House of Commons
Thursday 5 February 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords]
Motion made, and Question (15 January) again proposed,
That the promoters of the Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords], which were originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2006-07 on 22 January 2007, should have leave to proceed with the Bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Hon. Members: Object.
The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 12 February.
Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill
Motion made, and Question (15 January) again proposed,
That the promoters of the Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill, which were originally introduced in this House in Session 2007-08 on 22 January 2008, may have leave to proceed with the Bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Hon. Members: Object.
The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 12 February.
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
The Minister of State was asked—
Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme
The enterprise finance guarantee, launched on 14 January, is open to businesses with a turnover of up to £25 million. It is too early to predict how many loans will be made under the guarantee to firms with a turnover between £20 million and £25 million.
Mr. Pelling: Initial experience in my constituency suggests that we are encountering a problem that often arises when any public policy limit is set. That is, economies of scale mean that banks are very keen to serve businesses with a turnover of between £20 million and £25 million. If that turns out to be a general trend across the country, what can be done to ensure that businesses with a smaller turnover will also benefit from this policy initiative?
We want all businesses with a turnover of up to £25 million to benefit from the Government’s enterprise finance guarantee and the other schemes and bank lending that are available. Under the enterprise finance guarantee, companies will be able to borrow anything from £1,000 to £1 million. There are generous repayment terms, and loans can be repaid over up to 10 years. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that only today RBS-NatWest has announced £3 billion in extra funding for small and medium-sized enterprises through new regional funds. Significant support packages are available now, which can be accessed though Business Link. The Government are providing real help for business now, and that is what the business community needs to help it through these difficult times.
I know that small and medium-sized businesses in North-West Leicestershire will welcome the launch of the enterprise finance guarantee. However, my constituent Mr. Evans, who has also read the helpful document “Real Help Now”, says that he has been left totally confused. He said:
“My bank (HBOS) has told me they are still in the dark about the government’s plans and have asked me for yet another business plan and projections (I submitted these only in November).”
How confident is the Minister that individual branches of the banks will be informed about the Government’s proposals as rapidly as possible? It does not seem that the information is necessarily percolating down from the top levels of those organisations.
Nineteen banks and financial institutions are already participating in the enterprise finance guarantee, so I would be surprised if lending managers at national and regional levels are not aware of the scheme and of what is on offer. The scheme was launched on 14 January, so it is still relatively new, and I know that the banks are looking at their communication strategies to make sure that the information is available at the lending level. The scheme is clear, it is open for business and doing business now, and it comes on top of the other lending that is also available in the economy. If my hon. Friend gives me the details of the specific problem that his constituent faces, I shall make sure that it is investigated.
Can the Minister say to what extent today’s very welcome announcement from RBS-NatWest depends on the enterprise finance guarantee scheme? I share the reservations expressed by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). The Forum of Private Business says that the scheme is not working effectively and that bank managers do not know about it. In my constituency I have a very worrying case in which a man has been made ineligible for the scheme by the arbitrary behaviour of another bank. There are real questions about the scheme that need to be addressed urgently.
We will investigate any problems that the hon. Gentleman says have been encountered, but I ask him to bear in mind the fact that the scheme was launched on 14 January. It is open for business now and is providing real support. There may be some teething problems at an individual banking level, but that might be expected with any scheme. Some companies will be turned down because they do not meet the criteria, but the business community as a whole has welcomed the flexibility to get a loan of between £1,000 and £1 million, with a 75 per cent. Government guarantee. I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Federation of Small Businesses; we are happy to work with it to make sure that the scheme is effective. It is properly designed, and it is open for business. It should be welcomed by the Opposition, as it provides support for the business community.
In his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), the Minister said that the scheme came on top of the finance already available—but does the Minister think that the banks are playing ball? A small business—well, it is not actually that small—contacted me: RBS has found any excuse to restructure its loan, and has charged it 1 per cent. for doing so. It is a profitable business that is looking to expand, but it finds it very difficult to get what would, in normal circumstances, be classed as normal finance. It feels that it is being taken for a ride by the bank.
Obviously, I cannot comment on those individual circumstances. On the general situation, hon. Members will be aware that through the lending panel, we are monitoring lending by the major banks extremely closely. A lot of lending into the banking system by foreign banks has disappeared, so there is a credit crunch affecting the UK economy. Our major banks are continuing to lend, and we continue to push them to make sure that they do, which is why I welcome the announcement by RBS-NatWest today. Obviously, we expect normal commercial loans to have been exhausted as a possibility before companies are eligible for schemes such as the enterprise finance guarantee scheme; that is the right thing to do when providing a taxpayers’ guarantee. The schemes are up and running. They are working, and they are providing real help for business now.
Is the Minister aware of an unintended consequence for leasing and asset finance companies that results from subsuming the small firms loan guarantee scheme within the enterprise finance guarantee loan scheme? As only six banks are offering the guarantees, such companies are no longer able to offer bank loan guarantees to their customers. Will he look into widening the availability of the scheme to leasing and asset finance companies?
More than six banks are offering the scheme. If the hon. Lady contacts me with specific details about finance and leasing companies, I shall be happy to consider them. We have made initial deals with banks to offer the enterprise finance guarantee, and we have brought on board more lending institutions, so the problem that she mentions may already have been solved, but I am happy to look at the detail.
When Lord Mandelson announced the scheme, he said that it was “going live today”, and the Minister has just said that it is open for business—but does he not realise that he is lucky if he has found a small business that is aware of the existence of the scheme, and very lucky if he has found a bank that believes that it is operating the scheme at local level? Instead of producing a series of measures in a panic-stricken way, as the Government have done in recent months, would it not have been better if they had speedily adopted our policy of a £50 billion loan guarantee scheme for businesses of all sizes, and had shown some competence in getting it into practice at the speed required?
No, it would not have been a good idea to implement an uncosted, untargeted scheme. What the Government have done is to introduce the enterprise finance guarantee, which is specifically targeted at companies with a turnover of up to £25 million. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware of the working capital scheme that we are also introducing. It will provide working capital support for businesses in the economy. That will apply to a portfolio of companies with a turnover of up to £500 million. That is real support for business, and it is working. We need to do more to market existing products to the business community. I would like to think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I shared an interest in wanting to do that, and in wanting to get the maximum possible publicity for the real support available to companies to help them through the recession.
The Minister has heard from Members in all parts of the House about the concern that banks are failing to provide help for SMEs. Is he really satisfied that the banks have taken on board their duties to help put the scheme into action? All Members have heard evidence from companies: banks have failed to advise them of the scheme, and failed to help them to access it—and those are the very banks that the country now largely owns. When will the Government make the banks undertake what is necessary to make sure that the schemes actually work for small and medium-sized enterprises?
The hon. Gentleman has heard about the RBS-NatWest scheme that has been announced today, and he will be aware of schemes that were announced before Christmas, through which the major banks are continuing to provide finance to small and medium-sized businesses. He also ought to know what we have done as a Government, moving from the small firms loan guarantee scheme, which was a very small scheme targeted at fairly marginal businesses with a turnover of up to £5.6 million, to the enterprise finance guarantee, which takes all companies with a turnover of up to £25 million and provides far bigger and more flexible loans. We need to make sure that that information gets out and is used by companies that want to have discussions with their banks. I know of many cases in my constituency where companies are aware of the scheme and are talking to their banks. I expect that the lending figures for companies participating in the enterprise finance guarantee will quickly start to build strongly. After just over two weeks, we think a good start has been made and we expect to see significant progress in the use of the scheme in the future.
The Government support the rights of labour mobility that go with European Union membership. We supported the European Commission’s proposals to ask its group of experts to examine the operation of the posted workers directive and to ask social partners at European level to discuss the implications of recent European Court judgments. The posted workers directive operates throughout the EU and the recent report from the European Commission showed that there were 47,000 UK posted workers in the rest of the EU—three times more than the 15,000 posted workers from the rest of the EU working here in the UK.
The posted workers directive is, of course, the problem. The court ruling has brought it into disrepute, with subcontracting companies playing worker against worker, which is why we ended up with the strikes this week. Is it not time the UK put workers rights in the EU as No. 1 on the agenda, and made sure that we lead the field in ensuring that the rights of those workers are looked after?
I understand what my hon. Friend says, but I am not sure that the recent court judgments are relevant to the unofficial strike action over the past weeks. Those judgments are essentially about pay and about the capacity of trade unions to take industrial action in support of collective agreements. We have been told that all subcontractors on the site at the Lindsey oil refinery are required to pay according to the industry agreed rates. ACAS will test the veracity of that claim, but that is what we have been told, so whatever this week’s dispute was about, it does not seem, on the face of it, to have been about a race to the bottom in terms of pay.
Is not the recent industrial unrest a direct result of the Prime Minister’s call, from weakness, for “British jobs for British workers”? In answering the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), would it not be more honest for the Government to admit that the Prime Minister could never deliver on that promise? He is legally bound by EU law, which the European Commission has no intention of amending at all. What other way is the Minister finding through this terrible dilemma of serious industrial unrest, up against a legal prohibition on anything serious being done to remedy it?
I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s premise. Everyone in the House wants to see British workers having jobs, and we want them to have the skills and training necessary for that. However, we do not want to forsake a relationship whereby half our exports go to the rest of the EU, half of our inward investment comes from the rest of the EU, and 3 million to 3.5 million—one in 10—of the jobs in this country are in some way associated with trade with the rest of the EU. It is not inconsistent to support that and also to support skills and training for British workers for the jobs and industries of the future.
Given that the dispute at the Lindsey oil refinery seems to have been resolved, I would like Ministers to consider some of the wider issues underlying it. If terms and conditions are equal and there are no differences in pay, will the Minister and his ministerial colleagues look into why British firms are losing contracts, and why they are not winning the contracts when they compete against European firms? We need to establish that if we are to get to the real reason why the dispute occurred.
My hon. Friend raises an important question, and I know that she has been very close to this issue and taken time to establish the facts. The question that she poses is a good one. If the issue was not about pay, what, in the competition for the contracts, may sometimes mean that UK firms lose out? That does not mean that every time a non-UK firm wins a contract some rule has been broken or we need a change in the law. There could be other reasons. My hon. Friend has asked an important and pertinent question.
The Minister will be aware of the Bill that I introduced a couple of days ago on this issue. It supports, of course, the notion of fair movement, but it also supports free movement and fair provision for services and workers. Is he aware that in several other member states, parallel legislation already prevents social dumping, precisely because there are circumstances in which a correction is needed? Will the Minister be good enough to answer the question that I now have on the Order Paper? It is about ensuring that we bring in domestic legislation to ensure fair and free movement, and that we look after British workers as well.
