5 million in the year to March 2008.

In the past, victims and witnesses fared badly within the justice system— prosecutors would barely even speak to their own witnesses, and victims and witnesses could be made to share a waiting room with the friends and family of the defendant. There was little or no help for vulnerable witnesses giving evidence. Since 1997, this Government have worked very hard to give a central voice and priority to victims and witnesses. We have increased investment threefold in support for them: for example, the amount for victim support alone has trebled. Victims have been given the legal right to minimum standards of service. There are victim personal statements in court and a victims’ advisory panel to inform Government policy. We have made it easier and less traumatic for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to give evidence in court.

Before I continue, let me say that I should have begun by welcoming the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) to his new and elevated post as shadow Justice Secretary and shadow Lord Chancellor. I first noticed his quality and judgment more than 10 years ago when he was speaking vocally and eloquently in favour of what was then the Human Rights Bill. It is fair to say that ever since he has been a consistent supporter of what is now the Human Rights Act 1998 and the incorporation of those measures into British law. We congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on his judgment in elevating the hon. and learned Gentleman to this post. May I also put on record my thanks to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert)? We sometimes had our disagreements, but we had a very constructive relationship and I wish him well in his new post.

I have set out the Government’s record in giving considerable support and improvement to the position of witnesses and victims, but there is plainly scope for further improvement. This morning, I made a written ministerial statement announcing the appointment of Sara Payne as victims’ champion—an appointment made jointly by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General and myself. The victims’ champion is there to represent the views and concerns of victims and witnesses to Government, to the media and to Parliament and to challenge criminal justice agencies further to reform policies and practices in relation to them.

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind words of welcome.

Conservative Members welcome the appointment of a victims’ champion, but would the Secretary of State care to comment on the fact that the victims’ champion appears to be a temporary substitute in the absence of a victims’ commissioner? I seem to recollect that a commissioner was first promised as far back as 2003 or 2004, yet we still do not have one. Is not the appointment of the champion an admission that the Government have not got their act together on this matter?[Official Report, 11 February 2009, Vol. 487, c. 16MC.]

No, it is not that, but I am pleased that the hon. and learned Gentleman welcomes this appointment. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 made provision for a victims’ commissioner. There was a proper appointment process in 2005, but no suitable candidate was identified for the post, and it was decided that meanwhile the priority should be to build up and strengthen victims’ and witnesses’ services directly. I looked at the provisions in the 2003 Act and decided that they should be amended, and the Bill makes them rather lighter to ensure that less money is spent on what would amount to a bureaucracy for the commissioner. I hope that those changes commend themselves to the House and to the other place. Meanwhile, we judge that the gap should be filled by the appointment of a victims’ champion. As soon as the Bill becomes law, we will take steps to begin the process for a permanent appointment of a victims’ commissioner.

I shall now deal with each of the Bill’s key provisions in turn, starting with coroners. In the past four decades there have been major reforms of both the civil and criminal courts, but the coronial service has so far remained unchanged. We consulted widely on the draft Bill and have listened carefully to the House, and the Bill will bring about the first major reform of the coroner service in more than 100 years. It will significantly improve the service for bereaved families, not least those of service personnel, and strengthen death certification procedures following the Shipman inquiries.

On overseas military deaths, the Secretary of State will be aware that there is currently no provision for inquiries in Scots law, but in recent months significant progress has been made in discussions on the matter between UK and Scottish Ministers. Will he confirm that the UK Government’s intention is that they may table provisions during the Bill’s passage to help to update the situation?

On the deaths of service personnel, I share with many Members concern about the resurrection of private or secret inquests. They hardly seem in keeping with the Obama zeitgeist. May I give an example of a case in which the Secretary of State might have been prevailed upon to issue a certificate on the grounds of national security? In June 1994, a Chinook crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, killing four air crew and Northern Ireland intelligence experts. The families have been fighting to reverse the RAF board of inquiry’s verdict of pilot error ever since. I knew Mike Tapper, the father of Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper. May I urge the Secretary of State to explain fully the potential impact of private inquests on the possibility of getting to the truth about the deaths of brave servicemen and women in such cases?

