House of Commons
Wednesday 10 June 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Low Carbon Industries
It is nice to be back, even though my appointment was marked by an earthquake a few miles from my home. May I also pay tribute to my close friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), one of Wales’s outstanding politicians? We have followed each other in and out of this job for 10 years. He had regular such meetings with ministerial colleagues—in particular through the National Economic Council—and I will continue to do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I welcome him back to his role. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) for the excellent contribution that he has made in government to Wales and to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Last Friday, I attended a skills building competition at Coleg Menai in my constituency, where I saw at first hand young craftsmen and students learning and developing skills for the future. Does the Secretary of State agree that Wales is well placed to be at the forefront of the green revolution to come, and does he further agree that we need a skills sharing strategy to build a pool of skills in energy generation for the future, including renewables, clean coal and nuclear power?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who is an outstanding Member of Parliament for his constituency. I am aware of the excellent training opportunities available at Coleg Menai, which have been achieved through additional funding of £4 million from the Welsh Assembly Government for its energy and fabrication centre. That funding would be slashed if the Conservative party ever got into power.
Last year I surveyed businesses in Cardiff that install and develop renewable technologies. The overwhelming majority said that business was falling because it was so difficult for families to get grants to install those technologies in their homes and people could not afford them. Since then, access to those grants has become even more difficult. Will the Secretary of State liaise with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that more money is available for families to install such technologies in their homes, so that we can ensure that this key Welsh industry can be developed and grow further?
I very much agree with the hon. Lady that the more funding we can get to assist people to put renewable energy installations into their homes the better, but of course the UK budget under this Government provided an extra £1.4 billion in additional support for the low carbon economy. She may know that the Welsh Assembly Government have invested some £4.5 million in the Carbon Trust to help it to develop its business plan. All of that funding is part of our investment programme driving forward our objective of a low carbon economy.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his return. He knows that I thought that it was utterly unjust that he was pushed out of office on trumped-up charges; it is good that he has now proved his innocence and returned to the Front Bench.
Montgomeryshire is a pioneer in low carbon industry through the work of the Centre for Alternative Technology. However, it is concerned that local authorities in Wales spend less on school maintenance and upkeep than any other council service, to the detriment of the environment. How can we expect to instil a sense of environmental responsibility and global citizenship if the next generation is being taught in schools that are environmentally not fit for use?
The answer may well be to get a Labour county council, to provide the additional funding. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and for the support that I have had across the House. He raises an important question, and if there is any other help that I can give him in securing his objectives I will be happy to do so.
As this could be the last time that I am at the Dispatch Box under your auspices, Mr. Speaker, may I take this opportunity to thank you for your courtesy towards me and my Front-Bench team and for your service to this House, and to wish you well?
In welcoming the return of the new Secretary of State, I also wish to express my admiration for his predecessor. I have enjoyed working with the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), a decent and straightforward man. We will miss his common sense and dedication to Wales. I wonder what sort of Prime Minister we have, who can so easily dispense with his services.
In January the Government announced a £2.3 billion scheme for the car industry, including £1 billion to help it develop low carbon technologies. The German, French and Italian Governments have all delivered on their schemes. What has happened to the money for British and Welsh companies, and why are they the last to receive the help that was promised?
The money is coming through, although it would be threatened if the Conservatives ever got into power. I echo the hon. Lady’s remarks about you, Mr. Speaker. We have worked together for a long time. I am also grateful for the welcome that the hon. Lady gave me. I have been very fond of her over the years and I was glad to see that she survived the twin gaffes of advertising for a researcher for whom knowledge of devolution was “desirable but not necessary”, and letting the cat out of the bag on plans to reverse the devolution of higher education.
Recently, the number of staff at ports of entry into Wales has increased significantly. The UK Border Agency has recently reopened its office at Pembroke Dock.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I, too, would like to welcome the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) back to this important office of state. He will be aware that since he last held that office, operations have begun at the first of two major liquefied natural gas facilities at Milford Haven and work has begun on the new 2,000 MW power station at Pembroke. Near the port of Milford Haven, a major concentration of vital energy infrastructure is emerging, comprising important oil, gas and power facilities. Will he give a commitment today that he will sit down with the new Home Secretary to discuss security arrangements at the port and, in particular, consider the level of resourcing for Dyfed-Powys police, who are operating under severe financial constraints? The security burdens created by the new power facilities and energy infrastructure are creating an additional burden for them.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the new liquefied natural gas terminals—I am glad that he welcomed them—and to the new power station that will be built there in the near future. As he said, construction has already commenced. That is a tremendous boost to the local economy, and I am glad that he recognises its importance. Obviously, the issue that he raised about policing and potential counter-terrorist threats is an important one. Discussions have already taken place with my right hon. Friend’s predecessor, and they will continue to take place. The hon. Gentleman can be certain that we are mindful of the importance of the matter and that we will do our utmost to ensure that proper protection is installed for the areas to which he referred.
What discussions has my hon. Friend had with representatives of the Welsh Assembly Government regarding ports in Wales and rail links, particularly in constituencies such as mine, where the docks are so important and where there are competing needs on rail and freight matters?
My hon. Friend has referred to another important issue. It is vital for the port of Swansea, which is a dynamic and vital part of the south Wales economy, to be fully integrated into the transport network of south Wales as a whole. I know that the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a member, will be studying this issue in the near future and plans to visit different parts of the European Union to learn lessons. It is vital that we move as quickly as we can towards having a comprehensive, integrated and intermodal transport system in south Wales and throughout Wales as a whole.
Port security in Wales is the joint responsibility of the four Welsh police forces, but the chief constable of North Wales has suggested that national standards for counter-terrorism policing are forever unattainable. Does the Minister acknowledge that the current fragmented model for policing our ports is no longer adequate, and will he urge the Home Secretary to listen to the advice of Lord Stevens, who has concluded that only a dedicated national border security force can protect our ports properly?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that greater integration is already taking place. We have seen changes with regard to the UK Border Agency, and in Pembroke Dock, for example, which the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) mentioned, we are seeing that integration taking place. We have seen, before our very eyes, members of staff being trained in a range of activities so that they can comprehensively fulfil their role. In Wales as a whole, greater co-operation and co-ordination between police forces is vital. That is firmly on the agenda, and both the Wales Office and the Home Office fully endorse it.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the vital role that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs plays in protecting our borders and ports. Would he be willing to seek a meeting with the Treasury about the confusion that reigns about moving Swansea staff into the high street in Swansea, together with staff from Llanelli, leaving an underused office in Llanelli? Perhaps that could be reconsidered.
Reorganisation is taking place. Streamlining must occur, and we must have the most effective service that we can provide. At the same time, we must ensure that resources are effectively used. I understand the concern referred to by my hon. Friend, and I give a commitment to meet her and any other colleagues who wish to meet, so that we can discuss how the situation can be expedited as quickly as possible.
I had my first meeting with the First Minister on the Welsh economy on Monday. I intend to work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government and ministerial colleagues to ensure that the manufacturing sector, which is so vital to Wales, receives all the help that is needed to come through the global crisis as strongly as possible.
Welcome back! Way back in 2005, CBI Wales warned that manufacturing in Wales was continuing on a downward trend. More recently, Professor Pham of the Cardiff School of Engineering has argued that a weakness in the Welsh economy—the fact that it is dominated by small businesses—has inhibited the growth of a strong research and development base. That is a serious point. Does the Secretary of State agree with Professor Pham, and what can be done to rectify that problem in the Welsh economy?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome, and I acknowledge that he has shown a long and committed interest in supporting manufacturing. He may be interested to know that the latest report from the Engineering Employers Federation shows a slight improvement in the Welsh manufacturing sector, with Welsh manufacturers expecting an improvement over the next three months. He may also be encouraged to know that the latest report by the Purchasing Managers Index shows that total business activity has increased for the first time since May 2008, with growth in Wales greater than the UK-wide trend.
My right hon. Friend will remember the pleas that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) made in 1997 for our area to be covered by objective 1 funding. Does he agree that that funding has been important for the whole of the western part of Wales? Does he still wonder why the Secretary of State in post before that date did not apply for objective 1 funding so that Wales could have benefited a lot earlier than it did?
I certainly do remember the powerful case that my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) made in representing their constituencies and in persuading me that objective 1 funding should be extended to Denbighshire. Indeed, she is quite right: the shadow Health Secretary announced on the “Today” programme only this morning plans for a 10 per cent. cut in departmental expenditure limits for all Departments except those covering health, international aid and schools. That would mean savage cuts in spending in Wales, and would also put the whole of the European convergence programme, which has done so much for west Wales and the valleys, in jeopardy.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank you for your kindness over the years—even though you have occasionally confused me with the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams). I also welcome back to his former post the Secretary of State, who faces greater challenges now than ever before. I should also like to thank his predecessor, who was kind enough to meet representatives from a group of manufacturing companies in my constituency.
Manufacturing is key to the Welsh economy, but Experian recently released a report that suggested that 350,000 manufacturing jobs would be lost across the UK between now and 2010. We know that a significant proportion of those losses will affect Wales’s already battered manufacturing sector. On his return to the Cabinet, will the Secretary of State make protecting Welsh manufacturing jobs his No. 1 priority? The last thing we want to see is whole communities left on the scrap heap, as happened in the 1980s and 1990s.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I shall certainly be happy to work with him. I know that the sort of manufacturing that still exists in his constituency is very important. It tends to be made up of small and medium-sized enterprises that need all the support that they can get. I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I do not know who was the more prejudiced by the confusion between him and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams).
2012 Olympics and Paralympics
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues in both the UK and the Welsh Assembly Government on a range of issues, including how Wales can benefit from the 2012 games. Wales has already developed an international reputation for hosting successful major sporting events, and that is reflected in the fact that the Australian Paralympic committee has decided to come to Wales.
I thank the Minister for that reply, and welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State back to his former position. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) for the work that he did in that post.
An important feature of the recent report from the Welsh Affairs Committee on the Olympics and Paralympics is the significance that it attaches to the pre-games training camps and the legacy for sporting excellence that they might provide. There are now 31 designated centres across Wales: that is praise indeed for the facilities that exist already, and also for the ones—such as the Glyncorrwg mountain bike centre in my constituency—still to come. Will my hon. Friend the Minister agree to visit some of those centres, and encourage the Minister for the Olympics to do so as well, so that more Olympic and Paralympic teams will come to Wales? He mentioned the example of the Australian Paralympic team that will be based in Wales—and the New Zealand Paralympic team, too, will be based in Swansea.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, and for the question that he has just asked. I also thank the Welsh Affairs Committee for the excellent work that it has done, particularly on this important issue. As he knows, the Government are four-square behind all efforts to ensure that Wales derives the greatest benefit from the Olympic games, which are for Britain as a whole, and that includes us. Some 32 sites have been shortlisted for use as pre-games training camps, which demonstrates the commitment and involvement. I also welcome his suggestion that I might visit some of those; I would be happy to do so.
Like the Minister, I am disappointed that Wales has failed to attract more Olympic events when we have so much to offer international sport. Does he agree that the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision, at short notice, to renege on their agreement to fund the Wales Rally GB undermines the attractiveness of Wales as an international sporting venue and could result in a much larger bill? Given his new Secretary of State’s remarks as a Back Bencher, will he now ensure that his right hon. Friend gets that decision reversed before more damage is done to Wales’s international reputation?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue, on which discussions are continuing. I can tell her that the Secretary of State has already raised it with the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government. The important thing that I wish to stress is that, in general, Wales is benefiting from a range of different sporting activities. For example, it hosted the rugby world cup in 1999, the FA cup finals from 2001 to 2006 and rugby’s Heineken cup finals, to name but a few, and of course the Ryder cup is coming in the near future. All those events are important, and we are absolutely committed to ensuring that Wales stays centre stage in a sporting sense.
I ask my question in my capacity as the joint chair of the all-party group on racing and bloodstock industries. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Ffos Las on the opening of the new race course there, which is being put forward as a possible equestrian centre for international teams taking part in horse racing events?
The United Kingdom welcomes Patagonians who are visiting Wales. We welcome the fact that they are keen to explore their Welsh heritage, and of course the UKBA does not have any separate policy in relation to Welsh-speaking people from Patagonia.
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for that answer. Does he share my outrage, and that of people throughout Wales, including my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), at the treatment of a young Patagonian visitor, Miss Evelyn Calcabrini? She travelled for 35 hours to get to Heathrow, but was summarily ejected and sent back. She is not the only young Welsh Patagonian who has, unfortunately, suffered summary ejection for no good cause that I can see. Will the Under-Secretary therefore use his good offices to facilitate a meeting between myself, my hon. Friend and the immigration Minister, so that this disgraceful stain on our welcome to Welsh Patagonians can be remedied once and for all?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I am aware of the concerns that he and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) have about the matter. I give my commitment that the Secretary of State and I will meet the relevant Home Office Minister as soon as possible. Clearly the issue is important, and we want it sorted out as quickly as possible.