I believe in fair and free movement, and the Government have introduced many important employment rights for UK workers in the past decade. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it was a step forward for the employers in this situation to agree on guidance, which states:
“Always consider whether there are competent workers available locally. If there are, it is good practice for the non-UK contractor to explore and consider the local skills availability and to consider any applications that may be forthcoming.”
Two important things were required to end the dispute. One was that there should be a fair chance for UK workers. The other was that no Italian worker who was here legally should have to be sent home; I am glad that that too was supported by the trade unions in this situation.
If the Government want to ensure that we do not have another situation such as that at Lindsey or anywhere else, the truth is that we need, among other things, to enact the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill in total. That would ensure that middlemen and agency operators were not allowed to pick up about 25 per cent. of the earnings from foreign labour. Once we do that, we can stop the Lindseys of the future and deal with the matter in the Common Market as well.
I do not believe that agency workers were a factor in the Lindsey dispute. My understanding is that in that particular part of the construction industry the workers are directly employed by the subcontractors on the site. I have also been told that the subcontractors all have to pay the agreed rates. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that it was right to reach an agreement on the agency workers directive which suited the UK labour market. We did that on the basis of an agreement between the TUC and the CBI which was then reflected in the text of the agreed directive. The Government will bring forward a consultation on the implementation of the directive here in the UK.
More than 16 jobs will be lost as a result of the recent awarding of a specialist vessel requirement Navy contract in the Falklands to a Dutch company with a Filipino crew, instead of to the Scottish company that has provided the service successfully for 27 years. As there are serious questions about the tendering process, with correct procedure not having been followed, will the Minister ask his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to investigate the circumstances of this case?
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is not protectionist to insist on minimum pay and working conditions for British workers in competition with foreign workers? In that context, and in terms of the posted workers directive, can he insist that the European Commission gets a move on with its review? Will he also look at the British angle of this, which is that the current minimum standard is the minimum wage, but that we could move the standard up to nationally agreed collective bargaining regulation?
I believe—or at least, I have been informed—that the agreed collective bargaining rate applies in this case, and that therefore pay was not an issue in this dispute. As for the European Commission’s proposal to examine the operation of the posted workers directive, the UK Government supported that when it was discussed in December.
The Government have a variety of measures in place to encourage consumer demand. Within the Department, among other measures, we are conducting a wide-ranging review of the effectiveness of the consumer protection regime. That is one of a number of measures that will assist in giving consumers renewed confidence. We will announce the outcomes of the review in due course.
As my hon. Friend will recognise, the VAT cut, and other questions around taxation, are very much a matter for the Treasury, so the Treasury will review the effectiveness of that measure. However, it is interesting to note the support from several bodies that could in no way be described as friends of the Government all the time—the Institute for Fiscal Studies is one, and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders is another—but that welcomed the impact of the cut in VAT, as indeed have a number of retailers. Perhaps that is because it represents the largest single tax cut for some 20 years. It is also just one of a number of areas about which the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) disagrees with his shadow Chancellor.
Is the Minister aware of an example of a case in which the Government are actively suppressing demand—a case about which I wrote to the Secretary of State on 10 December? I have not had a reply, despite putting down parliamentary questions. Eighty jobs in my constituency are threatened because the Government have changed the regulations, making it more difficult for foreign airlines to have their pilots trained on simulator training equipment in a company in my constituency. Is not that an example of the Government speaking with one voice and acting in another way?
If the hon. Gentleman had written to me, I would, as he knows, have been very happy to reply. I do not know what has happened in the particular case that he refers to. He has clearly written to the Department, and I will chase up a response for him as a result of his question.
My hon. Friend is right to say that consumer demand can suffer when people are the victims of scams. He may not be aware that the Office of Fair Trading and the Trading Standards Institute have just launched an effort to make people aware of the risks of scams—scams awareness month. I pay tribute to the all-party group on consumer affairs and trading standards, which supported the OFT and the TSI in launching that month’s-worth of awareness-raising activities just this week. It is one of a number of measures, alongside investment in scam-buster teams and teams to deal with illegal money lending, through which we are seeking to crack down on the rogues who want to exploit vulnerable consumers at this time.
Given the universally held view at home and abroad that the VAT cut has been ineffective in stimulating demand, what assessment has the Department made of the effect of the VAT cut on slumping car sales in this country?
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that his view of the VAT cut is shared abroad or at home. The only place where that view is held is among the ranks of the Opposition. He would do well to review what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said about the VAT cut, and the comments of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. He might also wish to review the comments that the shadow Business Secretary made before the VAT cut was introduced.
Has my hon. Friend seen the important article by Professor Thomas Piketty, France’s leading economist, praising the VAT cut as a way of increasing demand across the economy, and suggesting that it should be applied across Europe? It is only the economic illiterates surrounding the new shadow Business Secretary who believe the opposite. Will his Department look at the example of Germany and France, which are offering scrap-and-build incentives whereby people bring in their old polluting cars and buy new ones?
I hope that my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I concentrate on reading the Harrow Observer and the Harrow Times. I will, however, rush to dig out the article to which he refers. I suspect that the comments he mentions are just one indication of the considerable support that exists for the measures that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary have taken to restimulate demand in the UK economy and lead efforts to boost consumer demand. The VAT cut, the fiscal stimulus package and the increase in incomes that pensioners will see in their bank accounts are all examples of the measures that we have taken—measures that the Opposition continue to oppose.
We have already announced support for businesses, including the automotive supply chain, through the enterprise finance guarantee and the working capital scheme, and helped to secure €8 billion for the sector through the European Investment Bank. Last week we announced a £2.3 billion package to support lending to the automotive industry, and work is under way with the European Commission to ensure that we can move forward on these measures as quickly as possible.
We have been in discussions with Jaguar Land Rover for a period of time. We are certainly aware of the company’s situation, and we have been supportive by encouraging it to go to the European Investment Bank for finance. The measures that we announced last Tuesday will provide guarantees for any loan that JLR secures from the EIB, but the company has other requests and we will continue our dialogue with them. The key thing to stress is that we are talking about taxpayers’ money, and we need to ensure that that money is used in the most effective way possible. We will continue to do that.
The announcement of aid last week came four months after the Minister first promised to help, but even today, as we learn that car sales have fallen again, the industry still does not have the details it needs to plan. There is no plan to help with consumer demand and loans, and the Government have now admitted that they have not even cleared their plans with the European Commission. Given that most of our competitors have already injected finance into their car industry, what is the problem? Do not Ministers understand the urgency, or is it just a matter of incompetence?
The hon. Gentleman ought to welcome the fact that we have announced a £2.3 billion package of loan guarantees to the industry. May I provide some of the details that he seems studiously to ignore? We will be guaranteeing EIB loans of more than £200 million for non-investment grade companies, which we need to do to ensure that they can get access to the necessary finance, as soon as those loans are approved. We will also guarantee up to £1 billion of new lending to companies looking to borrow more than £5 million. That will sit on top of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme that we have already announced, which we have talked about this morning. We hope that it will be open for business as quickly as possible.
I expect the state aid process to take days rather than months, and we will report on its progress. In the meantime, we are contacting all the companies in the automotive supply chain with a turnover above £25 million that could take advantage of the scheme, and talking to them about their requirements. We are getting on with the process of discussing what sensible lending might be made available to them now, rather than waiting for EU state aid approval.
DBERR has been in contact with more than 200 of the UK’s largest corporations and business representative bodies. Additionally, we have brought forward more than £66 billion of payments made by central Government Departments, launched a series of cash flow management guides to ensure that business has access to the very best information and supported the launch of a new prompt payment code by the Institute of Credit Management.
I thank the Minister for that answer. We clearly have to recognise that if large companies do not pay quickly in this crisis, they will force their supply chain out of business and lose out in the long run. Is it not crucial, given the balance of power between the large companies and the small companies trying to enforce payment terms, that there is more external intervention? To that end, does he support the call by the Federation of Small Businesses for Companies House to be given more resources to name and shame companies that do not register their payment terms with it?
Yes, it is important that big companies look to do what they can to support their supply chain during these difficult times. In the automotive industry, for instance, I am aware of a number of car manufacturers actively working with their supply chain and paying earlier than they normally do. Particularly in a time of lean or just-in-time production in the supply chains of the automotive industry and many other sectors of our economy, big companies have a direct interest in ensuring that small companies continue to survive. Many of them are already taking action to do that. Of course, the action that the Government are taking to stimulate credit in the economy will also help those small businesses.
Does the Minister accept that the Government’s efforts to promote prompt payment by large corporations will be severely undermined if they cannot put their own house in order? Will he therefore promise to investigate reports that many NHS trusts are failing to pay their contractors and suppliers within 30 days—far beyond the 14 days that the Government have promised?
I will certainly ensure that the Department of Health is aware of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses. We have made a prompt payment commitment right across government, and we expect it to be delivered on. Inevitably, there may be some situations in which queries are made about invoices and judgments have to be taken about whether payment should be made, because we need to protect taxpayers’ money. We want to ensure that payments are made properly and promptly, and I will happily ensure that his comments are passed on.
My Department is focused on helping business through the current economic downturn and ensuring that British business is in the best place possible to take advantage of the upturn, when eventually it comes.
A small business in Borough high street in Southwark, which has been trading for 12 years, making a profit and paying all its bills, was recently 12 days late in paying its tax and liabilities. It paid them on 30 and 31 December rather than 19 December. On 31 December, it received a letter from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs stating:
“Your case will be referred for enforcement action…if payment is not made immediately.”
Will Ministers talk to their colleagues in the Treasury and the Revenue to ensure that they are understanding of the difficulties when payments in make payments out a bit more difficult?
I am happy to ask HMRC to consider the case that the hon. Gentleman raises. As the Chancellor announced in the pre-Budget report, businesses have the capacity to ask for more time to pay tax during the current period, and some 30,000 businesses have taken advantage of that capacity in recent months. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is aware of the problem and understands the difficulties of business in the current period.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Nissan is an important part of the north-east regional economy, with one of the most efficient plants in the whole of western Europe. Like other car companies, Nissan is going through major problems because of the current lack of demand for cars.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the future. Nissan is interested in producing a new generation of electric vehicles and we have been in direct discussions with the company about that. We would like the vehicles to be made in the north-east and we will continue to have dialogue with Nissan about the matter.
The process for people expressing an interest in Royal Mail is open and we have not reached any conclusion so far on the prospective partner. We believe that it is in the interests of Royal Mail to partner with an experienced network or postal partner that has gone through the experience of change in a network operation of the sort that Royal Mail runs.
As the theme of these questions has been a series of pronouncements and commitments given by the Government and questions about dithering and failure to deliver, was the Minister surprised to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when giving evidence on Tuesday to the House of Lords, openly debating what form his latest big announcement might take, and whether the Government were switching from insurance of toxic debts in the banks’ balance sheets to a possible bad bank solution? As it is widely known that Baroness Vadera, a colleague in the Minister’s Department, is mainly in charge of the banking packages, will he get across to her the need for urgency, efficiency and some competence in delivery, and stress to her that British business cannot afford further delay and uncertainty before credit is got flowing properly again to businesses of all sizes?
