Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 487: debated on Monday 9 February 2009

House of Commons

Monday 9 February 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Drugs

1. What steps her Department is taking to ensure young people are aware of the dangers associated with drug use. (254636)

The Government provide information about drugs to young people through universal drug education in schools, and through the Frank campaign. That campaign aims to prevent drug use among young people by changing their attitudes and perceptions towards drugs and drug users.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. I am aware that a review is taking place to consider the status of khat. It affects many families in my constituency, particularly in the Somali community. Their young people have come to me and asked to meet the Home Secretary, so that they can explain to the Government the problems that they, as young people, face when drugs such as khat become predominant in their community. Will she agree to such a meeting?

Yes. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell)—the Drugs Minister—has already met representatives of the Somali community, but my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) makes an important point about the strong views of young people. I am certainly willing to meet him and young representatives from his constituency and from that community.

The dangers associated with drug use are supposed to be reflected in the drug classification system. Is it the policy of the Home Secretary and the Government that that system should be based on evidence, or should it be based on something else?

Yes, it is our view that the system should be based on evidence, but it should also be based on the considered view of those responsible for policy making, and should take into consideration the impact that changes in classification are likely to have on the use of, and harms caused by, drugs, and the impact that that has on the criminal justice system. That is why it will remain the case that our advisers will advise us, and we will decide.

I wonder whether the Home Secretary has seen the comments in the weekend press by Professor David Nutt, the chairman of the Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? He says that in his view, ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding. I will not ask the Home Secretary whether she has tried the drug, or whether she has ridden a horse, but I want to know when she plans to meet Professor Nutt to tell him whether she agrees with his comments.

I spoke to Professor Nutt about his comments this morning. I told him that I was surprised and profoundly disappointed by the article. I am sure that most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug-taking. That makes light of a serious problem, trivialises the dangers of drugs, shows insensitivity to the families of victims of ecstasy, and sends the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs. I made it clear to Professor Nutt that I felt that his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect from him as chair of the ACMD. He apologised to me for his comments, and I have asked him to apologise to the families of the victims of ecstasy, too.

Last month, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse published figures that reveal that nearly 25,000 young people aged under 18 are in treatment for drug and alcohol problems. Is that not an indictment of the fact that the Government did not do more earlier on drug prevention, and the fact that just 12 per cent. of the drugs budget was spent on prevention? There is no evaluation at all of many of the activities.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the progress made by those working in the drugs field over the past 10 or 11 years. Overall drug use and class A drug use among young people are now at their lowest levels ever, as measured by the British crime survey. Among school pupils, overall drug use has fallen. The rate of frequent drug use among pupils has also fallen. The people involved in that work should be congratulated, unlike the hon. Gentleman’s party, which proposes cuts to the Home Office budget; that would certainly impact on our ability to counter the harms caused by drugs. I hope that he will back up his words with words advising his Front-Bench team to put back that money.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to be a little cautious when legislating on drugs misuse, because if we legislate in the wrong way, we may merely displace the problem to another area of drug misuse—for example, the problem may move from one substance to another? That is one of the difficulties.

My hon. Friend has a strong record of working on such issues. That is why I am sure that he agrees that the fact that there is falling drug use, throughout drug use, particularly among young people, is important. All of us will be concerned to make sure that we continue with that important progress.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s remarks on the comments made by Professor Nutt, but will she go a little further and suggest to him that the sport of horse riding provides discipline, whereas drug-taking not only wrecks—and indeed ends—lives, but fuels crime? The two are completely incomparable. Will she go a little further than she did in her statement just now and perhaps suggest to Professor Nutt that although he might be appropriately named, he is in the wrong job?

I made completely clear my view that there is absolutely no equivalence between the legal activity of horse riding and the illegal activity of drug taking, and that will always be the basis on which I make decisions about drugs policy.

I am sure the Home Secretary will agree that part of the messages sent out to young people about the dangers of drugs relates to enforcement. As she knows, as part of the changes to cannabis reclassification, a new enforcement regime was brought into effect, which includes cannabis warnings, yet her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), has conceded that one of the issues with cannabis warnings is that they are not recorded. There is a certain amount of intelligence locally about who has what, but it is rather hit and miss. Does the right hon. Lady agree with that view?

I hope the hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that, with the advice of the Association of Chief Police Officers, we will now ensure that there is a clear process of escalation as a consequence of being caught in possession of cannabis. That is a result of the change to the classification that we have made and the work that we have done with the Association of Chief Police Officers. The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the issues arising from that is how we record any instances—the one and only instance—of cannabis warning, and we are working with the National Policing Improvement Agency in order to make sure that it is possible to do that in future.

Sexual Violence

2. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of services for victims of sexual violence; and if she will make a statement. (254637)

The Government are extending the network of sexual assault referral centres and independent sexual violence advisers so that all victims will be able to access those services over the next three years. We have also invested £11 million in specialist support services.

I welcome the substantial progress that has been made through SARCs and independent sexual violence advisers, but has the Minister read the “Map of Gaps” report produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the End Violence Against Women campaign, which shows that in one in four local authorities there is no specialist service for a survivor of sexual violence, and that that is particularly a problem in the east and south-east of England? Does he have a plan to deal with that?

We welcome the publication of “Map of Gaps,” although we believe that it does not give a complete picture of statutory provision or of the work of some voluntary organisations. We agree with the publication that more needs to be done, and more will be done. We are working to see SARCs in each of the 43 police districts by 2011, but my hon. Friend will also be aware that much good and important work is done locally, and we are working with local agencies, producing guidance to ensure that commissioning of services is where it needs to be.

The Basingstoke rape and sexual abuse centre, along with many other rape crisis centres, does an excellent job to support victims. Why do the Government not do one thing that would really help those centres and adopt a three-year funding cycle, as suggested by colleagues on the Opposition Benches, to try to put an end to the financial uncertainty that so many of those crisis centres still face?

The Government provided £1 million extra this year to rape crisis centres, and I am informed that no rape crisis centre has closed since that period. We value the work of rape crisis centres and are working with local partners to see how best they can be funded, but coming from a party that will cut investment, suggesting a commitment to a three-year period is asking a lot.

Will the Minister commend the work of ChildLine, the Devon office of which recently reported a 20 per cent. increase in calls from children over the past three years? Although we know that not every call is genuine, and there can be concern about creating an atmosphere of fear, is it not right that ChildLine provides a fantastic service for children, many of whom are abused by people on whom they should be able to rely? Is it not important that they have a lifeline?

Crime (Illegal Immigrants)

Last year, the UK Border Agency met the target that we set it to remove more than 5,000 foreign criminals. We now consider for deportation all non-European economic area foreign nationals sentenced to 12 months or more.

Mr. Dun Lun Hu, a Chinese national who evaded deportation for five years after his asylum application was rejected, was convicted of selling counterfeit goods in a Yorkshire court in August but was then released on bail by magistrates. I am pleased to say that he has now been deported, but I would like to see the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice working more closely together on such cases. When a court knows or learns in the course of proceedings that a person is an illegal immigrant evading deportation, should it not hold the person until the Border Agency has had the opportunity to seek detention under the immigration rules?

I have looked into that case, about which my hon. Friend has rightly written extensively. I am pleased to confirm that the gentleman concerned was detained and subsequently removed from our country. Sometimes, of course, there are difficulties with court rulings, but my hon. Friend is right on the general principle.

After several questions over a number of months, why is it still impossible to get a straight answer from the hon. Gentleman’s Department about the number of residents in the Peterborough constituency who are applying for indefinite leave to remain and the number of those who have had their applications refused? Why is the Minister not in a position to tell me how many residents are in that situation? Is that any way to run an immigration system?

The hon. Gentleman should listen to the answer. He has asked lots of parliamentary questions that I have answered forthrightly, although not always to his satisfaction. The particular point that he has made is about constituency boundaries; we have, of course, been able to provide data by administrative boundaries, but it is not always possible to provide them by constituency boundaries. The figures that I have given him are robust.

Is the Minister aware that a container lorry full of illegal immigrants from Afghanistan recently arrived in my constituency? It is hard not to admire the human courage of people who have risked their lives in travelling across two continents, but surely that is not a reason for granting asylum. Does he agree that at a time when a lot of British lives are being lost in Afghanistan, and when much of that country is under coalition control, one could argue that we should not be taking any asylum seekers from that country?

I am very aware of the incident to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I congratulate the diligence and bravery of the UKBA staff; he also did so in the local papers, and I thank him for that.

On the general point about policy towards Afghanistan, I agree that our forces there are doing a heroic job. Under the Geneva convention, of course, asylum is looked at case by case. We do, of course, now deport people to Afghanistan.

In November 2007, the Government admitted that thousands of people cleared by officials to work in the security industry were working in Britain illegally; one of them was even guarding the Prime Minister’s car. How many of those thousands of people have now been deported?

I am more than happy to engage in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on the specific figures. However, I note from The Sunday Times that the hon. Gentleman, whom I welcome to his post, is now against our border controls that involve counting people in and counting them out. He has described that as evidence of a “Big Brother” state. I ask him whether he is still in favour—[Interruption.] Mr. Speaker, he cannot have border controls and make statements such as those that he made on Sunday.

It is hardly surprising that the hon. Gentleman does not want to answer the question. Last week, Ministers were forced to come clean and admit that only 35 of those more than 3,000 people working illegally in the UK had been deported. That is despite the fact that, at the time, the Home Secretary said:

“There was no fiasco or blunder; there was strengthened and improved action.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 538.]

Why should anyone have confidence in the Government when they cannot even evict illegal migrant workers when they know who they are and where they are working?

The Government are removing illegal migrant workers—one every eight minutes. The hon. Gentleman can play politics with this issue, but does he mean that he will rewrite the Geneva convention? Does he mean that he will ignore the independent decisions of judges? Does he mean that, as he said in The Sunday Times yesterday, he opposes the e-border controls that allow this country to protect its borders? Which is it?

Policing Policies

4. What steps she is taking to ensure that policing policies take into account local community priorities. (254640)

Addressing community priorities is key to effective local policing. That is why we are cutting red tape to free up the police to focus on local issues. We have removed all top-down targets except one—namely, to improve the confidence of the public that their priorities are being addressed and to set out minimum policing standards in the pledge, including monthly community meetings.

When people in my constituency go through the ordeal of reporting crime, they are anxious to see the culprits punished. Will my hon. Friend tell me what guidance and advice his Department issues to police forces about the use of cautions, particularly relating to serious crime such as sexual offences or violence?

The Home Office guidance to police forces and to law enforcement agencies in general is very clear on this subject. Cautions should be used only for low-level offending and should be used for more serious offences only in exceptional circumstances. That sends out a clear statement that in my hon. Friend’s constituency, as in constituencies up and down the country, we should prosecute those who are brought before the courts for serious offences and use cautions only for low-level offences.

Crime reduction partnerships are making significant progress across the country in reducing the impact of retail crime—assaults on staff and against businesses themselves. What priority is the Minister’s Department giving to this issue since it has withdrawn all funding for action against business crime?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the funding for action against business crime was reduced a number of years ago. It was only ever initiated as a way of trying to encourage local crime and disorder reduction partnerships, where appropriate, to set up partnerships with businesses, and they have been extremely successful. We want to ensure that retail crime and business crime is taken seriously. I do not know what it is like in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but in my constituency business is part of the CDRP, works well with local policing and is a priority for the neighbourhood policing team. We want to ensure that that level of priority is available to all areas and all businesses across the country.

Greater Manchester police have made a commitment in their policing pledge to respond within 24 hours to non-urgent calls. That will be very good news for local people. However, can my hon. Friend ensure that CDRPs widely advertise their policing pledges so that local people can hold local police accountable for those pledges?

My hon. Friend will know that in the national pledge there is not only the commitment that she mentioned, but the commitment to monthly meetings. We are now ensuring that every one of the 3,600 neighbourhood policing teams across the country will have a local pledge that is clearly communicated to local people so that they know what to expect. Alongside that, we have published crime maps that will allow local people to find out quickly, at the click of a button, what the crime levels and trends are in their areas. We hope that in Stockport and elsewhere in Manchester, as well as across the country, that will give people the information they need to hold the police to account and to take action where necessary.

Now that the Home Office has ditched its proposals for directly elected police authorities, does the Minister accept that police governance is merely back to what it was before the Police Reform Act 2002, when his predecessors introduced national targets? If so, what will be different when the current Bill goes through? What mechanism will encourage police forces to adopt best practice and strive to improve if it is not a firmly elected and democratically accountable police authority?

The hon. Gentleman will know the reasons why we have, for the time being, put on the back burner the issue of directly elected representatives on police authorities. If he had looked at the debate that we have had in Committee on the Policing and Crime Bill, he would have seen a well-informed debate on both sides of the Committee that wrestled with this problem. He will know that clause 1 puts a duty on police authorities to have regard to opinions within—

It is not. Police authorities will have a duty to have regard to the views of the public within their area rather than just trying to find out what they are. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary will inspect those police authorities to see what they have done to try to find out the opinions of local people. That is an important step forward that will make a real difference.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Lancashire constabulary, which has in recent months increased the detection rate of drug offences directly as a result of intelligence-led operations and targeted police activity working locally with PACT—Police and Communities Together—and using community information about drug-related criminality? That is to be welcomed.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the police in Lancashire; indeed, I take the opportunity to congratulate police throughout the country. There is no doubt that we get the most effective policing in areas with effective neighbourhood policing teams where people bring community intelligence to the police to tell them what is going on and to inform them of those who are bringing misery to those areas through drugs or other illegal activity. Effective policing takes place when the police work hard with the local authority, with other partners and with the local community itself. I was happy to hear of the example of Lancashire that my hon. Friend gave. I am sure that that experience is replicated in many places across the country.

The Department for Communities and Local Government funds the preventing violent extremism programme in local communities. The Minister said, in a debate on the Prevent strategy on 25 June:

“We try to ensure that the police are involved in determining where money goes”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 92WH.]