May I, through the Minister, congratulate his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his return to the Front Bench, and also wish the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) all the best for the future?
The point on the subject of the question has been well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams). The Minister knows of the historical cultural connection between Patagonia and Wales. The young woman in question had every right to stay for six months to brush up on the Welsh language. I am grateful for the commitment that the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have given, and I look forward to having a very early meeting with the Minister for Borders and Immigration.
We have already had a conversation about the issue, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Obviously, I cannot refer in any great detail to the case that he cites, but I underline the fact that it is important that the cultural links between Wales and Patagonia be enhanced. We should make sure that everything is done to ensure that free movement can take place.
As somebody who has consistently opposed the Government’s policy of unlimited immigration, may I say how horrified I was that the young lady in question was turned back for no good reason? May I ask the Minister to ensure that amends are made in some way, and to ensure that she is given the welcome to learn Welsh in Wales that she deserves?
As I just said, it is important that we have the greatest possible cultural interchange between Wales and Patagonia; that is of both historical and contemporary importance. It would not be right for me to go into any great detail about the particular case to which hon. Members have referred, but I underline the commitment that I have made to make sure that meetings take place. We hope that the situation can be resolved and will not arise again.
Unemployment is higher, and is growing more rapidly, in Wales than in England, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Men have been affected most adversely, and young people between 25 and 34 have experienced the highest percentage increase in unemployment. What discussions will the Secretary of State have with the first Minister about trying to alleviate the problem, especially as those with no qualifications are the most vulnerable in the market?
I would point out to the hon. Lady that there are already 120,000 more jobs in Wales than there were when we came into power in 1997. There are serious unemployment problems, but I ask her to consider how those problems could be addressed by the Conservatives’ plans to cut Labour’s guarantee that all 18 to 24-year-olds unemployed for a year will receive either a job or training, to cut this year’s £60 cash boost for pensioners, and to cut support for families who are under real pressure, and who need to defer interest payments so that they do not lose their homes. I understand her concern, but her policies would cut all support for all those seeking to get a job.
Yesterday Lord Mandelson announced the backdating of the trade credit insurance scheme to October 2008. That will be a huge opportunity for the Welsh manufacturing industry to move forward. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming that move, which demonstrates the Labour Government’s commitment to supporting the Welsh economy?
I certainly will, particularly with regard to the furniture industry in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I know that she will agree that the employment prospects and economic prospects in her constituency can only have been enhanced by the Prime Minister’s outstanding leadership of the world at the G20 summit, at which he led the world in a rescue from the global crisis. It is that outstanding leadership that we want to see continue, taking Britain forward; we do not want to be plunged into the terrible cuts that the Conservatives plan for the British economy.
I have met stakeholders from the public, private and voluntary sectors across the United Kingdom, including Wales. The purpose has been to consult on digital inclusion, in both a social and a geographic sense. The UK and Welsh Assembly Governments are committed to achieving a digital Britain with a universal broadband service for all of the United Kingdom, including, of course, Wales.
The Minister will be aware of the success of the Assembly’s RIBS—regional innovative broadband support—programme and the six communities, including Cilcennin in Ceredigion, that are part of that project. Will he make the strongest possible representations to the Assembly Government to extend that project, and will he work with BT and the Assembly Government? The universal service commitment is some way from being met and there is real impatience, particularly on the part of small businesses.
The hon. Gentleman is correct in pointing to the work already being done with regard to his constituency. I know that BT, for example, is closely involved in the work being carried out. There is a good partnership on the issue between ourselves in London and the Welsh Assembly Government. We must make sure that that partnership is rolled forward, and that we achieve our commitment to universal connection as quickly as we can. With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I give a personal commitment to take a particular interest and to make sure that that comes about.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Our specialist hospitals are the jewels in the NHS crown, but unfortunately their knowledge and expertise are not always passed on to district general hospitals, which means that some patients undergo inappropriate operations which later have to be reversed by specialist hospitals, or even worse, are prevented from having operations which could free them from pain. Could the Prime Minister spare just 10 minutes to meet the chair of the federation of specialist hospitals to see how matters could be improved?
Of course I will, and I think he will understand, as I will understand, that that depends on proper investment in specialist hospitals. He will be as concerned as I am by the remarks of the shadow Health Secretary that he will cut spending in the vital areas that are important to our country. The shadow Health Secretary said that he would review the national health’s organisations on a “zero basis”. He said he wants to ensure that the unit costs considerably reduce, rather than increase. He said this morning that he wants a 10 per cent. reduction in the departmental limits. Before the Conservatives ask for more spending on the health service, they should talk to the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Health Secretary.
Will the Prime Minister affirm the Labour Government’s commitment to maintaining funding for public services such as housing, universities, police, law and order, transport and pensions, and reject the Tory party policy of a 10 per cent. across the board cut, which would take this country back to the worst days of Thatcherism?
Specifically, this morning the shadow Health Secretary spoke of
“over three years after 2011 a 10 per cent. reduction in the departmental expenditure limits for other Departments. It is a very tough spending requirement indeed.”
He said that the job of the shadow Chancellor was to be clear about where the spending restraints bite. There can be no doubt that the choice, whenever it comes, is between a Government who are prepared to invest in the future and a Conservative party that will cut.
When even the old-timers are reading out the Whips’ handout questions, we know things are really bad for the Government. May I say how pleased I am to see the Prime Minister in his place? Let me be clear about what we think of electoral reform. We want to keep the existing system. We support the link between one MP and one constituency, and we back our system because weak, tired and discredited Governments can be thrown out. We supported the system when we were behind, when we were ahead, when we won, when we lost. Why has the Prime Minister suddenly discovered an interest in changing the electoral system? Does it have anything to do with the fact that his party got 15 per cent. of the vote last week?
Finally, after many, many weeks, a question on policy. Is it not remarkable that it has taken that amount of time for the Conservatives to come up with a question? [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] The statement that I shall make in a few minutes, after 12.30, will deal with exactly those problems. I have to remind the right hon. Gentleman that there are different electoral systems in different parts of the United Kingdom, in many cases with the Conservative party’s support. There is a different one in Northern Ireland, a different one in Scotland, a different one in Wales, a different one for the European Parliament, which is based on proportional representation, and a different one in the House of Commons. I shall deal with the issue in the constitutional statement in a few minutes.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will agree that it is no good the Prime Minister saying, “Wait for the statement,” when he has briefed all the details to the press. And, I have to say that, on asking questions about personalities, what is there left to ask when so many members of the Cabinet have walked out because they cannot work with him?
I want to ask the Prime Minister questions about the issue of electoral reform and the process that he intends to follow. On that issue, does he agree that a truly proportional system has massive drawbacks? Did we not see that on Sunday night, when the British National party, a bunch of fascist thugs, got two members elected to the European Parliament? Does he agree with me that that is a very, very strong argument against proportional systems?
Let the whole House send the message that the politics of discrimination, prejudice and bigotry have no part to play in the democratic life of our country. Let us all take action together to expose the racist and bigoted policies of the British National party. And, let us be clear that, on the Labour side of the House, we will do everything in our power to show that the problems that made people vote for the BNP are the problems that we are dealing with—on housing, on social justice and on employment. Nobody, however, will support the BNP’s anti-Semitic policy or its policy that is even against mixed-race marriage. I believe that the whole country can unite on that.
What I say about electoral reform, however, is that I have never myself supported the policy of proportional representation for a Westminster Parliament; that has always been my view. The right hon. Gentleman has to accept that the policy of proportional representation exists for the European elections, and I do not see a proposal from his party to change it at the moment. He has to accept also that the Jenkins proposals for the additional vote plus PR laid down criteria by which it would be impossible for the British National party to hold a seat—even under the PR system—in the British Parliament, unless it won a constituency seat.
Everyone will agree with what the Prime Minister says about defeating the BNP, and it does mean all mainstream parties making sure that they go door to door and get their voters to go out and vote.
Let me ask about the process, and let us be clear about what the Prime Minister seems to be considering. We are in the fifth and final year of a Parliament, and there have been reports that a referendum is being considered for before the general election. Can the Prime Minister confirm those reports? Is that something that he is considering?
There are no plans for that, and let me just say that when the right hon. Gentleman hears the statement later, he will hear that there is an interest throughout the country in what happens on electoral reform. We published a review—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but we published a review on electoral reform only a few months ago. That has led to a serious debate in the country, but we are not putting proposals forward today. If I may say so, I said that he had moved on to policy, but there seems to be an element of self-interest in the way that he is approaching—[Interruption.] Is it not strange—[Interruption.] Is it not strange, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.]
Order. It is getting too noisy—[Interruption.] Order. I am not getting much help from the Opposition Chief Whip. Maybe I can get a bit of help from him here. It will be a bad day when I have to tell the Opposition Chief Whip to be quiet, but the Prime Minister must be heard.
Is it not strange that the Opposition are not even interested in discussing that democratic reform, and that the first questions that the right hon. Gentleman asks on policy are not about the economy, not about the health service, not about education, not about public services—not about the issues that the public out there know that we and they are concerned about?
I have to say to the Prime Minister that remarks such as that make him a figure of ridicule across this country. Everyone is entitled to ask what the Prime Minister’s motive is. For 12 years there was not a squeak about electoral reform, but now that he has been trashed at two elections he suddenly wants to put it on the agenda.
This is all of a piece with the Prime Minister treating the nation like fools—expecting us to believe that the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling) is his first choice as Chancellor, and telling us that he cancelled the election because he was going to win it. The Prime Minister said that he had “no plans” for a referendum. We all know what that means—he said that he had no plans to put up taxes in 1997. Instead of saying “no plans”, let him stand up at that Dispatch Box and rule out a referendum.
I said that I had no plans, and I repeat that I have no plans. Is it not again remarkable? What MPs are being told by their constituents is that they should concentrate on getting the politics of this country sorted out, on getting us through the recession and on building us a better future. Not one question from the Leader of the Opposition has been about the central issues facing our country.
The Prime Minister has chosen today to make a statement about constitutional reform; he cannot complain that I am asking questions about it. The Prime Minister talks about the economy, but let us be clear about what his legacy will be: not the most useless Government that we have had in history—although they are—but the biggest budget deficit in Europe and the biggest that we have had in our history. So let us be clear about “no plans” or “no proposals today”, as he put it. A man with no democratic legitimacy, who has never been elected as our Prime Minister, who has been defeated every time the public have been able to vote for him, is now considering trying to fix the election rules before the next general election. Is that not what is happening?
First of all, on public spending and deficits, let the right hon. Gentleman confirm that his proposals are for a 10 per cent. cut in most departmental expenditure. If he wishes to raise the question of deficits and debt, let him confirm that the proposal of the shadow Chancellor is now to cut public expenditure by 10 per cent., as confirmed by the shadow Health Secretary this morning.
Let us have a debate about the choice that really does exist in the country: between a Conservative party that now wants to cut, even at a time of recession, into our basic public services, and a Labour party that wants to invest in them. Let him also be honest with the country that when it comes to calling for an election, he has absolutely no plan for dealing with the recession. He has no policies for dealing with unemployment, no policies for dealing with small businesses and no policies for dealing with the problems of this country. He is an Opposition leader who has no plans for government, and he does not deserve to be in government.
One of my plans for dealing with the recession was the same as the Prime Minister’s last week—to sack the Chancellor. The Prime Minister might be talking about a second-preference voting system, but the fact is that he is left with a second-preference Chancellor.
On the issue of public spending, let us be clear about the answers that the Prime Minister has given. He said last week:
“Public spending is rising every year”.
His Chancellor said:
“I have cut overall public spending”.
The figures that the Prime Minister is hawking around are his own figures. He is planning to cut public spending by 7 per cent. in every Department over the next three years. The next election—when he has the guts to call it—will not be about Labour investment versus Tory cuts, but about the mismanagement—[Interruption.] It will be about the mismanagement of the public finances, the appalling deficit that he has left and his plan for cuts.
Let me just ask the Prime Minister this question. On the issue of electoral reform, why not admit that the current system gives the country the chance to throw out a Government who are weak, divided and incompetent? That election is what we should be having now.
Let me read the figures for public spending, so that there is absolutely no doubt about the truth of what I am saying and that the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. Public spending this year is £621 billion; it rises next year to £672 billion—that is this financial year. It then rises to £702 billion, then to £717 billion, then to £738 billion and then to £758 billion. Those are public spending rises. The only party proposing a cut in public spending is the Conservative party.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. At the next election, there will be a choice: a choice between a Government who helped people and actively intervened to take us through a downturn and a Conservative party that would do nothing. [Interruption.]
