House of Commons
Wednesday 1 July 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock.
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Civil Service Reform
I have not received any specific representations on civil service reform, but this House knows that we remain committed to ensuring that the civil service is transparent and accountable and delivers the maximum value for every public pound of investment.
For civil service reforms to have an impact outside Whitehall, we need fuller information about the activities of senior civil servants. The delayed publication of the 2007 hospitality lists was just a start. Should we not, for example, place in the public domain permanent secretaries’ diaries? Would that not help to create the sort of transparency that the public expect nowadays from unelected officials, and help to refresh the machinery of government as part of real constitutional renewal?
I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in the issue, and he will know about the commitment to transparency in publishing all details of senior civil service hospitality and expenses. He will also know that the Cabinet Secretary yesterday took the first step in publishing his own expenses, a move that was warmly welcomed by the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Does the Minister believe that it is proper that when the civil service code is drafted it should be scrutinised by Parliament as part of a Bill, rather than as secondary legislation?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to placing the civil service code on a statutory basis. That forms part of the Constitutional Renewal Bill that will come before the House. As with all these things, the challenge is to find legislative time, but the important point is that the civil service has taken very substantial steps to improve and to enhance accountability without legislation, and that is to be welcomed.
It is a pleasure to congratulate the Paymaster General and the Minister of State on their appointments. We look forward to having many fruitful discussions both across the Dispatch Box and elsewhere.
A report in May by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that finance directors in central Government Departments do not “have a pivotal place” at the public sector “top table” and
“their boards have a mixed appetite for transparency in financial decisions”.
In light of the crying need for greater efficiency in the face of Britain’s worsening public finances, does the Minister agree that the status and authority of such finance directors need to be raised to the same level as that which they enjoy in the private sector?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I entirely agree with his sentiment. The value-for-money discipline that the finance director ultimately oversees needs to be a cultural discipline in Government Departments, promoted in every possible way with maximum transparency. I would also draw to his attention and underline, however, the success of the savings made by central Government through the civil service as a result of the Gershon review: £26 billion worth of savings have been made, with plans for a further £35 billion worth of savings, in order that we can continue to invest in public services as we believe the public wish.
We are familiar with the numbers that the Paymaster General has just read out, but we are slightly less convinced about their relationship with the reality of efficiencies actually delivered. Will she confirm that the now much delayed Constitutional Renewal Bill will include provisions that were in the draft Civil Service Bill, which was promised for more than a decade but still has not seen the light of day in Parliament? Will the Constitutional Renewal Bill contain provisions on special advisers? Given the corrosive effect of some special advisers on the quality and integrity of government, should not the Bill place a cap on their number and reassert in law that their role is to advise Ministers and not to direct the civil service—or does the fact that Damian McBride is apparently still in contact with Ministers just go to show that a change of culture within Whitehall will not happen without a change of Government?
If the right hon. Gentleman is going to make assertions such as the one he made in relation to Damian McBride, he needs to provide some evidence. The important step the Government have taken has been to publish—the Prime Minister has been absolutely unequivocal about this—a code for special advisers, which was very recently updated to underline with absolute clarity special advisers’ responsibilities. I would just add that it is very easy to abuse special advisers as a category on the basis of the bad behaviour of a tiny minority, but in my view they greatly enhance the effective working of government, and that should be welcomed.
Business Disruption Plans
The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 places a duty on local authorities to provide business continuity advice, which ensures that advice reflects local conditions at times of emergency and meets local needs. To support that work, the Government have set up a business continuity advice line and in 2008 we published a national risk register to encourage organisations to prepare for the impact of business disruption. In addition, we are supporting the quality of that advice by the adoption of a British standard for business continuity.
In March, a Cabinet Office survey found that the proportion of small businesses that had a business continuity plan fell from 25 per cent. to only 14 per cent. The possibility of allowing a premium discount with insurers was being considered to see whether that would reverse the trend in respect of companies that had a business disruption plan. Will the Minister say whether she agrees with that strategy and how far the Cabinet Office has got with that investigation?
It is clearly the responsibility of local authorities to pursue that policy with their small businesses and through their local organisations. However, the figures to which the hon. Lady refers rightly give cause for concern, and I am happy to write to her further about that matter.
We recognise that there is a double challenge for the sector during the economic downturn: not only is there an increased demand for services, but there are concerns about financial viability. In response, we have devised a significant package of support for the third sector comprising up to £42.5 million of targeted supported, which is delivering real help now, when it is needed, and the £16.7 million hardship fund announced in the Budget in April. In addition, the sector will have a share in the £1.2 billion future jobs fund. That is a comprehensive package of measures. It includes support for volunteers, grants for small organisations and social enterprises, support for jobs and loans to assist partnership working.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her extensive answer and I welcome her to her post. Does she realise that some people, particularly those with economic problems and the charities that deal with such problems, are encountering more difficulties than others? As money is being filtered into the Olympics as well, such people are finding it very hard to make ends meet these days. What additional help can be given to those people, particularly those who are having problems balancing their house budgets?
It was an extensive answer because it is an extensive package of support. The two key things that I should point out to my hon. Friend are the £42 million-plus package, which will support in various ways those organisations facing difficulties because of the recession, and the hardship fund. That will apply in a number of different ways, and charities and voluntary organisations will find it very useful. In addition, £515 million of support is available generally from the Office of the Third Sector. All those things coming together will provide significant help through these difficult times.