We fully understand the depth of the current crisis, which is why we have been active, first on recapitalising the banks and then on taking a greater share of risk in lending. The whole world is going through the downturn and Governments have to act to try to restore confidence and lending. That is precisely what we are doing.
I have to contrast our actions with the Conservative party’s approach. In the words of Professor Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize winner:
“It’s pure Herbert Hoover… In fact, it reminds me of Andrew Mellon”—
Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury,
“who said the”
“response to the Depression should be to ‘liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, and liquidate farmers’.”
That is what the Nobel prize-winning economist thinks of the Conservative party’s approach. Ours is much more in tune with the task in hand.
I understand the question that my hon. Friend raises. Given the economic circumstances, banks must realise that there are huge public sensitivities about the issue. The public expect restraint. They also expect that if any bonuses are to be paid, they should be paid on the basis of achievement, not past failures.
Perhaps I can encourage the hon. Gentleman. British Ministers have taken construction companies on a series of international trade missions, helping them to win contracts abroad, not just in European countries, but in Asian countries, Gulf countries and so on. The details of those visits are public—questions have been asked about them—and some of the contracts that have been signed are public as a result. We will continue to work with the construction industry. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has already met the construction industry and he will continue to do so.
I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Carter will listen carefully to my hon. Friend, who raises an important point in general. As we go through this downturn, we must also look to the industries of the future. The communications revolution and good broadband access throughout the country are critical to our country’s economic future. That is why they are such a high priority for the Government.
It is important to recognise that there has been some recent public concern about the use of pre-pack administrations. We will always keep Government policy under review, and that includes the Enterprise Act 2002. Issues have arisen with some pre-packs, but there are also some advantages to pre-packs in terms of maintaining employment. I understand the comments that the hon. Gentleman makes and we will look at the matter closely.
It is the job of administrators to act in the best interests of creditors. It is also the job of the administrator to ensure that where a company can continue as a going concern, it does so. There are some lessons we might want to learn that have arisen from recent administrations. Sometimes the communication between the administrator and trade unions that have approved negotiating rights with companies has not been satisfactory. There have also been some suggestions that in some administrations there has been a rush to move towards liquidation without allowing sufficient time to explore other options. Again, that is something that we are actively looking at.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
In the final few months of 2008, the commissioners established two new mandates with funds raised from UK equity sales in the first half of the year. They were an active global equities mandate and an unconstrained mandate, which invests in a mixture of equities, bonds and cash, as determined by the manager. Both mandates added value in the final quarter of the year and delivered positive returns in a difficult environment.
Obviously some sagacity has been shown in taking money out of equities. I am aware that an important paper is to go to the General Synod this month on the implications of the financial crisis and the recession. Will the management of the funds continue to protect assets and assist the Church in its ministering role?
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, in the sense that the Church looks at the long term and at inter-generational fairness. The commissioners, in common with similar funds, have been affected by the global economic downturn, but we are not speculating on figures. The audited results will be published in our annual report, but the latest actuarial advice that we have received, which fits in with the hon. Gentleman’s question, is that we will be able to meet our 2008-10 expenditure plans, and that because of the way in which we smooth our non-pensions expenditure, we expect to maintain these distributions in cash terms into 2011 and 2013, further falls in the market notwithstanding.
I know that the Church Commissioners have regard to an ethical dimension in the investments that they make. In view of the General Synod’s discussions next week on the Church’s response to the financial crisis, will my hon. Friend ensure, through his good offices, that that ethical dimension is maintained, even in these difficult circumstances, when there is always an idea that it might be possible to make a quick buck? The Church should remain above all those elements and ensure that it learns lessons from the General Synod’s discussions next week and builds them into its future investment programmes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We look forward to that debate in the General Synod. In my Father’s house are many mansions, and next week there will be many aspects to the debate on the Government’s economic policy.
On ethical investment, I can assure my hon. Friend that the two new mandates are not permitted to engage in short selling, but they do have the ability to invest in instruments to protect funds under their management against adverse currency movements. There are no positions in hedge funds or direct exposure to sub-prime assets. Ethical investment has been the cornerstone of the Church of England’s Commissioners for many years, I think going back to the 1940s.
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Following a competition in 2006, the Commission appointed Tenon for three years, with the option of two one-year extensions. The Commission has been satisfied with Tenon’s performance and has decided to exercise the option to extend the appointment for a further year, to July 2010.
Tenon has made a number of important recommendations on, for example, business reporting arrangements, the management of fee income and how to deliver work programmes in the most effective way. With all the recommendations accepted, its work has ensured that the National Audit Office, working with the Public Accounts Committee, continues to be a world-class operation that delivers a £9 saving for every £1 spent. That means that £656 million is delivered back to the taxpayer every year.
Are we not back, however, to the central dilemma of Plato’s “Republic”: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who should audit the auditors? Have we not got a cosy cabal between Tenon and the NAO? Tenon failed to detect—or overlooked or declined to report on—the gold-plated, fur-lined expense arrangements of the former Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn. What confidence can we have in its forensic ability to report on the things that matter in relation to the operation of the NAO?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have now put in place a completely new governance structure for the National Audit Office. For the first time, there will be an independent chairman working with the Prime Minister. We have appointed Sir Andrew Likierman, who is probably the country’s leading expert on resource accounts, to be the chairman of the NAO, and he will lead a board that will directly oversee the Comptroller and Auditor General in terms of his expenses and all the things that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. At the same time, the board will ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General continues to be fully independent in delivering value-for-money reports. We have also, with the Prime Minister, appointed Amyas Morse—a first-class appointment—who will deliver the kind of improvements that the hon. Gentleman wants.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The Electoral Commission informs me that where malpractice has been exposed, it discusses lessons learned in detail with the electoral registration officers. More generally, the commission issues guidance to all electoral registration officers on suggested approaches to adopt in compiling and maintaining complete and accurate registers. This guidance reflects lessons learned from instances where there has been evidence of malpractice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. There is a particular problem in my constituency, where a criminal case has arisen that is being dealt with in Reading court, and there has been an electoral case demonstrating that people are listed on the register who do not exist, but who have postal votes. I am profoundly concerned that when postal votes are issued, they last five years before they can be removed by the electoral registration officer, and if the person on the register does not exist, there is no way of confirming it. Will the hon. Gentleman discuss with the Electoral Commission whether there is something it can do in these circumstances to ensure that we avoid the fraudulent voting that has occurred in Slough?
The commission shares the court’s very serious concerns about the system of voter registration in Great Britain. Since 2003, the commission has called for a reform of the system to provide security where it is needed, which is at the point of registration, and it argues that a system of individual electoral registration with personal identifiers is needed to provide a secure foundation for both registration and postal voting.
What research has the Electoral Commission undertaken on the extent of fraudulent entries on the electoral register? I am thinking about not just the deliberate fraud that the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned, but the overall accuracy of the electoral register throughout the UK. That seems to me to be a rather fundamental point as we approach a possible general election.
Malpractice has been the subject of a study and statistics are available. The amount of malpractice is in fact comparatively small, but it takes only a small amount of malpractice to create a great deal of suspicion and concern about the system generally. The United Kingdom is one of only two countries in the world to have a system of household registration, which, as the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) pointed out, provides an opportunity for the head of the household or anyone who interferes with the post to carry out such fraud. The other country that has a system of household registration is Zimbabwe.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I agree with the Electoral Commission about the need for personal identification, but I think that the point made by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) about the integrity of the electoral register is extremely important. The issue is not just fraud, but one of attrition, as to whether the electoral registers are kept up to date when people die or move away, for example. What research has been done on that aspect, and what guidance can be given to electoral registration officers to ensure that they keep a fully up-to-date and accurate register, which is essential?
Recent legislation has given the Electoral Commission power to issue more guidance to electoral registration officers, and the commission is taking that power. The commission feels strongly that the best way ahead is through individual registration, and its call has been backed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and, most recently, the Slough electoral petition, in which Richard Mawrey, QC, called for immediate reform of the voter registration process to remove opportunities for electoral malpractice.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church of England officials have been meeting officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and other Government Departments. Those discussions seek, among other things, to identify national, regional and local sources of funds and ensure that the provision of community services in church buildings qualifies for these sources of funding on an equal basis as in respect of non-church buildings.
I understand that the heritage grant is to be reduced this year, and that the funding of churches and church repairs is reaching crisis point. There has been a spate of thefts of lead from roofs, and churches must pay VAT on repairs. They have thousands of pounds’ worth of commitments and very little by way of grant. What can the hon. Gentleman do, as a matter of urgency, to ensure that the largest possible heritage grant is available for the restoration of churches?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising a matter that is extremely important to the Church. We continue to monitor the heritage fund grant because we are constantly hearing that it may be reduced.
The hon. Lady is, of course, aware of our own efforts and campaigning to ensure that VAT on church repairs is effectively reduced to 5 per cent. She is right to say that we need to inject value into our church repairs. At least £925 million will be needed over the next five years to repair listed places of worship in England, most of which will be raised by congregations and local communities. The hon. Lady’s efforts, and the efforts of the House, to maintain pressure on the Government are most welcome.
I estimate that the new charge—and, where applicable, highways drainage contributions—will cost Church of England churches and cathedrals about £15 million or more. Let me add by way of a statement that I consider the new charging regime to be unfair to the churches, small sports clubs and voluntary organisations that enrich our communities. Ministers are considering how to respond to these concerns, and we await their response with interest.
I think that the churches, charities and sports organisations await a ministerial announcement not just with interest but with anger. I wrote to the Minister responsible on 19 December, and his office has informed me today that I should receive a reply to my letter in the next few weeks. Would it not be better if the Second Church Estates Commissioner had a word with Ministers to ensure that they reach some conclusion about the need for new legislation—not just tinkering with guidance notes—before the Church of England debates the matter in our Synod next week?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for writing to the Minister personally.
A great deal of pressure has been exerted on the Government, not only by the Church but by the Scout Association, which has campaigned on the issue. Only yesterday a petition from former sports stars Brian Moore and Mike Gatting outlining the impact on sports clubs was received by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The pressure is on the Government, and what we want is for the Government to respond. If I may use a biblical phrase, let me say: those who have ears, let them hear.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this matter arises from a rather misguided decision by Ofwat, with which I have been in correspondence for well over six months, and that, as is clear from that correspondence, the individual water companies still have a degree of latitude that would enable them to exempt churches?
