Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The Electoral Commission informs me that, although it collects turnout figures after each election, it has not undertaken research on the impact on turnout of different electoral systems. However, the commission does provide information to electors, through its public awareness campaigns, on the way in which different electoral systems work, and on how they may cast their vote.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. I have always felt that the Electoral Commission should look in more detail at the different electoral systems, particularly as we have so many in the United Kingdom as a whole. What was the turnout when electronic voting was used, and with postal voting?
The Electoral Commission is certainly prepared to carry out the research that the hon. Gentleman has in mind if the Government ask it to do so. I am afraid that I do not have figures on turnout using electronic voting and postal voting, but the number of people who vote by post has increased significantly since 2000, and now roughly 15 per cent. of those who exercise their vote do so by postal means.
Is it not a fact that we have elected two Jew-hating racists to represent us in the European Parliament—we have done so in the form of British National party electors—even though in Yorkshire the BNP got fewer votes than it did in 2004? What is the reason? In the 2004 European Parliament elections, there was an all-postal ballot and almost twice as many people voted. I understand that there are some fiddles in postal voting, but we must look much more seriously at encouraging all-postal ballots, because that is the best way to prevent the fascists from being elected to represent our nation.
The Electoral Commission certainly supports a thorough modernisation of electoral processes in this country and has made recommendations to the Government, but the electoral systems that we employ in this country are very much a matter for this House, not the Electoral Commission.
Is it not a fact that people vote in large numbers when these two circumstances apply: first, they think that the body that is being elected matters to them; and, secondly, they think that their vote will actually make a difference—that their vote counts? Are not those the issues that we, not the Electoral Commission, ought to consider so that we make our electoral system fit for purpose?
There are, of course, a number of issues that affect voter turnout at all elections. It might interest the House to know that the probable figure for turnout at the European elections this year was 34 per cent., which was down on the figure of 38.5 per cent. five years previously. However, a number of issues affect voter turnout, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right that, although some are for the Electoral Commission to consider, many are for this House and the political parties in it.
May I suggest to my hon. Friend that it would be useful for the Electoral Commission to carry out a full investigation into, and produce a report on, the recent European elections? Most of us believe that the prospect of voting for a list puts people off voting, but that people do like to vote for an individual elected representative. As the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) just said, a system that allows an extremist party to be elected with a small number of votes is not a system that we should encourage.
The Electoral Commission is carrying out a survey of the effectiveness of the recent elections to the European Parliament, and I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that a number of factors have to be taken into account. However, the electoral system that we put in place for future European Parliaments, or for any election in the United Kingdom, is a matter for this House, not for the Electoral Commission.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Surface Water Drainage Charges
I estimate that surface water charges by area will cost the Church of England at least £5 million and a further £10 million for highways drainage contributions. The effect of these cost increases on individual parish churches and cathedrals will vary, but I assure the hon. Lady that every church will face an increase.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Does he agree that there should be a moratorium on the imposition of those charges until a complete impact assessment has been made? Will he support the early-day motion to that effect which stands in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends? Will he also look at the formula that Yorkshire Water, which serves my constituency, has come up with? It causes the least damage where the introduction of those charges applies.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We will certainly look at any proposal or scheme seeking to ensure that the least possible damage is done to churches as a result of water charges. We have heard some encouraging noises from Ofwat and the Government, but we hope for something more tangible and, from the Church’s point of view, for a broad, permanent exemption. That is what we are seeking to achieve with Ofwat.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, is undertaking a review of Ofwat’s charging policies, and we had the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), before us yesterday. He made it quite clear that Ofwat has not only a brief but a duty to ensure that charging systems are fair and avoid creating hardship. May I suggest to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, that the Church Commissioners make strong representations to ensure that Ofwat delivers on what he described as encouraging noises?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who will know that we have had discussions with Government and Ofwat representatives. Those discussions are continuing. Our difficulty appears to be that water companies, with the possible exception of the Yorkshire water authority, are charging churches and other voluntary bodies as if they were big businesses. We are seeking to argue that that cannot be morally or ethically right and that it is not a balanced approach. The Government respond, but whether they do so sufficiently and significantly is another matter.