Please will the Minister make an assessment of the impact, during the economic downturn, on charities and others of the area charging regime used by water companies? The rain tax is having a substantial impact across the country. There is not a charitable organisation in my constituency, be it a charity shop, a scout group, a church or any other voluntary group, that is not being adversely affected by the tax.
I certainly understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, because all of us, as individual Members of Parliament, receive correspondence from a wide range of organisations in our constituencies. I understand that this matter is being examined by the regulators and that Ministers have been talking to them in order to look into it.
Will my right hon. Friend find time to examine the proposal made only a few months ago—I understand that it is still subject to detailed evaluation in her Department—for lifetime legacies to be brought into the field of charitable giving? That would make a big difference at a time of great difficulty for charities.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I know that other countries, in particular the United States, have taken on board lifetime legacies in a significant way. I shall look into the matter, because we want to ensure that charities, the voluntary sector and the third sector as a whole can access support when they need it. That is one area that we can consider.
May I press the new Minister for a better answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key)? Church groups, scout groups and sports clubs face crippling hikes in their water bills as a result of the proposed changes. Three months ago, I asked the previous Minister whether he would consider a moratorium, at least until an impact assessment was carried out. He said that he would speak to colleagues across Government, but we have heard nothing and time is running out. In welcoming the members of the new team, may I ask them what their view is? Will they consider a moratorium or the idea of a special social tariff, or will they continue the policy of doing nothing?
That is an interesting question from the party that privatised the water industry, which has had a direct impact on the bills that are being seen today. After three weeks in office, I do not have a final answer for the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he will understand that I want to look into the matter. We understand the concerns that have been raised and we are talking to colleagues in Government and the regulators about the issue.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that among the hardest hit by the recession are young people. How will the hardship fund in particular, and the voluntary sector in general, help young people to obtain the necessary skills that they need to get through the recession and find much needed jobs at the end of it?
My hon. Friend has hit on a key point. By volunteering or becoming involved in the third sector, people gain skills that help them into employment. For young people specifically, I would point her to the charity v, which has significant funding from the Government and is building a database of volunteering opportunities for young people. Many of those enable young people to gain skills that will lead them into work. V also provides support to ensure that volunteering is an activity that builds new skills.
As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been extensive ministerial discussions about democratic renewal. The Prime Minister has announced the creation of a new democratic renewal council to drive forward the Government’s commitment to further reform. We have already introduced the Parliamentary Standards Bill and published our draft legislative programme, which includes the Constitutional Renewal Bill.
The Minister mentioned the Prime Minister. Is she aware that he wrote two letters in March to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, asking the committee to look into the whole question of Members’ remuneration, allowances and outside interests, covering what the Prime Minister called “the full picture”? Why then are the Government rushing through the House a Bill on the constitution that deals with precisely those matters before Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations? Is not this all about bad government and saving the Prime Minister’s political skin?
No, the Prime Minister’s sole concern is to restore public confidence in politics and the way in which this House and Members conduct their business. That is why he took the initiative, in the light of all the expenses revelations, to bring forward specific proposals. He has made it clear that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry is independent and that we will accept its recommendations when they are published in the autumn. However, it was clear that the public wanted action now, and the Prime Minister and the Government have acted on that.
Does the Paymaster General agree that it is most unfortunate that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry, ranging as it does across all aspects of the House, has chosen today to be in Northern Ireland, when it is Prime Minister’s questions and the majority of Members from Northern Ireland are likely to be here? I hope that it is not a harbinger of things to come in terms of Members’ access to the inquiry.
As Sir Christopher Kelly is the independent chairman of that independent inquiry, he is free to make the arrangements that he needs to make to take the views of the public in every area of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that we all welcome that. I am sure that he will learn a lot from the feedback of the people of Northern Ireland today.
While I welcome the Government’s new-found desire for democratic reform, the National Democratic Renewal Council—a closed Cabinet Sub-Committee made up solely of Labour Members and therefore neither national nor democratic—is possibly the worst way to do that. Will the new ministerial team reconsider that secrecy and, instead, set up a citizens convention to ensure the widest possible public involvement and support?
The National Democratic Renewal Council is part of the machinery of government, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that the relevant Ministers and Secretaries of State sit on it. However, it is associated with a wider, more extensive and deeper commitment to engagement with the public in debating these issues than has ever been the case before. I am quite sure that proper consideration will be given to the arguments not just for a citizens commission—an argument with which I am familiar—but for other forms of sustained public engagement that will shape the conclusions of the consultation.
Charities (Economic Downturn)
I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). The recession affects different organisations in many different ways, and that is why we have provided a significant package of support that has different elements to it—support for volunteers, grants for small organisations, social enterprises and support for jobs, as well as loans to assist partnership working.
I thank the Minister for her reply. On Monday, Cancer Care Cymru, which is a local charity based in my constituency and which funds specialist cancer nurses to work closely with people who are suffering from cancer and receiving treatment in the NHS, announced that it was closing because of a slump in fundraising. That is a terrible loss for people suffering from cancer in the Cardiff area. What can we do on a general level to help to stop such closures?