The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the matter lies with Ofwat; and therein, I suspect, lies the dilemma of Ministers. How do they intervene with Ofwat? How do they intervene on behalf of the Church or in relation to the Scouts Association? How do they intervene on behalf of all the small concerns that are the lifeblood of our country and act in their interests? That is a dilemma for the Government to which they should respond and on which they should reach a conclusion that is favourable to the Church’s interest and also robust. We want no tinkering with the system and no filibustering here or there; we want a clear decision that is in the interests of the organisations to which I have referred.
On Monday of this week, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) raised the matter of a request by the Metropolitan police for access to e-mail correspondence between the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I have caused the matter to be investigated. I can now inform the House that the request was made by the solicitors for the Metropolitan police service to the solicitors acting for the hon. Member for Ashford. The request concerned the methods to be used to establish the relevance to a criminal investigation of material which was already in the possession of the police. The request did not seek any further material from the hon. Member for Ashford, and no approach was made either by the Metropolitan police service or by its solicitors to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 9 February—Motion to approve a Standards and Privileges Committee report on dual reporting and the revised guide to the rules followed by remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill (Day 1).
Tuesday 10 February—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Banking Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Banking Bill.
Wednesday 11 February—Opposition day (5th Allotted Day). There will be a debate entitled “Government’s failure to address the increase in housing waiting lists”, followed by a debate on the future of Royal Mail. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 12 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2009 and draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2009.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 February will include:
Monday 23 February—Second Reading of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill.
Tuesday 24 February—Opposition day (6th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 25 February—Remaining stages of the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill.
Thursday 26 February—General debate on Welsh Affairs.
Friday 27 February—Private Members’ Bills.
I would also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 26 February and 5 March will be as follows:
Thursday 26 February—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee on valuing and supporting carers.
Thursday 5 March—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights entitled, “A Life Like Any Other? Human Rights of Adults with Learning Disabilities”.
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement, but may I, once again, ask for a debate on Equitable Life? Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady twice used the word “compensation” with reference to those who have lost out from the collapse of Equitable Life, but the word appears in neither the oral statement given to the House by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 15 January nor the Command Paper published immediately afterwards. Can the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the Government will indeed be giving compensation, and not just means-tested payments? Is she aware of what the ombudsman—or, to use her favoured form of words, the ombudsperson—was complaining about last week when she said that the Government’s response to her report had twisted her words and was spinning deceits?
Leaks to the press have suggested that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are considering delaying the Budget announcement. Given the seriousness of our current economic plight, can the Leader of the House tell us when the Chancellor will deliver his Budget to the House? Some companies facing a slump in demand for their products have decided simply to shut down for a few months; have the Government decided to do the same?
Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady declined to answer a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) about her plans for the Modernisation Committee. That Committee has not met since July. May we have a statement on whether she plans to abolish it—as some of my hon. Friends would like—fold it into the Procedure Committee, or revive it?
May we also perhaps have a debate on moral authority, so that this House can help to establish a code of modern manners for privacy, humour and comment, which can be practised and agreed by everyone, in place of the current chaos, which provokes animosity and condemnation when it all could be so much better handled?
It seems that we have more inclement weather moving in. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady can dismiss the scurrilous rumours circulating this week that she spent most of Monday building a snowperson? We are now learning that some councils have been forced to scale back and even halt their gritting and salting programmes owing to national shortages, so may we have a debate on this country’s lack of preparedness for snow and ice?
The report by the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise on the annual report of the Department criticised the lack of proper accountability caused by the large number of Ministers, including the Secretary of State Lord Mandelson, who are not in this House, but in another place. That report, which was published more than two months ago, called for urgent action by the Government to investigate possible solutions to this imbalance, but there has still been no formal response—when will there be such a response from the Government?
We are all in favour of Ministers flying the flag for Britain but, unlike Lord Mandelson, we like to do things the right way up. Given that flying the flag upside down is an internationally recognised sign of distress, was his appearance in front of such a symbol a mistake or a desperate cry for help? The truth is that the Prime Minister has moved from recession to depression, the country has run out of salt, the Government have run out of grit and now they are flying the flag of distress. How long will we have to wait before this Government follow the lead of Iceland and simply decide to pack up and go home?
Well, I give the hon. Gentleman 10 out of 10 for frothy presentation and about zero for substance, but I shall try to glean some substantive points from his comments. On Equitable Life, whatever the terminology—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] Well, we are talking about the Government recognising that there had been not only terrible mismanagement by Equitable Life but regulatory failure, that an apology was due, and that there was a need for financial recompense—whatever the words one uses to describe it. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement made to this House by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
The hon. Gentleman asked when the Budget would be announced, so I shall tell him that it will be announced in the usual way. He implied that the Government were not taking action on the economy. I think he would recognise from all the statements made to this House and from all the Government’s announcements that we have taken unprecedented action both to help people through the recession in this country and to work internationally to improve the global financial situation.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Modernisation Committee. I did not avoid the question put last week—I answered it. There are many programmes of modernisation working their way through the system for which we can thank the Modernisation Committee—for example, those on pre-legislative scrutiny, post-legislative scrutiny and having Bills in plain English. The Modernisation Committee’s work runs alongside that of the Procedure Committee. Because of ministerial appointments, there have to be new Members on the Modernisation Committee. I am sure that the Committee of Selection will come forward with those appointments and the work on the modernisation of the House will continue.
On Monday, the business of the House carried on as usual, and I add my tribute to the one that you paid, Mr. Speaker, to the 800 members of staff of this House who came in to keep the House working as usual. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman was doing on Monday but, as far as I was concerned, as Leader of the House it was business as usual. He talked about snow, ice and grit. The Highways Agency is working with the Government, the Department for Transport and the Local Government Association to ensure that there is proper distribution of salt and that we can keep as many of the roads open as possible. He ended up with a general swipe at Ministers in the Lords, but I would like to pay tribute to the work of those people who step forward to be Ministers in the Lords; it is a question of serious people for serious times.
Can time be found next week for an urgent debate on early-day motion 426, which I tabled?
[That this House notes the disproportionate impact on building societies of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) levy, resulting from the failure of Bradford and Bingley plc, the Icelandic banks and London Scottish Bank; recognises that building societies’ share of the levy, approximately £200 million per annum in each of the next three years, is equivalent to about 15 per cent. of the sector’s pre-tax profit for 2007-08 financial year ends; notes that building societies’ share of the levy for years beyond 2011 is uncertain, but could well be higher than £200 million per annum; acknowledges that the impact on building societies contrasts starkly with the banking sector, where the FSCS levy is typically well below five per cent. of pre-tax profits over a similar accounting period; further notes that the current allocation of the FSCS levy works to the detriment of building societies’ members, their savers and borrowers; acknowledges that no building society has ever made a call on the FSCS or its predecessor schemes; and calls on the Government to introduce a more equitable scheme for funding the insurance of deposits of failed banks.]
The motion now has 119 signatures, but not many from the Conservatives.
On the grounds that we should sometimes talk about what the rest of the country is talking about, there is a case for the topical debate next week to be on planning for adverse weather conditions.
I welcome the statement from the Foreign Secretary on the case of Binyam Mohamed that will follow business questions. I suggest, however, that we may need a statement from the Prime Minister, because the ruling from the court case makes it clear that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is under the Prime Minister’s tutelage, was asked to look at this matter, but 42 relevant documents were not given to it. This is a matter of the greatest gravity on the issue of the rule of law, and the Prime Minister needs to tell the House exactly what has happened.
May we have two statements on Iceland? We need one on the position of the Government and the regulatory authorities in relation to Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander in the Isle of Man and Guernsey, so that we can be sure that the Government have acted appropriately to protect the interests of United Kingdom depositors in that bank? The second should be on the apparent liquidation of Baugur and the impact that that will have on a huge number of retail jobs in this country.
In Prime Minister’s questions, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) asked about the Competition Commission’s proposals to protect primary suppliers from the oligopolistic attitudes of the major retailing supermarkets. The Prime Minister said that my hon. Friend was “absolutely right”. When will legislation be introduced to set up a statutory ombudsman for the supply chain, as recommended by the commission?
Last week, I drew attention to the credibility gap between what the Prime Minister says will happen and what actually happens. He said that the Government would accelerate capital programmes to deal with the recession; certainly in the case of colleges, they have stopped. He said that he would require energy companies to bring down prices; they have not. He said that he would require banks to increase lending and stop paying bonuses; they carry on regardless. He said that there would be a mortgage deferral scheme; two months later, it is not there. He announced an increase in house building, but last year only half as many houses were built as in the year before. May we have a debate on why it appears that nobody takes a blind bit of notice of what the Prime Minister actually says?
The hon. Gentleman’s first point will be the subject of a statement by the Foreign Secretary immediately after business questions, so perhaps he could address that question to him. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask the Prime Minister, Prime Minister’s questions will of course take place next Wednesday.
The hon. Gentleman raised the serious issue of the Icelandic banks. A great deal of information has been given to the House by Treasury Ministers, both by way of written ministerial statements and oral statements, and Treasury questions will take place next week. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems with Baugur, which highlight the importance of the tax stimulus that we have put into the economy, both by bringing forward cash for pensioners, child tax credit and tax rebates, and through the VAT cut, which will add to the benefits felt from the interest rate cuts. We have to recognise that retail is very much affected and should be the beneficiary of the tax stimulus that is being put into the economy.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Competition Commission. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered the question yesterday and I do not think there is anything more I can add today. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman showed that he is fully in support of the point that lies behind the question asked by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George).
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) then made a range of accusations about things that have not worked. Actions have been taken and they are all working their way through the system: pressure has rightly been applied to bring down energy prices; interest rates have fallen; and the announcements for mortgage deferrals need to make their way through the system. He will recognise that against the background of a rapid deterioration in the global economic situation, we are taking all the actions that we can, not only internationally but nationally, to protect people. Yes, some of the measures take time to get through the system, but they are the right measures and we stand ready to introduce more. We will listen to any sensible suggestions from his party if such suggestions are made.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that when the economy was growing rapidly, we legislated to expose empty commercial properties to business rates. When the economy slowed down, we exempted properties with a rateable value of up to £15,000. Is she aware that the South East England Development Agency and my local council have got together to build much-needed industrial premises in my constituency that will help us to attract jobs when the economy starts to grow but, in the meantime, will shortly be a business rate liability on the taxpayer? Will she raise that issue with the Chancellor and will she arrange for us to have an opportunity to debate it in the near future, and certainly before the Budget?
My hon. Friend is right to remind us that that measure was brought in to deter people from leaving property empty. I know that the subject has been raised by many hon. Members. Treasury questions will take place next week, so perhaps he can ask a Treasury Minister about it then.