May I, too, urge the hon. Gentleman to make strenuous representations on this matter with both Ofwat and Ministers? As he has just said, the issue involves not only the churches but other voluntary bodies such as scouting organisations. Such bodies are very important to our national life, are not big businesses and cannot afford the charges. If the charges go ahead and they are not able to operate, that will diminish our national life.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She will be happy to know that at yesterday’s annual general meeting of the Church Commissioners, I raised that specific point. I said that it was encouraging that the Church, through the Synod and the Archbishops Council, was working with scouting and other organisations. The Archbishops Council has led the way in this matter on behalf of the Church, along with the Church Commissioners, but the House has to give, as I think it has done, a strong message to Ofwat in addition to all the other representations that have been made.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said, but urge him to redouble his efforts. As he may be aware, I have seen and corresponded with the chief executive of Ofwat. Although charming and courteous, he has not delivered as he should have. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extraordinary that the body set up to protect the public is creating this appalling problem? Will he once again approach the chief executive and the appropriate Ministers?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Among other things, Ofwat is misdirecting itself on these issues. It seems to be suggesting that the new charging regime is an ecologically sound policy. Let me say that the Church takes environmental issues seriously, and that we do not necessarily accept that argument. I refer the hon. Gentleman to my statement in Hansard on 5 February at column 972, in which I asked the Government to intervene robustly on behalf of the churches and other organisations. I will be happy to repeat that request to the Government.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The Electoral Commission informs me that it believes that giving people the option of voting in person in advance of polling day would improve access to the electoral process. In May 2009, the chair of the Electoral Commission wrote to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), reiterating the commission’s view on early voting in the context of a wider strategy for the future of elections. It also responded to the Government’s 2008 consultation on weekend voting.
Two weeks ago, voter apathy and electoral disengagement hit an all-time low; turnout plummeted to 16 per cent. in my region of Yorkshire. I recently met the Minister of State, to discuss my plans to introduce early voting in the UK. There was early voting in the recent American election, in which voters flocked to the polls over a two-week period. Clearly, one day’s access to the polls is not enough in today’s society. Will the Electoral Commission therefore discuss plans to introduce early voting?
The Electoral Commission informs me that it is not opposed in principle to moving polling day to the weekend. However, it does not support such a change at present because there is a lack of compelling evidence to show that such an arrangement would be more convenient or accessible for electors, and increase turnout. As has been said, there are a number of reasons voters do not turn up to vote at elections, many of which relate to the political parties and our conduct in the House. All of us—not only the Electoral Commission—should consider how to increase voter turnout in this country.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
We do not collect the figures, but I know that a significant number of churches—mainly rural ones—are coping successfully with bats, as they have done for centuries. Cleaning and protecting contents costs volunteers time and money; in some cases even that is not enough, and the bats cause damage and create hygiene problems.
Before I get swamped with letters about this, let me make it clear to all those outside the House that I like bats, I love seeing bats flying and I want bat populations to flourish. However, there is a serious issue about the damage that is being done by bats, particularly to historic and beautiful old churches and other buildings. Could the Church Commissioners get together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, English Nature, Natural England and English Heritage to come up with a holistic approach? Bats do not have to live in belfries; they can go and live elsewhere. They are natural animals; they do not need us to produce churches for them. This needs sorting out, because it is costing parishes a great deal of money and damaging our historic structures.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is a great authority on bats. I can share with the House the fact that he is also a great authority on newts—but the Church Commissioners are not responsible for newts, although they may be responsible for bats in the belfry. He mentioned DEFRA, English Heritage and Natural England, but he omitted to mention the Bat Conservation Trust. We are working with all those organisations to strike a sensible balance. I will be pleased to feed in the points that he makes, which are very pertinent to these discussions. In the past, we have had a good deal of success in accommodating bats, but the fact that we continue to raise the issue in this House reflects the fact that it is a problem in churches up and down the land.
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
When the commission took evidence on the National Audit Office resource estimate on 17 March 2009, the NAO told us that it hoped to be able to surrender some of the contingency included in the revised budget for the repair and refurbishment of its headquarters, and it has confirmed that that remains the position.
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful answer. The NAO estimate for 2009-10 is 3 per cent. above that of the previous year at a time of negative inflation. Clearly, it aspires to achieve cost reductions across its range of activities. When will it be made clear to this House that those cost savings might begin to be reflected in the total support that the NAO seeks from Parliament?