My hon. Friend has raised a very serious issue, which could be happening in different places, but I recommend that she looks at the different funding that is available. First, I recommend the hardship fund that will be in place at the end of this month. I also suggest that she looks at the package of £42 million that is available to provide real help now, and she might find that there is a way there to help the local community. Support is also being given through the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to help organisations with things such as fundraising, because that is key for things such as cancer care. She might find that there is some support there that she can talk to the NCVO about, so that her charity can get some extra support with fundraising, too.
Is the Minister aware that the very hardest hit in the charitable sector are the small charities that provide services that are much valued locally and that will not be provided by any of the statutory or larger organisations? I am referring to small charities such as the young mental health charity in my constituency. What advice can she give Members of Parliament and others to try to help these small charities to survive the present recession?
The hon. Lady makes a significant point. It is often the smallest charities that make a real difference to people’s lives on the ground. May I direct her to the funding that is available through the grassroots grants? About £130 million is available that is issued locally. In her area, there will be a department of a third sector organisation issuing those funds in sums of anything from £5,000 to a few hundred pounds. On the ground, that can make a real difference. If she has any problems, I ask her please to come to me, and we can direct her to the funding in her area.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution relies totally on donations from the public. I declare an interest as a member of its national council. One of the burdens that it faces in this recession, and has faced throughout its existence, is the VAT that it has to pay on equipment and fittings. Will the Minister take that matter up with colleagues in other Departments to try to get some sort of exemption so that the RNLI can carry out its work on behalf of us all?
I pay tribute to the RNLI for its work. In a previous life, I met its representatives on many occasions. This is a matter for the Treasury, but we will draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of Treasury Ministers—[Interruption.]
Community Asset Transfers
The stronger and more sustainable third sector organisations are, the better they can help to build stronger and more resilient communities. To that end, my Department is funding a £30 million community assets programme and we are working with the Big Lottery Fund to refurbish underused buildings in 38 communities across England. We are also working across Government to invest in community assets: for example, the Department for Communities and Local Government has invested in the £70 million Communitybuilders programme.
The scheme got off to a slow start because the work had to be put in place, but we now have 38 different organisations receiving significant grants from the Big Lottery Fund. Those grants will make a real difference on the ground, and I am pleased with how matters are now progressing.
In my constituency, the local council wants to transfer the assets of community centres to the local community. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that the people running centres such as the Norton community centre do not want the responsibility of taking on contractual and employment liabilities?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that concerns many people. When we talk about community asset transfers, we are talking about the Government putting in money to support organisations and communities. The will to do that has come from the communities themselves. With community asset transfers, the liability is transferred not to the community but to an asset. Local councils must realise that the scheme is funded by the Government for local communities. It must not be forced on local communities, but should be carried out with their co-operation and direction.
Third Sector Funding
In the last financial year, Capacitybuilders allocated over £24 million to charities and voluntary sector organisations. Communitybuilders was announced in the Department for Communities and Local Government White Paper “Communities in Control” in July 2008. As planned, the programme will be open for applications this summer, and its national partner will be the Adventure Capital Fund.
The gift aid programme is making good progress, and it gives charities a significant amount of additional money. A recent specific reform is that the profits generated when goods given to charity shops are sold can be donated as gift aid to the organisations involved. There is further work to be done with gift aid, and I understand that the Treasury is looking at it at the moment, in consultation with Ministers.
The grassroots grants scheme is worth £130 million and provides small grants and endowments for local community groups. The beauty of the programme is that local communities make the funding decisions, based on local priorities. So far, almost 10,000 grants have been awarded, to the benefit of many organisations that had not benefited before. The criteria set by the Government are that the recipients are bona fide third sector organisations with an income below £30,000, that they meet the needs of the local community and that they are driven by committed local volunteers.
The number of children trafficked into Britain is increasing. The police cannot cope, and local authorities are finding that the children abscond from their homes. Why will the Government support local, voluntary and community groups more, as they can provide guardianship, legal advice and support for children in distress? I hope that the Minister does not mention the POPPY project, as that deals only with adults. Why are the Government not supporting voluntary and community effort more, when the public sector is failing?
I am not aware of any applications under the grassroots fund for the sort of organisations that the hon. Gentleman has referred to. However, the money in the grassroots fund has been well received, and we will be happy to look at applications from any organisation.
Charities (Economic Downturn)
The Government have taken unprecedented steps to help third sector organisations affected by all aspects of the international economic crisis. We have listened to the sector, including those organisations affected by the Icelandic banking collapse. The packages announced in the real help for communities fund and the more recently announced hardship fund total £59 million. That clearly demonstrates our commitment to supporting the sector through difficult times.
A large number of charities have had their assets frozen as a result of the Icelandic banking collapse. Why have the Government ignored the Treasury Committee’s recommendation for compensation, and will the Government consider establishing a short-term Treasury loan fund to help out sound charities facing genuine hardship? [Interruption.]
The Government are doing an enormous, unprecedented amount to help charities and voluntary sector organisations that are facing difficulties in the recession. The hon. Gentleman outlined the situation facing one group of organisations. I have to say to him that it would be difficult to single out one particular organisation or reason. The hardship fund that is in place, which is real help now, is a greater package than has ever been in place to help charities through difficult times. It has never been matched by any previous Government.
Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the beloved Christie cancer hospital in Manchester on its successful campaign to obtain a refund of charity money lost following the collapse of an Icelandic bank? Will she thank the Government for arranging that refund, and will she congratulate Lord Bradley on heading that successful campaign?