Is he satisfied that that is happening in practice, and that his Department is properly in the lead on the programme?

We work hard with the DCLG on the Prevent strategy. We also work hard with the police to ensure that the groups we fund in local areas are the ones which can help us to tackle radical extremism. The Prevent strategy is an important part of our anti-terrorist strategy.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is an extremely important area. It involves taking difficult decisions about who to fund in a particular local area, but if we want to make a difference, rather than just make ourselves feel better, we do have to take such difficult decisions. We sometimes have to get involved with groups that we might not wish to, but the Prevent strategy, as part of the broader Contest strategy, is successful and it is making a real difference in many communities throughout the country by preventing the radicalisation of vulnerable young people.

Drug-related Crime

8. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of measures to combat drug-related crime. (254644)

A key indicator of the effectiveness of measures to combat drug-related crime is the drug harm index. Since 2002, this has fallen by 28 per cent., representing a substantial fall in drug-related crime. Recorded acquisitive crime, often linked to drug-related crime, has fallen by a similar amount.

With a 9 per cent. increase in drug offences between July and September 2008, compared with the previous year, is it not clear that the Government have completely failed to get a grip on this problem? Does the Minister accept that the drug treatment and testing orders, which result in huge reoffending rates, have been a complete shambles? Will he say what is going to be done to offer more drug addicts abstinence-based treatment orders, which are the only way forward?

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I point him to the drug intervention programme, which has had considerable success—we are more than meeting our target of involving 1,000 people a week. The evidence is that drug intervention programmes work to cut reoffending, and they have put in place the long-term improvements needed, instead of the revolving-door syndrome that existed when tackling drugs in the past.

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the drug treatment and testing order, which the Minister seems to think is going well, has been such a failure that the Government abolished it some time ago.

Oh yes they did. It has all gone because of breaches.

The link between drug-taking and crime is as strong as ever, and it is getting worse and worse. When will the Government recognise that and put more money into residential rehab, which is the best way to cure many of these youngsters, who are victims as well as criminals?

Again, I note a request for more money from those on the Opposition Benches. The hon. Gentleman may have heard me talk about drug intervention programmes, and I argued that they were one way of putting in place a successful method of cutting reoffending rates. He is right to say that the link between crime and drugs is complex, as is the link between drugs and the economy, but through the drug intervention programme and work with persistent, prolific offenders, we are confident that we have put in place the long-term measures that will make a difference.

Does the Minister believe that it is now time for the Government to consider restricting the terrible date rape drug gamma-butyrolactone? It leads to terrible sexual violence against women, and we need to control its use.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on raising the profile of this matter. I can tell him that we are examining it within the Home Office and hope to bring forward proposals shortly.

Identity Cards (Manchester)

9. Whether Manchester is planned to be one of the pilot areas to take part in the next phase of the national identity card scheme. (254645)

As many people will know, identity cards are to be issued to airside workers at Manchester airport in the autumn. No decision has been taken on the next stage, which will be issuing cards to ordinary people or to young people in 2010, but as they will be issued at Manchester airport, Manchester is certainly a strong contender for the phase after airports.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she accept that there is no evidence to suggest that identity cards will have any positive impact on dealing with crime on our streets, and that a much better way of using the money would be to put extra police officers on our streets to combat burglary, for instance, which is on a massive increase in south Manchester?

There are already more police on the streets than there have been for some time, but perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman a little lesson in how the cost of identity cards will work. There is not a big pot of money sitting and waiting to be spent on identity cards; there will be money to spend on them only if the general population choose to take them up. It is clear from my conversations with the public and other stakeholders that there is demand for identity cards.

Given the hyperdiversity and hypermobility within the UK’s biggest cities, does the Minister believe that it is sensible to consider either Manchester or the city that both of us represent, London, as testing grounds for this policy? If we are to have an identity cards system, would it not be the worst possible start to try to introduce it in one of the very big cities of the UK?

I am slightly puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We are looking to start with the airports scheme at Manchester airport and London City airport. We are still evaluating areas in which to start the general roll-out to the early adopters in the population and to young people from next year. We need to get going on identity cards. We have passed the Act, the scheme is under way and we are issuing cards to foreign nationals. I will be surprised if the hon. Gentleman and his party do not wish to see an upgrade in passports, which is really what identity cards will build on, or greater controls and greater security in passports and identity documents in general.

The Minister has just said that airport workers in Manchester will be one of the first groups to have compulsory ID cards. Labour Members may wish to know that those airport workers themselves proposed a motion that was passed overwhelmingly at the TUC conference last year, to oppose ID cards

“with all the means at their disposal”.

Does that not tell the Minister that when real people are told that they must have an ID card, they recognise the scheme as expensive, intrusive, pointless and a dangerous threat to our freedom? Why does she not save time and scrap it right now?

Both my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have met trade unions a number of times. Most recently, my right hon. Friend met the trade unions from the airport on 29 January, on her visit to Manchester, and they were very supportive of the scheme. We are working closely with all the partners in the airports to ensure that the scheme delivers real benefits to airport workers, including on such matters as the portability of passes, to prevent very high costs and challenging circumstances for staff who often have to wait a long time for their security clearance before they are paid. Identity cards will speed that up, and we look forward very much to working with airports to ensure that the scheme works and that we learn lessons for the further roll-outs.

Policing

10. What steps she is taking to maximise the amount of time that police officers spend on front-line policing. (254646)

Since April 2008 there has been a neighbourhood policing team in every area. The Green Paper confirmed our commitment to reducing bureaucracy and developing technology to free up officer time. It is vital that the police are able to do their jobs efficiently, without being constrained by unnecessary bureaucracy. The policing pledge includes a commitment for neighbourhood policing teams to spend at least 80 per cent. of their time visibly working on their patch.

What reassurance can the Minister give that the Policing and Crime Bill will effectively tackle the bureaucracy and targets placed on the shoulders of police officers, which have been described by Sir Ronnie Flanagan as straitjacketing them and prevent them from doing the job that local people expect them to do?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, but we do not need the Policing and Crime Bill to achieve several of the things that she would like to happen. We have already announced a large number of measures, about which I think she and officers in her constituency in Cheshire and others will be pleased. They include the removal of all top-down targets except one. For example, the “offences brought to justice” target has gone. The only target in which the Government are interested is the confidence target, whereby we ask local people whether they have confidence in the policing in their areas.

The hon. Lady knows that Jan Berry is working on the other points that she made about bureaucracy. She also knows that Sir David Normington is compiling a report. There will be an announcement in the next couple of weeks, which will help to tackle some of her concerns and those of the officers in her area, about the way in which we intend to reduce the bureaucratic burden on our police officers.

The police have had shedloads of money in the past 12 years, and most police officers work very hard. However, throughout the country, reports make it clear that police forces do not work especially efficiently and need to learn to work much more smartly. Will the Minister say a little more about the steps that central Government are taking so that the 43 police forces get their hard-working officers working more smartly?

We have a number of programmes on work force modernisation—for example, to consider the best mix between warranted police officers and those who perform back-room, but none the less important, functions. Does some of the forensic work that goes on require a warranted police officer or an expert computer analyst? I think the answer is the latter. Similarly, it is clear that everyone would welcome it if we could modernise the work force so that we released fully warranted police officers from back-room functions to the front line. Indeed, to give my hon. Friend a concrete example, one of our measures is examining the balance between back room and front line to ascertain whether we can get a better mix that puts more uniformed officers out on the street, where people want them.

Is the Minister aware that front-line policemen are despairing about what they can do with the 1,107 Roma children who have been trafficked into Great Britain by serious organised crime in eastern Europe for criminal activities? They despair because, if the children are under 10, they have no criminal responsibility and there are no Romanian or Bulgarian foster parents. If they are over 10, local authority social services have no room for them in care. If they are taken into care, they abscond, and if they are sent back to the country from which they come, they have nowhere to go because many have been sent to Britain by their families—their own parents have sold them into slavery. What is the Minister going to do about it? What can we do?

The hon. Gentleman, who has raised issues about trafficking in general on several occasions, makes a good and valid point. He makes an important point about children. The Government are considering what to do about trafficked children. We are wrestling with the important question that he asked—not only what police officers should do, but what the state should do if it takes a young child into protective custody. What are we supposed to do—lock up a child? Yet, if the child is not locked up—in Holland, there is protective custody—the criminal gangs come and get the young people, or the children abscond because the people who trafficked them contact them and tell them that the state is their enemy. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are trying to find a way in which to deal with the matter. I have been to Holland to see examples there. However, although many people point to Holland as a utopia for dealing with trafficked children, the Dutch are wondering whether the policy is appropriate because children are absconding from the protective custody that they have established. Clearly, even the Dutch have not got it right, but we are trying to learn from them.

Can my hon. Friend say what the cost of the fight against terrorism is and what impact it has on police budgets up and down the country?

We spend considerable sums of money on counter-terrorism. We have expanded the budget for counter-terrorism activity across the country. Indeed, the counter-terrorism unit in the west midlands, my hon. Friend’s area, is one of the most effective in the country at co-ordinating activity, both in its own area and nationally. Let me also say that counter-terrorism policing is not done instead of neighbourhood policing; it is done with neighbourhood policing because, as I said earlier, if we want to tackle terrorism, we need effective neighbourhood policing, as well as counter-terrorism policing.

Knife Crime (Lancashire)

11. How many incidents of knife crime there were in Lancashire in the last 12 months for which figures are available; and if she will make a statement. (254647)

The Home Office publication “Crime in England and Wales 2007-08” shows that there were 361 knife and sharp instrument offences in Lancashire in 2007-08. Lancashire police are taking part in the tackling knives action programme, implementing an intensive programme of enforcement and prevention action focused on teenage knife crime.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he would agree that far too many knife crimes are taking place in Lancashire. My constituent Jessica Knight is one of those statistics. She almost died. Thankfully, she is making a recovery, although it is very slow. This House wishes her well. We are doing something about knife crime, but we want to do more. Will my hon. Friend look to ensure that peer pressure is put on young people not to carry knives and that we find the extra money and resources to educate people in schools? The Music Café in Chorley is an alternative to being on the streets, carrying a knife. We have to do more. Will he do more and what can he tell us today?

I am sure that the whole House will join my hon. Friend in sending our best wishes and thoughts to Jessica Knight, his constituent. The House will also be aware that her assailant was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum tariff of 12 years. That shows the importance of enforcement, which is a key part of the tackling knives action programme. As my hon. Friend said, a key part of that programme is working with young people to educate them through whatever media we have at our disposal, finding out what message works best for that group and sending out the strongest message, which is: “If you carry a knife, not only do you put others in danger, but you put yourself in danger.”

Alcohol-related Crime and Disorder

12. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of measures to reduce levels of alcohol-related crime and disorder. (254648)

The most recently published report, “The impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on levels of crime and disorder”, found that crimes involving serious violent crime may have reduced. Local residents were less likely to say that drunken and rowdy behaviour was a problem. The Government announced a new mandatory code of practice to target the most irresponsible retail practices, a £3 million cash injection for crime and disorder reduction partnerships and for partnership activities in 190 areas, and a further £1.5 million for police enforcement in priority areas.

In a survey carried out in the north-west, almost 72 per cent. of Macclesfield residents expressed deep concern about the amount of drunkenness and antisocial behaviour fuelled by alcohol. Andy Smith, the chairman of Pubwatch in Macclesfield, blames the superstores, which hugely discount strong lagers and beers. People who go into a supermarket can buy any amount of alcohol and drink it on the street, but those who go into a pub are disciplined and subject to the survey of the staff of that pub. Would the Minister encourage drinking in pubs and would he give them more help and less regulation, rather than no regulation, which is what exists for superstores?

The reality is that the problems to which the hon. Gentleman refers can be caused by either on or off-licence sales. We are working with both sectors to try to reduce the problem. We are working with retailers through the challenge 25 scheme, for instance, to stop under-age drinking. We are also working to ensure that those who misbehave are the ones who are penalised. We are looking at a range of measures, targeting not only supermarkets, but public houses and clubs, through a mandatory code of practice, so that by working with the industry, whether on or off-licence, we bear down on something that, as he said, is still causing a problem in a number of areas.

We are seeing pubs close at the unprecedented rate of four or five a day around the nation. In parallel with that, we are seeing the phenomenon of breweries being unable to find permanent licensees for some of their premises and having to deploy temporary staff. Will the Minister tell us whether, as appears to be the case, there is evidence that such staff are not as rigorous at complying with licensing regulations, and whether the police and others are paying special attention when disorder is linked to premises that go through a temporary landlord perhaps every three or four months?

We are aware of the rate of pub closures, but I want to point out to my hon. Friend that it is more than the restrictions and regulatory burdens that we might place on premises that is behind those closures. We take very seriously the issue of staff in pubs, which is why we need to ensure that they have not only proper training but the confidence to challenge people about their behaviour, particularly in regard to buying drink for under-age youngsters. We will go on with that work.

While I strongly applaud the hon. Members who have spoken out in defence of conventional pubs, may I ask the Minister whether he is happy with the arrangements for planning permission for all-night clubs? In particular, does he think it right that the council considering such an application is not allowed to take account of representations from affected residents unless they live in the immediate vicinity of the proposed premises? Even those who live on the access routes to and from the premises cannot be consulted.

One of the important measures to which the hon. Gentleman is referring is the Licensing Act 2003, which gives an unprecedented amount of influence over such decisions to residents—and, indeed, to the police and others. They have the powers that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. It is up to the licensing and planning committees rigorously to enforce the powers that they have.

Topical Questions

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I are announcing today the outcome of our review of visa regimes. We are introducing new visa requirements for Bolivia, Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland and Venezuela. Visitors from those countries will need a six-month visa and they will need to provide their fingerprints before travelling here. Those travelling via the UK will need a transit visa. Those new requirements are in addition to the existing requirements for a visa to live, work, study or marry in the UK. They form part of the biggest ever changes to strengthen Britain’s border security through stronger overseas checks, tougher border checks and robust enforcement action within the UK.