For every £1 of taxpayers’ money that the NAO spends, it saves £9 for the taxpayer. Considerable extra work has been given to the NAO by the Public Accounts Commission. My hon. Friend is asking about the contingency fund and expenditure on the NAO’s new headquarters. It tells me that it is seeking to achieve a £1 million underspend against a revised project budget, and the project will be delivered on time in November. It is a success story that we should be proud of.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Economic Downturn (Assistance)
Despite the economic downturn, the commissioners plan to maintain the level of their distributions in cash terms this year and into next year.
Will my hon. Friend assure me that when the commissioners look at expenditure in cash terms there will be a keen prioritisation and selection of expenditure categories, because that is going to be vital? Will the selection of those priorities will reflect the needs of the 21st century Church?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Supporting the Church’s ministry, particularly in areas of need and opportunity, is the priority that the Church sets itself. We want to spend our sums wisely. This summer we are holding a series of conferences with our beneficiaries, and that detailed engagement will help us to assess the priorities to which he refers; we then seek to help the growth of the Church.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
European Parliamentary Elections
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I welcome him to his new responsibilities, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who spoke earlier.
Will the hon. Gentleman pass on to the Commission a specific request that two matters be looked at? First, did the facility work for people who are European Union citizens and are allowed to vote here but have to fill in a form to make it clear that they are going to use their vote only in this country rather than in their country of origin, and how many people used it and so on? The second matter is how accessible the venues for voting are generally. I still take the view that they are often in hidden-away places that long-standing locals might know, not places where most of the public go in the course of their daily business.
The Electoral Commission is extremely keen to increase voter turnout at all elections, and the hon. Gentleman’s point will certainly be taken into account. The commission would like me to inform hon. Members that it is keen to hear from many sources about the conduct of the elections that have just taken place, including Members of Parliament. If anyone has particular representations to make, they will be warmly received by the Electoral Commission, and I will certainly ensure that his comments are passed on to it.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
The Crown Prosecution Service records count defendants proceeded against for offences of theft and handling, but they do not separately identify the premises where the offence takes place, so we cannot tell the hon. Lady about theft from shops, which I believe she is interested in. I can, however, tell her the overall number of people prosecuted for theft, which is reasonably constant at around 140,000 to 150,000 a year, but the conviction rate has risen considerably over the period in which she has an interest.
I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for that full answer. Will she support my private Member’s Bill, which will be considered tomorrow, in which I call for more cases to appear before the courts when there are persistent offenders or when the goods taken from a shop are of high value? The credit crunch has led to a higher incidence of shoplifting and shop theft, and I know that the Government are concerned about that. If a first-time offender is involved or goods of only a small value are stolen, I can understand the value of a fixed penalty notice, but the thrust of my Bill is to allow the cases that would best benefit from coming before a court to do so. That would allow for restorative justice, and for the offender to get some treatment if it is—
I have a sense that the hon. Lady and I are growing old with her asking me questions about shoplifting and me trying to answer them even though we do not have the figures that she perpetually seeks. She knows that appropriate use of penalty notices is a constant concern within Government, and we keep it under review. She makes a powerful point about the impact of the credit crunch, which has to come into all our considerations. She knows that the decision whether to prosecute has a public interest component, and I am reasonably satisfied that all those factors are kept under review and applied consistently and conscientiously.
On the specific question whether I will support the hon. Lady’s Bill tomorrow, I am afraid that I will be in Redcar.
Has not the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) got an important point? The problem with fixed penalty notices, particularly for shoplifting, is that the person involved does not have contact with the prosecution authorities or the courts. The underlying reasons for the offending behaviour are never recognised, so they are not dealt with. It seems to me, and I think to a lot of people, that if we are stop those who shoplift because they have a drugs habit or extreme social difficulties, it is better that they are placed before a court, which can take appropriate action. Fixed penalty notices get in the way of that.
It does depend on what kind of offender is before the authorities. Where there is a clear need that has a criminogenic component—drugs, drink or whatever it is—I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is appropriate that that be tackled. Otherwise, there is no getting to the root of the problem. It is intended that penalty notices should be used when those factors are not present.
There is a scale as to when diversionary penalties of one kind or another are intended to be used—knowing the hon. Gentleman’s responsibilities, I am sure that he has seen it—with a penalty notice for disorder right at the bottom. Where particular causes become obvious, there are such things as conditional cautions right at the top of the scale, which then leads quickly into court. I agree in principle that the hon. Gentleman is right, but we need to ensure that PNDs are used against the right people. They are a useful tool for the police, as they can deal on the spot with a minor offence that does not show any signs of the causes that he mentions, and as such they have considerable use, but in principle he is quite right.