It was confirmed in a recent written answer by the Minister responsible for prisons that Whitemoor prison in my constituency has seen its proportion of Muslim prisoners increase by 14 percentage points, that is, from 20 to 34 per cent., in the last year for which figures are available. That is by far the largest proportion of Muslim prisoners in a high-security prison in the country and represents a disproportionate and unreasonable burden on the prison officer staff at Whitemoor. May we have a debate at the earliest opportunity on the dispersal policy for Muslim prisoners in the high-security estate?
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the scandalous gender pay gap of 40 per cent. in the banking sector? Will she urge her ministerial colleagues to take action to rectify that situation, particularly as far as bonuses are concerned? They hardly ever fall to women and are awarded entirely subjectively. Frankly, it is unacceptable for that industry to carry on in the way that it has been doing.
This issue could also be raised in Treasury questions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that there is a great deal of concern about remuneration policies in the financial services industry. There has been concern about remuneration policies in relation to bonuses, which have appeared to reward failure and have involved huge figures. She also mentioned an unfairness: despite the fact that most of those who work in the financial services sector are women, it has the biggest gender pay gap of all sectors at 40 per cent. That is why I have asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to carry out an investigation into pay discrimination in the financial services sector, which needs a root-and-branch overhaul in respect of remuneration.
The Environment Agency recently scrapped an anti-flooding programme in Marlow, in my constituency, after design errors by Halcrow, the consultants, were discovered. That came at a cost of about £1 million—and rising—to the taxpayer. May we have a debate in the reasonably near future on the use of consultants by Government agencies?
In March, there will be a United Nation General Assembly special session on drugs in Vienna. That follows a similar UNGASS in Vienna last year, at which it was decided to consider reforming the three UN conventions that control the world’s drug policy as well as the 1998 UN declaration on countering the world drug problem. There was a debate on the subject in the other place on 22 January. Do the Government intend to have a debate in this House to inform our delegate, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), on this extremely important matter?
My hon. Friend is right to say that this matter is extremely important. The UN has a major role to play in drawing countries together internationally in the fight against drugs. I understand that a very high percentage of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan, so that might well be a subject that he could raise, if he can catch Mr. Speaker’s eye, as part of this afternoon’s debate.
Following the support of the both the Conservative and Labour parties for yesterday’s Scottish National party budget to invest in jobs and freeze council tax, may we have a proper debate about how this House funds Scotland? Yesterday, we also learned that this crowd are prepared to slash—
Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition wants to slash Scottish expenditure by altering the way in which Scotland is funded. Meanwhile, the Government want to be more direct and slash £2 billion from the Scottish budget. May we have a proper debate to consider all the options, including full fiscal autonomy so that Scotland pays and raises its taxes and spends them in the way that it sees fit?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to raise that point in Treasury questions. It is difficult to think of a collective noun that could be used for the Opposition if they were not Her Majesty’s Opposition. Today, the collective noun would certainly be “chaps”.
The falling value of the pound against other currencies creates important opportunities for export industries and inbound tourism. In fact, it would be accurate for advertisements to be placed in the eurozone or United States saying, “Come to Britain for your holiday—30 per cent. off last year’s price.” May we have a debate to discuss what the Government could do to exploit the exchange rate to help tourism businesses and export industries in the UK?
That is something that the Prime Minister answered yesterday. It is very much the preoccupation of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Tourism is very important in the City of York, which my hon. Friend represents, as well as in our coastal towns. I suggest that he could look for an opportunity for a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.
May we have an early debate on the regulation of wheel clampers, particularly bearing in mind the case of my constituent, Tara Dougall, a health care professional whose car was clamped in deep snow this week? The cost of getting it back was £345, paid to a company called Park Direct.
I shall bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman writes to him about it. There are too many concerns and justified complaints about cowboy clampers, and perhaps we should be looking for someone to make an example of. The right hon. Gentleman may just have put his finger on a candidate.
On the front of yesterday’s Evening Standard was a picture of uncollected rubbish lying in the snow in Hammersmith. Many of my constituents have had no bus service or refuse collection this week, nor have they been able to walk on their pavements or drive on their streets, all because the incompetent Tory local council was not able to carry out its basic function of planning for, or reacting to, adverse weather. May we have a debate in Government time to explore how the Government can persuade local councils to carry out those basic functions?
I know that there is a great deal of concern about whether all the London boroughs stepped up to the mark to help people to get to work, and about all the problems caused for Transport for London by the fact that traffic could not run along the roads, which had a knock-on effect on bus services. The London boroughs, and London’s Mayor as well, should take full responsibility for that.
In response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), the Leader of the House said that she was sure that the Committee of Selection would shortly come up with some new names. Is she aware that responsibility for nominations to the Modernisation Committee rests not with the Committee of Selection, but with her?
However, may I ask why there is no topical debate next Thursday, or the next sitting Thursday after that? How can the right hon. and learned Lady be so confident that nothing will happen in the next three weeks that merits a topical debate?
On the Thursday before the recess, we are debating social security orders, and on the Thursday following the recess, we are having a Welsh affairs debate. Usually, so many hon. Members from Wales want to speak in that debate that it is better not to carve out an hour and a half for a topical debate. However, if there is a pressing need for a topical debate next Thursday, in addition to the Government business of the social security upratings, I will consider arranging one, as I am aware that there will be a number of weeks without a topical debate. If we want to hold a topical debate on that Thursday, I can always come to the House and rearrange the business. The business that we intend to cover is as I have announced it, but I shall keep an eye on the matter.
There used to be a publishing imprint called “Condensed Classics”, which provided compact versions of our nation’s greatest literature. My early-day motion 665 attempts to do the same thing in relation to the series of articles this week in The Guardian exposing the tax-avoidance industry.
[That this House applauds the Guardian's serialised coverage of the tax avoidance industry and its cost to the public; observes that due to the complex and secretive nature of tax avoidance there is no accurate figure for the amount of tax that big business avoids paying in the UK every year; notes that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates this annual hole in the public accounts to be £12 billion whilst the Public Accounts Committee puts the figure at £8.5 billion; further notes with concern the National Audit Office's finding that in 2006 more than 60 per cent, of Britain's 700 biggest companies paid less than £10 million corporation tax and 30 per cent, paid nothing; regards companies in the FTSE 100 and others indulging in this highly addictive practice as guilty of corporate malfeasance; seriously regrets that families and small to medium-sized businesses continue to plug this gap through disproportionately higher taxes; regrets the Government and HM Revenue and Customs' decision to close local tax offices at a time when the tax system is under sustained attack from the major accountancy firms on behalf of their corporate clients during a recession; believes that those accountancy firms offering tax avoidance products and advice should be excluded from tendering for public sector contracts until they stop serving this highly destructive and socially irresponsible corporate habit; and calls on the Government to respond formally to the Guardian's findings as part of a wholesale review of the corporate tax system.]
This will be of use to fellow parliamentarians, who are beset by many items of work at all times. Can we have a statement on the topic from my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to Treasury, or better still a debate in Government time? The annual hole in the public accounts, which has to be filled by tax paid by families and small and medium-sized enterprises, is at least £12 billion; that equates to about 4p on the standard rate of income tax. It is a scandal and a disgrace, and we really ought to be doing more to combat it.
We all strongly believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes. It is objectionable for anyone to try to avoid paying tax, and is even more so when times are hard. People who are better off ought to step forward and take up their responsibilities for paying tax, not try to shirk them. Making sure that loopholes are plugged as soon as they are opened is a constant source of work in the Treasury. We have Treasury questions next week, when I suggest my hon. Friend raises with Treasury Ministers any further suggestions that he has for plugging tax loopholes.
In a week when much of the country has been paralysed by snow, my constituents in Sutton and Cheam and Worcester Park want to know why all the stations providing rail services into London were still closed on Tuesday. They also want to know why the railway industry seemed so singularly unprepared to cope with the adverse weather, despite the advance warnings that were given. Can we have a debate in Government time as soon as possible, so that we can explore contingency and resilience planning by Network Rail, Government Departments and local authorities?
I am sure that all the organisations concerned will be seeking to learn lessons from their response to what everyone recognises was unprecedented weather. Perhaps I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to issue a written ministerial statement about the lessons that will be learned and how these issues will be taken forward.
Can we have a debate—perhaps a topical debate—on the weather? I pay tribute to my own council in Wakefield, which gritted 1,400 km of snow-covered roads, but it is clear from the experiences of other hon. Members that that was not the case across the country. We have civil contingency plans for terror attacks and floods, but when we get three inches of snow, the buses stop working, the teachers stay at home, and Parliament goes home early. Many people do not get paid if they do not go to work. We need to debate all these issues and make sure that in the 21st century, the world’s seventh-largest economy can deal with three inches of snow.
Obviously, I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Wakefield council on its response to the extreme weather. Lessons need to be learned, and no doubt they will be, but we must also recognise that many people made great efforts to get into work, despite the emergency weather conditions. Hospitals were running and the House of Commons had business as usual, although the Liberal Democrats were kind enough to foreshorten their debate and bring it to a close half an hour early—
During questions to the hon. Member representing the Church Commissioners, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) raised the unfair and ridiculous charge for the disposal of surface water that is being levied by water authorities. In the north-west, United Utilities has temporarily lifted that charge from small sporting clubs and places of worship and from the premises used by organisations such as the scouts and guides. Bearing that in mind, will the relevant Minister come forward at an early date to make it clear that the Government will cancel that fee and charge, with immediate effect?
On Monday, the Mayor of London said that the problem was not the wrong sort of snow but that there was just too much of it. Does the Leader of the House accept that glib excuse for the chaos in the capital city that followed? Will she listen to the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), and by the hon. Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), and enable us to have an early debate on the chaos that followed when we had a little bit of snow?
The past few days have shown that upland hill farmers have had a pretty tough time, especially in the midlands and through Somerset and Exmoor, which I represent. Can we have a debate in Government time on the desperate situation of upland hill farmers, which has worsened over successive years? If we want to keep the United Kingdom’s upland landscape beautiful, please may we discuss how those farmers can be helped by the Government?
In light of the right hon. and learned Lady’s earlier remarks, may I place on record my self-sacrificial willingness to step forward and serve as a Minister in the Lords, if the appropriate arrangements can be made—but under the next Government, not this one?
Mr. Speaker, you were in the Chair on Monday when my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and I put questions to successive Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions. There were two Ministers, and two completely contradictory answers were given. Some 1,700 ex-pat UK citizens, all of them by implication disabled, are waiting for payment of disability and related benefits. The matter is to be determined by the European Court of Justice, and the Government have been sitting on the problem for months. Given the confusion caused on Monday, will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement, so that we know what the position actually is?
Two months ago, in a written statement, the Secretary of State for International Development said that there would be a pause in the negotiations for an airport on the island of St. Helena, which the Government had long promised and for which the contract was about to be awarded. Two months is more than a pause. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House and hold a debate on why there has been such a long delay to the promised airport on St. Helena?