I am just about to come to the Bill’s provisions on the special certification procedure. I fully understand, as all of us do, the deep concern and anxieties of the bereaved families of that terrible Chinook accident in 1994, but it happened in the territory of Scotland, which is not directly covered by the Bill and where there have long been separate procedures for fatal accident inquiries.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one aspect of military inquests about which bereaved families are deeply concerned is that the state can be represented by barristers, whereas they cannot except in exceptional circumstances and at the agreement of the Secretary of State himself? Does he agree that there should be room in the Bill for a clause allowing, or in fact requiring, families to be properly represented at inquests?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but the reason why successive Governments have resisted a general provision to make representation or legal aid available in inquests is that they are civil, inquisitorial inquiries. They are not judicial proceedings, and they work very differently even from other civil proceedings. That is why successive Governments have resisted the notion that legal aid should be made available. There are exceptions to that—I have been party to agreeing them—and although I do not give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that we will accept an amendment on the matter, I certainly undertake that we will consider it.

The Secretary of State must be well aware of the hurt caused to families when there is an inquest into a death in police custody, for example, and they cannot be represented because they cannot get legal aid. They therefore feel that they have all the powers of the state against them when they are merely trying to achieve truth and justice for their loved ones. Will he think again about the policy of denying legal assistance to people who are going through a terrible crisis in their lives?

We are happy to think about it, but as I have said, there are some complexities. We must also consider the overall issue of cost, in the context that the legal aid budget for England and Wales is now the same amount that we spend on prisons, and legal aid per head in England and Wales is higher by a large margin than in any other country in the world, including common-law countries. That is the challenge that we face, but I understand the concern that has been well expressed by Members in all parts of the House.

I turn to the proposals in the Bill relating to coroners. There will be a new chief coroner, who will be a High Court judge and will preside over the reformed service and provide national leadership, and there will be separate independent inspection. For the first time, bereaved families and other interested parties will have access to a dedicated appeals system and will not have to rely on seeking a judicial review of an inquest. There will be far greater scope to transfer investigations from one area to another, taking into consideration the views and needs of bereaved families.

We entirely welcome the list of proposals that the Justice Secretary has just read out. However, he knows that some anxiety has been expressed about the fact that the post of deputy chief coroner will not be available to those working in the coroners system. I am surprised about that, although it is clearly right that the chief coroner should be a High Court judge, and I hope that we can consider the matter carefully during the Bill’s passage.

I have thought about the matter a lot during the Bill’s drafting. I fully accept that there is much to be said in favour of what is in the Bill and also of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments. I am open to considering amendments on the matter in Committee.

Let me now deal with what is plainly the most controversial issue in the Bill—the proposition that, in certain limited circumstances, inquests should partly be held in private. In some circumstances, it is in the interests of justice to hold such inquests partly in private— for example, to protect highly sensitive information, such as a police source or intercept evidence.

During the debate about previous proposals in the Counter-Terrorism Bill—the substance of the current proposals differs markedly from those—it was suggested that there was no need for special provisions and that we could rely, as the criminal courts do, on the public interest immunity certificate procedure. I want to outline a fundamental difference, which means that that argument cannot apply.

In a criminal prosecution, there are many occasions on which the courts receive applications for public interest immunity certificates. As Home Secretary and as Foreign Secretary, I signed several. In most cases, because they are carefully thought through, the court grants a PII and the sensitive information is thus protected and kept from the jury. However, sometimes the PII is not granted. In that case, it is open to the prosecution to withdraw altogether—that sometimes happens. The prosecution therefore has an option to proceed without the PII or withdraw in the public interest.

That option cannot arise in the case of an inquest. The need for an article 2 inquest arises when somebody has died in specific circumstances, not least, as the Bill spells out, when a person has died in the custody or the detention of the state. If the court was not willing to grant a PII, it would be improper for the state to abandon the inquest. That is why a proposal has been presented to introduce a special procedure to deal with the problem, which has become more significant in recent years because the courts have quite properly insisted that the inquests become article 2 compliant.

In a small number of cases, there has been significant difficulty in ensuring that coroners have access to all relevant information, including highly sensitive material, which cannot be made public. Agencies have used public interest immunity to refuse to disclose such material. To make the best of a difficult—and, in my view, unsatisfactory—situation, I am told that some coroners have worked with the relevant intelligence and security agencies to secure as much information as possible to ensure that a viable inquest could take place. In some circumstances, coroners have been shown withheld material in private, although they have not been able to make use of it. They have also been prevented by law from seeing any material protected by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, including intercept material.