The Crown Prosecution Service has recently started a series of visits to police force and CPS areas. The visits are being undertaken by a joint team with the police to assist the implementation of recent guidance, assess current performance area by area and provide guidance on improving performance and sharing good practice.
I thank the Solicitor-General for that reply. In February, I received a reply from a Justice Minister claiming that 59 per cent. of cases prosecuted as rape result in a conviction for rape or another offence. However, my hon. and learned Friend knows that that hides massive differences between police areas. In Dorset, fewer than one in 60 women secured a conviction for an attack when they reported rape, but in Cleveland, the area that my hon. and learned Friend represents, almost one in every five rapes reported to the police results in a conviction. Why does that difference exist, and what can we do to ensure that every area of the country meets and exceeds the standards that Cleveland has achieved, so that women who are raped can get justice?
I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s diligent work on rape, about which she shares a powerful interest with me. There are two sorts of figures. She cited the figure of around 59 per cent., which relates to those going from charge to conviction, once there has been a charge. The much lower figures, especially those that the Fawcett Society puts forward, are from complaint to charge; there is a much higher drop-out rate before cases get to court. There are disparities between Cleveland and other areas. I am proud of Cleveland, though even Sean Price, the chief constable—pleased though he is to top the poll, as it were, for conviction rates for rape—feels that he has further to go before he is performing adequately. None the less, he is to be complimented.
My hon. Friend is right that the figures suggest that less attention is paid to that highly important offence in some areas. Of course, the figures have flaws because complaints and outcomes are likely to be separated by years, so they will not cover the same cases. However, one cannot disguise the fact that the figures are inevitably indicative of a difference in prioritising. The rape support group—the Home Office component of the partnership team, which also comprises the CPS—will talk to police forces specifically about that. To put it bluntly and crudely, the idea is to find out what is working well in one police area, take it to another where they are not doing so well and persuade them that they must implement it to attain much better results. However, having said that—
May I support the campaign of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on this serious offence? In addition to disparities in various police regions in the United Kingdom, are not conviction rates in the UK significantly lower than those of many of our European counterparts? Does the Solicitor-General know the reason for that? Has any thorough research been conducted to ascertain what lessons we can learn from Europe to try to improve conviction rates in this country?
I am thankful for the hon. Gentleman’s support and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) will be, too. It is important to do the work that he mentions. The differences that exist are evidence that there is nothing magic about getting a better conviction rate for rape. If one police force can do it and another cannot, the way forward is accessible. There are huge definitional differences between us and some European countries. The numbers of people who are prosecuted vary, too. I will not get this precisely right, but I point out that in Italy, essentially only stranger rape is prosecuted. It is relatively straightforward to get a conviction for that, whereas the difficulty here is rape that happens within a relationship, in which consent is the issue. That is much more difficult.
I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on this subject. I welcome the planned visits and very much hope that an early visit will be made to the CPS in Derbyshire, where one of my constituents suffered the appalling fate of having a case that had got to court dropped, apparently because of failures by the local CPS to communicate effectively with social services about key papers, with the entire range of cases against her assailant subsequently dismissed. Will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that that visit is given particular attention?
I am thankful for my hon. Friend’s concern and support on this topic. I do not know about that case in Derbyshire, which sounds as if it may be a cause for concern. If he tells me about it, I will look into it and draw it to the attention of the CPS, so that it can investigate further and, if there is a need, accelerate the time ofits visit.
Fraud (Small Businesses)
Reducing the harm caused by fraud to individuals and businesses is a key priority for the Serious Fraud Office, although it investigates serious and complex fraud whomever it is aimed at. Last month Richard Alderman, the director of the SFO, met representatives of Transparency International and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as it is now called, to discuss how the SFO could help small and medium-sized enterprises in that respect.
I am obviously grateful to the Solicitor-General for that reply, but is she aware that a Federation of Small Businesses survey showed that online crime and fraud costs small businesses £800 a year on average and that more than half of smaller businesses report that they have been victims of crime in the past 12 months? That is a serious cost to smaller businesses, which are very important to the economy of our country. What additional measures does she believe can be implemented to reduce the current level of crime, which is so bedevilling small business, and electronic crime in particular?