There will now be a choice between a Government who have actually intervened to deal with the recession and a Conservative party that said “do nothing”. It will be a choice between a Government who are increasing public spending by the figures that I gave and a Conservative leader who, for the first time in the House of Commons during this Parliament, has now admitted that the policy of his party is spending cuts. That is what he has told us today; that is going to be the choice before the country.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I know you are very anxious to hear this question.
The Prime Minister is aware that Barnsley college has been caught up in the incredible bungling of the Learning and Skills Council over the Building Colleges for the Future programme, to the extent that we have a half-demolished college. Incredibly, the LSC has, yet again, delayed the decision from 3 June on which colleges will be funded. My college is now technically insolvent and has announced 53 redundancies. When will the Prime Minister intervene to sort this mess out?
In the Budget, an extra £300 million was put into further education colleges. We are now looking at how we can help the individual colleges that have spending proposals for new investment. Let me remind the House that no investment was taking place in further education colleges when we came into power. We are now investing more in further education colleges than ever before. I believe that my hon. Friend’s college in Barnsley is one of the priorities for getting that new investment.
Everyone who has been out on the campaign trail in the past few weeks knows how angry and frustrated people have become about the way in which this Government always raise people’s hopes only for people to see them disappointed again and again. Nowhere is that truer than in housing, where we have had more announcements than new homes. Since January, when the Prime Minister announced the biggest council house building programme in decades, only 20 new homes have been started. Will he, just for once, make a promise and actually deliver?
I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s figures. What has happened since January is that we have put in place measures, first, to protect people in their own homes, so the expected rate of mortgage repossessions has not happened and mortgage repossessions are roughly as they were a few months ago. Equally, at the same time, we are bringing in a programme to invest more in social housing over the next few months and, indeed, over the next few years. I have to tell him that we are prepared to take even more decisions to make available more social housing over the next few months. That is only possible because we have taken the decisions about the increased investment that is necessary at the time of a recession that his party and the Conservative party have opposed. I hope that if he is going to ask us for more social housing, he will support the necessary investment for it.
If that is all true, why are a staggering 1.8 million families in this country waiting for a home—70 per cent. more than when this Government came into power? If the Prime Minister wants to do something now, why does he not stop the Treasury from grabbing all the money that councils raise in rents and sales and allow them instead to use that money to build desperately needed homes? Will he at least do that?
I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that there are 1 million more people in homes than when we came into government in 1997. We have also improved houses for more than 1 million extra people. At the same time, we are putting aside extra money for social housing. By 2010, more than £40 billion in total will have been invested in housing since 1997, and we will have made house improvements for 8 million people. We are reducing the number of non-decent social homes by more than 1 million. Since 1997, more than £29 billion has been invested in social housing. We are not complacent, and that is why we are planning to invest more this year.
Since the stated objective of bailing out the banks was to maintain lending to businesses and home owners at 2007 levels, and since the latest official figures just published show that that lending is now absolutely flat—indeed, 20 per cent. down on 2007 levels—when will my right hon. Friend use the power that he already has from majority ownership of several major banks to force the banks to give priority to rescuing the real economy rather than simply looking after their own interests and letting the real economy go hang?
My right hon. Friend is right that the banks have a duty now to lend to small businesses and for housing. Since 1 March they have been under an obligation, as a result of quantitative agreements that we have reached. In other words, RBS has agreed to increase its lending this year by £25 billion. Lloyds TSB has agreed to increase its lending by £14 billion and Northern Rock by £5 billion. Voluntarily, HSBC and Barclays have agreed to increase their lending. The total increase in lending that has been agreed, to come from 1 March, is £70 billion extra over what was available last year. We will begin to see the companies that will benefit from that being able to say that whereas rejections were issued before when they put in applications, they are now having their applications accepted. We will continue to monitor the situation, but I assure him that £70 billion of extra money is going into lending to small businesses and for homes.
In all areas, we have to look at what we can afford at different times. Obviously we have done a great deal for those who are on pension credit, to raise the amount of money that they receive. We have done a great deal for people who are on working tax credit and on child tax credit, to raise the amount of money that they receive. Obviously reform of housing benefit is something that we are looking at, but I think the hon. Gentleman has to accept that 1.5 million children have come out of poverty as a result of what we have done, as have 1 million pensioners. If we had not had the pension credit, the winter allowance and the free TV licence, pensioners would not be as well off as they are. There are many people in other parties who did not support those things when we did them.
Just for Opposition Members, the latest estimate shows that there would be 500,000 more people unemployed if we had followed the policies of the Conservative party.
At all times, we will seek foreign direct investment into this country. We have given people new allowances so that they can invest now, through the recession, in our future. The only way of making a better future is to invest in the future. That is what we are doing. Unfortunately, our opponents want to cut.
Parliament stands accused of being ever more distant from the country. Away from the political arena, what does the Prime Minister feel he has ever achieved in the real world that qualifies him to lead the nation?
I think every MP should return with a bit of humility after listening to their constituents over the past few weeks. Every MP has learned from their constituents that they want us to clean up their politics and get them through the recession, and they want us to build for the future. That is what I am going to do, and I believe I have the experience to do that.
I can also give the House the figures for current expenditure over the next few years. Including the health service, it will rise from £565 billion to £608 billion, then to £645 billion, £666 billion, £689 billion and £712 billion. That is not a cut, that is a rise in expenditure. The only way that the cash figures will be cut is if there is a Conservative Government cutting 10 per cent. out of the major Departments. This is the day when the shadow Health Secretary admitted that the Conservatives plan 10 per cent. cuts in our vital public services. This is the day when the Conservatives revealed their true manifesto for this country. This is the day when they showed that the choice is between investment under Labour and massive cuts under the Conservative party.
I am determined to do that. We have introduced new rules for nurses, for people being checked as they come into hospitals and for cleanliness. We have given matrons more powers and doubled their number so that cleanliness is at the centre of everything that happens in the national health service. We are determined to root out C. difficile and to deal with MRSA. I assure the hon. Gentleman and anyone who has had personal experience of that happening to any member of their family that we will continue our work to remove C. difficile and MRSA and we have the utmost sympathy for those who have been affected.
Does—[Hon. Members: “It is Mr. Speaker.”] Steady. Does my right hon. Friend understand the anger among people who work in financial services, who have witnessed millions of pounds being rightly invested in our banks to shore them up, but now see thousands of jobs jettisoned by, for example, Cheltenham & Gloucester in the middle of a recession? Does he agree that the banks need to work with the unions to keep people in work during a recession rather than shedding jobs to pay money back to the Government?
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for his constituents. I know that Cheltenham & Gloucester has made several redundancies, and that is a big issue not only for him but for the rest of the country. I am happy to meet him to discuss those issues, but let me say that we are determined to keep as many jobs as possible in this country and to prevent unemployment where possible, and, when it happens, to give people new jobs. A hundred and fifty thousand new jobs have been created as a result of new investment that we are making in the flexible new deal to enable young people and others to get jobs. Even in the current difficult situation, more than 200,000 people are finding new jobs every month. We will continue to provide that support, but I have to say again that the issue is clear: we are prepared to provide the investment that is necessary; the Conservatives are revealed again as the party of cuts.
Thousands of companies in the hon. Gentleman’s area are getting help under the Inland Revenue scheme and others that we are introducing. Thousands of companies are getting special help to take them through the recession. If his argument is that we must avoid cuts, he had better talk to the shadow Chancellor because he proposes massive cuts in services today and in future. The Conservative party has been revealed today as the party that will fight for the next few months on cuts in services. At some point, Conservative Members will have to tell us how many nurses, doctors, teachers, carers and public servants will lose their jobs as a result of the new policy announced this morning.
I would indeed. Lawrence Daly was a friend of mine, as well as of many people. There are few people who did more to advance miners’ conditions in this country than Lawrence Daly. He fought for miners’ safety in a way that brought about big changes in safety in the mining industry. He fought for miners to get the right to compensation for pneumoconiosis and other diseases. I believe that he and so many other miners’ leaders who fought for good conditions in what is a very dangerous industry deserve the wholesale gratitude of everybody, in all parts of the House.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government’s proposal to invite the House to agree further democratic reform, including legislation before the House rises for the summer on the conduct of Members of Parliament.
The past few months have shown us that the public require, as an urgent imperative, higher standards of financial conduct from all people in public life and an end to any abuses of the past. There is no more pressing task for this Parliament than to respond immediately to this public demand. Like every Member here, I believe that most Members of Parliament enter public life so that they can serve the public interest. I believe also that the vast majority of MPs work hard for their constituents and demonstrate by their service, whatever party they belong to, that they are in politics not for what they can get but for what they can give.
But all of us have to have the humility to accept that public confidence has been shaken and that the battered reputation of this institution cannot be repaired without fundamental change. At precisely the moment when the public need their politicians to be focused on the issues that affect their lives—on fighting back against recession and keeping people in their jobs and homes—the subject of politics itself has become the focus of our politics. We cannot move our country forward unless we break with the old practices and the old ways. Each of us has a part to play in the hard task of regaining the country’s trust, not for the sake of our different parties but for the sake of our common democracy. Without that trust, there can be no legitimacy; and without legitimacy, none of us can do the job our constituents have sent us here to do.
We must reflect on what has happened, redress the abuses, ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again and ensure that the public see us as individual MPs accountable to our constituents. It will be what we now do, not just what we say, that will prove that we have learned and that we have changed. So first, all MPs’ past and future expenses should and will be published on the internet in the next few days. Home claims submitted by MPs from all parts of the House over the past four years must, as we have agreed, be scrutinised by an independently led panel. That will ensure repayment where it is necessary and lead to discipline where there have been inappropriate claims. I know that you are working urgently to conclude this reassessment process, Mr. Speaker. We must now publish the past four years’ receipts, and start and conclude the scrutiny process as quickly as possible.
The House has already agreed to restrict expenses further, to those needed for parliamentary duties alone, to cut the costs for housing, to require all spending to be receipted and to ensure that incomes from second jobs are fully accounted for. All parties have committed themselves to accept the further recommendations of the independent Kelly committee, once they are received later this year, provided these proposals meet the tests of increased transparency, accountability and reduced costs for the taxpayer. Those steps to sort out the expenses crisis are necessary, but I think we all know that they are not sufficient. We need to go further.
At its first meeting yesterday, the Government’s democratic council decided to bring forward new legislative proposals before the summer Adjournment on two issues that have been the subject of constructive cross-party discussion. First, we propose that the House of Commons—and subsequently the House of Lords—move from the old system of self-regulation to independent, statutory regulation. That will mean the immediate creation of a new Parliamentary Standards Authority, which will have delegated power to regulate the system of allowances. No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century, whereby Members make up the rules and operate them among themselves.
The proposed new authority would take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members’ claims, oversee the new allowance system, following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, maintain the Register of Members’ Interests, and disallow claims, require repayment and apply firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity. I welcome the cross-party support for these proposals, which will be contained in the Bill that we will introduce very soon. I believe that the whole House will also wish to agree that, as part of this process, the new regulator should scrutinise efficiency and value for money in Parliament’s expenditure, and ensure, as suggested to Sir Christopher Kelly, that Parliament costs less.
Secondly, the House will be asked to agree a statutory code of conduct for all MPs, clarifying their role in relation to their constituents and Parliament, detailing what the electorate can expect and the consequences that will follow for those who fail to deliver. It will codify much more clearly the different potential offences that must be addressed, and the options available to sanction. These measures will be included in a short, self-standing Bill on the conduct of Members in the Commons, which will be introduced and debated before the summer Adjournment. This will address the most immediate issues about which we know the public are most upset, but it will be only the first stage of our legislation on the constitution.
The current system of sanctions for misconduct by Members is not fit for purpose. It does not give the public the confidence they need that wrongdoing will be dealt with in an appropriate way. The last time a person was expelled from the House was 55 years ago, in 1954. It remains the case that Members can be sentenced to up to one year in prison without being required to give up their parliamentary seat. The sanctions available against financial misconduct or corruption have not been updated to meet the needs of the times. This is not a modern and accountable system that puts the interests of constituents first. It needs to change.
There will be consultation with all sides of the House to come forward with new proposals for dealing effectively with inappropriate behaviour, including the potential options of effective exclusion and recall for gross financial misconduct, identified by the new independent regulator and by the House itself.
The House of Lords needs to be reformed, too. Following a meeting of the House Committee of the House of Lords, and at its request, I have today written to the Senior Salaries Review Body to ask it to review the system of financial support in the House of Lords, to increase its accountability, to enhance its transparency and to reduce its cost. For the first time, there will also be new legislation for new disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct of peers in the House of Lords.
We must also take forward urgent modernisation of the procedures of the House of Commons, so I am happy to give the Government’s support to a proposal from my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee that we will work with a special parliamentary commission comprising Members from both sides of this House, convened for a defined period to advise on necessary reforms, including making Select Committee processes more democratic, scheduling more and better time for non-Government business in the House, and enabling the public to initiate directly some issues for debate.