Everyone is always pleased—indeed, the Prime Minister has said so himself—when organisations that are in difficulties gain support. The refund was a local decision, taken by NHS North West, responding to a local need. We are all very pleased to see Christie getting the support that it deserves.
The Prime Minister was asked—
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, the whole House will wish to join me in welcoming today Her Majesty the Queen’s approval for a new form of recognition for the families of those members of the armed forces killed on operations and as a result of terrorism. Her Majesty will be making an announcement today, directly to the families of armed forces personnel, in which she will make clear her personal attachment to the new recognition. I am confident that that will be a very special and fitting tribute indeed to the great debt that we owe to all those who die on operations, and to the enduring loss shouldered by their families.
This morning I met ministerial colleagues and others. I shall have further such meetings later today.
Our armed forces are the bravest and the best in the world, and in the armed forces day celebrations on Saturday the people showed how much they love and respect them.
May I ask the Prime Minister about swine flu? A number of people in Castle Point—adults and children—have tested positive, and the local campaigning newspaper, the Echo, is keen to reassure people that progress is being made. What will he do next to tackle the problem?
I share with the hon. Gentleman the respect that he has stated for our armed forces, and for the armed forces day on Saturday, when thousands of people in all parts of the country wanted to give recognition—deserved recognition—to the work that our armed forces do every day.
The hon. Gentleman raises the question of swine flu. He may know that we have had an emergency meeting of the Cobra group—the civil contingencies secretariat—today to look at the incidence of the disease. I have to report to the House that the total number of confirmed cases for the UK now stands at 6,538. That compares with just 2,236 last week. That large rise in numbers of confirmed cases means that a more flexible and local approach will be used in areas where there are higher numbers of cases reported. The Health Protection Agency, in conjunction with the NHS, is doing excellent work to limit the spread of the virus. We continue to monitor the situation closely, making sure that arrangements are in place so that the UK remains well placed to deal with the pandemic. We will adapt those arrangements as the situation changes, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will make a statement to this House tomorrow on the outcome of our deliberations.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said about the armed forces. My grandfather, Hugh MacDonald, served in the Black Watch during the second world war. He is buried in the Black Watch section of the military cemetery in Gibraltar. The House will excuse me for using Scottish vernacular, but I fear that he might be birling in his grave at the thought that the famous red hackle of the Black Watch may be no more. What assurances can the Prime Minister give, not only to me but to serving personnel and veterans, whom I met on Saturday, that the Black Watch red hackle will remain the symbol of the Black Watch?
I welcome what the Prime Minister said, and I agree with him about the Queen’s new recognition for our armed forces—we should all be incredibly proud of what they do on our behalf.
Last week, it was demonstrated for everyone to see that capital spending under Labour will be cut. Now I want to turn to total spending. Does the Prime Minister accept that his own figures show that once the Treasury’s forecast for inflation is taken into account, total spending will be cut after 2011?
I think that that answer gets zero per cent. The Prime Minister said very clearly no, it will rise, so can he explain a copy of a Treasury presentation that was given to us? On page 7, there are headings for current spending and capital spending, and the headline says very clearly: “Reduction in medium-term spending”. May I ask the Prime Minister, if even the Treasury is giving presentations around the country saying that public spending as a total is being cut, why cannot he admit to the truth?
I have told the right hon. Gentleman previously that current spending is going to rise, and that capital spending, as I explained last week, will fall after 2011. These are the public spending projections for the future, but I have to tell him that the debate about public spending is about how we return to growth and jobs in the economy. The reason we have advanced spending to 2009-10 is so that we can spend to get out of recession. We put forward proposals for homes and jobs, and for more money in 2009-10. The Opposition have rejected this expenditure. We have put forward proposals for expenditure in 2010-11—increasing expenditure, and the Opposition have rejected that.
The capital spending that we have advanced to 2009-10 and 2010-11 is therefore not available after 2011. This is precisely the way in which a Government will act to take the country out of recession, and I must therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman why—[Interruption.] Oh yes. His shadow Chancellor should explain why he was going into television studios yesterday saying that he was going to cut schools now, cut Sure Start now, cut the September guarantee for school leavers now, and do nothing about unemployment. That is surely the issue: we cannot get out of recession unless we spend now on the services that we need.
Today we see a Prime Minister in full retreat. In the first answer, he says that we are going to get a zero per cent. increase in public spending—that is a new one. In the second answer, he finally admits that he is going to cut, and cut deeply, capital spending. He talks about the debate about public spending: the debate is about whether the Prime Minister can be straight with the British public. Let me ask him again. He stood at the Dispatch Box and talked about total spending year after year—that is the figure that people are interested in. As the Treasury itself says, when it comes to total spending, there is a reduction, not a freeze, in medium-term spending—I am glad that the Prime Minister is talking to the Chancellor for the first time in weeks—and given that it is talking about a cut, will the Prime Minister stand there, give a straight answer and say that once we allow for inflation, total spending is being cut?