I do know about the FSB survey to which the hon. Gentleman refers—it is from February 2009, so it is quite up to date—which indicates exactly what he said. The FSB is working with the National Fraud Authority, and there are a number of agencies involved in the issue of fraud. Indeed, the National Fraud Authority, which used to be called the National Fraud Strategic Authority, is intended to have exactly that overview. [Interruption.] I am assured that NFA does not mean “No further action”; it means “National Fraud Authority”, and I am cheered by that reassurance. The FSB is on its programme board and stakeholder group, as is the British Retail Consortium and the British Chambers of Commerce. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises are directly acknowledged by the relevant authority and taken on board day to day.
Given that the SFO case load has increased by a third in the past 12 months and that it now faces budget cuts, could the Solicitor-General please identify the financial extent of those cuts and say whether they are likely to hinder the SFO’s ability to protect SMEs from fraud?
I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the specific details of the budget cuts, if that is what he would like. The SFO is going from strength to strength under the new direction of Richard Alderman. It is indeed contending with a rising case load, but it is coping with it well. The SFO has introduced a number of efficiencies and ways of distinguishing cases that can realistically go the whole distance from those that can be cut off short, so that a solution other than a conviction can be sought, such as a civil outcome. The SFO is genuinely trying to crisp up its act, and I am confident that progress is being made.
Since Mr. Alderman became the director of the SFO, he has overseen a comprehensive transformation of that body. It has a new structure, a new focus, a new approach to work and improved processes, which have already produced a number of improvements in prosecutions. We are confident that there will be more to follow as the changes bed in.
I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer. Will she tell us a little more about what the Serious Fraud Office is doing for the victims of fraud and about how those people are receiving justice? Following on from the previous question, will she also say briefly whether she believes it has enough resources?
The SFO has a high regard for the importance of looking after witnesses in fraud cases. Indeed, I have taken a personal interest in this. The Crown Prosecution Service does a good deal in this regard now, and its performance rate on the dropping of cases at the door of the court because of the non-appearance of witnesses, and so on, has got much better because of the attention it pays to victims and witnesses. The SFO deals with a completely different kind of case, of course, but it none the less well understands the need to ensure that witnesses and victims are supported. I have met two small business men who were the victims of fraud and who felt that, when their cases came to court two years ago, they were not treated as well as they could have been. We have learned lessons from that, as well. I do not think that the resources question that my hon. Friend has raised will take away from the effort that is now going to be put more fully into protecting victims and witnesses.
There seems to be an increasing tendency for fraudsters to pick on vulnerable people. Will my hon. and learned Friend tell us what measures she has in hand to ensure that sentences take into account the fact that a vulnerable person has been picked on, in addition to consideration of the crime itself?
The personal damage that fraud can cause, particularly to vulnerable people, is recognised. Historically, it has perhaps been seen as a crime that attacks victims slightly less than other crime, but being defrauded is very undermining and can sometimes tip people into as poor a state as they would find themselves in if they had been seriously assaulted. We are pursuing the protection of vulnerable victims, and when such vulnerability exists, the Crown will draw it to the attention of the judge. Guidelines on sentencing usually allow for aggravation to follow from the fact that a victim is particularly vulnerable, and that can increase the sentence.
The Government introduced a draft Bribery Bill on 25 March this year, which built on a report published by the Law Commission last November. The Bill is currently being considered by a Joint Committee, which will report next month. My noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General will appear before the Committee on 25 June.
Does the Solicitor-General share my concern that the Bill makes negligently failing to prevent bribery an offence? As I understand it, that means that, for the first time, an omission can be prosecuted. Does she not agree that that will have a profound impact on English law?
I do not think that it is an entirely new principle. This is not about omission; it is about negligently failing to take steps to prevent bribery. There are businesses that are in pole position to see when bribery is going on, and if they choose to turn away, or if they do not have sufficient procedures in place to prevent it, it is probably a poor response to say that they have a valid defence. Of course they should be under an obligation to prevent bribery from damaging themselves and others, and they should be punished if they do not do so.
Crown Prosecution Service
The merger of the RCPO and the CPS will generate efficiency savings as we combine the strengths of the two organisations, with the aim of delivering an enhanced prosecution service. We anticipate making savings through a range of means, including some headcount reduction over time. At present, however, the management is assuring staff that their employment is secure and that any future reductions will be achieved through natural wastage, as it is called, and as part of ongoing efficiency planning.