I thank the Home Secretary for that reply. Will she tell the House what discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and the police about whether the police currently have adequate powers to investigate Members of either House of Parliament who are suspected of the common law offence of bribery?

T6. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating North Yorkshire police on using online crime mapping to give people in North Yorkshire and York a monthly update on whether the police are winning the battle against crime? Will she also join me in welcoming the fact that crime in York has fallen by a further 3 per cent. this year compared with last year? (254667)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the police and their partners on that reduction in crime. He makes the important point that people need to see what is happening in their local area with respect to crime, and that is what crime mapping now allows across the country. As we develop that, people will also expect to be able to see what action is being taken by the police and others to bring to justice those who cannot abide by the rules in our communities. Building on the progress that we have made with crime mapping everywhere will enable us to provide that information for the constituents of everyone in the House.

T2. This weekend, we heard reports of a database to track and store the international travel records of millions of people. We have also heard about the increasing loss of supposedly secure data being reported to the Information Commissioner. Will the Home Secretary tell the House what aspects of British behaviour she does not want to be recorded on a database, and whether she would be happy for her own holiday records—her seat bookings and holiday reservations—to be put on a database, given her Department’s record on data protection? (254662)

The hon. Gentleman says that we heard about the matter this weekend, but the programme referred to in the weekend press has been known about and debated in this House for four years. It is part of the shake-up of border controls. The introduction of e-Borders allows the Border and Immigration Agency to track movement in and out of the country, which is necessary to control our borders. It is, of course, done proportionately—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman dismisses my answer; I take it that he agrees with the hon. Gentleman for the front page, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who is clearly more interested in scoring political points than he is in controlling our borders.

Before the Department for Transport’s consultation on road safety ends, will the police and the Home Office contribute the view that if we lower the alcohol limit for drink-driving, we could save more than 50 lives a year?

Of course we will want the police and, indeed, ourselves as the Home Office, to make a contribution to that debate and that consultation. It is an issue that I know my hon. Friend takes very seriously; it is certainly very important for the confidence of the public in our ability to clamp down on those who still choose to drink and drive.

T3. The Home Secretary told us earlier about her conversation with Professor Nutt. Will she explain whether his apology related to the views that he holds, or the fact that he expressed them? Is it not clear that the Home Secretary and almost everybody in the country has lost confidence in Professor Nutt, so why does she not sack him and his motley crew and save taxpayers some money? (254663)

I made it very clear to Professor Nutt that I felt that the views he expressed in his article over the weekend were inappropriate, as I have already described. I sought assurances, which he gave me, that in his role as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, he would limit himself to providing scientific advice to the Government, which is the statutory role of the council.

About a year or two ago, a unit was set up by the Metropolitan police to look at killings—honour killings—of young women. It was thought that many deaths of young women that may have resulted from such killings were recorded as suicides or accidental deaths. The Met decided to look further into them to find out whether there were any honour killings among them. When will we receive the report from that unit?

My hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on the issue of so-called honour-based violence. I am not sure exactly when we can expect the report so I will look further into the matter, but she will be pleased to know that the Association of Chief Police Officers recently issued guidance on honour-based violence so that police forces across the country can take it into account. Forced marriage and honour-based violence are horrendous crimes. It is thanks to people such as my hon. Friend and many others across the House that we have finally started to look into, expose and deal with this issue as the serious crime it is.

T4. There have been calls across the House this afternoon for police officers to spend more time on the beat, to police more visibly and to work more efficiently. In that regard, is the Home Secretary aware of the successful trials in Bedfordshire giving police officers hand-held personal digital assistant devices, which has led to officers spending a lot of time on the beat and policing much more visibly than before? Does she think that that scheme could be spread across the country? (254664)

Not only am I aware of that, but I know that it was funded through Government investment. We have made £50 million or possibly even £75 million available so that police officers across the country can be provided with hand-held devices and can spend more time, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, on the front line.

I am a little disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not take the advice of his Whips Office and ask, “What recent estimate she has made of current police force strength?”—one of the questions suggested by the Opposition Whips. If he had done so, I could have said—

What weight does my friend give to the views of the Information Commissioner who recently said that DNA samples taken from people not convicted of any crime should not be held indefinitely?

I give very considerable weight to the views of the Information Commissioner. As I made clear before Christmas, that is the reason why—although there are strong arguments and real results relating to people who have been caught and convicted from the use of DNA, and even in relation to those who have not subsequently gone on to be convicted—I think it is nevertheless important that we have a system that is proportionate and in which people have confidence. That is why, for example, I made it clear before Christmas that the DNA profiles of those children below 10 should be removed and why I will make further proposals this year for looking at the retention periods, dependent on the particular circumstances of individuals.

T5. Although far too many people are allowed to come and settle in this country, the vast majority of those who do are decent, law-abiding people, so does it not sully their reputation and undermine community relations when the Government allow to stay in this country people who have been convicted of crimes in absentia in their home countries—crimes as serious as murder—just because that conviction was in absentia? I understand that legal action would be required to override a very dubious court ruling to prevent that practice. What does the Home Secretary propose to do to change the law? (254666)

I take the right hon. Gentleman’s question very seriously indeed. It is right that we deport people who have committed crimes; earlier, I gave the House some figures on successes. In cases such as those he raises, sometimes there are difficulties in data sharing with foreign countries. We are improving that situation significantly, particularly through the EURODAC proposals. On the specific point, if he has a case in mind—he has raised similar issues before—I will be more than happy to look into it. I reassure him and the House that we will do what we can to protect our country.

My constituent, Enid Ruhango, was tortured and raped by Ugandan forces and fled to the UK in search of asylum. Instead, she was incarcerated in the Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The chief inspector of prisons described her treatment as disgraceful, yet this woman is still unable to carry on with her life and has still not been granted indefinite leave to remain. May I implore the Home Secretary finally to look at that case personally and allow this woman to carry on her life with the people of Leeds, where she now belongs?

I have received representations on that case. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that people are detained in Yarl’s Wood only where independent tribunals and the independent system have looked at their cases. That is not to say that in all cases the decision to maintain detention is kept, but we need that power. I reassure him that we are looking at that case.

I am rather concerned by an answer that I received from a Home Office Minister last Wednesday in relation to the Forensic Science Service—a world-class organisation that is leaking staff at an alarming rate, with a net loss of more than 300 posts in the last six years. As the FSS was threatened with privatisation some time ago, will the Minister reassure me that the Government intend for the FSS to stay in the public sector, staffed and resourced at a level appropriate to its public importance to the police and the criminal justice system? It is not going to be covertly privatised, is it?

May I put on record our support for the FSS and the important work that it does? We are looking at a programme of investment over the next few years to allow it to meet the challenges that it faces—not only in this country, but abroad. I can tell my hon. Friend that no decision has been taken about what he describes as the privatisation of the FSS and we leave the options open.

T7. May I invite the Home Secretary for a night out —either a Friday or a Saturday night, I am flexible—in Bournemouth? She would see not only what a good job Bournemouth police are doing, but how overstretched they are in dealing with the 20,000 or so visitors who come to the seaside resort and the vibrant town centre. If she came to Bournemouth, she would see that the police are not able to look after the policing in Bournemouth because of overstretch—the police manning formula does not take into consideration tourism or, indeed, the number of visitors. I urge her to come to Bournemouth, to see the problem and to help to remedy it. (254669)

I had a couple of good nights out in Bournemouth over the Christmas break, although unfortunately the hon. Gentleman was not with me at the time. I agree with him that the Dorset constabulary is doing an extremely good job, which has resulted in a reduction in crime. It is working hard to ensure that Bournemouth is—as I discovered for myself—a good place to visit as a tourist, but I feel sure that the cut of 38 police officers that would be a consequence of his party’s proposed Home Office spending cuts would only make that job more difficult.

Can the Home Secretary give the House an unequivocal answer to the question “Has any arm or agency of the British Government been complicit in any way in torture?” Yes or no?

I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made the Government’s position in respect of torture absolutely clear in his statement last Thursday. When there was a suggestion of any form of complicity, I did what I thought was the right thing to do, and referred it to the Attorney-General for investigation.

An increasing number of cars contain so-called black boxes—vehicle data recording devices. For more than three years the Government have been considering what guidance might be issued to police forces, for instance, on the use of the data from such devices in possible prosecutions. Can the Minister tell me when a decision will be made and guidance issued?

All I can tell my hon. Friend is that these matters remain under discussion and that, as far as I am aware, no decision is imminent.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Home Office questions this afternoon, the Home Secretary criticised Professor David Nutt, a distinguished scientist and an independent adviser to the Government—as established in statute—who writes about his areas of expertise in academic journals. Is it in order for the Home Secretary to criticise him here, where he cannot answer back, for views that he has expressed in scientific publications? If so, what is the future of academic freedom or independent scientific advice if the Home Secretary can demand that scientists apologise for their published academic findings and views?

The hon. Gentleman has asked me whether the Home Secretary is entitled to criticise an academic—or any other person, for that matter. Of course she can. It is a parliamentary privilege that we all have. The Home Secretary is a Member of Parliament, and therefore she is entitled to do that.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It was reported in The Sunday Telegraph that you had ruled, on grounds of privilege, that foreign trips funded by the British Council should not be subject to freedom of information requests. Could you confirm that that is in fact the case, and could you possibly furnish us with reasons for the ruling?

I do not give reasons for that particular procedure, and I have nothing to say on the matter on the Floor of the House.

Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members

Motion made, and Question proposed,

(1) That, subject to paragraphs (2) and (3) below, this House approves the Fourth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 208) and the revised Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members annexed thereunto;

(2) That the revised Guide be amended, in page 27, by leaving out the words “After receiving a donation or loan over £200 in value a Member has 30 days to check and confirm it is from a permissible source before either accepting it or returning it.” and by inserting in their place the words “After receiving a donation over £200 in value a Member has 30 days to check and confirm it is from a permissible source before either accepting it or returning it. Before entering into a loan a Member must check and confirm the lender is permissible.”;

(3) That the threshold for registering interests under category 4 (Sponsorships) shall be the statutory threshold for the time being applying to the reporting of donations by hon. Members to the Electoral Commission;

(4) That the revised Guide shall take effect on such date as section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 shall come into force;

(5) That the Register of Members’ Interests shall be renamed the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the Registrar of Members’ Interests shall be known as the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests;

(6) Accordingly, in each place where they occur in any Standing Order, Order or Resolution of the House:(a) for ‘Register of Members’ Interests’ there shall be substituted ‘Register of Members’ Financial Interests’; and(b) for ‘Registrar of Members’ Interests’ there shall be substituted ‘Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests’.—(Chris Bryant.)

I invite the House to approve the revised guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members as set out in the fourth report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which we published last week. It paves the way for an early end to dual reporting, as well as making a number of other changes which I believe will be welcomed in all parts of the House.

Coming as it does shortly after the adoption of the new Green Book and the setting up of the new Committee on Members’ Allowances, today’s debate gives us a opportunity to adopt a reporting regime that is intended to provide the House and our constituents outside with transparency and reassurance on our interests.

The code of conduct and the guide to the rules are essential components of the House’s regulatory machinery. It is vital that hon. Members have a clear understanding of what the code states and what the rules mean, in order that they may comply with them. The reporting regime, which is one of the most demanding in the world, needs to be overhauled from time to time to ensure that it is both effective and proportionate. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that such an overhaul should be carried out once in each Parliament, and today’s package of proposals represents the overhaul in the present Parliament.

In addition to making changes that relate to the end of dual reporting, the revised guide clarifies existing rules, implements earlier decisions of the House—for example, on the employment of family members—and responds to developments outside this place, such as the development of new forms of investment vehicles. The final section of the revised guide sets out in greater detail than before the procedure for considering and investigating complaints that a Member has breached the rules. Many of the changes, however, and most of the red print in the revised guide are there to end dual reporting.

The requirement to report donations to both the Registrar of Members’ Interests and the Electoral Commission was, as my Committee’s report points out, an unintended consequence of the legislation passed in 2000. Problems came to light in 2005—[Interruption.] The House may have heard the aside from the Lord Chancellor, admitting culpability for such dual reporting. The problems came to light in 2005 when my Committee considered a report from the Commissioner for Standards on the inadvertent failure of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) to register donations in the Register of Members’ Interests, although he had fully reported those same donations to the Electoral Commission and they were in the public domain. The Committee concluded:

“It would in our view be better...if a single system, operating under the authority of the Commissioner, could be devised to replace the present arrangements, which would enable Members to discharge their obligations in relation to making donations public through a single declaration.”

An attempt was made to achieve that during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, but the complexity of the subject was underestimated at the time. Much of the past two years has been taken up with lengthy and detailed discussions that have drilled deep into the substrata of electoral law. With the successful conclusion of those discussions—I am grateful to the registrar, Alda Barry, and the Clerk of my Committee, Steve Priestley, for their work on this—we have now reached the point where the end of dual reporting is in sight and the “one-stop shop” called for by the Committee in 2005 will soon be able to open for business.

The main focus of the discussions over the last year or so has been the Electoral Commission’s very proper concern to ensure that we do not create a fresh anomaly in relation to Members who stand against non-Members in elections outside this place—for example, as Mayor of London or as a Member of a devolved Assembly. The end of dual reporting will mean that such Members are no longer subject to the same set of criminal sanctions as are other candidates. There are various legislative means of keeping the playing field level, but they are so complex and so convoluted that they resemble a steamroller being used to flatten a molehill. The Electoral Commission has agreed that such a legislative solution would be disproportionate, given the very few cases involved.

This agreement is important, because dual reporting cannot end until the Electoral Commission has indicated that it is satisfied it can get all the information it needs from the Register of Members’ Interests. I have been assured by Jenny Watson, who now chairs the Electoral Commission, that this revised guide will provide the assurances the commission seeks in order to sign off on dual reporting. It will then be for the Justice Secretary to lay a commencement order before Parliament. In its report, my Committee expresses the hope that this process will be completed by the end of June, and I rather hope that it may be completed well before then.