I have already said that current expenditure will rise, and continue to rise. Capital spending will rise until 2011, then it will fall. I have already made it clear that for health, education and for all these public services current spending will continue to rise. The issue is surely this: in 2009-10, we are raising spending substantially. We are doing so in 2010-11, and we are doing it to take us out of recession. There is only one serious party in the world that is trying to tell us that we should cut spending now—the Conservative party. The right hon. Gentleman must therefore admit that under his proposals, schools would lose money now, teachers would be made unemployed, Sure Start services would go, child care services would be at risk, and no teenager would get a guarantee for jobs. That is the future if the Conservatives were ever to implement it.
Complete nonsense. Nobody—[Interruption.] It is interesting that not even the Prime Minister’s own Cabinet now backs the ludicrous line that he is taking about public spending. He keeps talking about this 10 per cent. I do not know whether he realises how much damage it is doing to him. It is not doing any damage to us. Let us explain where the deceit about the 10 per cent. comes from. Let me explain to the House—[Interruption.]
If we take the Government’s own spending plans, take off debt interest and take off the increase for unemployment, which, sadly, will go up, we are left with a 7 per cent. cut in every Department—the Government’s own figures. If we exempt the NHS, we get a 10 per cent. cut—the Government’s own figures. If we take out—[Interruption.] Thank you, Schools Secretary. If we listen to the Schools Secretary and take out health and schools, we get a 13½ per cent. cut. That is the Prime Minister: Mr. 13½ per cent.—his own figures. Let us see if he can answer the simplest of questions. Is he going to have a full departmental spending review before the election—yes or no?
The first thing that the right hon. Gentleman said was that unemployment is going to continue to go up. That is the Conservative policy. It is a prediction. That is when they say that unemployment is a price worth paying. Is he basing his assumptions on unemployment rising to 2014? No wonder he wants to cut public services. He is basing his assumptions on unemployment continuing to rise, because he will do absolutely nothing about it. We have taken action that is preserving 500,000 jobs. A quarter of a million people are leaving the unemployment register every month. We put in extra money on Monday so that there is more for young people who are unemployed and for summer school leavers. We will not forecast our spending plans on unemployment being higher in 2014 and rising every year, but if that is what the right hon. Gentleman wants to do, he cannot afford public services. Therefore the truth is that he will be cutting public services by 10 per cent.
I have to say that this is one of the most feeble performances that I have ever seen from the Prime Minister. If Peter Mandelson had not been so busy wandering round the television studios this morning, he could have given him a bit of tuition. There is only one person who we want to add to the unemployment register, and that is this Prime Minister. I asked a simple and straightforward question. Perhaps he could now answer it. Peter Mandelson has said that there will not be a spending review before the election. Can the Prime Minister tell us—will there be one or not?
It would be wrong to have a spending review now, at this stage—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] Because we are in the midst of a recession and it is not possible to say what unemployment, growth and all the characteristics that the right hon. Gentleman has been referring to are likely to be in 2012, 2013 and 2014. We have got to the heart of the Conservative position today. They are the party of unemployment. They are premising all their spending plans on unemployment continuing to rise. He said himself that unemployment will keep on rising. If that is the basis of their spending plans, people can look forward, under a Conservative Government, not just to 10 per cent. cuts, but to rising unemployment. Why do they want these public spending cuts? To pay for inheritance tax cuts for the very rich. We see once again that they are the party of the few, and we are the party of the many.
I know the walls of the bunker are thick, but the Prime Minister seems completely unaware that unemployment is rising across the country because of the policies of his Government. We have seen hundreds of people lose their jobs at Diageo in Scotland—another tragic case—yet the Prime Minister seems blissfully unaware of what is going on in the country that he is meant to be governing. Everyone will conclude that the Government will not have a spending review because they do not want to own up to the cuts that they are planning in Department after Department. The truth is that this Government are planning to cut capital spending: fact. They are planning to cut total spending: fact. The most important fact of all is that they are incapable of being straight with the British people.
This Opposition would cut public spending this year and deprive people of help with unemployment and housing. This Opposition party would cut public spending next year, and cut it savagely in schools, in education and even in the Sure Start programme. We now know the truth about the Conservatives’ assumptions about the future: they assume that unemployment will continue to rise, as the right hon. Gentleman said, until 2014. That is not the policy of this Government; we want to get people back into work.
Does the second franchise fiasco on the east coast main line in two years not tell us that the Tory rail privatisation experiment has finally hit the buffers? Now that we are taking the east coast main line back into public ownership, can we keep it that way?
Our first and overriding obligation is to ensure continuity of service to the passengers, and that there is no disruption of services, so the Secretary of State for Transport is establishing a publicly owned company, the East Coast Main Line company. It will take over all franchised rail services at the point that National Express East Coast ceases to operate, and existing staff and assets will transfer to the new company. We are making sure that the service continues to run, that passengers continue to be served and that jobs continue to exist.
I first join in welcoming the announcement from Her Majesty today for such a fitting tribute to recognise the bravery and sacrifices of our armed forces.
This afternoon we have seen the bogus debate about public spending hit new lows. I am almost tempted to suggest that Lord Mandelson and the Conservative economic spokesman go on another cruise together to make up. The real failing is that the Conservative party leader wants to cut spending when the economy is still on its knees, which is economic madness, and he will not tell us how; and the Prime Minister is still living in complete denial about the long-term savings that will be needed when the economy starts to recover. Are they not both deliberately choosing to trade insults so that they can both avoid telling the truth?