We have developed the proposals because we believe that the current state of the law and process is unsatisfactory. It has resulted in two inquests being unable to proceed because the coroners cannot comply with their article 2 obligation to conduct a broad inquiry into the circumstances of deaths resulting from an act or omission of the state. Given that coroners’ inquests are increasingly being used to discharge those article 2 obligations, it is likely that that will continue to pose a problem in a small number of cases in future.

I do not claim to the House that the provisions in the Bill are the last word—indeed, we are open to amendments. However, I ask hon. Members to acknowledge that there is a problem and that PII certificates will not tackle it. The state is not in the shoes of a prosecutor in respect of an inquest. As I have said, in the case of a criminal trial, the prosecution can be withdrawn, but in the case of an inquest, that cannot happen.

Part 1 of the Bill seeks to ensure that there is a proper legal basis for inquests to consider protected information. As I have already said, proposals relating to this first surfaced in the Counter-Terrorism Bill. However, the proposals in the Bill represent significant changes to those original provisions, and we have tried to take account of the criticisms that were made. We have narrowed the criteria for certification, and introduced a requirement that consideration must be given to every other way of preventing the material from being made public before the new measures can be used.

I appreciate that this is an area of some difficulty, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware that one of the reasons for holding an inquest is to satisfy the families as to the circumstances of a death. In an article 2 case, the provision and presumption is that there should be a jury. Indeed, that follows almost automatically at present. Frankly, the Government’s proposals are really no different from their convening a secret internal inquiry of their own and then saying afterwards, “We are satisfied that everything is all right.” The proposals, as drafted, for the secrecy clauses and for the lack of a jury completely undermine the purpose for which an inquest is convened in the first place. There must be a better way of resolving the Secretary of State’s dilemma than going down that road.

If there is a better way, let us see it. I am not unsympathetic to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, but I have looked at this matter. I am not saying that this is the last word, but this is a really difficult issue. I wholly reject his suggestion that the Bill provides for some kind of secret inquiry conducted by the Secretary of State. That is a parody of what it says. Moreover, as he knows, European jurisprudence—including the convention—does not require there to be a jury in any circumstances. We are very unusual, in England and Wales, in using juries as frequently as we do. That is a great strength of our system, but there is no requirement whatever, either in article 2 or in the Strasbourg jurisprudence, to do so.

The Bill does two different things. First, it removes the jury; secondly, it provides for an inquest to be held in private. Those are entirely different steps. The Secretary of State’s arguments in favour of holding an inquest in private do not justify the removal of a jury, unless one believes that juries inherently represent some kind of security risk. Are not the Government taking the attitude that members of the public are incapable of keeping confidential the information that is put before them as jurors?

In extreme cases—I can think of cases in which I myself signed public interest immunity certificates— there would be a grave risk of death for some individuals if certain categories of information were to be held by more than a handful of people. That point cannot be trivialised.

I will of course give way in a moment, but, if the House will allow me, I want to make a little progress.

We have narrowed the criteria, and there will also be a requirement that consideration must be given to every other way of preventing the material from being made public before the measures can be used. It is true that these provisions were not on the statute book at the time of the de Menezes inquest, but it was perfectly plain that every effort was made, successfully, to ensure that that inquest could take place without the need to resort to similar measures or for the inquest to be deferred. That will be the default setting, as it were, and it is set out in the Bill.

The Bill anticipates that any decision by the Secretary of State to certify an inquest will be subject to judicial review by the courts. I have no doubt that any such review would be thorough. Indeed, the provisions include a requirement for the Secretary of State to notify interested parties of such a decision, followed by a period of grace to give them the opportunity to apply for judicial review. If judicial review proceedings are brought, the Secretary of State’s certificate will have no effect until they are concluded.

Last Session’s Bill provided that the appointment of a coroner should be made by the Secretary of State, but there were many objections to that, which I fully understand. This Bill provides explicitly for there to be no involvement—and this is entirely correct—by a Secretary of State in the appointment, which is to be made by the Lord Chief Justice and should be of a High Court judge.