Members may well ask, “Well, what is the catch?” I do not believe there is a catch, but there is certainly some give as well as some take. Members will need to provide more information to the registrar than they did previously. However, this will be offset by the removal of any need to report the same information to the commission, and a single form will be provided for this purpose.

We considered whether to recommend alignment of the thresholds used by the House with those set down in statute. In several categories of the rules, the House requires interests with a value greater than 1 per cent. of parliamentary salary to be reported—at present, that sum is £633—whereas the statutory threshold tends to be set at a more generous level, which is currently £1,000. The 1 per cent. threshold was agreed by the House when the rules were last revised in 2002 and, in my view, it was set at an appropriate level. It provides a high degree of transparency in our reporting and, because it is indexed, it automatically rises in line with our pay. The Committee’s view is that this remains the right way to set the majority of the thresholds and we have not, therefore, recommended any change.

In relation to category 4, however—which covers most political donations and is the main area of overlap between the House’s requirements and those set down in statute—the threshold has been fixed at £1,000. Members will have seen that the motion provides for the threshold in category 4 to be tied to the level specified in the legislation, which, at the moment, happens to be £1,000. The Committee had not considered proposing this change, but it is a sensible adjustment that will avoid creating a differential between the House’s thresholds and the statutory ones, and I therefore support it. Any proposal to increase that threshold would come from the Government, but would be subject to parliamentary procedure.

Although hon. Members will no longer have to provide information on permissible donations and loans directly to the Electoral Commission, the commission will remain under a statutory obligation to publish all the relevant information as soon as is reasonably practicable. That means that the commission will publish information on its register within one month of receipt. In order to avoid a four-month gap opening up in the commission’s register, it will be necessary to return to the previous practice of requiring Members to register their interests within one month of their election or re-election to the House, rather than within three months, as at present. Separate deadlines for information required under statute and for information required under resolutions of the House would create confusion and lead to error, and the Committee therefore considers it preferable to have a single deadline.

In order for the Electoral Commission to obtain the information it needs to keep its register up to date, its officials will be granted controlled access to the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the sole purpose of gathering the information to which they are entitled. After a general election, the commission will need to publish some of this information in its register before the first edition of the House’s register is published. A memorandum of understanding is being drawn up with the Electoral Commission, and it will specify the limited circumstances in which access may be granted.

Members will also need to continue to report impermissible donations, or donations from unidentified sources, directly to the commission, which will remain the sole authority on such matters. All the substantive changes are described in the Committee’s report and are picked out in red. I shall not describe each of them, but I shall highlight just two aspects of the revised rules that are not related to the end of dual reporting.

First, hon. Members need to keep full records of each benefit of a value greater than £200. That is because a series of donations from the same source, each unregistrable in itself and even if spread across different registration categories, can give rise to a requirement to register if they accumulate to a value of £1,000 or more. Secondly, the motion makes specific provision to rename the Register of Members’ Interests so that it is called the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and to make a corresponding change to the title of the registrar. The change has been proposed because there is some confusion outside the House as to the purpose of the register. By renaming it the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, we will make it clear that all the entries in the register have a real or potential monetary value. It is a small change, but one that the Committee believes is worth making.

When dual reporting ends, the Commissioner will write to every hon. Member, sending a copy of the new guide and details of the seminars arranged to explain the new rules to hon. Members. There will also be guidance about how to complete the new form. I strongly encourage any Member who may be in any doubt about how the new rules will apply to seek advice from the standards commissioner or the Registrar of Members’ Interests, who will be glad to help—or from the Electoral Commission, in respect of impermissible donations.

I believe that the end of dual reporting will be welcomed on both sides of the House. Together with the other changes recently agreed by the House, the revised rules constitute an important step forward in this House’s regulatory system and in the transparency and accountability that rightly apply to our financial interests as Members of Parliament. The Standards and Privileges Committee will keep all these changes actively under review, and I ask the House to support the motion that stands in the name of the Leader of the House.

I rise to support the motion. First, and most importantly, I must say that I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, and to his Committee for the work that they have done on this matter. He pointed out that although many Members of this House have wanted to make the change from a dual reporting system to a single reporting system, this has proved to be a rather knotty problem. I believe, as he touched on this, that he would also want to thank the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) and his officials, who have worked very hard. My right hon. Friend has a first-class degree in history from Cambridge, and that is clearly what one needs to be able to deliver reform in this area. [Interruption.] The Lord Chancellor just pointed out to me that there are no thanks due to him for this.

We should also pay tribute to the work of the Electoral Commission—in the last few months in particular, it has worked very swiftly and co-ordinated well with the officials of the House—and of the Registrar of Members’ Interests and the Clerk of the Committee. They have all worked to bring forward this paper in timely fashion so that it can be considered in line with the Bill this afternoon.

We all welcome the progress that has been made so far, but does the Deputy Leader of the House accept that we need more progress on the conduct of Members? For example, we should consider removing the 646 small businesses in the House and have Members’ staff employed by the Department of Resources centrally, so that we can remove that problem for the benefit of Members and our constituents.

I know that hon. Members feel aggrieved when newspapers report that we have claimed allowances of £180,000 a year, so it looks as though the staffing budget has gone into our own pockets, whereas—as all hon. Members know—we are merely claiming the money to ensure that our constituents receive swift replies to letters and so on, as they would naturally expect. Various Committees have considered whether the appointing of staff should be done centrally by the House, and it seems to me that the House is of the settled opinion that that would be inappropriate, for the simple reason that each constituency is different and each Member of Parliament works differently.

There has been a problem with dual reporting since the 2000 Act. Although it was an unintended consequence, it has produced some considerable inconvenience for vast numbers of Members. The problem stems not only from having to report to two different organisations with two different systems, but from the variation in the rules. That has led to inconsistency and confusion. One example, from my personal experience, concerns the free car parking space provided to me by NCP at Cardiff railway station. Any Member from south Wales who wants such a space can have one. That means that I do not have to declare it in the Register of Members’ Interests—I have asked on several occasions to ensure that that is the case. However, I do have to declare it to the Electoral Commission. There will be many such instances in which hon. Members are confused about whether they have to report various donations and benefits.

I am grateful that today we will be able to end all that confusion. However, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire pointed out, the change will involve a cost to hon. Members. For a start, they will have to provide considerably more information to the House authorities under categories 4, 5 and 6 on sponsorship for their constituency associations or parties, and the benefits they receive in relation to overseas visits and gifts received on such visits. That information is laid out in the report, and it has been gone through with a fine-toothed comb by the Electoral Commission.

In addition, we have had to extend the rules of the House so that they meet the commission’s requirements. The requirement in section 43 now provides that if a

“personal benefit to the Member is not specifically received in the capacity of a Member of Parliament but is none the less related to his or her political activity”

it will have to be registered. That is a more stringent requirement.

In addition, there is a new category in the register in relation to loans and credit arrangements, which have been subject to registration and publication with the Electoral Commission. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there will also be a requirement for Members to register within a month after a general election, instead of the three months that they had previously. Indeed, I am told that Members were often dilatory about meeting the three-month limit. It will be vital, however, that the information is provided within the time limit after the next election. In order for the Electoral Commission to do its work after a general election, it will need to have particular access during that period to the House authorities’ information.

I should also alert hon. Members to one issue that has been raised several times with me, which is whether one must register membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, the police service parliamentary scheme and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ MP secondment scheme, as well as of the Industry and Parliament Trust. Such involvement has been exempt under the House’s rules but not exempt from registration with the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission has insisted that we will have to register such involvement and so Members should be aware of that.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was coming to the subject of category 3 on page 17, but I want to ask him a question as something is not clear to me. The definition of category 3 includes the words:

“In respect of any paid employment registered in Category 1…and Category 2”—

that is, directorships and remuneration—

“any provision to clients of services which depend essentially upon, or arise out of, the Member’s position as a Member of Parliament”.

I am confused by that, because, although there might be some relationship elsewhere, the wording here states that it should

“depend essentially upon, or arise out of, the Member’s position as a Member of Parliament”.

Surely we cannot get additional remuneration for anything that relates to our work as a Member of Parliament. I invite Members to take a look at category 3—it is clearly wrong that anybody should have such a facility. Will my hon. Friend clarify what is meant by that?

There are two elements that I can clarify. First, the House has always made it clear that nobody should be a paid advocate in their work as a Member of Parliament. I understand that my hon. Friend is suggesting that the definition strays close to that. All Members of the House would want to ensure that nobody was paid for performing their function as a Member of Parliament. I should also point out that paragraph 27 continues:

“In addition the Member should register any clients of the consultancy which he or she knows have benefited from such advice.”

I could not see on the register any such registration of the clients of the consultancy, merely that of the consultancy.

In addition, I want to refer to one other point of which hon. Members might not have been aware. In paragraph 34, the code now makes it absolutely clear that

“if a fundraising event raises more than £1000, a Member benefiting should register the event”.

I think that that is possibly a new category of registration to which Members will have to commit themselves and I note that there have not been many such events registered in the Register of Members’ Interests thus far.

I want to refer briefly to the thresholds. In categories 5, 6 and 7, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said, it is right that the registration threshold should remain at 1 per cent. of our salary. However, in relation to sponsorship under category 4 where the benefit does not come directly into our pockets but to our constituency associations, our constituency Labour parties or whatever organisation there might be, the law specifies that the threshold should be £1,000. It seems sensible, just in case the law were ever to change, that we should be aligned directly with the law rather than with the specific figure of £1,000. That is why the motion refers to that. We might also want to consider whether the £200 threshold at which one has to check whether a donation is from a permissible source, has to return it if it is not and has to register it with the Electoral Commission should be aligned with the legal situation rather than with the specific figure of £200. We might want to return to that at another date.

Does that mean that if the hon. Gentleman’s constituency Labour party had a coffee morning or whatever and raised £1,000 he would then have to register it here?

Would that a Rhondda Labour party coffee morning raised more than £1,000. I am simply reading out paragraph 34, which makes it clear that if the amount is more than £1,000, Members have to register it in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I now come to the next steps. First, the Electoral Commission is happy to confirm, as it did to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, that the requirements that we are placing on hon. Members today meet all the requirements under the 2000 Act, and it will write to the Justice Secretary—the Lord Chancellor—to say so. He then expects to lay a commencement order before Parliament for section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and paragraph 16 of schedule 7A to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, so that dual reporting will finish by the end of June.

To revert to the hon. Gentleman’s coffee morning in the Rhondda, the event would not have to be declared by the Member. Paragraph 29 says:

“Financial contributions to constituency associations…which are not linked to a Member’s candidacy…that is where the donation would have been forthcoming irrespective of the identity of the candidate…do not have to be registered on the Register of Members’ Interests.”

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. However, at the bottom of page 19, a note to paragraph 31 says:

“Members might, in this context, ask themselves such questions as ‘Did I write to or meet the donor asking for a contribution?’, ‘Was a letter sent out headed ‘Campaign to [Re-] Elect [name]’’, ‘Was I the guest of honour at a dinner”—

or, I suppose, a coffee morning—

“where donations were sought?’ and ‘Have I a particular relationship to the donor”,

so the expectation would probably be that one would register such matters.

If the Deputy Leader of the House would be so good as to press the rewind button, he will recall that a few minutes ago he referred, without evaluation, to the Electoral Commission’s requirement for disclosure of the fact of participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme and similar such schemes. That is in contrast to the non-requirement on the part of the House. Does he find that position satisfactory? I did not get a clear sense that he had a particular view. I am not quite sure why the Electoral Commission is holding out for something on which the House is not insisting.

My feeling about the armed forces parliamentary scheme is that it is pretty difficult to evaluate, on a commercial basis, the cost of lying in a tent in Basra being shelled. It is pretty difficult to estimate whether that is worth £1,000 or more. However, when Members are not sure what the value of such a thing is, but guess that it might be more than £1,000, there is provision for them simply to attest to the fact that they have had that benefit. The honest truth is that it does no one a disservice to over-register; for instance, registering the fact that they have had the benefit of being involved in the armed forces parliamentary scheme would redound to their benefit, rather than to their discredit.

This is coming as a revelation to us. Let us take the example of a dinner that my constituency Labour party held in August. I was at the top table and said a few words, and there was then an address by Tony Benn. The dinner made just over £1,000—perhaps £1,200—for the party. Obviously, that money would be available for it to spend on any party function, including electioneering. Is the Deputy Leader of the House saying—I am quite happy with this—that in future, either my local party, which is clearly an accounting unit, or I should register that £1,200, or whatever the sum, and say where it came from?

The regulations before us today do not affect the law. They do not change what one’s local party has to declare. All that they change is what an hon. Member has to declare. An hon. Member is required to declare any donation above £1,000 that is associated with them in some way, whether that is because it is for their re-election, because they sought the donation, or because they were a speaker at the event. Those are the tests that the Standards and Privileges Committee has set for us that decide whether we should declare such events. If an event makes more than £1,000 profit, and it is tied to the candidacy of an individual, or the individual invited people or was the guest of honour, they would have to register it—that is, if the threshold remains at £1,000.

So if the coffee morning or the dinner makes more than £1,000, that has to be registered by the Member of Parliament. Is that correct?

If the donation is not in any way linked to the Member of Parliament, or is not supported or asked for by them, does it have to be registered?

Absolutely not. Let me see whether I can make the position clearer. Where there is a direct relationship between the hon. Member and the donation or the event, the Member has to register with the House authorities, but a direct relationship includes being the person who sent out the invitations, who speaks at the event or who is the guest of honour—these are all in the report. Hon. Gentlemen who are making odd faces at me from the Opposition Benches need to read the report.

I interrupt only because the body language signifying confusion among hon. Members is considerable. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) clearly disagrees with what the Deputy Leader of the House is saying. Hon. Members deserve some clarity and precision on the matter. [Interruption] The Deputy Leader of the House says, “I am correct”. Clearly, that is not the view of the architect and author of the report, so can somebody help us? Hands up.