The right hon. Gentleman does not tell us what his policy is at all. The fact of the matter is that if spending were cut this year, jobs would be lost and services would be put at risk; and if spending were cut next year, jobs would be lost and services would be at risk. We are determined to ensure that spending remains in order to increase job opportunities and to protect home owners, and to make sure that our public services are in place. I hope that he will join our side of the debate in protecting public services for the future.
What the Prime Minister is avoiding once again is the fact that difficult choices on long-term spending need to be made now if we are going to get any grip on the country’s finances. That is why we should admit that we neither need nor can afford to replace Trident. He is planning to sign the first contracts for the new Trident submarines this summer, during the recess when we are all away. Is it not obvious that he should not do that?
We have already announced a deficit-reduction plan for the next five years. We have taken difficult decisions about efficiency savings and asset sales, and about raising the top rate of tax: about measures that ensure that people who are in a position to pay more do pay more in the tax system—that is, at the top rate of tax. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support those measures, which are designed both to reduce the deficit and to ensure that there are sufficient resources for public services. I have already made my position on Trident clear—in the debate on Monday.
Last week Corus announced 379 job losses in the steelworking town of Stocksbridge in my constituency—job losses that will have a devastating impact on the economy of a town with a population of only 13,500. Will my right hon. Friend make a commitment to do whatever he can to ensure that Corus can secure a long-term future for steelworking in places such as Stocksbridge?
Corus employs more than 20,000 people in this country, and wherever there are redundancies it is a matter of sadness and regret. We are dealing with a fall in demand in the steel industry throughout the world, and it is affecting Britain and every other country. We are in talks with Corus, we have provided extra money in the past week for help to secure jobs and we will continue to talk with it about what more we can do. We are also in negotiations with Corus about its relationship with a conglomerate of steel producers. That contract has broken down; it puts jobs in Britain at risk; and we are trying to do what we can to ensure the agreement of a new arrangement that can protect more jobs in Britain.
As I have already explained to the House, we are bringing forward investment, previously allocated for later years, to 2009-10 and 2010-11. The reason why we are doing so is that we can help get the economy out of the recession. The capital investment would not be supported by the Conservative party. As a result, projects such as housing, in which we are investing from this Monday, as we have announced, could not go ahead. I have already explained to the House that while the previous Budget announced that there was a rise in capital expenditure over a period of time, more money has been reallocated to the first years so that we can help ourselves out of recession.
There has been a great deal of talk about the modernisation of the House, but I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether we could go back in time—to when we had Prime Minister’s Question Time twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There would be much more accountability to Back Benchers, the questions would be more topical and the Chamber would be much better attended on Thursdays.
As the hon. Gentleman should know, in 1997 there were 70,000 apprenticeships in Britain; this year, there are 225,000—three times as many. To say that we have reduced the number of apprenticeships, or that we are not taking the issue seriously, is wrong. As far as training programmes are concerned, on Monday we announced how we would do more for summer school leavers and for young people under 25. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the new investment that we have made into those measures. They cost money; I hope that his party is prepared to support them, even if the Conservative party is not.
I understand that Wigan will receive more than £21 million between 2008-09 and 2010-11 as an additional resource to help tackle problems faced by local people. Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about both the neighbourhood renewal fund and some other aspects of central funding to local authorities, but I do say that in the past few years we have increased those resources substantially. Where there is unemployment, we will be increasing resources to help people get back to work.
We are raising expenditure on the health service this year and next year. The hon. Gentleman should know perfectly well that we have done so against the advice of the Conservative party, which would prefer to see—[Interruption.] If we had not taken the decision to raise national insurance to put investment in the national health service, we could not have had the 90,000 extra nurses, the 20,000 extra doctors and the new hospitals. That decision was opposed by the Conservative party.
In a few days’ time, the newly elected European Parliament sits for the first time. Can the Prime Minister assure me that Labour MEPs will not sit with Polish MEPs who are homophobic and of an anti-Semitic orientation, with Czech MEPs who believe that global warming is a myth, or with Dutch MEPs who think that abortion should be abolished and that Sunday shopping should stop? Which party does support those loonies and weirdos?
It took the Leader of the Opposition almost a year to admit that there was a recession all over Europe. Now that he has had to admit it, perhaps he should also admit that there is a need for co-operation all over Europe to deal with these issues. What I think people will find very sad is a Conservative party now on the fringes of Europe with some of the extreme parties on the right wing of the European political family.
The hon. Lady will know that the Health Secretary will make a statement tomorrow on the issue of swine flu. We will make sure that at all points we are vigilant in ensuring that the treatment of that disease in every part of the country is right and proper.
My right hon. Friend may have seen today’s announcement by Diageo on the restructuring of jobs in Scotland, to which the Leader of the Opposition referred. It was mixed news, with 500 job losses over two years but also £100 million of investment, including in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to negate the loss of these jobs, and will he agree to meet the company to discuss its continued plans for investment in Scotland?
Where there is unemployment, we are ready to help. The measures that we announced on Monday will move in to help young people, but also adults who are losing their jobs. It is possible for firms making capital investment to get new capital allowances which were introduced in the Budget to stimulate new investment. We are seeking an investment-led recovery. The capital spending that we have reallocated to 2008-09 and 2009-10, while it falls in 2010-11, is vital to doing that. We will continue to back private investment in our country, and these are the figures that I want to make clear to the House.