In a week when a devoted community nurse was suspended from her duties for wanting to pray for one of her patients and then the BBC, which is even more misguided than that nurse’s health authority, dismissed an eminent broadcaster for a remark made in the green room, while retaining the odious Jonathan Ross on £6 million a year, is it not time that we had a debate on the utter absurdities of political correctness?
Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), will the Leader of the House invite the Flag Institute to go to No. 10 Downing street to provide a training module for the Prime Minister, the noble Lord Mandelson and Downing street officials, to ensure that the embarrassing incident in which the flag of our country was displayed upside down in front of the Chinese Prime Minister never occurs again? Also, will she enable a debate to be held so that we in this country can consider introducing a flag Act similar to that in Australia, so that such a thing is not allowed to happen again and so that the procedure and protocol can be clearly laid down?
May we have a statement or a debate—or even, if we cannot have those, an expression of opinion from the Leader of the House—on the improper use of written statements as a substitute for ministerial statements made on the Floor of the House? I have in mind the written statement made on the postponement of the building programme for the two aircraft carriers. I know that the right hon. and learned Lady did her best to promise us that we could raise the issue in the armed forces debate held a week ago, but in the end, Mr. Speaker quite understandably decided that we could not. Will she at least try to send a signal to Ministers that, in future, when there is an important matter to be announced to the House, we should be able to question them, rather than the announcement being sneaked out as a written statement?
I do not think that there is any intention to sneak out information by way of written statements. If information is put in a written statement, it is laid before the House, so it is not sneaked out at all; it is put in the public domain. Ministers and I, as Leader of the House, have to share the decision on whether time is needed for the Second Reading of an important Bill, the remaining stages of a controversial Bill, or Opposition day debates. There has been an unprecedented number of statements, not least because of statements from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Treasury on the economic situation, as well as a number of statements from the Home Office. We have to be careful to ensure that the main business of the House is not too squeezed by statements.
It is a question of striking a balance. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes such matters seriously, so I will be prompted by his question to review the balance between written and oral statements, and the balance between oral statements and the rest of the business of the House, to make sure that we get both right. I absolutely assure him that we are proud of our procurement from the important industries that provide for our armed services. There is no way that we would want to sweep that under the carpet.
The Leader of the House will be aware that I raised a point of order last night about the dwindling supplies of salt and grit in the country. Gloucestershire is in a particularly difficult situation: it has a 72-hour contract with Salt Union, but has been told that it may not get another supply next Tuesday, so it is severely rationing the number of roads that it can salt, which has implications for road safety. Will the Leader of the House guarantee to bring that to the attention of the Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government today? If conditions deteriorate over the weekend, will she ask the Secretary of State to come and make a statement to the House? Clearly, we cannot have a situation in which the country is running out of salt.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, unprecedented demands have been made on the stocks of salt, and difficult decisions about priorities have to be made. I think that it is a matter of the Department for Transport working with the Department for Communities and Local Government, agencies such as the Highways Agency and local government bodies to make sure that we can replenish stocks and ensure that salt supplies are where they are needed.
Will the Leader of the House clarify the statement that she made in December and again on 13 January that when a debate is on armed forces personnel, the title should be interpreted broadly? She will understand that one can no more debate soldiers, sailors and airmen without debating the kit that they use than one can debate teachers or nurses without debating schools or hospitals. Will she confirm that in future, in debates on armed forces personnel, we can debate the equipment that they use and on which they rely?
Traditionally, the House has debated armed services personnel separately from armed forces procurement; that has been the custom and practice. As for the scope or remit of any particular debate, that is obviously a matter for the Speaker. If the Defence Committee makes proposals on the subject, or if colleagues in the House want to make suggestions for change, that can be considered.
Mr. Speaker, like you, I hope, on Monday, when Britain came to a halt, I decided to run to work. [Hon. Members: “From Bournemouth?”] Absolutely. When I arrived, I found that it was not business as usual, as the Leader of the House claims. The car park was shut. When I asked the policeman why it was shut, he said that the 15-metre ramp leading down to it was covered with snow. When I asked why the snow had not been removed, he said that there was no contract for it. When I asked him to join me in removing the snow, he said, “No, it’s against health and safety.” Setting aside the issues of community that that raises, may I endorse the calls for a debate on how Britain copes with snow, starting with how we deal with it here in the Palace of Westminster?
Now that we have a national dementia strategy for England, the long-awaited arrival of which was announced to the world by the Secretary of State for Health on the “Andrew Marr Show”, and to the House by written, not oral, statement on Tuesday, may we please have a debate on it in Government time, so that the people who are affected can hear the House discuss what is not in the strategy and how what is in it can be implemented and paid for?
I shall take that as a suggestion for a future topical debate. I hope that all hon. Members welcome the national dementia strategy and the further announcement that was made. Of course, we will need to make progress on the issue; not everything was announced in one go. Rather than decrying what is not in the strategy, I ask the hon. Gentleman to welcome the important advances made by the national health service as part of the national dementia strategy.
May I reiterate the calls for a statement to be made by a Minister about the country’s salt stocks? The Leader of the House will be aware that yesterday the Minister for Local Government responded to the points of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and myself. He said at column 938 that the Highways Agency had sufficient stocks available to make
“at least a day’s worth available to local… authorities”—[Official Report, 4 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 938.]
That is not the case in the Highways Agency south-west region. There are not sufficient stocks. Gloucestershire has been put in a very difficult position, which will impact on businesses and families across the area. Ministers should come to the House to say what the national position is. They do not have a clear understanding of it and we need to be able to question them appropriately.
We have a very important statement, followed by a debate on Sri Lanka and another on Afghanistan and Pakistan, so it would not be right to have an oral statement today, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to consider a written statement and hon. Members can pursue issues afterwards.
May I ask for another debate on port rating? A fortnight ago the Minister for Local Government told the House that most of the money had gone to port owners, but at Question Time last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), assured us in the strongest possible language that that was not the case. The day afterwards, in an Adjournment debate on port rating, the Minister for Local Government, despite hearing that read to him twice from Hansard, repeated his assertion. Meanwhile, businesses are going bust on the Mersey, on the Humber and in other parts of the country. May we have a debate to sort this out?
Following the mention by the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), may we have an urgent debate on the freeze in funding of further education colleges and their plans? For example, the regeneration of Beverley depends very much on the East Riding college move to Flemingate, and I know that Hull college, which serves my constituency and areas of Hull, also has plans and has spent a lot of money on the basis of Government promises. May we have a debate to ensure that the promises made to FE colleges will be honoured by the Government?
We have put unprecedented investment into further and higher education, and we intend to continue to do that, particularly on the capital side. We intend to bring forward the investment programme and we are working with colleges and the relevant agencies to do exactly that.
May we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the plight of the thalidomide victims? Given that there are 457 remaining victims in the United Kingdom, that in many cases their health is progressively deteriorating, and that the cost of domestic adaptations to enable them to perform sometimes simply basic tasks, let alone to live rewarding lives and to fulfil themselves, is so extortionately high, is it not time that the House considered whether we favour a publicly funded compensation scheme, analogous to those in Canada, Germany, Ireland and Sweden?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important topic. Everybody remembers the shameful situation of the drug companies trying to evade their responsibilities to those who had suffered because of the drug thalidomide. As a first step, I suggest the hon. Gentleman raises the issue in Health questions next week.
With my constituency under 6 inches of early morning snow, making minor roads impassable, my constituents understand why all the local schools are closed today. However, they do not understand why half the local schools were closed on Tuesday, when the roads were icy but passable. Will the Leader of the House make sure that there is a topical debate next Thursday and that the debate is on Britain’s reaction to adverse weather conditions?
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement to the House on the case of Mr. Binyam Mohamed, following the judgment handed down yesterday in the High Court.
The fundamentals of the case are as follows. Mr. Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national formerly resident in the UK, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002. In 2004 he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Until August 2007, the Government had taken responsibility for the release and return of British nationals from Guantanamo Bay. In August 2007, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I wrote to then US Secretary of State to seek Mr. Mohamed’s release from Guantanamo Bay and his return to the United Kingdom, along with four other former UK residents. Over the past 18 months, we have mounted what the Court has called a strenuous effort to achieve that objective. We have throughout kept Mr. Mohamed’s family and lawyers informed of his situation and our efforts to resolve it.
The United States brought terrorist charges against Mr. Mohamed in May last year before a military commission. Mr. Mohamed subsequently brought proceedings against the British Government in an effort to secure the disclosure to his legal counsel of any material held by the British Government that might assist the defence of his case before the military commission. Having looked through all the material that we held across government, we provided through the appropriate legal and statutory mechanisms a great deal of both classified and unclassified UK information.
Among the information we held, however, we identified some highly classified US intelligence material. We took the view that the material was potentially exculpatory and ought to be disclosed to Mr. Mohamed’s legal counsel. As this was sensitive US Government material, we informed the relevant US authorities of our view; we also informed Mr. Mohamed’s counsel. We have worked since then to ensure that all the material was, indeed, made available to Mr. Mohamed’s legal counsel by the US Government through their own procedures.
Across the four judgments handed down by the High Court since last August, the Court has explicitly recognised the efforts of the Government both to secure Mr. Mohamed’s release and return, and to ensure that the material that we considered ought to be disclosed to him was, indeed, disclosed. The latter objective was achieved some time ago, when the US Department of Justice disclosed the material to Mr. Mohamed’s counsel in the course of proceedings in the US federal courts.
At the heart of Mr. Mohamed’s case have been allegations that he was tortured by foreign Government officials in a number of locations. It is the long-standing policy of this Government that we never condone, authorise or co-operate in torture. I repeat that commitment today. We also take very seriously all allegations of torture and investigate them fully. Allegations have been made in the course of these legal proceedings that the UK is in some way complicit in the alleged mistreatment of Mr. Mohamed.
Following the Court’s judgment of 22 October, on 23 October last year my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred the question of possible criminal wrongdoing to the Attorney-General. That question is now being considered by the Attorney-General. That is, as the Court acknowledged yesterday, the proper democratic and legal process.
Yesterday’s judgment was not about that, however. It was about whether an English court should, in the interests of public debate and understanding, order the disclosure to the general public of sensitive foreign intelligence shared with our own intelligence agencies on the strict understanding that it would not be released. As anyone who has read the judgments will appreciate, in circumstances in which Mr. Mohamed’s access to the information relevant to his defence had been secured, the sole question for my consideration concerned the publication of classified material received from a foreign intelligence service—in this case, the US.
The question at issue was whether intelligence provided on a confidential basis by one state to another, in absolute trust that it will be kept secure, may be disclosed to the public by order of a foreign court, or whether instead, the breach of trust would be so grave as to endanger intelligence-sharing relationships and therefore affect national security. In this case it was US intelligence and an English court, but it could just as easily be British intelligence in a foreign court.