If my hon. Friend, of whom I am a great admirer, reads the report, as I am sure he, as a very assiduous Member, has done, he will know that paragraph 34 states:

“Similarly, if a fund-raising event raises more than £1,000, a Member benefiting should register the event”.

At the bottom of the page, the report states:

“Members might, in this context, ask themselves such questions as, ‘Did I write to or meet the donor asking for a contribution?’, ‘Was a letter sent out headed ‘Campaign to [Re-] Elect’ [name], ‘Was I the guest of honour at a dinner where donations were sought?’”

That is a pretty generous catch-all.

I was slightly concerned when the hon. Gentleman finished his remarks by saying that that passage was a “pretty generous catch-all”. It is precisely because it is a rather generous catch-all that there might be cause for concern. He refers to a guest of honour speaking at a dinner at which donations might be solicited. He will understand that a humble Back Bencher like me, or a Back Bencher who ought to be humble, is not regularly invited to speak at fundraising events that raise such sums, so I am not speaking self-interestedly, but is it not rather disturbing that there should be such a draconian requirement of which Members could quite innocently fall foul?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman mistook me. The Member who has to register is a Member who is benefiting. For instance, if there is a fundraising dinner in one’s constituency to raise money for one’s constituency association, and it is headed, “The hon. Member for such-and-such a constituency invites you to a dinner and will be the guest speaker,” and there is a general election coming up, there is clearly a direct benefit, and the benefit of £1,000 is significant.

This is an important point. It involves all of us. The hon. Gentleman just referred to the possibility of a general election approaching. When an election has happened, there may be five years until the next one. All our constituency parties, whatever their political complexion, have events to raise money. People often pay extremely modest prices for tickets, such as £5 or £10. The cumulative effect of such an evening, perhaps because of a raffle, may well be that the £1,000 barrier is crossed. Is he really saying that in the year after an election, if his party or mine raises £1,000 at a fish and chip supper, a coffee morning or whatever it might be, the Member has to register?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I make him absolutely right; the acid test must be whether a Member will benefit. We are talking about whether £1,000 is raised for their political organisation. The whole objective of that organisation is eventually—whether in five years’ time or next month—to return them as a Member of Parliament, so that money will be used to benefit the Member and further their return to this House. If more than £1,000 is involved, it should always be declared.

Whenever there is a benefit to the hon. Member, it is important that they should declare. We are talking about a Register of Members’ Financial Interests. If an hon. Member was clear in their mind and heart that the event in question absolutely did not benefit them, clearly they would not have to register. However, simply reading paragraphs 29 and 34 together would make them understand that they were required to register the event if there was a doubt in their mind about whether they did benefit, and if the benefit involved was more than £1,000.

I draw the attention of the Deputy Leader of the House to the first sentence in paragraph 31, which may answer some of the questions:

“It is not possible to give an exhaustive list of what might be considered ‘linked’ to an individual, and, as always, Members who are in any doubt should consult the Registrar.”

Indeed, and I consulted the registrar earlier. She informed me that her advice would always be to register. I think that that solves the issue.

It is the event that has to be registered. There is no requirement for sums below £1,001—the threshold kicks in above £1,000—and it is the profit of the event, the benefit, that has to be more than £1,000.

As my hon. Friend knows, I have unwillingly become a bit of an expert on this stuff. I agree with many of the points made by Opposition Members. What I have just heard seems to be nonsense on stilts. I regularly have annual dinners in Neath. If 200 people come to one, paying £15 a ticket, and some pensioners take part in a raffle, and the profit—from a couple of hundred different people—goes over £1,000, as it often does, that is surely different from my writing to somebody asking them for sponsorship. If sponsorship money from a single individual came to more than £1,000, I would be in a sense obligated to that person and that should be registered, but the way in which this matter has been described seems to me a complete mess.

If there were a fundraising dinner whose tickets cost not £15, as in my right hon. Friend’s case—in my constituency they normally cost £20—but £500, the order of magnitude would be rather different. The issue is whether there is a significant financial benefit to the individual; the key point is whether that benefit is more than £1,000. If hon. Members are in doubt, they should consult the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests so that they can have absolute clarity. However, I reassert that the rules say that the interest should be registered when there is a benefit of more than £1,000.

I was happy to register a visit to an Arsenal game that cost me very little, because the registrar would always say that we should register everything. However, the Minister is saying that if any dinner with any speaker makes a profit of more than £1,000, it should be registered. We should be telling the registrar what to do, not the other way around.

I can only keep on reasserting what I have asserted several times. If hon. Members do not like it, they should urge the Standards and Privileges Committee to change what it has laid down. The report makes it very clear what should happen when there is a benefit to an hon. Member by virtue of sponsorship of their constituency party or constituency association, by stating that

“if a fund-raising event raises more than £1000, a Member benefiting should register the event”.

In the process of deciding whether they have benefited, an hon. Member would want to bear in mind the following: is this an event that is directly related to my re-election or where I have solicited people into making contributions or paying for tickets to come, and is it focused around my membership as a Member of Parliament?

I shall end my remarks as I intended to do. I hope that the process of going to a single system of reporting instead of dual reporting will be unanimously supported by the House; that this will provide us with a much clearer, more consistent, efficient and transparent system; and that, to use a valleys word, it will be tidy.

I had hoped that this was going to be a very straightforward and simple debate and that all I would need to do was stand up, speak for two minutes, thank everybody and hope that everything was lovely and tidy, hunky-dory and tickety-boo, and that there would be no problems. However, although the House will have appreciated the Minister’s speech, it appears that he has unintentionally somewhat muddied the waters, and I sense that there is now some concern in the House about the precision with which the new system will work. Although what is proposed is billed as the abolition of dual reporting, a sentence on page 19 of the guide to the rules suggests that it is not entirely that:

“Registration by the Member is additional to any registration required of the local organisation.”

It is on that sentence and the link between association fundraising and the declarations of Members, whose benefit is the crucial aspect, that the confusion has arisen. If I may, I shall come to that point in a moment.

First, let us establish what we are trying to do. As we debated as recently as two weeks ago, openness and transparency are very important. Curiously, however, we have discovered over the past few years that that can be overdone, in the sense that duplication is unnecessary and adds nothing to the simple keeping of a central record, which should suffice. What has grown up is a process whereby, in addition to a thorough central record, a parallel institution has demanded that the same matters be recorded with it. That dual reporting has been an unintended consequence of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and it is, to any sensible person, absurd. Once is enough; if it has to be done twice and moreover the requirements are not exactly parallel, there will be a minefield on which people falling foul of the rules can be tripped up and maligned in the press for not complying with those rules.

Basically, we have had too many rules, and they have become so complicated that being a Member of Parliament is now a bit like running a small business. I would like to thank, properly, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for trying to clarify those rules and presenting this report to the House. However, as he said, the process of making them less complicated has itself proved rather complicated. It is a bit like when Nigel Lawson, now Lord Lawson, said that the process of simplifying taxation inevitably makes taxation more complicated.

We have hit on a point that seems to be muddy. The underlying principle is that if any of us, as an individual Member of this House, appears to be benefiting from the raising or giving of money, we should declare it openly. However, two issues have given rise to concern in the 45 minutes of debate that we have had: the phrase “linked to” and the operation of our local constituency associations. I do things, as I am sure do the Minister and others in this House, to raise money for the Conservative party—in the Minister’s case, of course, it is not for the Conservative party—and I would like to think that if I am speaking at a fundraising dinner I can raise more than a thousand quid for the party. [Hon. Members: “No problem!”] Indeed; we could add a nought—we never know if people are queuing at the door.

However, that is not for my benefit. I think that the Minister said, rightly, that I would not receive the benefit, but it is fair to say that in some of his answers he gave a slightly different impression. Likewise, if I attend a meeting of my association—a dinner at which I, as the local Member of Parliament, might be speaking—and it raises more than £1,000, we are in a grey area where it may or may not be declarable. At the moment, in attending such an event, I would be raising money for the European and county council elections. That is of no benefit to me whatsoever, beyond the broader political advance that those elections will lead to. That is, however, in no way a direct contribution to me or my campaign.

I do not think that our local parties often organise dinners in our constituencies that raise more than £1,000 in profit, but if a profit of more than £1,000 is raised, given what has been said, it will obviously benefit the local Member. I know that the party is not just an electoral machine, but it is obviously a benefit to the local Member if the organisation makes a profit of more than £1,000. What has been said during the debate so far indicates that that amount should be recorded somewhere.

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman perfectly illustrates the new cloudiness in the rules, which we would like to avoid. If, for instance, my association were to raise £1,000 and I were not there, it ought to declare it and the rules clearly state that. If it were to raise £1,000 specifically for my election, and I were not there, it would be clear—if I knew that it had happened—that I should declare it, too. But the primary reporting obligation must rest with the constituency association.

The problem is the rather dangerous word “linked”. It is a word that the press use. When they say that a Member is linked to someone, and show a photograph, it might mean that they met that person five years ago. The question is: at what point does “linked to” become a direct benefit such that it is registrable? If “linked to” leads the registrar to say that it is better to declare, we will get “obligation creep”, if I can put it that way, where the rules are interpreted ever more widely, so that the declaration of almost anything becomes necessary.

I share the bewilderment of the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). We seem to be going in a direction opposite to that set out in legislation passed by this House. We set up a complicated plethora of legislation in relation to political parties that placed a burden on them to disclose finances. In the Labour party, there are constituency agreements with trade unions where the burden of transparency is on the constituency, not the Member of Parliament. Why encumber a Member of Parliament who is diligently doing things and carrying out political activity? If there has to be a declaration, it surely should be the job of the constituency Labour party, Liberal association or whatever. I am not suggesting that that is the correct course, but there is a degree of logic to it because the constituency organisation is the recipient. It disburses the money between local, European and Westminster elections.

It may be that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire can explain a clear delineation that I and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) have not spotted, but the matter does seem a bit blurred. At the very least, I make a plea for some clarification of how the process will work in practice.

I am becoming more troubled as this debate proceeds. During the past few years we have been trying to identify areas where people can gain undue influence over Members of Parliament. If people are giving large sums of money that could conceivably influence a Member of Parliament, it is quite right that that must be declared in the fullest possible way, that the donors should be identified, and that foreigners should be excluded—all of that. If we are talking about people paying a modest price for a ticket, however, going down this road will discourage ordinary people from giving the modest sums that enable democracy to flourish in this country. That is a retrograde step. I believe that it is terribly important that a multitude of people give relatively modest sums to fuel our democracy. I am totally against more state participation in the funding of political parties, but I am worried that we are going down a slippery slope that could deter ordinary, decent people from forking out a fiver, a tenner or £20 to go to function.

My hon. Friend has very strong views about where political participation and transparency potentially collide, and I understand his arguments.

I do not wish to dwell on the matter any longer, other than to say that the debate has, importantly, put the spotlight on some potential difficulties. If there is one thing that we want to avoid at all costs—the report goes a long way towards doing so—it is Members who behave honestly getting tripped up by a set of rules that they do not fully understand or about which they might not have known. The moral obligation on a Member to declare must surely rest on his having known what he needed to declare in the first place. If his local association does something, or something happens in connection with an event with which he was theoretically linked, and by failing to declare it a Member is made to appear guilty, that could lead to some injustice. The whole point of the changes is to tidy the system up and try to avoid that. However, I shall park that matter to one side.

I wish to say a couple of things about the Electoral Commission. It is fair to say that there was a phase when it rather enjoyed empire-building and involving itself in parliamentary matters even when there was a perfectly good parliamentary system in place to ensure the openness and standards that we wanted. I would like to think that we have passed that phase, but I simply cannot see why participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme has to be declared. It is hardly a benefit in kind. It is informative and very hard work in many cases, and I certainly recommend that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) go on the Marines training course. Getting through the tube in the Special Air Service exercise is quite something.

The Electoral Commission should examine some of its own practices. I had a minor spat with it last year, as one of its declaration forms is complete gibberish. It requires a Member or anyone else filling it in to declare the details of a donation for an overseas trip. By the very nature of a visit to a foreign country, the donor of the trip is not a permissible donor under electoral law. They cannot be the origin of money given to a political party, but it is perfectly legitimate for us to accept a visit to a foreign country paid for by the host Government. On section D of its form, the commission requires a signature under the words:

“I confirm, to the best of my knowledge and belief, that the donation was from a permissible donor”.

That is complete nonsense, but despite being told that, the Electoral Commission will not change that idiotic, perilous form. It, too, has some lessons to learn.

As I think the whole House will agree, the Minister is quite right that the two operations have to work in alignment and in parallel, so we understand that the thresholds will be agreed and will fall into place in both our system and the Electoral Commission’s system at a later date. We appreciate also that calling the register the Register of Members’ Financial Interests will better explain to the outside world that we are talking about money, and that money of pecuniary interest—I know that the Committee states that we should no longer use that term, so I shall call it financial interest—matters the most.

The report largely explains the rules for each category helpfully. All that I ask—I sense that this is the mood of the House—is that some clarity be given about how the interaction between Members, fundraising events and their local associations will work. Beyond that, I hope that the House will support the endorsement of the report.

Like the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), I rather assumed that this would be a brief and uncomplicated debate, but it has proved to be anything but. One difficulty is that whenever anyone refers to the obligations that are placed on political parties or Members in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it comes as a huge revelation to Members that they have been required to act in a particular way. It is hardly surprising, then, that hon. Members occasionally find themselves caught out by inadvertence rather than by anything else.

We have had a dual reporting system with different categories and criteria and, therefore, somebody who believed that they had done the right thing by registering interests properly with the Registrar of Members’ Interests found themselves at fault because they had not done so with the Electoral Commission under the 2000 Act. Many of us have argued for bringing the two systems together and rationalising them, for a long time. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee, on which I once served, on their work on putting the two codes together.