Given the vital role that transparency plays in sweeping away the decrepit system of allowances and holding power to account, I believe that we should do more to spread the culture and practice of freedom of information. So, as a next step, the Justice Secretary will set out further plans to look at broadening the application of freedom of information to include additional bodies which also need to be subject to greater transparency and accountability. This is the public’s money, and they should know how it is spent.
I should also announce that, as part of extending the availability of official information, and as our response to the Dacre review, we will progressively reduce the time taken to release official documents. As the report recommended, we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, and there will be protection of royal family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions. But we will reduce the time for release of all other official documents below the current 30 years, to 20 years. So that Government information is accessible and useful for the widest possible group of people, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who led the creation of the worldwide web, has agreed to help us to drive the opening up of access to Government data on the web over the coming months.
In the last 12 years, we have created the devolved Administrations, ended the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Just as, through recent changes, we are removing ancient royal prerogatives and making the Executive more accountable to Parliament on central issues such as the declaration of peace and war, appointments and treaties, so, too, we want to establish and renew the legitimacy of Parliament itself by its becoming more accountable to the people.
Democratic reform cannot be led in Westminster alone. It must be led by engagement with the public. That is part of the lesson of the last month: the public want to be, and should be, part of the solution. So we must build a process that engages citizens themselves, people of all parties and none, of all faiths and no faith, from every background and every part of the country. So over the coming months, the Government will set out proposals for debate and reform on five remaining major constitutional issues.
First, we will move forward with reform of the House of Lords. The Government’s White Paper, published last July, for which there is backing from other parties, committed us to an 80 or 100 per cent. elected House of Lords, so we must now take the next steps as we complete this reform. The Government will come forward with published proposals for the final stage of House of Lords reform before the summer Adjournment, including the next steps we can take to resolve the position of the remaining hereditary peers and other outstanding issues.
Secondly, setting out the rights that people can expect as a British citizen, but also the responsibilities that come with those rights, is a fundamental step in balancing power between Government, Parliament and the people. It is for many people extraordinary that Britain still has a largely unwritten constitution. I personally favour a written constitution. I recognise that this change would represent a historic shift in our constitutional arrangements, so any such proposals will be subject to wide public debate and the drafting of such a constitution should ultimately be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people themselves.
Thirdly, there is the devolution of power and the engagement of people themselves in their local communities. The House will be aware of the proposals for the completion of the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. Next week, the Calman commission will report with recommendations on the future of devolution in Scotland within the United Kingdom. The Government of Wales Act 2006 permits further devolution in Wales, on which discussions are taking place. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will set out how we will strengthen the engagement of citizens in the democratic life of their own communities as we progress the next stage of devolution in England. So we must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly defined powers to local government and city regions and strengthen their accountability to local people.
Last year, we published our review of the electoral system and there is a long-standing debate on this issue. I still believe that the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that the constituency is best able to hold its MP to account. We should be prepared to propose change only if there is a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and our politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both Government and Parliament and by enhancing the level and quality of representation and public engagement. We will set out proposals for taking this debate forward.
Fifthly, we will set out proposals for increasing public engagement in politics. To improve electoral registration, we will consider how we increase the number of people on the register and help to combat fraud. On receipt of the youth commission report, and having heard from young people themselves, we will set out the steps we will take to increase the engagement of young people in politics, including whether to give further consideration to the voting age.
As we come forward with proposals, in each case the Government will look to consult widely. All proposed reforms will be underpinned by cross-party discussions. Our proposals will also be informed by leading external figures, including academics and others who command public respect and have a recognised interest or expertise in the different elements of democratic reform. I expect this to conclude in time to shape the Government’s forward legislative programme and to feed into the Queen’s Speech.[Interruption.]
In the midst of all the recriminations, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard—[Interruption.] I do not think the House is behaving well today when it is debating its own future and how the public see what we do. In the midst of all the rancour and recriminations about expenses, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard. In the midst of doubt, let us revive confidence. Let us also stand together because on this, at least, I think we all agree—Britain deserves a political system that is equal to the hopes and character of our people. Let us differ on policy—that is inevitable—but let us stand together for integrity and democracy. That is now more essential than ever, so I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, but I have to say that he read it so quickly that I am not sure he convinced even himself. He has spoken a lot about constitutional change and innovation, but is not the real change we need not much of an innovation at all? Is not the answer to our discredited politics, to our disillusioned country and to our desperately weak Government a general election?
Two years ago, the Prime Minister did not call an election because he thought he would not win it; three weeks ago, he said he did not want one because it would bring “chaos”; and Lord Mandelson, the man who now runs the Government, says that Labour is against one because it might lose it. How many more excuses will they come up with before they recognise that it is time for people to have their say?
Let me turn now to the proposals themselves. The country is too centralised, Parliament is too weak, and the Government are too top-down, too secretive and too unwilling to give up power. Above all, is not the real problem the fact that people feel shut out of decision making and unable to control the things that matter to them?
There is much in the statement that we support, not least because it is taken from the comprehensive case for reform that I made to the Open university. The Government have at least mastered the art of copying things. We agree with giving more power to local government, but let us not stop there. Why not abolish the regional quangos that have taken so much power away from local government? We support greater independence for Select Committees, which got a mention today, but why cannot the Prime Minister say today that these watchdogs should be freely elected and not appointed by the Whips Office? I accept that it is a difficult decision for the Prime Minister, and in a way it is a difficult decision for me, because it means giving up patronage. However, I am prepared to do it. Is he prepared to do it?
We will back the establishment of a Parliamentary Standards Authority to supervise all matters relating to Members of Parliament’ pay and expenses, but there are still serious questions to be answered, not least about how it will relate to the House and to whom it will be ultimately accountable.
The problem is that the Prime Minister has promised constitutional change countless times before. He promised it when he launched his campaign for leadership of the Labour party two years ago, he promised it in his first statement to the House as Prime Minister, and he promised it in his speech on liberty in the autumn of 2007. He promised it in two Queen’s Speeches, when he specifically pledged the delivery of a Constitutional Renewal Bill. That Bill was first mooted in November 2007, then again in December 2008. Why has it taken so long?
Let us consider the things that the Prime Minister has proposed in the past. He has proposed a British day, an institute of Britishness, a Bill of Rights, a written constitution and reform of the House of Lords. They are all endlessly launched and relaunched, but nothing ever happens. It is not so much a Government strategy as a relaunch distraction strategy, intended to give the Prime Minister something to talk about when he is in desperate straits.
The Prime Minister’s latest brainchild—you could not make this one up—is a National Council for Democratic Renewal. That sounds like something out of North Korea, but let us be clear about what it is. It is not some outward-looking convention that is open to the public. It is not even cross-party. It is just a bunch of Ministers talking to themselves.
What these proposals fail to address is the central question that we believe should lie behind any programme for constitutional reform: how do we take power away from the political elite, and give it to the man and woman in the street? Let me give the Prime Minister some real ideas. It is not time to allow people the opportunity to present a proposition and have it voted on in a local referendum? Should we not introduce so-called citizens’ initiatives? Is it not time to give local people the right to stop excessive taxation? Should we not give them the right to hold a referendum on massive council tax rises?
When we, as democratically elected politicians, promise a referendum, as we all did on the European constitution, should we not stick to our promise? Is it not things of that kind that really sap people’s faith in politics? At the heart of any programme of constitutional reform should be proper taxpayer transparency. Is it not time to publish all public spending, national and local, online, so that each taxpayer can see precisely how his or her hard-earned money is being spent?
If the test of effective constitutional reform is pushing power downwards, is it not the case that nothing fails more than proportional representation? Let me reaffirm our belief that it is a recipe for weak coalition Governments. Rather than voters choosing their Governments on the basis of manifestos, does it not all too often mean party managers choosing Governments on the basis of backroom deals? Our view is clear: we should not take away from the British people the right to get rid of weak, tired and discredited Governments. The most powerful thing in politics is not actually the soapbox or the Dispatch Box but the ballot box, particularly when it leads to the removal van. I have to ask the Prime Minister this: will not people conclude that he has started talking about proportional representation only because he fears he will lose under the existing rules?
If we want an electoral system that is fairer, should we not consider ensuring that each constituency is of equal worth? At present some constituencies have twice as many voters as others, which puts a premium on some votes. Is it not time to ask the Boundary Commission to redraw boundaries to make them all the same size? At the same time, should we not be reducing the size of the House of Commons?
Is it not the case that it is not the alternative vote that people want now, but the chance to vote for an alternative Government? Are these proposals not a pretty sorry attempt to distract attention away from a Prime Minister who has lost his authority, a Cabinet full of second preferences, and a Labour Government who have led this country to the brink of bankruptcy?
All MPs sitting in this Chamber must know what their constituents are telling them, but I do not think the Leader of the Opposition’s statement reflects what they are saying to him. Nearly 70 per cent. of people did not vote in the elections of last week, and 40 per cent. voted for parties other than those represented here, and we have to accept that people want us first to clean up our politics quickly. I would have thought he would make more mention of that in his response to the statement.
We want all-party support for the new code of conduct and the parliamentary standards commissioner, and also for the way we deal with issues of exclusion from the House of Commons, which is something that has not been faced up to before. The precondition of any debate about the future of our democracy must be our determination to recognise, with humility, that this House has got to clean up its affairs as a matter of urgency, and every Member of Parliament shares a responsibility for doing that. Before we get into the different issues that divide our party—[Interruption.] Before we get into the different issues that divide the parties, I think the Conservative party—[Interruption.]
It is our responsibility to recognise that the problems of expenses are in every party in the House of Commons, and we must all accept the responsibility for sorting them out.
The Leader of the Opposition is quite wrong about the Constitutional Renewal Bill. It has been discussed by Committees of both Houses, and it was published in draft form some time ago. We have been debating it so we can get it absolutely right. It will come before the House of Commons for its Second Reading very soon, but before that we have to deal with the expenses crisis. The Constitutional Reform Bill removes the royal prerogative in key areas: the ability to declare peace and war is no longer a matter just for the Prime Minister or the Executive; it is a matter for the House of Commons, as are the declaration of treaties, the selection of people and pre-appointment hearings. There are a range of areas where the Executive have surrendered power to the House of Commons, and will continue to do so.
The time is also right for Parliament to make its affairs more accountable to the public. I think I am the first Prime Minister to propose a review to ensure that Select Committees can work in a new way, and I hope everybody will take up the opportunity to discuss that. I am also proposing that we look at means by which the public petitions that now come to No. 10 could come to Parliament in such a way that they could be debated.
As for the devolution of power, let us be clear that we devolved power to Scotland and Wales against the views of the Conservative party, and we also put forward constitutional proposals, including on freedom of information, which are now being seen to be changing our political system as a result of transparency. We want to expand that. The Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposal is to open up information more widely, and if we do that the Leader of the Opposition’s proposal about information about money can be put on the internet. There are, therefore, a range of proposals.
On electoral reform, I think it is fair to say that before the Leader of the Opposition asked me questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time, he had sight of the statement that I was to make to the House of Commons—
He had sight of the statement I was to make to the House of Commons, and it was therefore clear to him what I was proposing and what I was not proposing, and it is clear from what I have said that the debate is to be one in which we take into account the relationship between the constituency and the Member of Parliament; that is something we want to do. We are not going to turn our back on any discussion of reform; I suspect that only the Conservative party—not the Liberal party, nor other parties—want to do that now.
The Leader of the Opposition must also wake up to the fact that many systems of representation are already used in the United Kingdom. He did not reply to our proposals on the House of Lords. I take it that he still favours 80 or 100 per cent. elected representation in the Lords, and that he favours the proposals we are going to put forward to reform the House of Lords. The House of Lords has also got to face up to its responsibilities in that its discipline procedures and procedures for dealing with its finances are not good enough, and that is very much part of the measures we are putting forward.
These proposals are an essential element of restoring trust in politics and I hope they will gain all-party support.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Of course everyone agrees that the political crisis requires big changes in the way we do things, so I welcome this deathbed conversion to political reform from the man who has blocked change at almost every opportunity for the last 12 years. Everyone knows that the Labour party will lose the next general election, so any reforms must be in place before the election if they are to mean anything at all. Anything else would be a betrayal of the British people, who are angry and demanding that we change for good the rotten way we do politics. Does the Prime Minister not see that this is no time for more committees, more reviews and more consultation? We have been debating these issues for decades; is it not now time to get things done?
I strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to moving towards an elected House of Lords, but will he give us a date by which this reform will be complete? We have already voted on it in this place; there should be no more delay. I also strongly welcome the move towards a Parliamentary Standards Authority and an MPs’ code of conduct. These changes should be implemented immediately with no more delay, so will the Prime Minister ask this House to forgo its summer recess so that we can push through all the necessary changes to clean up politics, and will he make sure that his immediate proposals include the right for people to sack their MP if it has been shown that they have done something seriously wrong?