I shall give way first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), and then to other hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) spoke earlier about instances where the jury is removed from inquest proceedings. If, however, the case were important enough to be covered by a public interest immunity certificate—I realise that that is not what is being proposed—the information contained in it would almost by definition be of a sufficiently high level of secrecy that a jury would not be privy to it in any case.

My right hon. Friend is correct. That is the problem and it explains why we run into the difficulties that I have outlined.

How satisfied is my right hon. Friend that if the secrecy option had been available in the de Menezes case, it would not have been used? I say that because the default position of those in authority when a mistake of that magnitude occurs is usually secrecy. My right hon. Friend will recall that in that case, the Metropolitan Commissioner wrote to the then Home Secretary the day after the shooting occurred and asked that there be no independent inquiry into the circumstances. He was apparently unaware that the Independent Police Complaints Commission was obliged by law to hold such an inquiry. The danger is that once one opens this little gap in the law, it will be exploited.

I do not deny the temptation, but it is for that reason that under clause 11(1)(b):

“The Secretary of State may certify an investigation… into a person’s death if of the opinion that… no other measures would be adequate to prevent the matter being made public.”

That is very explicit language and that provision would itself be the subject of very anxious scrutiny by the court on a judicial review of a Secretary of State’s certificate.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to come back to the issue raised by the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). There have been instances in the past when jury trials have been held partially in camera—I am thinking back to times when the Soviet Union still existed and we had spy trials—and under those circumstances, of course lives were at risk. It was not always British citizens’ lives, as agents in the Soviet Union and so forth were sometimes involved, yet jury trials were still held. Why is it not possible to reconstitute that sort of arrangement?

There were indeed such trials, but it is also the case that in such trials, some of the evidence that was otherwise material was denied to the jury altogether by the exercise of a public interest immunity certificate. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the starting point should be how to work round the existing system of having a jury, including having a hearing in camera as part of the proceedings, but one then gets to the point where, under criminal trials, including even those held in camera, the judge agrees that certain relevant information is not disclosable to the jury. That is the difficulty. As I say, I understand the fact that the House is uncomfortable about this provision; it is not one that I am particularly comfortable with myself; it is a real difficulty. What we have to do is to try to find a way through it.

I need to make some progress. I shall give way to my two hon. Friends, but then I must move on.

We all understand my right hon. Friend’s problems with this issue, but I would like to return to earlier questions about the impact of these measures on service families. They are constantly told that they cannot have public inquiries, because they get answers to questions about the deaths of their loved ones through the coroner’s inquest system. Now, however, they are told that they may only get a partial answer. Cannot my right hon. Friend understand the dismay felt by many service families about these issues?

First, the number of such inquests would be very limited indeed—probably one or two a year, if that. I think it would be very rare for those to be held in respect of service personnel, for good reasons. I understand the concerns, and what the Bill overall does is greatly to strengthen the facilities, services and rights of bereaved families.

One assumes that the exclusion of the public will extend to the family and relatives of the deceased. It is often difficult, even under normal processes, for such people to get closure when somebody has died in tragic and violent circumstances. In cases of the sort that we are talking about—the most sensitive of all—does my right hon. Friend really think that relatives will get closure when faced with an inquiry from which they have been excluded? Does he think that that complies with the requirements of article 2 of the European convention on human rights, particularly in the light of the case of Jordan, which said that families have to be involved in the inquest process?

The families will be involved. We are talking about exclusion from only part of the inquest in very limited and very specific circumstances, not about secret inquests. I would also say that those inquests, where held, will be conducted by an experienced High Court judge. Although I understand the concern of families that they will not get a verdict of the jury, what they will get instead, which they cannot get from a jury, is a detailed, reasoned explanation running over many pages, and a review of all the evidence, such as can be made public, as to why the learned judge has come to the view that he or she has.

If my hon. Friend does not mind, I need to make progress because this is quite a significant Bill.

May I go on to other aspects of the Bill? Part 2 deals with—

I want to raise a point about the way that coroners have dealt with incidences of domestic violence and deaths following those. My right hon. Friend may be aware of the tragic case of Julia Pemberton, whose family live in my constituency. Last year, the Pemberton homicide review concluded in the body of its report that domestic violence training should be made available for coroners. Can my right hon. Friend give the family any comfort that his Bill will insist on such training for coroners?

The Bill itself will ensure that there is a chief coroner, a charter for bereaved families and guidance given by me and by the Lord Chief Justice on how the coroner service should operate, so the short answer to my hon. Friend is yes.