Let me say gently to the Deputy Leader of the House that he did not shed an awful lot of light on the matter that caused all the difficulties this afternoon, not because he was not trying desperately hard to do so, but because, every time he opened his mouth, someone had a new flash of inspiration about an event in their constituencies that perhaps they should have registered, but had not. They therefore reacted with alarm. However, hon. Members should know that the proposals do not change the law or the current position. If they have arranged a dinner, or an event such as the mythical coffee mornings in the Rhondda, which raise more than £1,000 in profit—I am impressed by that; perhaps it is the best way in which to raise funds in south Wales, but it does not work so well in Somerset in terms of gross profit—which are designed to raise money for their candidature that falls within the terms of the 2000 Act. Such an event will now have to be registered on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests here, but the registration no longer needs to be duplicated. Reporting by political parties is different.

The more I listen, the more confused I become. Most fundraising events are not held not to further the interests of the sitting Member, but to pay for the rent of the premises that the party occupies, the agent’s salary and other matters. When a general election is called, most of us have a fighting fund, which is—then and only then—entirely for the benefit of the prospective Member. There is a genuine difference between the two, but, this afternoon, we find the waters muddied.

They are not muddied. The hon. Gentleman has described what the political parties, not the Member, must register. The Member does not have to register anything that is not for his particular benefit. That is the distinction, which is not especially difficult. If in doubt, Members will have to consult the Registrar and ensure that they are doing things correctly. However, the provision should not come as a surprise to hon. Members because it is not new. Whom one tells is new, not the necessity to report. That is crucial.

I want to deal with the interesting and important point that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made in an intervention on the Deputy Leader of the House about category 3 declaration. It covers

“any provision to clients of services which depend essentially upon, or arise out of, the Member’s position as a Member of Parliament”.

I assume, because of the rules of advocacy, which the report also includes, that that category covers simply providing advice to a company or organisation arising from our knowledge as Members of Parliament of the proceedings and procedures of Parliament, and not advocacy, which is not allowed under the rules. However, we need to consider that carefully at some stage. If we want to avoid the appearance of partiality, it is difficult to be a Member of Parliament, who is employed for the purposes of providing services associated with being a Member of Parliament, without the question of partiality arising.

I shall take it no further today, but that category is there in black and white as a recognisable category. We shall see who registers and what sort of interests are registered under that category, but we would do well to return to it in future, to see whether it is appropriate.

Having said that, I think that we have a good and sensible coalition of the two codes under which we are allowed to register, although I agree that there is still some nonsense in the arrangement. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) mentioned one example, which is the registration of visits under the armed forces parliamentary scheme. When I went to the Arctic with the Royal Marines, I did not feel that I got an enormous financial benefit from sitting in a tent in the Arctic circle, but I benefited enormously in my personal development and my knowledge of the privations that the armed forces face. I was pleased to have that opportunity. I am not convinced that it ought to be a registrable interest, but on the other hand, what harm does it do me to say that that is what I have done? I do not see that anyone would suggest that such a declaration would be a pejorative declaration.

Some years ago I participated in the Industry and Parliament Trust scheme with BAE Systems. I am proud of that experience, which was very successful and I think that it was mutually beneficial. However, BAE Systems does advocacy and from time to time runs into controversy. I have reflected on the matter for some time, and I would have been more comfortable had it been the norm for work with the Industry and Parliament Trust to be declared, for the reasons that I have given, which do not apply to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. The Industry and Parliament Trust is a very good scheme, but a declaration needs to be made.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comment. The other example is this car parking business. I remember putting forward a strong argument when the proposal was first mooted, when we all used to get tickets for parking at airports, which the Electoral Commission held to be a declarable interest under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, despite the fact that they were available to all Members and to be used only for parliamentary work. Therefore, there was no personal advantage whatever; the advantage was to the House authorities in not having to pay for the parking, rather than to the Member concerned. The individual Member was neither better nor worse off from being able to park at an airport. I hope that all such matters will eventually be brought into line by the coalition of the two codes.

Finally, let me reassure the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) that if he holds a dinner that is registrable, in that it raises more than £1,000 for his personal campaign, there is no requirement for him to list all the people who were there or where they sat and what they ate. That is not part of the code. He simply has to register the fact that the event happened. That does not seem to be quite as intrusive as perhaps he feared. I welcome the report and I hope that the House will support it this afternoon.

The Minister has done a good job this afternoon in trying to push the House in the right direction, but I am deeply saddened that this House is yet again sending out a negative message to the public, which is that we do not want to be transparent. The suggestion is that we want somehow to hide what we are doing and to hide the money coming into our associations which will, one way or another, eventually benefit us. That is a negative message. It reinforces what the press and the public think about this House, and it is a downright shame. The clear message going out to the public is that we do not want to register benefits and interests.

Constituency associations and political parties have one key objective—it is the No. 1 objective in their constitutions; indeed, they say it on the front page—and that is to win elections. The key election that political parties want to win is the election to get their members back into this House. Members will return to this House if their constituency associations are doing well, by winning local government elections, for instance, because that can be helpful to those Members.

I disagree entirely with the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on this point. We should be totally transparent about this, because we have nothing to hide. The whole organisation of a political party—its constituency organisations, its associations—exists to return candidates; there are no grey areas, so I wonder why we feel that we have something to hide. We should be declaring the £1,000 that is raised for our constituency association, and we should be happy to do so, so that the public can benefit from that transparency and we can be held to account.

I welcome this paper, as far as it goes, but we should go much further. We really should look at how our staff are employed and at the conditions and selection processes involved. Of course, Members should have control over which staff are selected, but our staff should be employed formally and professionally by the Department of Resources, not by 646 separate small businesses in the House. That is not what we come to Parliament to do. We are legislators; we are here to fight for our constituents, our associations and our country. We are not here to act as small businesses employing people. We should get away from that practice, which would save us a lot of problems and give the public more confidence about what we do here and how we are doing it. God knows, the public need to get some confidence in us; at the moment, they certainly do not have any.

Finally, I should like to mention the outside earnings syndrome. In this day and age, it is nonsense for Members to be moonlighting and doing other jobs that earn them more money than their main job here pays them. I spend between 60 and 80 hours a week doing my job. I could do more, and I could do a better job, if I had more time to do it. There is no way that I have time to go out and earn money on the side by being a barrister, writing articles for newspapers or going on the circuit giving after-dinner speeches. Those practices are total nonsense in this day and age in a modern Parliament, and we should stop that abuse. Those Members are out there earning a good living doing something else while drawing their full salary here but failing to do the full job.

Surely the answer is to adopt the practice of many modern Parliaments and to introduce transparency. Under such a system, a person could moonlight—to use the hon. Gentleman’s word—but that would have to be declared and an abatement would be made to the MP’s salary. The MP’s voters could also take his behaviour into account in their assessment of whether they wished to return him at the next general election.

Very unusually, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are elected on a matter of trust between us and our constituents, and on a set of promises that we give them when we put ourselves up for election. We say that we are going to come here and work for them and do our best for them. By taking a reduced salary, we would be doing a lesser job here. If Members are not prepared to do their job here, it is incumbent on them to resign and let someone else come in and do the job that the public want and require us to do. We all have constituency problems, and we need to be there to help our individual constituents. We need to fight for our communities, and for our country, and MPs ought to stop having second jobs. It is an abuse of the system.

With the leave of the House, I should like briefly to reiterate our thanks to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for the work that it has done. On the one issue that has been of concern to Members during the debate, I am sure that the Committee, together with the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests, will want to ensure that proper advice is made available to hon. Members. If that requires the Committee to produce an additional report or additional time to be made available for the House to look at these matters, I am sure that we would want to be able to arrange that. We thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee for their work.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

(1) That, subject to paragraphs (2) and (3) below, this House approves the Fourth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 208) and the revised Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members annexed thereunto;

(2) That the revised Guide be amended, in page 27, by leaving out the words “After receiving a donation or loan over £200 in value a Member has 30 days to check and confirm it is from a permissible source before either accepting it or returning it.” and by inserting in their place the words “After receiving a donation over £200 in value a Member has 30 days to check and confirm it is from a permissible source before either accepting it or returning it. Before entering into a loan a Member must check and confirm the lender is permissible.”;

(3) That the threshold for registering interests under category 4 (Sponsorships) shall be the statutory threshold for the time being applying to the reporting of donations by hon. Members to the Electoral Commission;

(4) That the revised Guide shall take effect on such date as section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 shall come into force;

(5) That the Register of Members’ Interests shall be renamed the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the Registrar of Members’ Interests shall be known as the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests;

(6) Accordingly, in each place where they occur in any Standing Order, Order or Resolution of the House:

(a) for ‘Register of Members’ Interests’ there shall be substituted ‘Register of Members’ Financial Interests’; and

(b) for ‘Registrar of Members’ Interests’ there shall be substituted ‘Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests’.

Political Parties and Elections Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Motion made and Question proposed,

That the Order of 20 October 2008 (Political Parties and Elections Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows—

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on consideration and Third Reading shall be concluded in two days.

3. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken on each of those days as shown in the following Table and in the order so shown.

4. Each part of the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in relation to it in the second column of the Table.

First day

Proceedings

Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 1 to 3 and Schedules 1 and 2; new Clauses and amendments relating to compliance officers for holders of elective office.

Three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order, or 8.30 pm, whichever is the earlier.

New Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 4 to 7; new Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 10 to 12.

The moment of interruption.

Second day

Proceedings

Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and amendments relating to thresholds in relation to political donations and loans; new Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to political donations by unincorporated associations; new Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 8 and 9 and Schedule 3; other new Clauses relating to political donations and spending.

Three hours before the moment of interruption.

New Clauses and amendments relating to schemes for the transfer of data to registration officers; new Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 13 to 17; other new Clauses relating to elections; remaining proceedings on consideration.

One hour before the moment of interruption.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the second day.—(Mr. Wills.)

This legislation has been by far the most poorly structured moving beast of a Bill that I and, I think, many other hon. Members will have worked on in this place. Although the Secretary of State and the Minister have never been less than courteous to me and my right hon. and hon. Friends during the Bill’s passage to date, the contents of the Bill have changed dramatically—and, I have to say, thankfully—from being initially overly partisan and technically deficient to something rather more acceptable.

As a result of the Government amendments tabled for consideration today and those proposed for the second day of Report, we are moving the Bill towards what we consider a more acceptable position. Our Report amendments, however, show that we still think that the Bill still has some way to go and that, despite the progress, it represents a missed opportunity to deal with the crisis in public confidence in the political system.

We accept that the Committee stage succeeded in bringing many concerns to light and helped to establish important common ground, and since then discussions have continued. It is clear that the Government have done some serious thinking on the Bill, as is clear from their amendments and the proposed timetable that we now debating. We note that the Government have provided a second day for Report, which, given the significant number of Government amendments, let alone ours, is appropriate. I note that, as with the lateness of everything else to do with this Bill, the amendments under discussion today were only tabled about a week ago. That is hardly timely, given that the Committee finished on 13 November last year. Moreover, the fact that the second day for Report is not scheduled until March is typical of how this Bill has progressed—or not—and is revealing of a Government who are struggling to deliver the legislation, which, it must be said, they originally intended to rush through this place in a very short time. Although that may be indicative of a Government in their death throes, we shall not, for the reasons given, oppose the programme motion.

I rather think that that was a churlish speech from the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), so I will start with the part of the programme motion with which I agree and appreciate—that which states that the second day will start with a debate on amending provisions connected with restricting the donations that can be made to political parties. That is welcome and necessary because it goes back to something entirely reprehensible that happened in Committee—the fact that the Committee never reached the new clauses and amendments that the Liberal Democrats tabled on the important matter of capping donations to political parties—[Interruption.] I hear some tutting on the Conservative Benches, but it was Conservative Members who were largely responsible for the fact that the Committee did not reach those provisions.

I am, however, disappointed in one aspect of the second day allotted under the programme motion. We have always said that our proposals on capping donations to parties at the £50,000 level are part of a package deal that was negotiated between the parties by Sir Hayden Phillips. What has happened in the programming is that that aspect of the package deal—the donation cap—has been separated from the other aspects of the deal, namely the global or all-Parliament limit on spending. As a result, the debate has become slightly fragmented, yet Sir Hayden was clear that the proposals were combined, both on the spending side and the donation side, and that all the parties should unite around them.

It is also disappointing and unwelcome that, as a result of the structuring of the second day, the new clauses to cap spending are liable to fall to the knife. That is particularly the case because politically, if not technically within the Bill, our proposals for capping expenditure, particularly local expenditure of all types, are an alternative to the Government’s apparent new and innovative suggestion for replacing what has become known as the trigger. Our criticisms of the trigger and of what the Government are proposing today have to be seen in the light of what we are proposing as an alternative —local spending caps. It is disappointing that the discussion on the Bill will not be structured in a way that makes those alternatives clear.

I hope that we can move rapidly to agreeing the programme motion so that we can get on to the substance of the Bill, but I want, if I may, to pick up a couple of points. What the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) called a poorly structured approach to the Bill has actually been a painstaking search for consensus. Over and over again—on Second Reading and throughout consideration in Committee—we have made it clear that when we are dealing with matters of such constitutional importance, it is crucial that we should do so on the basis of consensus.

I hope that the Opposition parties will agree that I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor have both gone to great trouble to try to consult them. We have not always been able to agree, but we have listened and, wherever possible, responded. That is exactly why we have tabled so many amendments. We have genuinely approached this with an open mind, and where we have been persuaded by the arguments made by the Opposition parties we have changed our proposals. That is why we have made them in the way that we have.

I do not think that that is poorly structured; it is a proper search for consensus on an important bit of political structuring and constitutional proposals that should be approached in exactly that way. I utterly reject what the hon. Gentleman has said about that.

On tabling the amendments late, most were tabled two weeks ago and the rest a week ago. The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that that is not typical of how Governments always do business. We have done our best to give hon. Members, as we always said we would, time to engage with those new amendments. As he well knows, we briefed Opposition Members in advance as well.