The hon. Gentleman raises very difficult issues. I am sure that the whole House will share my deep disappointment at the recent behaviour of the Iranian regime: disappointment at the manner in which legitimate demonstrations have been suppressed; disappointment at the restrictions that he has mentioned on the freedoms of the Iranian people, with people due to stand before a closed court on 11 July; and disappointment that the Iranian Government have expelled two of our diplomats and detained several of our embassy staff. This action is unjustified and unacceptable. Some people in Iran are seeking to use Britain as an explanation for the legitimate Iranian voices calling for greater openness and democracy. However, we will continue, with our international partners, to raise our concerns with Iran, including on the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised.
Following job cuts announced by Lloyds, will the Prime Minister assure banking staff in my constituency that he will do all he can to protect their jobs? Will he join me in sending a clear message to Lloyds Banking Group that further job losses would be totally unacceptable?
I have visited the area and talked to staff, and I understand their frustrations at what is happening. They have served the bank well, and they are the victims of what has happened to HBOS in its worldwide activities, particularly its failures in other countries. We will do what we can to help the staff of HBOS and Lloyds TSB. We are also making it possible for people to have new facilities to find jobs in the area. We will do what we can to reduce unemployment in these difficult circumstances; that is why we have set aside £5 billion to help the unemployed, which is only possible because we have made these additional allocations.
Being straight with the British people means talking about how we get out of recession and how we build for growth. It is not much good the Opposition’s talking about 2011 when they are cutting spending in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Throughout this debate, they have refused to support the action we are taking on jobs. They have no plan to come out of recession, they have no plan for jobs, and they have no plan for growth in the economy: they have nothing to offer the British electorate but cheap gibes and no policy.
I do not know why the Opposition mock this. Giving a guarantee for school leavers to get a school place, a college place, an apprenticeship or work experience—some form of activity that prevents them from being unemployed—has never been done before. That costs money, and we are prepared to spend that money. The Opposition party would refuse that money. In other words, thousands would be unemployed as a result of the Opposition’s policy.
Is the Prime Minister aware that some of the finest residential training for severely disabled people has been put in jeopardy by the decision this week of the Learning and Skills Council not to fund the expansion of the National Star college in my constituency? Would he agree to meet a delegation of some of the disabled students, some of the principals of the college and myself, to discuss the unique situation of that college and see whether there is a solution to this problem?
We have set aside £2.3 billion for investment in further education colleges over this spending review period. We put an additional £300 million into that in the Budget. I will ask—[Interruption.] This comes under expenditure on colleges, and it needs money that would have to be provided by the Government. I am saying to the hon. Gentleman that I shall get the further education colleges Minister to meet him about this, but we have put £300 million extra into the investment in capital buildings as a result of the Budget.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have learned overnight that two of the UK’s three shipyards may close in the years ahead. Given that that would cause thousands of job losses on the Clyde or at Portsmouth, have you heard from Ministers in the Ministry of Defence whether it is going to make a statement to this House or leave the Chamber without telling Members of Parliament what the future holds for shipyard workers in this country?
I fear that is not a point of order, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for placing his views firmly on the record. The answer to his question is that I have not had any indication from a Minister of an intention to make a statement, but, as I said, he has taken his opportunity to place his concerns on the record.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for me to raise the fact that the real threat to the future of the shipyards on the Clyde is the separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. Do you think it appropriate and acceptable that the major decision to renationalise the east coast main line should have been announced on the media this morning, and that this House will not have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State directly? Indeed, we will not even be the first to hear the statement. Do you think that that shows calculated disdain for the authority of this House?
Order. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) has raised a point of order, and I am sure that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) will want to hear the reply.
My understanding is that there is to be a statement at 7 o’clock this evening. As to the choice of Ministers to head Departments and the particular House of Parliament in which they sit, as the hon. Gentleman will know, that is not a matter for me.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it right that a political party should misuse an unfounded allegation about shipyards, when the company and the Ministry of Defence refute the allegations that are being made? It always seems to happen—every six months, people use those allegations for their own political purposes.
Further to the earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. It cannot be right for a major statement on the future of our railways to be made by a Secretary of State who is absent from this House. I was grateful for your advice last week, and I have written to the Procedure Committee. However, would not it be far preferable for such statements to be made to this House? Is it not a nonsensical convention that the statement has to be made in the House of Lords first? Should it not be made at 12.30 in this House, rather than waiting for the Lords to assemble further up the Corridor?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We were told in a debate in Westminster Hall this morning about rail services that the Minister was not in a position to answer questions about what has happened to the National Express franchise because of the statement to be made in the House of Lords, which would be repeated in the House of Commons. Is there any reason for delaying that statement until 7 o’clock tonight? I presume that it will be made in the House of Lords at 3.30 and could be made much earlier in the Commons.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last week, you promised the House that you would rebuke Ministers if they made announcements outside before making them in the House. On the “Today” programme this morning, I heard Lord Adonis announcing the nationalisation of the east coast railway a good 11 or 12 hours before the House will be told about it. What, Sir, can you do about that?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families visited a school in my constituency yesterday without informing me. I went anyway and was met by an abusive and unprofessional civil servant called Belshan Izzet, who told me that the constituency Member of Parliament had been informed of the visit—that was a lie—and that neither I nor the leader of the council nor one of the governors were allowed in during the prime ministerial visit. That is disgraceful behaviour by a civil servant. How can we ensure that it is not repeated and that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families abide by the conventions and courtesies of the House, which you set?