I had before me the clear and unanimous advice of all key UK Departments and agencies. As the Court observed yesterday,
“Intelligence is shared on the basis of a reciprocal understanding that the confidence in and control over it will always be retained by the State that provides it. It is a fundamental part of that trust and confidentiality which lies at the heart of the relationship with foreign intelligence agencies”.
Our intelligence relationship with the United States is vital to the national security of the United Kingdom. It is essential that the ability of the United States to communicate such material in confidence to the UK is protected. Without such confidence the US will simply not share that material with us.
The same applies to our intelligence relationships with all those who share intelligence information with us. And what applies to them also applies to us. We share intelligence with a large number of countries. We do so to protect British citizens, and we do so on the basis that the material will not be put into the public domain against our wishes. To state the obvious, were our own classified information to be disclosed in such a way, it could compromise our work, our sources and therefore our security. It therefore was and remains my judgment that the disclosure of the intelligence documents at issue, by order of our courts and against the wishes of the US authorities, would indeed cause real and significant damage to the national security and international relations of this country.
For the record, the United States authorities did not threaten to “break off” intelligence co-operation with the UK. What the United States said—and it appears in the open, public documents of this case—is that disclosure of the documents by order of our courts would be
“likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm existing intelligence information-sharing…between our two governments”.
That is a simple affirmation of the facts of intelligence co-operation and it is worth noting that last night, in response to the High Court judgment, the US National Security Council reaffirmed the long-standing US position concerning the importance of protecting sensitive national security information and preserving the long-standing intelligence-sharing relationship between our two countries.
The Court has concluded that there is no prejudice—I repeat, no prejudice—to Mr. Mohamed’s case as a result of yesterday’s judgment. The information in question is available to his US legal counsel. As the Court said,
“upholding the rule of law…is most unlikely to depend on making the information public”.
The issue at stake is not the content of the intelligence material, but the principle at the heart of all intelligence relationships: that a country should retain control of its intelligence information, and that that cannot be disclosed by foreign authorities without its consent. That is a principle that we neglect at our peril.
Let us be clear at the outset that we are united across the House on so many of the issues that this case illuminates. We all believe that it is right that the Guantanamo Bay detention centre should be closed and that torture is unacceptable under any circumstances. Many of us have criticised the use of extraordinary rendition and the possibility that it can sometimes lead to torture in a third country. The case of Binyam Mohamed illustrates why we have all had those concerns. He has been detained for nearly eight years and has not yet been brought to trial, although he is accused of terrorist offences.
As the Foreign Secretary said, the Government have sought the return of Binyam Mohamed to Britain since August 2007, but the US authorities have declined to release him. May I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he raised the issue of Mr. Mohamed’s return during his visit to the United States on Tuesday? Have the new Administration indicated whether they will now accede to that request? What assessment has been made of any threat that that would present to the public in this country?
The High Court ruled that Mr. Mohamed
“had an arguable case that he had been subject to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”
and that the British security services had facilitated interviews of Mr. Mohamed “in the knowledge” of what had been reported to them about his treatment.
In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), dated 29 September last year, the then Minister of State, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), said that the Government had raised the allegations of torture with the US and “asked them to investigate”. Has the Foreign Secretary received any response from the United States authorities about the outcome of those investigations? In the same letter, the then Minister stated that the Government
“rejects any allegation that UK Security and Intelligence officials have been complicit in torture”.
Can the Foreign Secretary give the same assurance to the House today—that it is still his and the Government’s firm view that there has been no complicity by UK security and intelligence officials in torture?
According to the High Court ruling of August last year, the Government were made aware in 2002 by a UK security official present at the interview of detainees held by the US, including Mr. Mohamed, that detainees
“may not have been treated in accordance with the appropriate standards”.
The ruling contains an extract from a letter sent to that official by his superiors, saying that as the detainees in question
“were not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this”.
That may be the case in legal terms, but in moral terms the Government were surely obliged to make the strongest representations to the United States Government against that form of treatment. Were such representations made?
My remaining questions concern the immensely important issue, which the Foreign Secretary has described, of intelligence co-operation between the US and the UK. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm—in a way, he has confirmed it in his statement—that that relationship is unique in the world and of immense value not only to the UK but to the United States? Will he confirm that the disruption of that relationship would have serious consequences for the US as well as for this country?
Lord Justice Thomas expressed dismay at the
“threat of the gravity of the kind made by the United States Government that it would reconsider its intelligence sharing relationship”
with the UK. The Foreign Secretary has reiterated that no threat of that kind was made. Is he suggesting that the Court of Appeal has misrepresented the United States position? Most importantly of all in my view, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said yesterday:
“We have not engaged with the new Administration on the detail of this case.”
Is it correct that the Government have had no discussions with the Obama Administration on this issue?
Looking to how matters should now proceed, consistent with the strong and welcome stance of the new US Administration on torture and with our own views in this House, may I finish by pressing the Foreign Secretary on this point? Should not the view of the High Court that
“the requirements of open justice, the rule of law and democratic accountability demonstrate the very considerable public interest in making the redacted paragraphs public”
weigh heavily with all of us, and with our American allies, particularly if the view of the Court—that nothing in the redacted paragraphs could possibly be described as highly sensitive, classified United States intelligence—is correct?
Given the change of Administration in the US two weeks ago, the changes in policy that have resulted and the changes of personnel in the CIA in the past fortnight, would it not be right to put it to the US Administration that they could change their approach to this case without fundamentally breaching the principle of which the Foreign Secretary has rightly spoken? Would not asking them even now to change their position be a way forward that we could all support in the House?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the House is united in respect of the closure of Guantanamo Bay, action against torture and the rejection of extraordinary rendition. The Government have taken practical steps to put that into practice.
The right hon. Gentleman’s first and seventh questions related to our engagement with the US Administration about what he called “this case”. I want to be absolutely clear: I did indeed raise the case of the remaining Guantanamo detainees with British residency status when I met Secretary Clinton on Tuesday. I confirmed and reiterated to her that we remain determined to secure their release and return. The right hon. Gentleman may have slightly misspoken; the previous Administration had acceded to that request and the current Administration are continuing to commit themselves to the request for release and return. So Mr. Mohamed will indeed be coming back to the United Kingdom, and that raises precisely the questions of security and the arrangements for that that the right hon. Gentleman led into. I assure him that we are going to make sure that the return of Mr. Mohamed—after eight years, as the right hon. Gentleman says—is done in full accordance not just with his rights but with British security considerations.
In respect of the right hon. Gentleman’s quotation about the “arguable case”, I should say that the investigations of the US system are continuing. The system is, of course, very complicated. First of all there are the military commissions, then there are the federal courts and then there is the decision of the Obama Administration to wind up Guantanamo and the system of military commissions. The right thing to say is that those investigations remain at the heart of cases in the US system and of cases being brought in our system. Those investigations continue.
In respect of the allegations of British complicity, those matters, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear on 23 October, are now with the Attorney-General, who is consulting the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The right hon. Gentleman’s fourth question was about the representations that we have made in respect of allegations of torture. He cited one particular case from 2002, and before I answer specifically on that I want to go back to make sure that we give him exactly the right answer. However, our representations in respect of torture have always been clear in public and in private. I give him the example of the debate last year about the question of whether water-boarding constituted torture. We were absolutely clear in public and in private that in our view it did constitute torture, and that it was reprehensible on that basis. I can assure him that the British Government have remained fully engaged on that issue.
In respect of the unique intelligence-sharing relationship, that is indeed very important. The Intelligence and Security Committee has commented on the value of that relationship at various points. I think that the word “threat” was used by the Court of Appeal. Given the facts that I described—that the intelligence-sharing relationship is based on confidentiality, that if another country gave away our secrets that could not but have an implication for the way in which we judged the amount of material to share with it, and that the Americans have made it clear in public documents that they would see serious and lasting harm from the disclosure in our courts of their information—it is clear that the relationship would be affected; but it is the Court that used the word “threat”.
Finally, there is the question of an American decision about what to disclose in public. I emphasise that it must be an American decision. Only they can make a decision about whether sources—their own or others—are compromised by the disclosure, in the same way that only we can make decisions about whether our information, disclosed to the public, would involve the compromise of sources. To that extent, I am not going to join a lobbying campaign against the American Government on this decision. It is a decision that they have to make given their knowledge of the full facts about the sources on which they depend and do not want to compromise. I am clear that our decisions are for us and their decisions are for them.
To that extent, this case hinges not on the content of the redacted paragraphs but on their nature, which is that they are American paragraphs—American evidence—in the same way that our intelligence sources are our property. We have approached the issue on that basis, which is the only basis on which to preserve the confidentiality and trust on which such a relationship depends.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for the support that he and his Department have given to Binyam Mohamed.
The Foreign Secretary rightly says that his judgment is on the line—whether to take a threat, and it was a threat, of non-co-operation on future intelligence sharing from our closest ally seriously, or whether to allow information on criminal acts of torture to be published. Will he confirm that the Court makes it clear that the publication of the summary of intelligence reports under question would not have created a security risk to the United States—that it would not have revealed the name of any agent, the location of any secret establishment, or the methods of any intelligence gathering? The truth is that the question of the publication of this summary was not about security and intelligence but about whether to cover up torture, and United States interest in avoiding political embarrassment and potential criminal investigations against its security services. So we have the bizarre situation that this is not a threat to our security from terrorists, but a threat to our security posed by our closest ally over an issue relating to democratic accountability and the rule of law.
Have the British Government not just rolled over in the face of a scarcely credible threat from a friend? Have both this Government and President Bush’s Administration not confused intelligence with abuse, security with the rule of law, and secrecy with cover-up? Why did the Foreign Secretary not make it clear to our American friends that this country’s opposition to torture meant that we would have nothing to do with intelligence gathered that way? Is it not our international legal duty not only to refrain from torture but to bring those who torture to justice—that this country’s long-term security is best protected when we uphold human rights and the rule of law, and when it comes to upholding the values that Britain and America are supposed to share, this country will not be bullied into shabby and shady compromise? Was not President Obama right to say in his inauguration speech,
“we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”?
When the Foreign Secretary raised this with Secretary Clinton, did he ask specifically, as the judges’ final sentence says,
“for the United States government to consider changing its position or itself putting that information into the public domain”?
On the question of whether British security services have been complicit in torture, I hope that the investigations of the ISC and the Attorney-General will provide answers. However, in issuing a public interest immunity certificate in this case, the answer of this House must be that the Foreign Secretary has stood in the way of allowing justice to take its course.
These cases are indeed illuminating, not only of the judgment of Ministers but of the judgment of those who would aspire to be Ministers. Although there was a very large lack of questions in the rant by the hon. Gentleman, I will go through his points.
First, the hon. Gentleman has a fundamental confusion between that which is necessary for justice, which is that the defence counsel has full access to all the documents that are necessary for that justice to be achieved, and the interest—which is a perfectly legitimate one to put—in public debate.