Hon. Members requested two days for consideration on Report. They have got two days. There is a delay between those two days because, as Opposition Members are well aware, the House is going into recess. That is why. I do not see anything wrong with that. It seems to me to be a proper way to behave.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) made some important points about donation caps. I absolutely understand his concerns, but his remarks missed out something very important, if I may say so. Sir Hayden Phillips made it clear that it is not possible to consider the question of donation caps without enhanced public funding. That is the nub of his proposals. I notice that all the discussions initiated by the Liberal Democrats on that particular point somehow slide over the fact of that crucial link with state funding.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that we are open to having that discussion. We agree that it is important and that, for the long term, Sir Hayden Phillips’s proposals represent fundamental constitutional change, but I return to the fundamental point: we cannot proceed unless there is a reasonable degree of cross-party support. As the hon. Gentleman himself said, that is simply not possible at the moment.

We will come back to the issue of what Sir Hayden Phillips said and whether any state funding is necessary as a consequence of introducing a donation cap, because I am far from convinced that that is the case. I return to an important point of process: only Ministers of the Crown are entitled to propose expenditure in the House. I am against that, but it is the fact. If the Minister wants to propose expenditure, he can.

As I say, I am sure that we will come back to those proposals at a future date. At the moment, we have a set of proposals before us—amendments that genuinely try to take account of all the concerns raised in all parts of the House about these important measures. I hope that we can now proceed and spend the rest of the time that we have today debating them.

Question put and agreed to.

Political Parties and Elections Bill

[1st Allocated day]

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee

New Clause 3

Removal of criminal sanctions from specified offences

‘(1) The 2000 Act is amended as follows.

(2) In section 47(1), for “is guilty of an offence” there is substituted “shall be liable to a fixed monetary penalty under Schedule 19B”.

(3) In section 65(3), for “commits an offence” there is substituted “shall be liable to a fixed monetary penalty under Schedule 19B”.

(4) In paragraph 12(1) of Schedule 7, for “is guilty of an offence” there is substituted “shall be liable to a fixed monetary penalty under Schedule 19B”.

(5) A fixed monetary penalty imposed in accordance with subsections (2), (3) and (4) may not exceed £1,000.

(6) In Schedule 20 (penalties) the following entries in the table, and the corresponding entries in column 2 are omitted—

(a) section 47(1)(b) (failure to deliver proper statement of accounts),

(b) section 65(3) (failure to deliver donation reports to Commission within time limits), and

(c) paragraph 12(1) of Schedule 7 (failure to deliver donation report to Commission within time limit).’.—(Mr. Fabian Hamilton.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: new clause 4—Independent panel to advise Electoral Commission—

‘(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint an independent panel to offer guidance and a code of practice to the Electoral Commission.

(2) The panel shall advise on the proportionate use of civil penalties, financial penalty levels for offences, referral for investigation in cases of possible breaches of the criminal law and generally on the mode of operation of the Electoral Commission on penalties.

(3) The panel shall consist of the Speaker, a judicial person and an independent person.

(4) The panel shall advise the Electoral Commission on an on going basis.’.

Amendment 59, in schedule 2, page 24, line 1, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment 60, page 24, line 8, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment 61, page 24, line 15, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment 62, page 24, line 22, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment 74, page 25, line 22, leave out ‘a county court’ and insert ‘the High Court’.

Amendment 78, page 25, line 44, leave out sub-sub-paragraph (d).

Amendment 63, page 27, line 3, leave out sub-sub-paragraph (a).

Amendment 64, page 27, leave out lines 19 and 20.

Amendment 65, page 27, line 23, leave out sub-paragraph (8).

Amendment 75, page 28, line 6, after ‘shall’, insert ‘promptly’.

Amendment 77, page 28, line 9, leave out from ‘requirement’ to end of line 18 and insert

‘at any point within 28 days of receipt of the notice under paragraph 6(5)’.

Amendment 66, page 28, line 34, leave out sub-sub-paragraph (b).

Amendment 67, page 29, line 8, leave out sub-sub-paragraph (b).

Amendment 82, page 29, line 28, leave out ‘a county court’ and insert ‘the High Court’.

Government amendment 23.

Amendment 7, page 36, line 39, leave out ‘from time to time’ and insert ‘annually’.

Government amendments 24 to 27.

Government amendment 28, page 37, leave out lines 3 to 6 and insert—

‘( ) This paragraph does not require the Commission to include in a report any information that, in their opinion, it would be inappropriate to include on the ground that to do so—

(a) would or might be unlawful, or

(b) might adversely affect any current investigation or proceedings.’.

Amendment (a) to Government amendment 28, after ‘their’, insert ‘reasonable’.

Amendment (b) to Government amendment 28, in sub-paragraph (b), leave out ‘might’ and insert ‘would’.

Amendment 83, page 37, line 6, at end insert—

‘(3) In a report the Commission will not specify the names of those persons who have been the subject of the cases specified in sub-paragraph 1(a), (b) and (c) save where the amount of any penalty exceeds £5,000.’.

New clauses 3 and 4 give me an opportunity to examine some of the broader issues with which the Bill has tried to deal. I am grateful to the Government for having—as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and others—amended it considerably since its initial draft in an effort to establish far greater cross-party consensus. Given, however, that in its present form it extends the power of the Electoral Commission, I think it timely to consider whether the commission has used its powers wisely in the past.

Unfortunately, its record is not all that impressive. On the one hand, it appears to have failed to ensure adequate compliance by regulated donees since 2001 when it was set up. Hundreds of late notifications—most of them honest mistakes—have been identified. Indeed, I understand that in the last six months of 2008 a total of some £750,000 was identified, accounting for more than 150 late donations. On the other hand, it appears to have been very heavy-handed and, I would argue, incompetent in dealing with certain cases, most notably that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain).

The Standards and Privileges Committee admitted in its conclusion that my right hon. Friend had made an “honest mistake”. It seems incredible, does it not, that the Electoral Commission did not even send warning letters to him, or to other Members of Parliament and other regulated donees who notified it late of donations received. Up until the beginning of last year, no warning letters had been sent. I think the commission should have a duty to give clear guidelines and positive advice to Members who are genuinely trying to comply, but it has been quite evasive about providing full information on its performance in response to parliamentary questions, many of which I tabled myself. It appears from its answer to one of my questions that it inexplicably and, I would say, recklessly destroyed numerous original donation forms that were in its care.

There have been a great many cases of non-compliance on the part of many Members, some of whom were high-profile figures on the Opposition Benches, but on a number of occasions the commission has simply issued a press statement to the effect that no further action will be taken, or that the law has not been broken. In the early part of 2008, however, it clearly wanted to make an example of someone as part of its campaign for new and more draconian legal powers.

That is where the case of my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath comes in. He himself informed the commission as soon as he discovered that his campaign had failed to meet the commission’s notification requirement, but he was asked no questions whatsoever by commission officials about the reasons for the lateness. Incredibly, when he visited the commission’s offices to discuss the late notifications, officials actually lobbied him for some of the new powers that are in the Bill.

I believe that, up to now, the commission has been wholly unaccountable to Parliament and, indeed, to the general public. The present rules, fiercely defended by the commission, ensure that most staff, and indeed commissioners themselves, have no knowledge whatever of the world of politics, which seems rather bizarre when we consider the whole purpose of establishing the commission in the first place.

As we know, when the commission referred my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath to the police it destroyed his position in the Government, but it also destroyed its own credibility here in Parliament when, months later, the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was absolutely no case to answer. It exposed the fact that the initial commission referral to the police was incompetent and, indeed, reckless, and that it was not even fully conversant with electoral law.

Under the initial Bill, the commission could be judge, jury and executioner, breaking into MPs’ offices and compelling Members, their staff and anyone else to attend to them and answer questions. That was very worrying, because it exposed the fact that no one was regulating the regulator. That is why I tabled new clause 4.

In common with, I think, all Members, I believe that the transparency of Parliament is generally a good thing, but why hitherto has there not been transparency in the Electoral Commission’s operations? When asked in Parliament when it decides to refer a case to the police, a rather obscure answer was given, which was, “When the commission decided the facts of the case merited it.” I do not think we would tolerate such an answer from a Minister, so my question is this: is the Electoral Commission above Parliament? Of course it is not.

I am glad that the Electoral Commission now has a new chair. I hope, however, that she is good at building bridges, because she will need to build many.

She certainly is.

Members are generally happy to comply with reasonable requirements to register donations, even if the rules are not quite as clear as we might hope, and we had a very good debate on that earlier. The simpler the rules are, the better it is for all Members to ensure that they comply, and it is not unreasonable to expect positive support and guidance from the commission itself. If some Members refuse to comply with reasonable requests, commit serious crimes or seek to evade their responsibilities, no reasonable person would think that the commission should not have the power to act, with the appropriate checks and balances, of course.

Concern has been expressed that the Electoral Commission has in the past been biased against the party of Government. I hope that is not true, and I hope it never will be, but it will be for the new commission chair to demonstrate a number of principles that I believe will correct the imbalance and bring the commission more into public view. The principles are: the commission should devise new ways of being open and transparent to Parliament, and I hope that the new chair will ensure that is so. I also hope that it will swiftly unify procedures with the Register of Members’ Interests; we need to know precisely when that will happen, and I hope the Minister will be able to tell us in his reply. Non-compliance should be decriminalised as much as possible where it is clear that mistakes have been made and there was no intent to undermine the legislation or to take in funds fraudulently and try to disguise them, and that is where new clause 3 comes in. The use of penalties and sanctions—which the Electoral Commission has, and will be given more of—will need to be monitored externally; new clause 4 addresses that. Finally, there must be more dialogue with Members of Parliament to ensure that the commission has more genuine political support from all parts of the House; only then can it do its job, both politically and in the public’s view, to a standard we would expect and the public can trust.

All the amendments in the first group except the first two new clauses address clause 3 and schedule 2, which introduce a range of civil sanctions for the Electoral Commission. The sanctions relate to the commission of offences and the contravention of restrictions or requirements under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, or PPERA. Together, clause 3 and schedule 2 empower the commission to impose these civil sanctions on a “person”, “registered party”, “recognised third party” or “permitted participant”, as defined in the 2000 Act.

The Conservatives agree that the making available of enhanced civil powers and sanctions will, in certain situations, be more appropriate than the sledgehammer of criminal sanctions under the 2000 Act. The commission will have a wider range of sanctions to enable it to be a more effective and robust regulator, and that was identified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life report in January 2007, which picked up on the problems facing the commission. However, we are keen to ensure that any use of sanctions is valid—the use of powers must be proportionate, risk based and fair, and a number of aspects require further review by us today.

New clause 3 would replace a number of criminal offences in the 2000 Act with a fixed penalty of £1,000. The suggestion is interesting, but we are concerned that it could reduce the effectiveness of the Electoral Commission and weaken the strength of sanctions—there could be a lack of a proper deterrent in many cases if the commission is limited to the use of a fixed monetary penalty for the offences implicated by the new clause. We are prepared to review this conceptually in later stages, and the points made by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton), particularly on the lack of guidance, were well put.

New clause 4 would create an independent panel responsible for producing a code of practice relating to the Electoral Commission’s use of civil sanctions. The panel would also offer guidance to it. Although the new clause offers an interesting protection against the abuse by the commission of its powers, the 2000 Act contains an equivalent measure. Under that Act, the Parliamentary Parties Panel can make submissions to the commission on the use of sanctions, so this extra provision should be unnecessary. Again, I take the hon. Gentleman’s well made point about careful monitoring, and I hope that the panel is put to its full use in that regard.

Our amendments 59 to 62 relate, respectively, to paragraphs 1(b), 2(b), 3(b) and 4(b) to schedule 2. They would remove the commission’s ability to impose a fixed monetary penalty on a person, registered party, recognised third party or permitted participant for a non-offence contravention of the Act. It is important to note that the commission would still have the power to issue a fixed penalty for the commission of a prescribed offence.

The power to issue fines is one of the key new flexible powers that the commission is given by the Bill. We hope that they will enable it to deal with enforcement more flexibly and proportionately than it has been able to do in the past. Fixed penalty notices require the person, registered party, recognised third party or permitted participant to pay an amount specified in the notice to the commission. We tabled the amendments because we feel the need to err on the side of caution when dealing with non-offence infringements of the Act. Will the Minister explain the scope of what we could be dealing with here? Our concern is that, depending on the operation of future electoral commissions, things may be interpreted oppressively, resulting in large fines for relatively minor infringements. We must be sure that we clearly set out the parameters of these powers and the circumstances in which they may be used—not necessarily for the current commission, which has been privy to much of this debate, but for the commissions of the future, which may not be so rational in the use of these powers.

At the grass-roots level of political engagement in particular, this is an extremely complex and difficult area of law, and the possibility for wide interpretation and the potential for abuse are correspondingly high. This lack of clarity has potential to have a negative impact at the implementation level. We do not want individuals and smaller groups and associations to live in fear of reprisal for minor infringements. When a potentially hefty penalty is the punishment, the criteria of contravention of the prescribed restriction or requirement could be too opaque and broad.

Amendments 74 and 82 would, respectively, amend paragraphs 2(6) and 9(3) to schedule 2. The paragraphs state which court is to be used for the appeal process in relation to a fixed monetary penalty and a non-compliance penalty for failure to satisfy discretionary requirements under part 2. The amendments would change the relevant court from a county court to the High Court. We remain concerned that the expertise of the county court could be insufficient to deal with a potentially complex case under the legislation.

The length of discussion on these technical points in Committee, and the debate so far today, show how complicated the various relevant provisions can be. For that reason, we suggest that the high level of judicial scrutiny that the High Court offers is to be favoured. Furthermore, the reputation of the High Court and the scrutiny it applies will serve as a useful check on the commission. Any case that reaches the High Court would become a useful precedent, and any guidance that the High Court gives would be useful in helping to avoid future court appearances. Furthermore, the need to satisfy the demands of the High Court would also encourage the commission to be thorough, if a case were to proceed to judicial scrutiny.

I remind hon. Members that the use of such powers would be very limited. As such, relatively few cases would be expected to reach this stage and it is unlikely that this requirement would place too great a burden on the High Court. What is important is that cases are considered properly and the relevant level of scrutiny is applied. We consider amendment 74 an important enough issue to press to a Division at the appropriate moment.