I am sorry, but I am afraid that I must make progress, if my hon. Friends will allow me. I will give them an opportunity to come back when I have done so, if that is all right.

May I go on to deal with other aspects of the Bill? Part 2 proposes reforms to the law of homicide. In particular, it abolishes the partial defence of provocation and replaces it with a new partial defence, which applies to killings in response to a fear of serious violence and killings in response to words or conduct that cause a defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged. Those provisions will not, as some have claimed, give abused women a licence to kill. They are designed, rather, to bring about just outcomes, irrespective of gender.

Let me turn to the law on assisted suicide.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the use of diminished responsibility in relation to murders will be accepted only where a recognised medical condition is restricted and predetermined by the House when hon. Members go through the Bill in Committee, and is diagnosed before the murder takes place?

I did not entirely follow the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will ensure that it is answered in full during the winding-up speech. It is wonderful being a Minister in my Department, and Ministers thank God every day for the post.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I have to say that he has moved over the issue of provocation with a speed and nimbleness that rather belie the controversial and complex nature of the proposals. I appreciate that they may have to be looked at in Committee, but he will be aware that there is considerable anxiety about, for example, the proposal that sexual infidelity be excluded whereas so much else may be left to subjective views and the jury’s reasoning. He will have seen what the former Lord Chief Justice said about that. Has he any comment to make at this stage that might help the House, and may we have an assurance that we will be able to examine this issue in considerable detail?

I am aware that there is much to be said about the issue on all sides, and I have thought about it very carefully. Of course it will be examined in great detail in Committee. I should be happy to make a speech for a couple of hours going into great detail now, but I fear that that would be considered an abuse of the privilege of the House.

I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), but then I must make progress, or there will be complaints that I have spoken for too long.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will know that many Members on both sides of the House are fully sensitive to the difficulties that he faces in trying to amend an inquisitorial system while also trying to protect security, but I am also sure he will agree that whatever qualifications, experience and brilliance High Court judges may possess, they have nothing in comparison with the good sense possessed by juries. I welcome the opportunity to work with my right hon. Friend in trying to find an alternative to restricting jury trial.

I take note of that.

Both the Law Commission and an independent review identified confusion about the scope of the law on assisted suicide. I have also received strong representations on the issue from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), whose constituency has suffered the terrible tragedy of a series of suicides. Part 2 does not substantively change the law, but it does simplify and modernise the language of section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 to increase public understanding and to reassure people that the provision applies as much to actions on the internet as to actions offline.

In the past 10 years, we have developed much greater protection for children from sexual abuse, but we must keep the law up to date with technological changes. The Bill therefore provides for a new offence of possession of non-photographic images of child sex abuse, building on the existing law in respect of indecent photographs.

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to make some progress?

The Bill also completes unfinished business from the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 by proposing to remove the so-called freedom of speech amendment—which was inserted in the Bill in the other place at the last moment—in relation to the offence of inciting hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. As the House will recall, that provision was defeated overwhelmingly by Members on both sides of the House—there was a majority of 200—but we had to accept the decision of the other place temporarily, because we had to secure Royal Assent by 8 May.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.

In the face of much Government opposition, the other place did indeed insert “free speech” clauses in the part of the Bill dealing with the offences of religious and homophobic incitement. Clause 58, the final clause in part 2 of this Bill, seeks only to remove the “free speech” exemption in relation to homophobic incitement. Is that not a rather asymmetrical approach, and is it likely to survive challenges in the other place?

I shall certainly take account of what my hon. Friend has said, but there are differences and I think that that has been accepted by the House when the matter was debated.

The creation of the offence of homophobic hate crime—courtesy of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, the effect of which was to amend the Public Order Act 1986—was very sound, and commanded widespread support. It was designed to catch, among other things, despicable homophobic lyrics in reggae songs, such as “Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope” and “All gay men should die”. May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the so-called free speech amendment was at best superfluous, and at worst deeply objectionable? Some—although not all—of its supporters would not even know how to spell the word “equality”, let alone sign up to it. It is right that clause 58 should remove the exemption.

A great many were on the Conservative Benches in the House of Lords. I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman’s compliments to his noble Friends there.

I should like to make a little progress.