The trade unions, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the FDA, might well have been reassured by the CPS that they will be fully consulted about the implementation of the merger, but what reassurance can my hon. and learned Friend give to the skilled, dedicated staff in the RCPO and the CPS that they will not ultimately become casualties of the Treasury’s remorseless fixation with driving down headcount?
Actually, we had this merger in mind at some stage, irrespective of the remorselessness of the Treasury, because we thought it would enhance the prosecution service we give to the public. The history of the RCPO’s roots demonstrates why that element of prosecution was not included in the remit of the CPS, but that is now indeed history, and it will be optimally beneficial for the public for the two agencies to work together. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making it clear that this is a merger and not a takeover by the larger organisation, the CPS, of the smaller one. Management have assured staff that they will all have a job on transfer, which applies to both components, and have stressed the large amount of work that the RCPO will bring into the CPS in any event. All the RCPO contracts will be transferred to the CPS and the existing terms and conditions will be kept at the point of transfer. As I said in my original answer, any further reductions are currently—optimistically, but, I think, rightly—likely to be achieved through what is called “natural wastage”, which is not a very nice term, but means retirement.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Parliamentary Standards Bodies
The Justice Secretary and I have had significant discussions about a Bill to create the Parliamentary Standards Authority. As well as having discussions within Government, we are consulting all parties represented in the House, and the Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges has attended those meetings.
Last week, the Prime Minister announced that the Government’s democratic council—whatever that is—wanted the immediate creation of the Parliamentary Standards Authority, which would have wide-ranging powers over the House, including those of disciplining and fining Members of Parliament. Since that task has been very well discharged by the Committee on Standards and Privileges for some years, why do the Government want to transfer it to an external, unelected, unaccountable quango, which would in itself turn the clock back several hundred years as regards the powers of this House—a move that would be heartily welcomed by King Charles I?
It was not just the Prime Minister, but all the party leaders who agreed to my right hon. Friend’s proposal to put the setting and administration of our allowances on an independent footing. We should all recognise that a public perception has emerged that we arrange the allowances in our own interests rather than in the interest of our doing our job, that we then administer these allowances within the House of Commons and lean on officials to exercise their judgment in our interests. We need to address that perception so that people can have confidence in the high standards of the House of Commons. The proposal to overcome that perception, which has been subject to wide-ranging discussions and on which we will have further such discussions, is to create an independent Parliamentary Standards Authority so that we can no longer vote on our own allowances, which will be set independently; the functions of the Fees Office will be transferred to that authority. That is the remit of the Parliamentary Standards Authority; rather than questions of conduct in this House, it is all about putting our allowances on a proper, transparent footing with fair and firm rules that will allow us to get on with our job and give the public confidence that the allowance system is being run independently.
The Leader of the House, and, indeed, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) have had the pleasure of giving extensive evidence before Sir Christopher Kelly’s Committee over the last couple of days. Given that Committee’s interest in this matter, would it not be sensible if the draft legislation for the Parliamentary Standards Authority were sent as soon as ready to it for its early consideration so that it can give advice to the House before we set in statute something with which it might profoundly disagree?
The Justice Secretary will meet Sir Christopher Kelly this afternoon, but it might be helpful for Members to see the Parliamentary Standards Authority as the hardware and the inquiry into allowances conducted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and its recommendations for a new allowance system as the software. If, as I hope, we can legislate for and set up the new independent authority before the House rises for the summer, if Sir Christopher Kelly is able to report in, say, October—obviously when he reports is a matter for him, because he is independent and arranges his timetable and inquiries according to his wishes and those of his committee—and if the Parliamentary Standards Authority can begin work in November, it will then be able to deal with Sir Christopher’s proposals on allowances.
We need to make absolutely sure that we get the system right. I hope that no one will think that we can simply carry on as we were after this crisis. There has been a profound undermining of public confidence, and the best way we can handle that is to say “We are not doing this ourselves any more. The allowances are being set independently. What we are doing is getting on with our job of representing our constituents and holding the Executive to account.”
Will the Leader of the House explain what role, if any, the commission headed by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) will have in relation to the Parliamentary Standards Authority—and, by the way, when will that commission report?