I am dismayed that the Prime Minister is completely silent on the issue of party funding. How on earth can he possibly justify that? We cannot allow our politics to go the way of America’s, where elections have become a contest of advertising budgets, not ideas. Why delay when he could just implement the Hayden Phillips recommendations in the party funding Bill that is already being debated in another place? The way forward has been agreed; why does he refuse to act?
On electoral reform, I welcome any movement away from our discredited system: a system that gives the Prime Minister’s Government untrammelled power when only one in five people voted for them; a system that gives MPs safe seats for life. [Interruption.] That’s why they like it. As Robin Cook recognised, and as the Prime Minister’s new Home Secretary realises—[Interruption.]
As Robin Cook recognised, and as the Prime Minister’s new Home Secretary realises, this cannot go on. So why is the Prime Minister seeking to restart a general debate on electoral reform? We have had the debate: we had Roy Jenkins’s report and the independent Power inquiry. We cannot afford to wait for a cross-party consensus because the Conservatives will never want to change this cosy Westminster stitch-up. We do not need to wait for the Cabinet to make up its mind; it is not up to it to decide how our democracy works. People should now be given a say, so will the Prime Minister now call a referendum this autumn to give people a choice—a choice between the bankrupt system we have now and serious proposals for reform which finally put the people in charge, not politicians? The Prime Minister has nothing to lose. This is no time for his trademark timidity. Just get on with it. Will he now cancel the recess, pass the legislation we need, and give people the say we deserve?
First, let me say where we agree. We agree—I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has said this explicitly—that we will all support the new Parliamentary Standards Authority; we will move from self-regulation to statutory regulation. We can therefore do that very quickly; it can be enacted very quickly to start almost immediately. We will all agree to the code of conduct, which means that the conditions under which MPs may be excluded from the House of Commons will be set down for them. We will modernise the means by which we deal with those issues where exclusion or recall is a possibility; I think there should be a debate on that over the next few weeks. We have got to make sure first of all that the country sees us dealing with the changes that are necessary, and I think that the mood of the House today still does not sufficiently recognise the gravity of the problems we face with our constituents and that we have got to deal with as a matter of immediacy.
As for the summer adjournment, I hope we can make progress, but I must ask the leader of the Liberal Democrats not to perpetuate the myth that for 12 or 14 weeks during the summer and autumn MPs do absolutely nothing. MPs are in their constituencies, and working there, and let us not perpetuate a myth that is not the correct story. Most MPs I know are working very hard indeed in their constituencies. That deserves to be said so that people understand that that is the case.
On the other issues, we agree about the reforms within Parliament, and there will be a chance for a group of people to look at those under the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee. On House of Lords reform, we agree about what needs to be done. The reason that reform of the Lords has been blocked is not the House of Commons, but the House of Lords itself.
As far as party funding is concerned, we have been looking, on an all-party basis, at how we can improve and reform party funding, and it is very much on the agenda. On electoral reform, I gave my statement to the leaders of the other parties before questions, and it made my position clear. I am sorry that some people misinterpreted that position during Prime Minister’s questions, but my position is the clear position that I put to the House when I read out my statement. Other Members did not have a copy, but the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats had it before questions.
My right hon. Friend has made an important announcement today that may even turn out to be historic. Will he consider adding one item to the list? It is an item on which I was elected in our manifesto in 1992, and I introduced a Bill on it eight years ago. It is an item that most people in the House now seem to have signed up to, and it is the proposition that we should have fixed-term Parliaments. May I ask him to signal his commitment to fixed-term Parliaments by announcing now the date of the next general election? May I suggest that 6 May 2010 would be an excellent date?
I know that my hon. Friend, whom we are asking to undertake new responsibilities in this review, has strong views on these issues, including fixed-term Parliaments, which would be part of the discussions on a written constitution. He will understand why I am making no specific announcements today, and I do not propose to do so. It is more important to get on with the work that we have set out, both in cleaning up the politics of this country and in making the reforms that he, to his credit, has been proposing for years in this House.
There is much in what the Prime Minister has said that I welcome, but his suggestions for a statutory code of conduct for Members of Parliament, enforceable in the courts, have enormous implications for all of us, our relationship with and accountability to our constituents, as well as the role of the House as the supreme court of Parliament. May I ask that this particular section of his proposals is not rushed through the House?
As the distinguished Chairman of the Committee that deals with the conduct of MPs, the right hon. Gentleman will be consulted on this issue, but there are many other legislatures that have a statutory code of conduct. Once in a generation a crisis builds up—it has happened in Australia, Canada, the United States and Germany—and people who should probably have taken action earlier to deal with it had to take action to reassure the public that everything possible was being done. A code of conduct is a necessary means by which the public will know that the behaviour of MPs will be regulated. That can be set down in many ways, but we cannot evade our responsibility to do it. We can discuss how it can be done and, at the same time, we will have to modernise how we deal with issues of suspension and exclusion from this House. As I understand it, only three people have been excluded from this House in a century and, given all the scandals in that time, that might sound strange to people. A person can be imprisoned for a year or in detention for six months, but still not be expelled from the House of Commons. We have to consider how our 19th century procedures line up with the common sense of the public in the 21st century. We will have discussions about this, but a statutory code of conduct is something that most of the country now wants to see.
It is appropriate for the Prime Minister to remind the House that during June we will publish the redacted receipts for expenses for the past four years, and we will also have the Kelly committee’s recommendations. It is also appropriate—and I speak as a member of the House of Commons Commission—that the House authorities work with my right hon. Friend and the Government on procedural reforms. Is it also not appropriate that, by the end of the present Session of Parliament, we will have a new statutory code of conduct so that we can all go back to our constituents and tell them, “We have understood you.”?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work on the Commission. He does a very good job and he should be applauded for the time that he gives to discharging his responsibilities. He is right: there is no way that the public will accept that this House has dealt with the problems that have been revealed unless we can pass that legislation as quickly as possible, and unless the review of the expenses of the last four years is confirmed by an independent auditor who has assessed the regularity of Members’ expenses. We should have the humility to recognise that that has to be done as a matter of urgency. The sooner that the audit can be done—and the publication of the full expenses can be made, as ordered by the courts—the better.
Does the Prime Minister accept that it is not the Government’s job to decide how the House of Commons should use its time in examining Government legislation? Will his reforms allow a body in which Back Benchers play a stronger role to be at the centre of the House’s decision-making on its timetable?
That is exactly what the group convened by the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee will want to look at. The Government need to be able to get their business through, but there is also non-government time, and that can be discussed in more detail by a group of people who are experienced and have views on this issue. It will make recommendations to see what can be done. That is one way in which we can make progress on the government of this House.
Since my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister, he has spoken of a new settlement with the British people. I welcome his commitment to a written constitution. He will accept that this process will take a long time, but there is no excuse for not starting it. Does he agree that it is essential that as we write this new constitution, it is not just law-makers, parliamentarians and the good and the great, but members of the public, who are directly involved in writing what will be the most important document in our constitution?
We have at the moment a consultation on a Bill of rights and responsibilities. My right hon. Friend is right—as I said in my statement, any written constitution would have to involve the widest possible consultation with the people. Let us be clear where our constitution is at the moment. It is not unwritten, in the sense that there are no written documents and no pieces of legislation. We have devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which in a sense creates a written constitution for those parts of the United Kingdom. There is the European Union legislation, which in a sense creates the conditions in which we operate as members of the EU. The Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act and other Acts guarantee equality, including the Equality Bill before us at the moment. There is no shortage of legislation that defines some of our rights and some of the responsibilities of institutions. It is a fact that we have not brought those elements together coherently and cohesively, nor have we set down a statement of objectives and aims as other constitutions do, and that is the subject for our debate. We should recognise that the circumstances in which the debate about a written constitution should take place are completely different from where we were 20 years ago, when there was no devolution, when we did not have the same relationship with Europe and when we did not have human rights or freedom of information legislation. Things have changed fundamentally in the last 20 years.
The Prime Minister has said many things in his statement that are entirely acceptable to my party and its sister party, and to others. He referred in passing to the imbalance between the power of the Executive and of Parliament. That is very detrimental to this Parliament. May I suggest that the daily abuse of guillotines is a farce? Bills come back on Report and 80, or even 100, amendments are passed on the nod without discussion. That is undemocratic and wrong, and it has to stop.
We have always got to get the balance right between a manifesto commitment that has been made by a party that is in government and the legislation that is necessary to get it through. If we are truly accountable to the people, a manifesto commitment that involves legislation is something that we have a responsibility to enact. Of course, time permitting, there must be the maximum—[Interruption.] Someone says it is a feeble excuse when I say that people should implement their manifestos. I think that we will remember that when Opposition Members talk about manifestos in the future. The governing party makes a commitment to implementing its manifesto and, at the same time, there is the commitment that we want to give for the maximum possible consultation, but that depends on the time available in the House of Commons.
Why on earth do we allow tax exiles to bankroll political parties? My friend talked a lot of sense about the Constitutional Renewal Bill, but on Monday the Lords will be discussing the Political Parties and Elections Bill on Report. Will he take that opportunity on Monday to close the Ashcroft loophole?
May I, in the kindest possible way, suggest that today’s statement is a rag-bag of ill-considered proposals brought forward in the last 11 months of this Parliament by an exhausted Prime Minister. That is no more apparent than in regard to his proposals for a written constitution. He knows that although much of our existing law is written, one thing that has made our democracy evolve in such a vibrant and straightforward fashion has been the conventions that have enabled change to be made without the rigidities associated with a written constitution. May I ask the Prime Minister whether he agrees that it would be premature for his Government to commit themselves to a written constitution until some proper deliberation has taken place—not just on what a written constitution might say, but on whether it is desirable in the first place?
The problems of this House of Commons and the workings of our political system being ad hoc and evolutionary have been revealed in the expenses scandal in the House of Commons. It is absolutely clear that a gentlemen’s club, operating with its own rules and its own powers of discipline, has proven unsatisfactory and inadequate to meet the needs of the times. I believe that there are other areas in our constitution whereby our inability to be straight about what we are trying to do and to put that down in legislation means that we sometimes fail the public. I said that there is a debate to be had about a written constitution, and I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman took my words carefully. There is a debate to be had on it. It is a major decision for our country, and he is clearly against it. Given that so much of our constitution is now written for the different parts of the United Kingdom, for different areas of policy and for the relationship between individuals and the state, it is worth considering putting that into one written constitution.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the authority and power of Parliament have been diminishing for decades under successive Governments and that in fact—programme motions have been mentioned in this context—we have reached a situation where, far from the Government being accountable to the House of Commons, the House of Commons is now accountable to the Government? The programme is determined outside the legislature, and, if we are to look at the renewal of the constitution, perhaps we should be even more sweeping. Perhaps we should even consider—I did not believe in this at one time—a separation of powers between Parliament and the Executive.
My hon. Friend is proposing the American constitution for Britain. He knows the deadlock that often happens with the American constitution when Congress, the Senate and the President cannot agree on what needs to be done. If he looks back to what has happened over the past few months, he will see that we were able to persuade Parliament to put our banking reforms through and were able to finance our banks so that we could rescue them, whereas it took the Americans weeks and months to get those provisions through their legislature as a result of the issues that arise from the separation of powers. However, that is a debate for the future.
On the subject of the future of Parliament’s role in dealing with legislation and issues, I remember the debate that John P. Mackintosh, who was a Member of this House in the 1960s, started about the role of Select Committees and how they could play a big role in the management of this House. There are two reasons that Select Committees have not had the effect that I know that my hon. Friend would want them to have. First, the reforms that we are talking about, which could have been made, have not been made. Secondly, Members have not seen them as important enough in themselves for them to put forward proposals to the House following the reports of Select Committees that would then lead to legislation. We need to have this discussion in the talks led by the Member who has great expertise in this matter to see what can be done. I am open to these discussions, as most Members are, but we must recognise the background. We have been trying to reform the Select Committee system and to make it more relevant for 40 years.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to reforming the Select Committee system, but would it not make sense to give Select Committees real powers, such as, for example, providing that whenever a new Secretary of State is appointed to the Cabinet he or she must be subject to confirmation by the appropriate departmental Select Committee? Would that not be particularly appropriate when the Prime Minister is appointing Secretaries of State from the House of Lords and when he is considering the major constitutional step of appointing a new First Secretary of State?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a point about pre-confirmation hearings, and I think that I am right in saying that as a result of the announcements that we made two years ago, 62 positions are now subject to Select Committee hearings, which work very well. As far as Ministers are concerned, Ministers are responsible to this House. At the moment, if people want to bring forward motions on the suitability or unsuitability of Ministers, they can do so. Obviously, these matters can be discussed by the committee that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) is looking at.