Amendment 78 looks to remove the early payment discount provisions in schedule 2.3(3)(d). As the Bill stands, that and other similar sections provide that notice of a possible penalty must include information about any early payment discounts. That implies that the commission may provide discounts for the early payment of a proposed penalty, imposed under the 2000 Act. Our amendments delete reference to early payment and thereby prevent discounts from being issued.

While we understand that the intention behind the provisions is to encourage swift settlement of penalty liabilities, we disagree that the discount mechanism currently in place is the best means of achieving the goal. A penalty is an important indication of wrongdoing. Allowing a discount for early payment could suggest that the seriousness of the offence had in some way been mitigated. That could send out the wrong message, and could trivialise the penalty regime.

Amendments 63 to 67 would serve to remove monetary penalties from the discretionary requirement regime. Amendment 63 would specifically remove sub-sub-paragraph (a), relating to monetary penalties, from sub-paragraph (8), which defines what may constitute a “discretionary requirement”. It would leave two remaining powers with the commission, which would be extremely flexible and could require a subject to take such steps as the commission sees fit to remedy an offence or contravention. Amendments 64 to 67 are consequential.

The power to issue fines is one of the key new powers that the commission will be granted by the Bill. Fines can act as a crude penalty and disincentive when the 2000 Act has been breached. Conceptually, we support the penalty regime in certain circumstances, but we remain concerned at the potential for the Bill to encourage the over-zealous use of penalties when other avenues should be explored first. That is particularly so in the case of minor infringements of the legislation. The discretionary requirement regime, minus the penalty provision, is capable of remedying minor breaches, and we should not encourage a simple fine system that could fail to address the root of the problem. By removing the penalty, the commission would need to focus on imposing a discretionary requirement to take steps to stop or remedy a breach, under paragraph 5(b) and 5(c) respectively. We believe that that is a positive step, and would encourage understanding rather than retribution.

I expect that there may be concern that the commission will be seen as a light touch without the penalty regime. However, the amendments would leave in place the power to fine when an offence had been committed under the 2000 Act. Thus, in serious cases there would be no need to use the part 2 “discretionary requirements” provision unless it would be useful to do so. Furthermore—and this is a point that I would like to emphasise—if a non-penalty “discretionary requirement” is not satisfied, paragraph 9 would allows the commission to then impose a monetary penalty as a final resort. By leaving it as a final resort in non-offence and less serious cases, it would encourage the commission to help remedy the breach rather than issue a draconian penalty.

The purpose of amendment 77 is the introduction of a time limit into the Bill. It relates to the period in which an individual can respond to the relevant civil sanction imposed on them by the commission. We contend that the provisions in place could be too vague. Clarity is preferred, especially when potentially innocent subjects are seeking to respond to the commission. The simple addition of specific predefined time limits into the schedule could tackle that problem. Amendment 77 would apply a 28-day limit to the making of representations and objections against a discretionary requirement to the commission. I would point out that part 2 of the schedule provides that in relation to a discretionary requirement the period for representations or objections

“may not be less than 28 days”.

Does the Minister not agree that that inconsistency is revealing? Surely that shows that 28 days, as a minimum, should be a fair amount of time.

Amendment 75 would insert the word “promptly” into paragraph 6(5) in part 2 of schedule 2, which relates to the notice of a discretionary requirement. The Minister dismissed the use of the word “immediately” in Committee, which is why we are now back with a slightly less prescriptive term. The amendment would require the Electoral Commission to notify the subject of its final decision to impose a discretionary requirement or fixed monetary penalty promptly because, as things stand, there is no time limit for serving the notice.

Discretionary requirements, of course, are intended to provide the commission with a flexible means of ensuring compliance with the provisions of the 2000 Act. That flexibility is reflected in paragraph 5 in part 2, which states that a discretionary requirement can be

“a requirement to take such steps as the Commission may specify”.

That flexibility is welcome, but there should be a compensating certainty, particularly in the delivery of the notice informing the subject of the requirement.

If prompt compliance is expected of the person, the commission should be an example of good practice in its own expediency. There is no time limit in the Bill for the service of either notice. As such, it is possible that the commission might delay in delivering the notice and delay on the part of the commission is also likely to be reciprocated by the person. Good practice should be a statutory requirement and we believe that the simple insertion of the word “promptly” will help achieve that goal.

Government amendment 23 follows up on a number of amendments tabled in Committee by me and the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) and relates to the requirement for the commission to publish guidance. In Committee on 13 November, concern was expressed about the frequency and timing of guidance published by the commission on the use of its powers. Questions were also posed regarding the content of any guidance. Our Committee amendments 61 and 62 and the Liberal Democrats’ Committee amendment 136 sought to address deficiencies in that respect.

The consensus stemming from the debate was that annual guidance should be published and that it should be required to contain certain prescribed information, particularly on the use of investigatory powers. I am pleased to see that the Minister has taken those suggestions on board and we welcome Government amendment 23. It obliges the commission to publish annual information on the use of commission powers. It achieves that by attaching that requirement to the pre-existing annual financial reporting requirement contained in paragraph 20 of schedule 1 to the 2000 Act. The annual financial report will now include information in line with the newly introduced schedule 2 requirements. That seems to us a suitable way of going about that. We are pleased that the Government have included that positive amendment and we hope that the annual reporting requirement will reassure people that the commission is using its powers reasonably.

Government amendment 28 relates to a report published by the commission in accordance with paragraph 27 of the schedule. It stipulates that any report may, pursuant to the paragraph, omit certain information if, in the opinion of the commission, the publication of the information would or might be unlawful or if it might adversely affect any proceedings or investigation. In essence, it qualifies the obligation introduced by the welcome Government amendment 23.

Although we agree that some flexibility is acceptable in terms of reporting requirements, the measure could go slightly too far, we believe. There is no requirement that the commission’s opinion of the lawfulness or any adverse affects of publishing certain information should be reasonable. We feel that an opinion to that end should be reasonable, and our amendment (a) to Government amendment 28 addresses the deficiency. It would ensure that the commission does not become overly defensive with regard to the information that it holds. As things stand, the commission could have a very subjective and defensive set of opinions, which could prevent full and frank disclosure in its report. That would dampen considerably the positive potential of the reporting requirement.

We also have a slight reservation about the wording of sub-paragraph (b) in Government amendment 28. The effect of sub-paragraph (b) would be that information could validly be omitted from a report if its publication

“might adversely affect any current investigation or proceedings.”

That goes further than the current wording of the Bill and, again, it could lead to over-cautiousness on the part of the commission. Our second amendment to Government amendment 28—amendment (b)—changes the wording from “might” to “would”. That would refocus the commission when it decided on whether the publication of information really would damage its investigation. In combination with the mere subjective opinion requirement that I have identified, schedule 2 would, if not amended, allow for a very cautious report that might not be fully informative, and that would not fully reflect the reality of the commission’s work. I would appreciate the Minister’s further thoughts on those points.

Finally, amendment 83 inserts a threshold test after paragraph 27(2) of schedule 2. The amendment aims to ensure that the commission excludes details of less serious offences in the reports that it is obliged to publish under paragraph 27(1). The measure would serve three purposes. First, it would excuse from further censure those who have fallen foul of the legislation to a minor extent. The threshold ensures that only the more serious offenders are named and shamed. Secondly, the removal of minor offences from the reports would mean a more intense focus on the major offenders. The threshold of £5,000—the amount is negotiable, as far as we are concerned—catches the most serious cases and ensures that they are rightly named and shamed. Thirdly, the measure would act as an additional deterrent to the commission of offences and infringements. Again, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on those proposals.

The House will be in no doubt about the importance of what we are debating. Clearly, we can talk in more detail about the investigative powers when we come to the next group of amendments, but any measure that allows a senior commission official or the police to enter premises to check on the income and expenditure of an individual or organisation should be looked into carefully. The House should be fully satisfied that the new framework that we are putting in place will serve Parliament and the country well.

To pick up briefly on our earlier debate on the motion on the guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members, I do not think that anyone in the House is resisting transparency. One of the contributors to that debate suggested that the discussion indicated that hon. Members did not want to declare, or want their local parties to have to declare, events that raised more than £1,000. Certainly, that was not my position. The position is that we want maximum transparency, but clearly we have to have a system that can be handled properly, and that does not put an unreasonable demand on the volunteers on whom we all depend for the operation of the political system, which, of course, is dependent on the political parties.

I pay tribute to the hon. Members who were on the Public Bill Committee. The Government had a real wish to arrive at a consensus, and that is to their credit. The Minister said, perfectly fairly, that some of the Government’s amendments reflect an aim on which there should be consensus. There is no doubt in my mind—I have given evidence on such matters to the Committee on Standards in Public Life—that when we try to enact legislation governing our electoral process and governing the very important issue of donations, we should do so in a way that achieves full and proper consensus.

We can, of course, go into detail on the investigatory powers later. I will not pass comment on the commission; again, that can come later. It is a new organisation. It is important that it establishes itself, in the eyes of parliamentarians and the country, as doing an excellent job.

I understand where the new clauses and amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) and by the Conservatives are coming from, but I have one central problem with them, which is an objection to their consistency with what we in the House impose on the rest of society. I hope that hon. Members will explain further in the course of debate. We should not, as politicians, give ourselves special treatment in the regulatory regime that we do not give to other people. We should not give ourselves arbitrary exemptions from the type of rules that we impose on others.

It is clear that, in some cases, politics is special. It is clear that, for example, we as democratic representatives need some rights to be able to do our job. That is entirely in order and entirely behind the scandal of the treatment of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). But that has to do with constitutional matters—with the balance of power between different branches of government. It is not just about whether we feel that we ought to be given special treatment.

Surely the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the provisions go much further than MPs. Great concern was expressed on both sides in Committee that honourable people who give up their time on a voluntary basis for our associations, for instance, would be unfairly caught by the provisions.

I appreciate that point, but we must be careful not to make special rules for politics just because we know about politics and we do not know about other areas of activity in the economy and in social life.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the time of the police is better used trying to find real criminals who are causing crime in the community than chasing bureaucratic errors that were made honestly?

I fully support that point. I had intended to deal with the hon. Gentleman’s new clause 3 later, but I may as well speak about it now. In principle, I am fully in favour of what he says, for precisely the reason that he gives. Over the past 10 or 11 years the Government have become far too fond of creating criminal offences. They have invented more than 3,000 criminal offences, in many cases with no particular purpose in mind except to issue a press release.

However, we must be careful to apply the same principles to everybody else in society as we apply here. I would be grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East in other examples when we on the Liberal Democrat Benches try to make sure that the criminal law is not used inappropriately. We do not have the opportunity to do that now, but it is important to bear in mind—and on the whole I support his new clause—that we should apply the same argument in other cases as they come up.

I am more concerned about some of the amendments tabled by the Conservatives. We should be wary of removing civil sanctions for contraventions that are short of criminal offences. Standard regulatory practice in the outside world applies that sort of idea to a range of other activities. Why, in this case, should political activity be treated differently? If we remove any sort of civil sanction for violations that fall short of criminal violations, we are left with no sanctions at all. It is pointless to pass statutory provisions that impose obligations on people and to have absolutely no sanctions to back up those obligations. The temptation for the Government will then be to make those obligations enforceable by the criminal law, so we will end up with yet more criminal offences.

That applies even more in the case of removing the variable monetary penalties. Anyone looking at the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008, for example, will see that those penalties are entirely standard. That is how regulation happens in general, and I cannot see any reason to remove such regulatory devices for the activity that we are discussing. There was an opportunity to object to them when the 2008 Act was going through Parliament; perhaps some Members did object. But given the fact that such devices represent the standard way in which regulation happens, I see no reason why what we do should get special treatment.

That brings me to amendment 74, which relates to the appeal to the High Court and on which the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) wants us to vote. Under the 2008 Act, the standard practice—for everybody else, in every other regulatory field—is that there is no appeal to any sort of court, only to the first level of the tribunal. In giving them an appeal to the county court, we are already giving people in the line of activity that we are discussing a degree of special treatment; they have access to the ordinary courts. To go further and give people involved in politics access to the High Court would go way beyond what we offer people in other fields of activity. The hon. Gentleman said that doing so would provide for precedent. I should say that, as a matter of technical law, one High Court cannot bind another, so the amendment would not even do that. I have yet to be convinced that amendment 74 is fair in its treatment of political activity in relation to other types of activity.

I am more sympathetic on the issue of discounts for the early payment of fines. It always seemed to me that those were a rather strange provision in the 2008 Act in the first place. Paying a fine early should not mean that people pay less; it is not a matter of civil debt, simply of when the obligation is fulfilled. However, the fact that that provision in the 2008 Act makes no sense is not a reason to give the activity that we are dealing with today special treatment with regard to it. We should be worrying about why we passed the provision in the first place.

In making all those points, the hon. Gentleman runs the risk of putting the monitoring of our electoral system in the same basket as dealing with parking tickets. There is a difference between the two, and that point applies to everything that he has just said—not least, to his last point.

The 2008 Act deals with a whole range of topics, some of them very serious. The hon. Gentleman has to show why the special characteristics of politics, party funding and all the matters with which we are dealing should lead to the specific special treatment that he wants. I am afraid that he has not done that.

I would say that most people would put the running of our electoral system in a different category from that of the monitoring of commercial affairs.

It is in a different category, but the question is about why that different category should be treated in the specifically different ways that he is talking about. My fear is that it is simply because we in the House know more about the political process—we know far more about it than about economic and commercial processes—that we think that we ought to provide differently for it. I am afraid that I do not think that that is good enough.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the reason is that we are here to guard our democratic system.

Precisely right. But I want the hon. Gentleman to demonstrate that the provisions that he puts forward—in amendment 74, for example—specifically help to guard the democratic process. My central worry is that this is not to do with thinking about the function and the importance of politics but has more to do with our self-regard and our specific knowledge. That is insufficient reason to treat better an activity that we know more about than other sorts of activity that we regulate every day.