The Prime Minister has said that he thinks it would be helpful if a parliamentary Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase addressed a number of issues relating to the way in which the House operates. We must address the knock that confidence in our Parliament has taken by dealing with the allowance system, but that will also give us an opportunity to look more widely at a number of issues that have been on the agenda and should now be dealt with. We intend to table a motion shortly to establish a Committee that will be able to consider direct representations from the public through e-petitioning—the Procedure Committee has already done a good deal of work on that—as well as how the House itself could decide what constitutes non-Government business, and time-limited Select Committees.
Does the Leader of the House recognise the important principle that except when a serious criminal offence has been committed, the ultimate court of appeal to decide whether a Member is allowed to continue to sit in the House must be the voters? There have historically been a number of occasions on which a Member of Parliament whom the authorities do not like—a rebellionus Member—has been returned at the insistence of the voters.
The right hon. Gentleman has just enunciated a fundamental constitutional principle. We are accountable, because we are accountable to the electors at every general election. If the electors do not want to send a Member back to the House, they do not have to do so. In addition, we are accountable individually to the collective of the House. The House has wide-ranging powers to chuck out any Member at its discretion, and that will cause a by-election. We need to consider whether or not we have used those powers in the way in which the public expect us to.
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been producing rather long answers. I shall try to shorten them, but I thought that we were not going to use up the time. I shall try to get into less expansive mode.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask the Leader of the House briefly and unequivocally to confirm that, while the Parliamentary Standards Authority will deal with the financial matters about which she talked—we all accept that—it will not become an appointed quango with jurisdiction over Members of Parliament? That would be intolerable and unacceptable to any right-thinking Member of Parliament.
I think the answer to that is yes. The jurisdiction will be in respect of considering and paying Members’ allowances. Once we have a Parliamentary Standards Authority, if there is a general consensus that we want it to do more we can discuss that, and if there is a consensus we can ensure that it happens. However, that is not a matter for the initial Parliamentary Standards Authority Bill.
Procedure Committee/Modernisation Committee
I am sure that the whole House agrees that the starting point for the further modernisation of the House should be the reforms to deal with the loss of confidence caused by the expenses scandal. We will shortly put proposals to the House to establish the new Parliamentary Reform Committee that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last week and to which the Leader of the House has just referred.
The Modernisation Committee has not met for many, many, many months. The Procedure Committee is doing good work and could easily take over the role, functions and responsibilities of the Modernisation Committee. It is chaired by a Back-Bench Member of the House, as are all other Select Committees. Does the Deputy Leader of the House accept that the Committee announced by the Prime Minister should consist of those who have experience of the Modernisation Committee? I have been on the Modernisation Committee since it was formed, chaired the Procedure Committee for two Parliaments and have been in this place for some time. It would be helpful if the Leader of the House or her deputy indicated who is to be appointed to this Committee. Why has the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) been selected? He is a member of the governing party. Would not it be better for an Opposition Member to lead the Committee?
The Modernisation Committee has not met because five of its members, from all parties represented on the Committee, have indicated their desire to leave it. It is up to the parties, through the usual channels, to re-nominate members so that the Modernisation Committee can continue. On chairing the Committee, the Modernisation Committee was aimed at taking forward the Government’s modernisation agenda, so it made sense for the Leader of the House to chair it. Notwithstanding those points, there are many Members, of whom the hon. Gentleman is one, with great experience in these matters. I am sure that they would be welcome members of the new Parliamentary Reform Committee. It is of course up to the parties to decide on nominations.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment. My understanding is that the Modernisation Committee was established to drive forward modernisation at a time when there did not seem to be a broad consensus in the House on that objective. Now that there does appear to be a consensus on modernisation and on strengthening the role of the Commons, may I suggest that my hon. Friend looks at ways of simplifying the various Committees that have been set up? There is a danger that many Committees will have difficulties getting members to sit on them to drive forward the agenda. Would not it be better if the agenda were driven by one Committee rather than a plethora of Committees that might not meet very often in some cases?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on my appointment. The Modernisation and Procedure Committees have secured some considerable achievements, but my hon. Friend is right, which is probably why the Prime Minister has accepted that the new Parliamentary Reform Committee should run for a defined period. It can take forward some of the excellent work done by the other two Committees. The Modernisation Committee has a piece of work to finish and will do so shortly. Following the interest shown in this topic, I hope that hon. Members will carry forward the excellent work of the two Committees and will volunteer to sit on the new Parliamentary Reform Committee. Clearly we can look at simplification later in the year.