One democratic reform that I feel that the British public would like to see is a referendum on the principle of whether we remain in the European Union. No one under the age of 50 has had a chance to vote on the question of Europe and I think that, as a matter of course, we should have a referendum once every 15 to 20 years.
This issue was not put to the people by the Conservative Government who put us into the European Union. It was not put to the people when we went into the European Common Market, but it was put by a Labour Government in 1975. The conclusion was pretty clear—two thirds of the people wanted to be part of the Union. I do not think that that opinion has fundamentally changed.
Many in the House, on both sides, agree that it is now time for radical change to the way in which this place does its business. In the discussions that I have had, many Back Benchers have agreed that one of the biggest problems is that the Executive have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Is not the point today that the Prime Minister has come forward with a statement in which the Executive tell the rest of us what we shall now reform? Should not the rest of us be telling the Executive what they should or should not do?
First, I am talking about powers that the Executive are surrendering to Parliament or powers that Parliament should have. I put forward proposals two years ago for a whole range of areas, such as pre-confirmation hearings, where the Executive should surrender some of their powers to Parliament. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to perpetuate the myth that somehow the problems of the past few weeks are not the problems of Parliament and are not problems that people consider to have been caused by mistakes made by Members of Parliament and this House, I do not think that he will get an echo in the country for what he is saying.
This House has to face up to the fact that it let the country down. We have to make the changes that are necessary. Many MPs who work hard, who do their duty and who have made no mistakes are being penalised because of the mistakes made by others, but we have a collective duty to clean up this House in the interests of democracy and everybody who saw last week the votes that were given to parties that are not represented in this House knows what our duty is. To say that the problem is not Parliament and that Parliament does not have to deal with its problems is, in my view, a mistake and a misreading of the situation. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman, who usually brings his wisdom on these matters to the House, will reconsider his view.
Although I warmly applaud the broad thrust of these proposals, does my right hon. Friend accept that the House’s power to hold the Executive effectively to account is an essential part of any parliamentary democratic reform? If so, does he accept that this House should have the right to elect its own business committee and to share control of the agenda with Government, the right to elect both Chairs and members of Select Committees by secret ballot and the right to set up, where appropriate, its own parliamentary commissions of inquiry?
I know that my right hon. Friend, with whom I have talked about these matters, has taken a huge interest in this issue. He has been very vigorous in pursuing the case for reform over many years. I think that I have read work that he did 30 years ago, as well as 20 years and 10 years ago, so he is absolutely right to raise these questions. These are the very issues that can be examined by the group that is being set up. The role of Select Committees, the election of their membership, the business management of the House, how non-Government business should be dealt with, the role of public petitions and what we do about them—these are all issues that I feel that the public have the right to know that Parliament is investigating, as they all affect our accountability to the general public.
Does the Prime Minister recall that he was recently in Normandy? People fought and died in the last war because they wanted to maintain a free democratic system in this country, based on a direct link between Member of Parliament, Government and constituents. They died for a democratic vote. Does he also accept that they did not die for judicial supremacy over and above the parliamentary supremacy that they fought for, regardless of whether decisions are made in our courts or in European courts?
I was able and had the honour to pay tribute to those who died during the D-day landings and their aftermath, as we moved from France to the fall of Berlin, the end of the Third Reich and the freedom of Europe. Those men and women who died in the service of their country deserve the gratitude of everyone in this House, and they will never be forgotten. I wanted to represent the British people, as did the Prince of Wales, and say that the result of the sacrifices that were made is that a Europe that was once divided is today free of conflict. People who once thought that wars would happen between their countries now know that there is peace and unity in Europe. I agree also that people fought for freedom, and freedom means that we have a British constitution that we can be proud of.
May I put it to my right hon. Friend that, if we wish to enhance the standing of Parliament in the eyes of our constituents, there is one simple measure that we can take immediately and that requires no legislation—that is, to resume sittings in September? That is something that we voted for several years ago, but then reneged on. How can it be right in a democracy for Parliament to give the Executive an 80-day holiday from scrutiny? How can we expect to be taken seriously in the 21st century when we are still awarding ourselves Gladstonian-length recesses?
The Prime Minister will know that I have asked him on two occasions—and the Leader of the House on nine—about what he can do to end the scandal and embarrassment caused by having huge chunks of Government legislation and Government amendments going through the House at Report stage without adequate scrutiny. Of course the Government must get their business through, if the House supports it, but does he accept that, if the scandal that I have described is not ended, the process that he has set out will have been a failure? This House must make sure that everything that it needs to debate and divide on is reached at Report stage. Unless that happens, we will not be able to take seriously what I hope is his serious commitment to moving from being a reform conservative to being a reform radical.
The House, of course, has developed pre-legislative scrutiny that allows some of the problems that have arisen in the past to be dealt with. However, the specific issue of amendments tabled during the course of a Bill is something that can be looked at in the review.
I am sure that the public will welcome very much the measures being taken to speed up the process of sorting out the terrible expenses scandal, but is there not something missing from the statement? It does not deal with the fact that, although we are trying to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament, roughly 75 per cent. of our laws are still made in Europe, where we have no real democratic involvement. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), is it not time for us to have a serious discussion of our position in the EU? Should we not look again at having a referendum on the EU constitution?
By the red lines that we drew for the Lisbon treaty, we have done everything in our power to protect the position of British citizens in areas where we want this Parliament and this country to make their own decisions. However, while we are thinking about Europe, I must remind my hon. Friend that 3 million jobs depend on our membership of the EU, that 700,000 British companies trade with the EU, and that 60 per cent. of our exports go to the EU. We have a purposeful relationship with the EU that is in the interests of our economy, environment and security, and the idea that we should not have that relationship at this point in the 21st century seems to me to be wrong.
The Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister a very pertinent question about the devolution dividend that would be gained from bringing parity to the size of constituencies. The Prime Minister failed to address that, but is not reducing the number of Members of Parliament something that we could do almost immediately?
There are probably 3 million people who are not on, or who are not counted on, the electoral register. That means that our constituencies do not reflect the total number of people available or eligible to vote. I think that the first thing that we should do is get the register in a position where everybody is on it. After that, we might want to discuss the fact that the number of seats in this House is far lower than the number of seats in the House of Lords. We might start by reducing the size of the House of Lords.
May I welcome the wide-ranging statement that my right hon. Friend has made today? I should like to say a word or two about electoral systems. Does he agree that the statement addresses unfinished business from our 1997 manifesto? We have different options if we want to ensure effective Government, voter choice and a link between MP and constituency, and if we want to ensure that votes cast broadly result in a Parliament that reflects the balance of support for parties. The essential thing is that those choices are not for politicians, whether in government or opposition: instead, they should be made by the British people themselves. Does he agree that they should have the right to make those choices?
In his statement, the Prime Minister referred to the messages sent by the electorate at the recent elections. However, the messages that he referred to were not the ones that I heard. The first message that people expressed—more in anger than in sorrow, on many occasions, and sometimes the other way around—was that the Prime Minister must go. The second message was that the people wanted to pass judgment on Members of this House, and to do so now and in an election.
The third message was that we should have the promised referendum on the European constitution and the Lisbon treaty. The Prime Minister has ruled out the first two requests but, given his statement today about involving people, why can he not grant the third?
I have to say that any MP coming back from these elections knows that many people in the country were giving their verdict, not just on the Government but on how we had conducted ourselves over our expenses. If we ignore that, and do not take the action that is essential—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is proposing an election and no action on expenses, whereas I am proposing action on expenses now. I am proposing that we clean up the system now. If I may say so, it is the Government who are proposing the Parliamentary Standards Authority and the code of conduct. I am glad that the Opposition parties and I can agree on that, and we should get those proposals through, but I think that there is an unwillingness on the part of the Conservatives to admit the seriousness with which the public have taken the expenses crisis. I hope that they can face up to that.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s reference to Select Committees, but would he support making available to them a vastly increased amount of resources so that they can be even more effective in challenging the Executive? Does he agree that they should be able to call for any papers that they require?
Is the Prime Minister aware that what really matters to our constituents at the moment and what fuels their anger over parliamentary allowances is the state of the economy and their fear for their jobs and livelihoods? They see the attempt to divert the agenda to consideration of a rag-bag of constitutional reforms as simply a form of displacement activity by the Prime Minister. Is he aware of the definition of “displacement activity”? It is defined as follows:
“A pattern of behaviour believed to be a means”—
by which animals relieve—
“tension resulting from two contradicting instincts.”
The definition continues by stating that this activity
“often involves actions such as scratching, excessive grooming or chasing one’s own tail.”
Does the Prime Minister agree that we should focus on the economy? If he wants a constitutional reform, he should support my ten-minute Bill, which will deal with a problem raised by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) about Bills leaving this House unconsidered and will suspend the right of the Government to guillotine debate so long as they are forcing this House to sit fewer days than it used to in the past.
I cannot really understand the statements that are now coming from Conservative Back Benchers. We must face up to the expenses issue; the right hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that we do not need to face up to that issue, but we do. That is not displacement activity; it is essential activity in order to restore the reputation of politics. I happen to agree with him about the economy, but the action that we have taken is to move the economy as quickly as possible through the downturn. The Leader of the Opposition fails to ask any questions about the economy at any time we meet.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement on constitutional renewal and urge him to ignore some of the protestations of Conservative Members. Can we end, once and for all, the anachronism of constitutional convention, which is all too often used as shorthand for doing nothing or for resisting necessary change? Secondly, can he go a little further and end the scandal of MPs moonlighting to line their own pockets? We are paid a full-time salary for a full-time job and we should honour that.
I believe that on 1 July all second incomes will have to be published, in the greatest of detail demanded by the House, by all Members who have second jobs and second incomes. I am glad that the House agreed, and that everybody was satisfied, that that was the right thing to do. The public will then be able to judge for themselves what is happening in that area. As for convention, there are some conventions, but the whole debate about a written constitution is about whether things that are seen as conventional should be made into statutes so that people are absolutely clear about their rights and responsibilities.
Fuel Poverty (No.2) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Dr. Alan Whitehead, supported by Mr. Paul Truswell, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Martin Caton, Colin Challen and Mr. David Drew, presented a Bill to make further provision about fuel poverty; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June, and to be printed (Bill 110).
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As chairman of the all-party group on first past the post, whose largest contingent is Scottish Labour MPs who have seen the chaos that proportional representation has brought to Scottish elections, may I say how frustrated I am that the Prime Minister did not consult my group and is bypassing this very important body of thought in the House of Commons?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On previous occasions when a lot of people have been seeking to catch your eye on a statement, you have indicated that in consideration of the forthcoming legislation you would be minded to give preference to those people who have not been successful in catching your eye. Bearing in mind the importance of the statement that we have just heard and the fact that it affects all of us and our constituencies, will you advise the Government that they should allow consideration of this legislation to proceed without any guillotine or timetable? Will you also ensure that all Back Benchers who wish to participate in the debate can do so?
Gangmasters Licensing Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to apply the provisions of the Gangmasters Licensing Act 2004 to the construction industry; and for connected purposes.
I shall always be proud that this Government gave their support to the passing and implementation of my private Member’s Bill targeting illegal gangmasters. That legislation sought to flush out those who were exploiting both migrant and indigenous workers, and despite the powerful arguments put forward at the time, the Bill covered only agricultural and related industries. I, along with the trade unions and legal gangmasters—we were supported by many of my colleagues who are here to support this Bill, and I remain extremely appreciative of their assistance—argued at the time that should that Bill prove effective, the unscrupulous gangmasters would move into other industries. The evidence suggests that that is exactly what has happened. The construction trade was the industry that we used as an example then, because of its diverse and mobile nature, and it is where we find illegal gangmasters working now. Those of us who worked in the construction and related industries are well aware of the dangerous environment that those on the job face, and I will return to that later.
Migrant workers who come to this country for legitimate work are often lured into the twilight world of illegal gangmasters, so I caution those who blame the workers and ask them to focus instead on the real villains: the illegal gangmasters. Anecdotal evidence from those who have suffered under those unscrupulous people suggests that they are experiencing the same despairing conditions as did those who were exposed in the agriculture industry—none more so than the Chinese workers who perished on the shores of Morecambe bay.
Despite the current financial situation, most commentators agree that we can build our way out of this downturn with major construction projects, such as the Olympic village, and related issues. What we do not need is a Morecambe bay-type tragedy in the construction of the Olympics. Health and safety matters are extremely important to those in the building trade and wider related industries, and people must have the fundamental right of returning home safely after their work.
Since 2007, there have been 120 fatal accidents in the construction industry. Again, there is evidence that illegal gangmasters supply unskilled labour to major construction companies and their subcontractors to carry out skilled and dangerous work without taking into consideration the safety consequences for the general public, others on the site and themselves. These gangmasters also undermine the legitimate employers who invest in training, and pay their taxes and national insurance contributions. That is particularly true of—and financially damaging to—small businesses struggling to survive and compete.