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I am sorry—justice is served by the individual in question having his rights to a proper trial, and that is served by his having full access to the 42 documents that are at issue. The 42 documents that are referred to were given to the defence counsel for Binyam Mohamed in significant part as a result of the representations of this Government. That is the way in which Government are served. When the hon. Gentleman talks, as he did in his first few seconds, about a cover-up of torture, he is neglecting the fact, first, that Binyam Mohamed’s lawyers were given that documentation, and secondly, that the Attorney-General is looking in detail at whether there is anything complicit about the United Kingdom’s role in this case.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said—it is worth the House looking at this when Hansard is published—that the threat to our national security came not from sources that we debate often in this House, whether terrorism or elsewhere, but from our closest ally, which the Intelligence and Security Committee has said is critical to saving British lives because of the intelligence that it provides. When he has had a chance to look at his remarks, he will realise that one cannot on one hand quote President Obama’s inaugural speech, and deny on the other hand what his National Security Council says. I am happy to stick by what President Obama said. The National Security Council, which sits in the White House, speaks for the US Government—
The hon. Gentleman shouts that we have not asked them. They made a public statement last night about this case, and they have been absolutely, resolutely clear about this case.
Finally, the position of the Government in never condoning, co-operating in or authorising torture is absolute, and our fulfilment of our international responsibilities in that respect, moral and legal, is absolute. That is why we never condone, co-operate in or authorise torture, and why any allegations thereto are taken with the utmost seriousness and investigated by the highest legal authorities in the land.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, Binyam Mohamed was resident in my constituency. I would like to put on record the fact that I am grateful for the very regular and extensive briefings that I have had over the past year from Foreign Office officials. Of course, these allegations are of the gravest kind and warrant legal and parliamentary scrutiny. It is also true that Mr. Mohamed is very frail and very sick. We were led to believe very recently that his release was imminent. What urgent steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that my constituent is released from illegal detention and returned to this country as soon as possible?
We are pursuing his return at the highest level, including in discussions with Secretary Clinton and with the appropriate US authorities. I understand the urgency that my hon. Friend has brought to this case. We share that sense of urgency, and we are working as fast and as hard as we can. It is not only she who has paid tribute to that—the lawyers for Binyam Mohamed have also written to us about the efforts of Foreign Office officials to ensure his return to the UK.
May I assure the Foreign Secretary that I entirely accept the points that he has made about the need to be sensitive with intelligence sharing, for the reasons that he has outlined? None of us is so naive as to think that it would be sensible to do anything but that. However, when he and the Attorney-General have finished investigating allegations of British complicity with unlawful rendition and torture—if that is what he is doing—if there is a case to be answered, will it be answered in public, not subjected to some form of secret process?
The hon. and learned Gentleman speaks with some authority on these matters. The case now before the Attorney-General relates to the allegation of complicity and torture—it is not a case of rendition. The Attorney-General has been brought in on the basis of the representation made by the Home Secretary as soon as the Court issued its judgment in October. I want to get the precise legal processes clear, but I assure him that it will be done according to the law of the land and under the way in which processes are set out to defend the rights of the individual and British justice in this case.
Given that my right hon. Friend informed us that confidentiality in the handling of information between agencies is a cornerstone of all intelligence relationships—especially the one between this country and its most important ally, the United States—and that, as the judges say, release of the information at issue here would come through not the United Kingdom but the United States, will he confirm that allegations about the complicity of our agencies in this case must be referred to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which is the only body with the legal power to investigate fully any allegation of misconduct by the UK agencies? Does he accept that the Intelligence and Security Committee’s continuing investigations into our agencies’ policy in respect of the US rendition programme may be helped if we were given the 42 documents mentioned by the judges? The ISC, my Committee, has not yet seen them, contrary to what the judgment says.
Absolutely. I think that I am right in saying that anyone can make representations to the tribunal, and that remains the case, but the Home Secretary has referred the matter to the Attorney-General, and since last summer, when these documents came to light, the Foreign Office has attempted at every stage of the development of this case to keep the ISC informed in a full and open way, and that is our determination for the future.
What the Foreign Secretary has been saying today seems almost entirely inconsistent with what was said by the judges yesterday. He said that the information that they want to reveal is highly classified secret intelligence. They say in terms, in paragraph 68, that it could not possibly be considered as
“highly sensitive classified US intelligence”.
He says in absolute terms that it is covered by secrecy requirements of intelligence sharing—we all understand the basis of that. They reiterate the argument of the special advocates, which says that there can be
“no confidentiality in evidence tending to show the commission of a crime”,
“the redacted paragraphs should be made public”,
“To do otherwise would be to conceal the gist of the evidence of serious wrongdoing by the United States which had been facilitated in part by the United Kingdom Government.”
That is the substance of the argument today.
The question that the Foreign Secretary must answer is this: did he, or did he not, give the judges reason to say no fewer than eight times—not once, but eight times—that there was either a threat or a grave threat of intelligence being withheld either in his public or secret representations? He has reiterated a point today, from paragraph 11 of his own public immunity application, when quoting a letter from John Bellinger, which says in terms that the public disclosure of this information
“could harm existing intelligence information-sharing arrangements between our two Governments.”
Is that, or is that not, a threat, and will he please seek to get it lifted?
The end of the right hon. Gentleman’s question belied the beginning of it. The end of his statement showed the absolute consistency of what I said in my representations to the Court and in the case that I have made in the House today. The issue at hand is a simple one. Highly classified information was sent by the US, which is highly classified because of its contents, but the point at issue that I and the Court had to address is that intelligence sharing is based on a principle. It is based on the nature of the relationship that we have, and the nature of that relationship is not dependent on one cable or another, but on the fact that if another country cannot have confidence that its secrets are safe with us, it will not share its secrets with us in an open and transparent way with the relevant authorities.
In the same way, I am sure that if our secrets were disclosed in a foreign court—dare I say, in another European court—against our wishes, the right hon. Gentleman would be up in arms, rightly in my view, protesting against the invasion by a foreign court of our right to keep our sources secret. If he reflects on his position, and not just on mine, he will see that the inconsistency is his rather than mine.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for the strenuous efforts made by the Government on behalf of Mr. Mohamed. He mentioned several times the investigation by the Attorney-General, and she has had this case before her for the past three months. In view of the public interest in this matter, can either he or the Home Secretary contact the Attorney-General to see whether the process can be completed as quickly as possible?
I am sure that the Attorney-General will not have failed to notice the public interest in this case during the past 24 hours, or failed to notice the representations made by my right hon. Friend today. In case she has, I will be sure to draw them to her attention.
Following on from that question, and the two earlier ones on exactly the same point, why does not the Foreign Secretary confirm that when the Government receive the advice from the Attorney-General sought by the Home Secretary on 23 October, they will make it available to the ISC, and to the House and the public generally, given what is now the public nature of the entire process?
On that issue, incidentally, we are also waiting to hear from the Government about the recent Information Tribunal ruling against them—again—on making available the then Attorney-General’s advice and the Cabinet minutes relevant to the decision on the war on Iraq. Do the Government intend to appeal on that matter to the High Court, or to apply a veto under existing freedom of information legislation?
As the right hon. Gentleman says, it was worth a try, but probably not worth a response. We will come back to that matter on another occasion.
In respect of the earlier parts of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks, it is dangerous for one non-lawyer to tell another non-lawyer about the legal situation, but he referred to “advice” from the Attorney-General. That is not correct. The Attorney-General has to decide whether there is a case for prosecution, so it is a question not of whether advice should be published, but of whether steps should be taken on the basis of a decision by the Attorney-General, as the highest legal authority in the land. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman was not under any misapprehension about what I said earlier. The Government’s commitment to the ISC—which has been repaid in full by the ISC in the way in which it has treated the information that we give to it—is to be full and open in our disclosures to it, and where information is of a highly sensitive nature, it is not published but the ISC do see it and scrutinise it. That must be the right way of working.
On the potentially exculpatory material to which my right hon. Friend referred, would he at least go as far as to say, in general terms, whether it included evidence of torture? If so, that would fit the pattern of the cogent evidence that the Joint Committee on Human Rights received on Tuesday afternoon about allegations of torture committed by the Pakistan security services, and the complicity of UK agents in that. Although my right hon. Friend may see no evil and hear no evil, that does not mean that the evil of torture does not exist. Would he ensure that the JCHR gets full co-operation in our inquiry into UK compliance with the requirements of the United Nations convention against torture in these matters?
I am sorry if my hon. Friend sees the referral of an allegation of mistreatment to the Attorney-General, the highest authority in our land, as a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach. The suggestion of the evil of torture is what has prompted the referral to the Attorney-General, who can then decide whether there is a case for criminal prosecution of the individuals involved. Far from this matter ending up on a shelf, the Attorney-General will decide where to take it.
My hon. Friend showed through his early comments that this area is extremely complex and one where broad-brush statements have to be chosen with great caution. I say to him that the material is highly classified and that the aspects of complicity in torture elsewhere are published in the appropriate legal documents, and I refer him back to those.
The Foreign Secretary will of course be aware that Mr. Binyam Mohamed is one of, I believe, two British residents who are still left in Guantanamo Bay. There are suggestions that the other several dozen prisoners should be removed from United States soil and dispersed around welcoming countries elsewhere. Will he tell the House what the British Government’s position on that is, and whether they have yet received any requests from the Obama regime?
We have not received such requests. When I spoke to the new US Secretary of State on Tuesday, I explained to her what we had done and that we expected two further former British residents to come back to the UK. In the words that I used at the European General Affairs Council last week, I explained that we had “done our bit” by bringing back 13 residents, which will become 15, but that we wanted to play our part in helping other countries to fulfil their commitment to helping the US close Guantanamo Bay.
I promised my European Foreign Minister colleagues last week that we were happy to share our experience of bringing those people back, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a number of European countries have already asked for our help on that. We want to help them do it, because they recognise their need to help the Americans close Guantanamo Bay.
The judges argued yesterday that it was
“difficult to conceive that a democratically elected and accountable government could possibly have any rational objection”
to placing on record
“a summary of what its own officials reported as to how a detainee was treated by them”.
The Foreign Secretary has said that he has spoken to Hillary Clinton, but is he prepared to ask President Obama personally for permission to release that information; otherwise, people in this country will continue to question the secrecy that surrounds the decision?
My right hon. Friend shares with the Government not just a very strong commitment to upholding human rights around the world but the belief that where there has been error, there should be openness as a way of trying to remedy it, at least in part. However, she asks in what circumstances continued secrecy is appropriate. It is when sources would be compromised by their release. It is for each country to determine the circumstances in which public release, not release to the defence counsel, would prejudice that position. That is the right and pragmatic approach to this case.