I congratulate the deputy Leader of the House on her appointment and look forward to working with her as closely as I did with her predecessor on the best practice and business of the House.
On Committees, will the hon. Lady inform us whether the Government have any intention of establishing a Select Committee on science. There is a huge amount of pressure to set up such a Committee, not least from the Minister for Science, the noble Lord Drayson. What is the Government’s position on setting up a Select Committee to consider science policy?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Next Thursday we will be considering House business and our aim is to bring forward proposals for the Committee structure he has talked about. We are mindful of the fact that the previous Select Committee on Science and Technology was very popular, and I am sure it would be very welcome in all parts of the House if we were to table a motion to re-establish it.
May I join other Members in welcoming my hon. Friend to her new post? Speaking as a member of both the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee, I urge on her the need for us to be prepared to take forward the work that will be done by the Parliamentary Reform Committee, which, as she said, will meet only for a defined period. I urge her to recognise that the work of the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee significantly overlap and could easily be merged into the Procedure Committee, so ensuring that co-ordinated progress is made.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. This was a question that my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), found himself answering on many occasions at the Dispatch Box, so we really must consider the question put today, and make progress.
I welcome the fact that the energy of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) will be applied to parliamentary reform, but could we not have achieved the same objective by his taking over the chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee?
That is a difficult one for me to answer. The Modernisation Committee, which I have been reading a lot about in the past few days, has registered some great achievements, as has the Procedure Committee; we are very much looking forward to the Procedure Committee’s report on written questions. This is a new initiative, however, and it is very welcome; I do not want anybody to think that we do not very much welcome the new Parliamentary Reform Committee. It is an idea for its time, and the time is now.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Demonstrations (Parliament Square)
Parliament square is a world heritage site, but it currently looks a bit like a rather dated set for an episode of “Steptoe and Son”. Will the House of Commons Commission, together with the Leader of the House and the Home Office—and whomever—sort out this situation? I yield to nobody in my defence of people’s right to demonstrate outside Parliament, and in fact I deprecate the Criminal Justice Act that brought in some sort of strange exclusion zone to limit demonstrations outside Parliament. However, those demonstrations cannot go on for ever, and we should be able to strike a balance so that people may demonstrate and the world heritage site looks as it is meant to look.
The Serjeant at Arms has made representations to the Metropolitan police to the effect that access to this House is essential for the working of the House. Beyond that, the policing of Parliament square is a matter for the Metropolitan police, and by extension the Mayor of London and the Home Office. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but he would do better to raise these matters in Home Office questions, as they are not a matter for the House of Commons Commission.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the Tamil community on the dignified way in which it conducted its protest, and on the fact that it vacated Parliament square yesterday? Although there are long-term issues to consider, as the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has said, the fact that that demonstration is no longer there shows that by working with the police, organisations can get the right to protest and show that they are able to conduct themselves with dignity.
I am grateful that this gives me the opportunity to confirm that the Tamil demonstration is now over. I believe that there is to be a further large-scale demonstration in central London, but the protest in Parliament square is over, and the authorisation for it was, I understand, due to expire in a few days’ time in any case.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
As I mentioned in an earlier reply, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced the creation of a new Committee to be set up for a defined short period to look at issues of reform, such as making Select Committee processes more democratic, scheduling for more and better time for non-Government business, and engaging the public in topics for debate such as petitions.
The political process may need Whips to give shape and direction to efficient policy implementation, but the parliamentary system allows the Executive to take liberties with democracy, generating an atavistic herd instinct that strangles independent thought and objectivity. Does my hon. Friend agree that an ordered party is best obtained by persuasion rather than patronage, and by consent rather than compulsion? If we are serious about reform, we must abandon the coercion and inducements available to Whips, starting with having more powerful Select Committees chosen by this House.
I will try not to take that too personally; until very recently I was my hon. Friend’s Whip. I very much hope that he believes that the relationship I had with him when I was a Whip allowed him to be independent-minded and to decide for himself. Compulsion and the other things he mentioned are not facets of the Whips Office; Labour Members are independent-minded and the Whips Office just works to try to get the Government business through.
At the moment, programming seems to be decided by what are euphemistically called “the usual channels”: the Government and Opposition Whips getting together. Will the Government adopt the practice, used in the Scottish Parliament, of conducting a business committee on which all parties are represented? That would mean that decisions on programming could be taken much more transparently.