On the financial implications, there is increasingly tangible evidence that gangmasters, who are required to register, should also be tax-compliant and follow the VAT registration rules. In 2007 alone, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority identified more than £2 million in extra VAT payments for the Exchequer—the figure takes no account of additional income tax and the national insurance contributions now being paid as a result of the GLA’s work. So the Government have a vested interest in giving serious consideration to this issue, and I sincerely hope that they do so.
Members of the House should also be aware of the serious matter of community unrest; where genuine workers see others doing their work and not contributing to the community or wider society, social unrest and frustration is generated. That manifests itself, as has happened this week, in people turning to extremist parties such as the British National party, which are happy to exploit such situations. There is a political advantage in addressing this issue and demonstrating to the workers that we are on their side and on the side of good employers.
May I give the House just a flavour of some of the activities being undertaken by these gangmasters, by going through some case studies? A14 Vehicle Hire, which is based in Kettering, had its licence revoked with immediate effect after serious concerns were expressed over the safety of its workers. The GLA uncovered allegations of workers being housed in overcrowded and unsafe accommodation, and a number of houses were immediately closed by the local authority for breaches of gas and electrical safety regulations. Some 15 adults and three children were found in a four-bedroom house.
Timberland Homes Recruitment Ltd had its licence revoked with immediate effect on 6 May 2008.The company was based in Suffolk but sent workers to pick flowers in Cornwall and Scotland. GLA officers found serious abuses, including a threatening letter to workers stating that they were not free to leave before the end of the contract without paying £700, and that if they did not have the money, it would be recovered from the workers or their families in their home country. Some workers stated that they received £24 for a nine-hour day. No time-sheets were used, so pay could not be accurately recorded. The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency issued prohibition notices on six Timberland minibuses in Cornwall, but Timberland still transported workers to Scotland in the same vehicles. Timberland Homes Recruitment Ltd did not appeal against the GLA decision. It is no longer permitted to trade in the licensable sectors, but it is believed to be operating in the construction industry.
I shall give a second case study. Morantus Ltd, which traded as 247 Staff in Burton on Trent, supplied workers across the midlands to British Bakeries, Thorntons and Florette. A GLA investigation found that Robert Taylor, director of Morantus, forced migrant workers to live in run-down, cramped houses, and made them pay over the odds for that accommodation as a condition of finding them work. The officers found a room, measuring 2.8 m by 3.8 m, that housed three adults, two children and a baby; it had a double mattress, a single mattress and a child’s seat. Money was withheld from workers, and they were forced to sign standing orders under the threat of not receiving work. Workers were not paid the national minimum wage, and they were bonded to the accommodation; if they wanted to keep their jobs, they had to use, and pay for, the accommodation provided. Morantus lost its appeal against the GLA decision, and is now believed to be trading in the construction industry.
I turn to the subject of independent research. An independent report published in March 2009 by the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield, commissioned by the GLA, shows that the tough enforcement approach of the GLA makes for effective regulation. The researchers found that
“licensing has been an appropriate tool to regulate labour providers…agency workers are now better placed because of government regulation; and…the GLA is an effective and efficient regulator.”
That is why we would like the gangmaster licensing legislation to be extended to the construction industry.
In conclusion, the trade unions, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Federation of Master Builders are asking for help to get the industry through these difficult times. With a little bit of vision and support, we can bring about a change for the construction industry.
Question put and agreed to.
That Jim Sheridan, Mr. Michael Clapham, Alun Michael, Mrs. Ann Cryer, Mr. David Hamilton, Mr. Ian McCartney, John Robertson, Mr. Stephen Hepburn, Sandra Osborne, Mr. Jim Devine, Mr. Jim McGovern and Mr. David Anderson present the Bill.
Jim Sheridan accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 109).
Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)
I beg to move,
That the Order of 1 April (Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs 3 and 4 shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 pm at this day’s sitting.
The motion is fairly straightforward, but for the sake of clarity I might just explain one bit to the House. Paragraph 1 of the motion says that paragraphs 3 and 4 of the programme order of 1 April relating to the Bill shall be omitted. Hon. Members might not know what paragraphs 3 and 4 were; they might think that there is some dastardly plot afoot and that we are somehow seeking to undermine the House. The truth of the matter is that paragraph 3 was as follows:
“Proceedings in Committee and any proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption”,
and paragraph 4 said:
“Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption.”
If the programme motion is carried by the House, we should finish by 4 o’clock. That will protect the minority parties’ Opposition half-day debate, which we will enjoy later this afternoon. Obviously, we wish to protect that. We therefore will not proceed with our discussions on the Bill until the moment of interruption. It is important that the two paragraphs from the original programme motion be struck down; otherwise, the House would be disagreeing with itself, and we all know that a
“house divided against itself shall not stand”.
Without further ado, I commend the programme motion.
I welcome the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) to the Dispatch Box on his first outing as a Foreign Office Minister; it is good to see him in that post. I should like to place it on record that I have always appreciated the good humour and courtesy shown by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) during her time at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I particularly appreciated the way in which she dealt with the Opposition parties on the earlier stages of the Bill.
I have to say that I am a bit disappointed that the Minister has to defend a programme motion on his first such outing. We have, after all, been hearing incessantly over the past 48 hours about how the Government have changed, how they will listen, how they wish to consult, and how they will now try to make Parliament stronger in its ability to hold the Executive to account, yet we are faced with a programme motion on which, as I understand it, there has not been prior consultation with the Opposition parties. As the Minister well knows, the Bill is not the subject of party political contention, but Members have sought to raise legitimate questions about it. However, it is not a measure on which there will be a major partisan battle. I would have thought that, as an emblem of the promised change of heart to which the Prime Minister has said that he is fervently committed, we could have had, in place of a programme motion, a consultation between the representatives of the different political parties. I would have thought that we could have agreed on a sensible way to handle the further stages of the Bill and proceeded on that basis.
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Procedure Committee is undertaking a report on timetabling. I wonder whether he will join his party in the views that it expresses in its evidence to the report—I suspect that that evidence will not say that timetabling should come to an end—or whether he will provide his own evidence to say that there should be no timetabling. My view is that there should perhaps be areas where we do not need to timetable. It was necessary to do so today purely and simply because we want to ensure that we protect the half-day debate for the minority parties. It is important that we protect that.
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to try to second-guess my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), the shadow Chief Whip, which I shall not do. My view on timetabling and programming is that if it is to work and to be seen as the expression of the House’s decision on the priority that should be accorded to different pieces of legislation and to different stages of any one piece of legislation, it is important that discussions about programming and timetabling take place well in advance between the representatives of the different political parties represented in the House. A timetable should not be presented by the Government of the day as a fait accompli that everyone else is expected to swallow without dispute.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that when I was shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, we dealt with quite a lot of legislation that contained controversial and contentious points, but which did not involve matters of great dispute between the Government and Opposition, although the issues were important and contentious within Northern Ireland. We were sometimes able to agree to let a debate take place without the imposition of arbitrary guillotines or knives, and to find a way for Parliament, and particularly Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies, to express their points of view and represent the interests of their constituents, and yet for that business to be handled within a sensible and timely framework of debate.
I am disappointed in the Government’s attitude this afternoon. Unless the Minister can persuade me otherwise, I am minded to challenge the programme motion in the Division Lobby.
Following our exchanges in the European Committee yesterday and in the Committee Corridor, I want to take the opportunity on the Floor of the House to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to his job.
I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) regarding the Minister’s predecessor, now the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who built consultation into her approach to the job as Minister and was forthcoming with information on the Bill in its early stages. That is to be welcomed generally in Government, and most particularly on a Bill such as this, on which there is a certain degree of consensus and not much controversy. That cannot be said for many debates in the House at this time.
To my knowledge, it is true that there was no prior consultation about the programme motion. It was helpful that the Minister read out paragraphs 3 and 4 of the original order. When I looked at the motion, I suddenly thought, “Oh my goodness, what are the paragraphs that will be omitted?” I found the relevant piece of paper from 1 April and realised that these were not horrendous omissions, but were designed merely to protect the later debate, which I am sure that, as the Minister said, we will all enjoy. The changes were well intentioned and sought to ensure that the time of Opposition parties was protected.
There is only one further comment that I would make. I am not sure whether this is in the Minister’s gift, but perhaps he might be able to speak to his former colleagues in the Department of the Leader of the House, as it might have been helpful if the original paragraphs had been printed on the Order Paper. That would have made it simpler for hon. Members to see at a glance that there was no sinister attempt to stop debate on the Bill, and that the changes made sense. Although I accept the issues raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury about lack of consultation on the programming, the motion makes sense and I am minded to support the Government.
With the leave of the House, let me say that I am grateful to both the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for reiterating the pleasant comments that they made yesterday in Committee. I wholly concur with them in everything they said about the now Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron); I know from the private office that I have inherited that she is held in very high esteem by many hon. Members across the House in respect of the way that she conducts her business and the acuity with which she has approached many issues on which there is a wide divergence of views. I think of her as a close personal friend as well, so it is a great honour to be able to follow in her—I about to say shoes, but I do not know that I can quite wear her shoes. [Interruption.] The Conservative Deputy Chief Whip (paid) is trying to entice me into high heels. [Interruption.] I am paid almost as much as he is. He knows that I reserve that for special occasions with him.
I know that the hon. Member for Aylesbury is a choral singer, and I hope he will be singing in tune with us this afternoon. He spoke about prior consultation. I am sure he is fully aware that there has been prior consultation about the amount of time allocated. One of the things that I discovered when I was Deputy Leader of the House was that sometimes the prior consultations that happen through the usual channels are completely disowned, as though they had never happened. Despite all those shaking heads, I am sure there was some kind of consultation. I want to make sure that—
If the hon. Lady will allow me, I shall finish this point, lest I have to start being rude to her. I want to make sure that where we can proceed in unity in the House, we do so. There is no point in trying to score partisan points just for the sake of it, but I reserve my position on that for the hon. Lady.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I know that in his previous job, he was keen to modernise the House. Do not his comments about the usual channels and about whether messages get through signal the need for a shake-up of the usual channels and more transparency in how all these things to do with programming and timing are decided?
The hon. Lady makes a decent point about the openness and transparency with which we do our business. That is a matter for the whole House, not just for the Government. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and others want to take forward some of that agenda. I know also that Members of the hon. Lady’s party and others want to pursue the question whether there should be a business committee, but that is not the business of the motion.
I want to raise two other points in response to the hon. Lady’s comments. First, on whether the previous motion should appear on the Order Paper, I am more than happy to make sure that my successor as Deputy Leader of the House, who is also a close friend, knows of her comments. Such an arrangement would fit well with our efforts to make sure that all Ministers answer questions not just by referring to a previous answer, but by providing the information again. It is for the convenience of everybody in the House.
The Minister is right to say that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) suggested from the Front Bench, this is not a partisan matter, but the hon. Gentleman will have noted that when we last debated the subject on the Floor of the House, there was a great deal of interest on the part of hon. Members. The matter was debated at some length and in some detail. It requires full exploration, even though it is not partisan. Is the general principle that when a measure is not partisan, it should not be explored fully?
Obviously, I have read Hansard for the previous debate in the House and the debates in the other House, and I note the comments that were made by many Members. I notice, too, that there seemed to be a growing interest in the debates. It grew as the debates progressed, and I note that that may be happening this afternoon as well. None the less, we said that we would make sure that we had a half-day available for the second debate this afternoon, and there is a great deal of interest among some Members in that debate, so we wanted to make sure that it was protected.
The second point that I wanted to make was that when officials refer to a piece of legislation as uncontroversial—I have been told about 20 times in the past 24 hours that something is not controversial—my experience is that it often encourages people none the less to expatiate. That may happen later. It is important that we ensure that even on non-controversial legislation, where there is no partisan difference, there is a time lag between Second Reading, Committee and Report, so that Members can table amendments as a result of the debate.
As the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) knows, no amendments have been tabled for today, so I hope the views about non-controversiality that were expressed to me were correct. However, it is important to acknowledge that we have made sure that there is a gap between the two stages, and that the Bill, which is important though not controversial, as the hon. Gentleman said, gets proper scrutiny.
That the Order of 1 April (Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs 3 and 4 shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 pm at this day’s sitting.
Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [Lords]
Considered in Committee
[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]
Amendments of the Geneva Conventions Act 1957
Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
As I am sure hon. Members will know, the first clause of the Bill amends the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which itself incorporated the 1949 Geneva conventions; those conventions were built on the 1864 Geneva convention, which was linked to the creation of the Red Cross. On 12 August—the glorious 12th—it will be the 60th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva conventions. Oddly enough, that happens to be my uncle’s birthday; even more oddly, he used to make “The Famous Grouse”. That date will be a multiple anniversary this year.