The offence of inciting hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation has a very high threshold. It currently covers only behaviour that is threatening and intended to stir up hatred. We are returning to this issue because we believe there are no circumstances in which the right of alleged freedom of speech should justify such behaviour.

The one thing the Secretary of State has not told the House is why he thinks the proposed saving clause introduced in the other place in any way undermines the intention and ability to prosecute under the main part of the clause, which we support. Unless I can be persuaded that it does so undermine it, I think that, as a saving clause, it has a great deal of merit, particularly in view of past history, which shows that individuals who have sought to express perfectly reasonable criticism have received visits from the police.

I simply do not accept that. The movers of that amendment were very clear that the words meant something; they were intended to make a conviction very difficult indeed. That was the purpose.

Clauses 52 and 53 relate to images used by paedophiles for their own excitement and for incitement. Clause 58 refers back to an earlier homophobic incitement measure, which can include the written word. Has the Secretary of State ever considered a similar law for paedophiles, in response to the appalling written material they use for similar personal and other incitements? If he has done, or is willing to do so, I will be happy to ask a certain well-known policeman in the Metropolitan police force to send him some copies of this disgusting stuff—and to do so directly, because I do not want to see it.

We seek all the time to ensure that what this House and the public regard as obscene, objectionable and extremely pornographic and corrupting is covered by the law, and I am happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman to see whether this provision and the other provisions cover what he has in mind.

Turning to part 3 of the Bill on criminal evidence, investigations and procedure, in July last year, with agreement from all parts of the House, we acted decisively to allow evidence in criminal trials to be given anonymously, following the Law Lords decision in the Davis case. During the passage of the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2008, I said that Parliament would be given a further and fuller opportunity to consider the legislative framework for the use of such evidence. Part 3 fulfils that undertaking by re-enacting that emergency legislation, with some changes. It contains proposals to build on the 2008 Act by way of an “investigation witness anonymity order”. This new tool will enable the police to provide early reassurance to witnesses that their identity will be protected during and after investigations of gang-related homicide.

In January last year, while on bail awaiting trial for the alleged murder of his wife, Garry Weddell killed his mother-in-law before taking his own life. That case highlighted the desperately difficult decisions facing judges and magistrates every day in granting bail to murder suspects. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assured the House at the time that

“if any changes in the law are necessary, we will make them.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 925.]

Following a public consultation, part 3 sets out proposed changes to the law on bail, including the strengthening of rules on granting bail in murder cases and a requirement that the decision to grant bail in such cases is made by a Crown court judge. We believe that this strikes the right balance between protection of the public and protection of the rights of those who have not yet been tried. Combined, the measures in part 3 will ensure that the interests and safety of victims, witnesses and the wider public are put first, and that justice can be better in criminal cases.

On part 4 on sentencing, Parliament lays down the maximum sentence for every offence and, in a few instances, provides for minimum sentences as well, but the range of sentences for particular categories of offence is a matter for the discretion of the court. When I first looked at this issue in the mid-1990s, I found two things. First, for similar categories of offence and similar offenders, there were significant variations in sentence practice, unexplained by any factor other than the habits of different courts. Secondly, the guidance available to courts took the form of a digestion of decades of High Court decisions contained in dense textbooks such as David Thomas’s “Current Sentencing Practice”, which although an impressive and distinguished work of scholarship, now runs to five volumes.

I suggest that neither is the case—that work was already pretty substantial when I was in opposition.

The truth is that sentencing practice is complicated and is bound to be so, but I found that, without any other information, neither the public nor sentencers had a clear idea of the penalties for particular types of behaviour. That explains the significant variation in the attitude of the courts to similar offences and similar offenders. My view was that we needed a more explicit process, but one that fully respected the independence and discretion of judges and magistrates at the point of sentence. So, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 established the Sentencing Advisory Panel. That was followed by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which proposed the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

At the end of 2007, Lord Carter’s review of prisons recommended the setting up of a working group to look at the advantages and feasibility of a structured sentencing framework and a permanent sentencing commission for England and Wales. In response, a working group was established under Lord Justice Gage, and I am extremely grateful to him and to his colleagues on that group. Our proposals in this Bill implement the unanimous and majority recommendations of that group.

Under the recently developed arrangements, the Select Committee on Justice has a specific role to play in examining proposed sentencing guidelines. How will Parliament be involved in this important process under the arrangements now being proposed?