The four conventions of 1949 were built on former versions. First and foremost, they were to protect the wounded or the sick and ensure that such defenceless combatants should be respected and cared for, whatever their nationality. The personnel attending them, the buildings in which they sheltered and the equipment used for their benefit were to be protected, and a red cross on a white background was to be the emblem of that immunity. Other elements of that first convention have been modified over the years—in relation, for instance, to medical personnel and chaplains. Originally, if such personnel fell into enemy hands, they had to be repatriated immediately. Now, however, the situation is rather different.
The second convention related to the protection of those in combat at sea. The third was for the protection of prisoners of war. For many centuries, this country has sought to make sure that there was a proper understanding of how prisoners of war should be protected. The French have sometimes tried to remind us about Agincourt, but for the past few hundred years we have been wholeheartedly committed to ensuring that prisoners of war are treated properly. Finally, the fourth convention was to protect civilians.
The distinctive emblem has been referred to and is being amended by the new optional protocol. It was defined in article 38 of one of the 1949 Geneva conventions:
“As a compliment to Switzerland, the heraldic emblem of the red cross on a white ground, formed by reversing the Federal colours, is retained as the emblem and distinctive sign of the Medical Service of armed forces.”
That gave protection to all those who were serving.
I am following the Minister’s points with great interest. Does the symbol of Switzerland not also carry the connotation of neutrality and have a lot of history behind it, to do with the Hospitallers and so on? The sign is very distinctive and well recognised worldwide. It is known, and the same is true of the red crescent. How can the new symbol be marketed so that people fighting wars in far-distant places will recognise it and give it the same authority? We are talking about signs that are so emblematic and well known. Is adding a third one a good idea?
There is already a third one in the conventions—the red lion and sun—so that Persia had an emblem that it could adopt. The hon. Gentleman is right that the signs are emblematic. I say that with a slight rise of the eyebrow, because what one flag or emblem symbolises to one set of people—perhaps even the majority of the world—will not necessarily be symbolised to everybody.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Hospitallers, and the reference to the crusades is not lost on some people, although anybody in the Red Cross would wholly deprecate the association. None the less, the truth is that in some cases it has been difficult for us to ensure that connotations of a religious war or crusade do not undermine the work that the Red Cross or Red Crescent are able to do.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. In broad terms, I am sympathetic to the Bill. I worry, however, that we will have symbol after symbol until almost every country, or every continent, has a symbol in addition to the ones that we have already. In the end, the famous nature of the red cross might be diminished.
The honest truth is that in the vast majority of cases, certainly as they affect the United Kingdom, people will retain either the red cross or the red crescent. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should not be amplifying these symbols. As I said, we have had three emblems, including the red lion and sun, which modern Iran chooses not to use. In a sense, therefore, we are back down to two. There have been moves in some other countries towards being able to create other symbols; hon. Members may want to make reference to the situation in Israel. In wanting to be able to accommodate the whole world, we should not be seeking to create a different emblem for every part of it. We should be going through a proper process to ensure that the rules governing emblems are adhered to so that there are not wild divergences and they are properly respected.
The Minister touched on the star of David, which the Israelis want as their symbol. Does he anticipate that the advent of the red crystal will reduce pressure from Israel to use the star of David? Otherwise, there could be three, if not four symbols in the middle east.
The hon. Gentleman may know that the Israeli national society, the Magen David Adom, has used the red star of David, although only internally, which has meant that it has not been able to join the international Red Cross movement. Importantly, the introduction of the red crystal has enabled Israel to sign up to become a part of the Red Cross movement, so Israelis and Palestinians have been able to share in the movement. That is not the biggest step that we need to take in the middle east process, but it helps to move us forward.
This is a very important issue; it is not only about emblems but about their significance. I fully share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that the red cross is universally recognised. The Minister will understand that I approach the issue from a military perspective. The armed forces know and recognise the red cross; equally, it is generally the case that the red cross is not abused. I am worried that unless there is a rigorous regime to ensure that the red crystal is not abused, our armed forces, who are already feeling hamstrung by human rights legislation, could find that our enemies abuse the red crystal and our troops would therefore be at risk. What assurances can the Minister give Britain’s armed forces in that respect?
I know of the interest that the hon. Gentleman has historically taken in the armed forces, which, as he knows, I share. He is absolutely right that we need to ensure that there is strong protection for the symbols that are already used, and equally so for the red crystal. Where it is used because it is thought to be the most appropriate means of protecting the medical forces, we need to ensure that it is fully understood. My experience during a brief visit to Basra with the armed forces parliamentary scheme showed me that the British armed forces are very well attuned to the business of winning hearts and minds, and part of that will be making the right decisions on the ground about which emblem to use. Equally, we have to ensure that as many countries as possible ratify and enter into this process, so that they understand, and can ensure that their armed forces understand, the significance of the emblems.
It is important to emphasise that the decision on the red crystal did not come out of thin air; it was a long, complicated process involving a lot of different countries that had found it difficult to decide between different emblems. For instance, in Eritrea the decision is not between a emblem that does not exist and one that does, but between the red cross and the red crescent, because those are the symbols of the two religious communities in the country, who have very strongly held religious views. In that circumstance, the red crystal forestalls the need for inventing lots of new emblems by deciding on one that can be used more generically.
I agree with the Minister that there has to be international support in developing an understanding of the red crystal symbol. However, are there not practical concerns that it might be misinterpreted, particularly on a battlefield? A red crystal on an armband worn by an orderly will look like a lozenge or a diamond shape unless the arm is bent, when it could look like a red square.
The same could be true of a red cross, because if the arm is bent in the right way it ends up no longer being a cross, but a sword. I am afraid that those issues remain. In fact, as often as not the colour is the determinant. Professional brand managers say that people do not recognise a brand until they have seen it 16 times. After that, the effect will often be created by the precise Pantone shade that is used, the combination of red and white, and seeing it in a military context. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, as have all other hon. Members.
Is there any general move in order to try to remove ambiguity towards the crystal evolving into the main symbol and the other two going out of use?
No, there is not, and I do not think that that would be appropriate. There is no need to abandon the red cross or the red crescent, which are very well known and much respected symbols. However, there are circumstances in which a third or fourth emblem is necessary, or would be useful. There is no need, certainly in the short term, for us to move towards abandoning the red cross.
This is an important subject, as I said when we debated the programme motion. The universality of the cross and the crescent is their virtue. The problem with the Bill is that it proposes a multiplication of symbols, or emblems. I cannot think that that is compatible with universality, which has been at the heart of the success of the cross and the crescent.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. It is interesting that he used the phrase, “The universality of the cross”. To many conservative evangelical Christians, that phrase would have a capital U and a capital C, and it would have a very strong religious significance—although he obviously did not intend it in that sense. For many, the cross is what they live and die for. In that context—in which, in some parts of the world, religion can be one of the axes that is used to create division and wars—it is important that we are able to have an additional symbol. He refers to a proliferation of symbols, but that will not happen: there will not be additional symbols coming down the line in a couple of years’ time. One more symbol is being added to the list, with one of the three existing symbols no longer being in use.
The cross has been used as a symbol since prehistoric times. It can be traced to almost every culture, Christian and other, as a symbol that represents a variety of things, such as health, peace or fertility, depending on which culture one turns to. To identify the cross purely, or largely, with the Christian tradition is to misunderstand its history.
I am being tempted down theological lines, which is quite dangerous, so I should rather like to say, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” I believe that the hon. Gentleman understands the point that there are situations in which forces that are trying to do good would be afforded better protection and better understanding among the local population if they did not use a symbol that could be misunderstood as having a largely religious undertone or overtone. That is what we are seeking to avoid.
I am trespassing on the Minister’s good will, but we have established that a symbol such as the cross or the crescent is historic and well known. Even in places where there is not a proper education system and there is not an easy opportunity to market a new symbol, people know about crosses and crescents. How will we be able to establish the new brand of the crystal in a war-torn place where perhaps only half the children go to school? In such places, where this really matters, will it be easy to establish the new symbol?
I do not believe that we need to establish it in every part of the world with immediate effect. The truth of the matter is that there are many parts of the world where the current symbols are perfectly adequate and perfectly well understood. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman suggests that there might be parts of the world where brands cannot be marketed. I do not think that Coca-Cola believes that. It believes that there is no such part of the world. One of the great successes of Mr. Henri Dunant’s original idea following the battle of Solferino was that something without words in it could cross linguistic barriers and be readily understandable around the world. That is what the Red Cross movement has achieved.
I wish to pay substantial tribute to the British Red Cross Society, which has been around since 1870—we were one of the earlier countries to adopt the red cross. It does great work, and I know that many people hold it in high esteem and would be saddened if it changed from the Red Cross Society to anything else. However, it wholeheartedly supports the Bill. Around the world, the Red Cross movement hopes that as many countries as possible will ratify the change. It has already meant that the Israeli and Palestinian societies have been able to join the movement, and it will give the movement a strong future for many decades, and I hope centuries.
I have no desire to be unnecessarily disputatious, but the Minister mentions Henri Dunant and Solferino. I recommend to the House Dunant’s book on Solferino. What he wanted was not only protection but, as the Minister will know, an international agreement to secure that protection. Implicit in that appeal was the recognition, through a symbol, of protection that was non-partisan and universally available. I am very concerned about the issue of universality, and I hope that the Minister might say another word about it before he sits down, after which I am sure we can make time for other contributions.
I suspect that however many words I say about the universality of the original symbol, I will not be able to appease the hon. Gentleman. The truth of the matter—I keep on saying “the truth of the matter”, and I must stop doing so—is that when the original symbol was created it was not envisaged that there would be parts of the world where there might be disputation about whether it involved religious significance. Consequently, we have grown to have not just one symbol but three, and now we are moving towards having a fourth. I like to think, and those who dedicate their lives to the Red Cross movement believe, that that is fully consistent with what Mr. Dunant aspired to. Indeed, as a former deputy leader of the Labour party said, sometimes we need traditional values in a modern setting. That is precisely what we can advance now.
As I have said, three emblems are currently allowed—the cross, the crescent and the lion and sun, although the last is not much used now. There are some problems, including misunderstanding about religious symbols. For some, the cross is a highly religious and divisive symbol. For others it is a symbol of unity, and when they see the red cross they do not see a religious symbol at all. Eritrea has been unable to choose which is the right symbol to use, and Israel likewise. I am delighted that bringing forward the red crystal has made it possible to enable both Israelis and Palestinians to take part in the movement.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position. It is a very important one, and I know that he will do an excellent job.
May I ask my hon. Friend to clear up some of the nuts and bolts of the matter? If three symbols will be accepted, that does not mean, does it, that nations will be able to pick and choose which of the three they will allow people to use to visit political prisoners, for example, and do all the things that the Red Cross does so brilliantly at the moment, often in very difficult circumstances? It will not somehow result in three different organisations that people will use for nefarious purposes, destroying the central goodness of what the Red Cross and the Red Crescent do.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and neighbour for his comments. He was a fine Minister in the Foreign Office, and there are fond memories of him skulking around the corridors—it was not him skulking around the corridors, it is the memories.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There will not be different organisations, and the structure will still be the same. It would be wholly wrong for people to swap armbands every afternoon or every second day according to who they were visiting. In the vast majority of cases, they will stick with the symbols that are already known—the red cross and the red crescent. However, there may be circumstances in which a national organisation, working only within its own territory, wants to incorporate within the crystal its own symbol, for instance the red star of David. That could happen only in national circumstances, which seems sensible.
Likewise, if British defence medical agencies and services overseas judged in a particular conflict that using the red crystal rather than the red cross would afford them greater protection and bring greater understanding among the public, they would be free to do so. That choice has to be made on a pragmatic basis, but it should not change and flip-flop all the time, because that would itself undermine clarity. For the most part, I suspect that they will not need to take that step, but in some circumstances they will.
Will the Minister pursue a little further the point that the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) made? Can he confirm that the distinction will be between the internationally recognised protective symbols, which will now include the red crystal and which confer the right to protection upon an organisation or vehicle, and an indicative symbol such as the red star of David, which could be used within a national territory as part of a fundraising or publicity drive or as a means of identifying an individual or vehicle? Will it be only the cross, the crescent and the crystal that will confer the right to protection under both domestic and international law?
The hon. Gentleman is right—he put it better than I could, as doubtless he often will in the many debates in which we engage, though I am not sure whether I shall admit to that on subsequent occasions.
There is a difference between using the emblem for protective purposes and using it for fundraising or for the relevant body in one’s own country. That is why it is important to police the convention equally. We want to ensure that the Red Cross movement is not disaggregated or undermined.
Things could become very confusing. If every country has a choice between the red crescent, the red cross and the red crystal for protecting vehicles and in addition a local brand, such as a red antelope or a red star of David, how on earth will people in places where there are armies that are not well organised like the British Army, but are in wars in informal settings and not much cop, be clear about what constitutes a protective symbol? It sounds like a recipe for confusion.