Those arrangements would continue and we are, of course, open to suggestions about how they should be strengthened. I have thought about whether there should be arrangements for Parliament to approve by affirmative order the recommendations or decisions of the sentencing council in this Bill—I think there would be many objections to that. I think that there are ways of strengthening the work of the Justice Committee, and we are certainly ready to consider those.

I should like to make a little progress first. The Gage working group rejected the introduction of a United States-style sentencing grid and instead called for the strengthening of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. We support that approach. That is why we propose the new council in part 4 of the Bill. One of the purposes of the council has been explained with admirable clarity:

“there should be a new, formal mechanism whereby the impact of proposed sentencing changes is assessed by an independent body, so that the Government and Parliament are properly informed about the decisions they take, and to ensure that they understand what resources will be necessary to deliver those changes. But that is entirely different to proposing that sentences should be limited by the resources made available by the Government after the framework is set.”

That was the opinion of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, when speaking in November 2007, and I wholly agree with what he said.

The matter that the Secretary of State glosses over is that it is the intention, in setting up this structure, to fetter the ability of judges to exercise their discretion within the parameters laid down by the Sentencing Guidelines Council and by considerations relating to the Government’s number of prison places, for example. That is a profound change, and I must tell him that it will come as a shock to the public, because it has been an established principle for a long time that judges should pass sentences that reflect the period that a person should serve in prison. Are we going to hear anything about that this afternoon or will it simply be brushed under the carpet?

The hon. and learned Gentleman has just heard something about it, but he was not listening to the views of his party’s former shadow Justice Secretary. What we are seeking to do is to reach a consensus on what he was proposing.

It is important that we examine what affects the public and not just what affects lawyers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it ought to be made explicit that a sentencing council’s work should include examining what is effective in cutting crime and reducing reoffending? After all, victims want to know, more than anything else, that they will not become victims again in the future. That has not necessarily been a prime focus of the courts system.

Ensuring the effectiveness of sentencing will be an important role of the sentencing council. The majority of the council’s members will be judges or magistrates. It will have a permanent judicial majority, which is one important reassurance. The council will have an enhanced role in collecting data and monitoring the operation and effect of its sentencing guidelines. It will provide independent assessments of the impact of Government proposals on correctional resources. It was that function that Parliament and many others sought so that Parliament would be told when it was proposed to change sentencing practice—

It is part of the same issue. New proposals, wonderful though they might be, could result in increased demand for prison places, so the next question is whether the money is available to pay for them. That is a sensible way to proceed. The improved collection of data would also meet the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) that a better assessment should be made over time of the efficacy of sentences in terms of reoffending rates. The courts will be able to depart from the council’s sentencing guidelines if that would be in the interests of justice. The Bill is deliberately silent on what is meant by the interests of justice because that would be a matter for the courts to determine.

May I come at the problem from a slightly different angle? There are already magistrates who are not able to sentence people to community sentences when that might be appropriate because the lack of resources from the Government has made certain courses unavailable. For example, in Staffordshire, magistrates have been unable to sentence people to particular community sentences for that reason, and I am told that that problem is not peculiar to Staffordshire. The Secretary of State must understand that the resources question attaches not only to custodial sentences but to community sentences. People who should be getting community sentences are, for the wrong reasons, being sent to prison.

The numbers are few and far between in our judgment. We increased the money—£40 million—available to the probation service, and not all of that has been spent. However, I am always happy to look at individual cases.

The Opposition need to make up their mind which side they are on when it comes to resources—

Well, that will not write the cheques. In individual departmental areas, the Opposition call for more resources, but overall they call for fewer resources. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman—I look forward to his response later—that I wrote to his predecessor in November to point out that the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition kept saying that they would cut spending in the future and would have cut it in the past. Where would the cuts have applied in this Department? Despite three reminders, not a word came back. We look forward to a response today.

In giving effect to the working group’s recommendations, there is no question whatever of individual sentencing decisions being tied to the availability of prison or probation resources. I am aware that parts of the Bill are complex, and I am anxious to get it right. I aim to table some amendments in Committee and I will also listen closely to the debate today.

I have already referred to representations made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, to which I have sought to respond. Now I want to refer to a matter that was brought to the attention of the House by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) on the advice of Jan Woodward, whose daughter was tragically killed by a drunk driver. In a question to the Prime Minister, the hon. Gentleman drew attention to an anomaly in the law that means that if an offender has committed a serious crime that merits both a prison sentence and a period of disqualification, the latter runs from the point of sentence. The result is that the offender will often have completed a large part of the disqualification before he or she is released from prison. I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. In changing the law, which was of decades’ standing, we have sought to ensure that offenders suffer the full punishment for their offences by requiring the courts to extend the period of any driving ban to take account of the time served in prison.

Although I recognise that the measure addresses the specific point of a person who is given a prison sentence and a ban at the same time, it does not address the other situation that might occur. A person might be sentenced, for example, for a burglary during a driving ban and would continue to serve that driving ban while in prison for the burglary.

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed that and, if we can find a way through it—he acknowledges privately that there is a way through—we will do so. We all understand the point.

If I may, I want to make some progress, as I have already been on my feet for getting on for 50 minutes.

The Bill also deals with better supervision of knives by the court, which has also been drawn to the attention of the House, and with the issue of profiting from criminal memoirs.

Let me turn finally to the provisions relating to changes to the Data Protection Act 1998. In an age of instantaneous electronic information, it is fundamental that data held on individuals are secure and properly protected. That plainly has not always been the case. At the same time, provided security and scrutiny are guaranteed, better data sharing can greatly work in the interests of the public. It can help to improve opportunities for the most disadvantaged, provide better public services, reduce the burden on businesses, implement policies more effectively and detect fraud.

At present, when a family is bereaved they often have to contact Government Departments and local authority departments many times over to make the necessary arrangements, often providing the same information. Responsible data sharing between the relevant agencies would reduce the number of people who would need to be notified of a death, thereby helping to relieve distress at a difficult time.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked Professor Mark Walport and the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, to conduct an independent review of data protection and data sharing. The review recommended stronger safeguards to protect data and upgraded arrangements for data sharing. It said, in particular, that

“there is a lack of clarity about what the law permits or prohibits.”

So, alongside new powers, clause 152 provides a new scheme for data sharing. Under those powers, an order may be made only in circumstances where sharing the information is in the public interest and proportionate to the impact it may have on the person affected. The Information Commissioner will provide independent oversight of the process, scrutinising draft orders and laying before Parliament a report of his findings. Every single order will have to be debated and approved by Parliament.

With his characteristic skill, the Secretary of State reduces a seismic change in the relationship between the state and the citizen to something utterly benign. Is it not the case that a great deal of the information that the state acquires from individuals is acquired for specific purposes that Parliament has set down? The Government are proposing to drive a coach and horses through the duty of confidentiality that the state owes to individuals in any case where a quite nebulous concept of public good decides to trump the private right. That is surely not a matter that we should be considering in a portmanteau Bill of this sort. It ought to be contained in separate stand-alone legislation. It has enormous implications for civil liberties and it is not right that the Government should come to the House and ask us to have it as a little add-on to another complex piece of legislation.

The hon. and learned Gentleman does nothing for his case with his gross exaggeration of the provisions. The measures follow the Walport-Thomas review, which was rather widely welcomed, as I recall. There was then a period of consultation. The Government published their detailed response, which effectively accepted what the highly independent reviewers had proposed, and that has now found its way into the Bill.

I should also say to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield that this Bill is not about choosing between the private individual and the public good, as it were, but about helping private individuals, in many cases, through better data sharing. There are separate provisions for the use of anonymised data for statistical purposes, and the hon. and learned Gentleman needs to look at them.

In the interests of proper debate, I am about to finish my remarks.

The safeguards in the Bill will be complemented by additional proposals in part 8 to strengthen the auditing and inspection powers of the Information Commissioner. This Government recognise the need to strengthen the protection of personal data, and to restore public confidence in its security. It is right to consider the risks of data sharing, but these should not blind us to its potential benefits.

This Government have presided over a decade of very significant institutional and cultural reform to our public services that has seen them become better funded, better performing and much more efficient. To finish where I began, the result is that this is the first Administration since the war to see crime go down consistently, year by year. That is in contrast to the performance in government of the Opposition, when crime doubled during their 18 years in power.

The proposals before the House today are intended to make the coroner and justice systems mor