The hon. Gentleman is a regular user of the device of the point of order, which he is perfectly entitled to use. Of course, the normal courtesies should be observed, be it by Back Benchers or members of the Government. Members who go into other Members’ constituencies should give prior notification. They do not have to ask permission, but they should inform. However, I say in all candour and courtesy to the hon. Gentleman that it would be a bad precedent if Members started naming civil servants on the Floor of the House. I do not like it and I hope that we will not have a repetition of it.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Ministers appear routinely to visit hon. Members’ constituencies without informing them, and your predecessor spoke out as strongly as you have today, asking them to observe the courtesies. However, they are not observing them, so what action can be taken to ensure that they do so in future?
Further to the point of order of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), Mr. Speaker. You said that you thought that the Minister on the “Today” programme did not refer specifically to the action to be taken about the company. I listened to the programme, and he made it clear and explicit that the Government would take over the responsibilities for that company. It seems to me that he went beyond what was acceptable in an interview and made a statement on air. I do not wish to be pedantic, but that may give you cause to think a little more about your response to the Government.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. He had the advantage of hearing the interview and I confess that I did not. What he has put to me is reasonable. I do not know whether the line was crossed, but the fairest thing that I can say on the strength of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments is that I will look into the matter and come back about it.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last week I spoke to the Fabian Society in Chiswick and Sheffield, and I would like to apologise for not informing the hon. Members whose constituencies I was in. However, senior Conservatives regularly come to my constituency and do not tell me, although I do not worry about that, because every time they appear, the Tory vote goes down.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A number of clauses of the Parliamentary Standards Bill were left undebated in Committee yesterday. I have listened to your pronouncements on transparency and the power of Back Benchers to cross-examine the Executive, but what happened yesterday was wholly unacceptable. I therefore wonder what advice you could give a Back Bencher to determine this matter.
There will be further opportunity to debate some of those matters on Report. I have seen the sheer weight of amendments to the Bill and I am not insensitive to the point that there is a need for substantial time to debate them. However, at this stage I can say to the hon. Gentleman only that everything has been done in a perfectly orderly way, and in any event, Rome was not built in a day.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With respect to the Parliamentary Standards Bill this afternoon, could you give us some guidance as to how you will approach the question of amendments that may be moved on Report, given that, as you have said, very weighty questions arise—for example, on new clauses 7 and 8, which may not be reached, because new clauses are taken at the beginning on Report—and could you therefore also say whether you would be kind enough to consider those questions before Report?
I will consider those questions when I am aware of all the amendments that are before us, but it would be unwise and precipitate for me to do so at this stage. If there are no further points of order, we can move on.
Sustainable Energy (Local Plans) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Alan Simpson, supported by Mr. John Gummer, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Andrew Stunell, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Andrew Dismore, David Howarth, Mark Durkan, Andrew George, Mr. David Drew, Bob Russell and Steve Webb, presented a Bill to promote energy efficiency; to require specified bodies to publish sustainable energy plans; to make provision for the transfer of functions to principal councils; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 125).
Dangerous Dogs (Amendment)
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 amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997; and for connected purposes.
It is a pleasure to present this Bill to the House today. Before laying out what it is designed to achieve, I would like to pay tribute to the immense commitment shown by Claire Robinson of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and by Dave Joyce of the Communication Workers Union in putting together the campaign to change the law relating to the responsibilities of dog owners.
Why does the law need changing? At the moment, if a dog attacks in a public place, the owner can be prosecuted. However, this is not the case if the attack takes place on private property, yet there is clearly a problem as far as such attacks are concerned. Let us look at the statistics. Around 6,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every year, with 70 per cent. of those attacks taking place on private property. In one instance, at Christmas 2007, Paul Coleman, a postal worker in Sheffield, was attacked so badly that he needed skin grafts and plastic surgery. At Christmas 2008, Keith Davies nearly lost a leg in a horrific attack in Cambridge. Of course, we all hear about the horrific attacks on children, who sometimes suffer from awful lifelong disfigurements as a consequence, and sometimes we hear about the terrible deaths that occur when children are attacked in the home by dogs.
Clause 1 would therefore aim to extend the offence of having a dog dangerously out of control, so that it applied not only to attacks in public places, but to those in private places, such as homes and gardens. For instance, where postmen and women or other workers have to visit properties and are attacked in the gardens or within the dwelling, section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 would apply. It would also cover instances where children are injured and/or killed in the home.
Such a measure is commanding support from diverse quarters. The Dogs Trust says:
“This Bill… places additional emphasis on dog owners to take responsibility for their dog’s behaviour at all times”.
That is an important point. At the moment, if there is an attack on a child or adult by a dog, more often than not, that dog is destroyed, but it is the owner who needs to be the focus of attention and who needs to face the consequences. That point is also supported by the Kennel Club, which says that this part of the Bill is warmly welcomed because greater responsibility is being placed on the owners to ensure that their dogs are not out of control.
Thanks to a campaign by the RSPCA, nearly 4,000 members of the public contacted their MPs to support the Bill. One comment is particularly worthy of mention. It comes from a mother whose own child was attacked by her own dogs some years ago and who has been campaigning for a change in the law since then. She said to me:
“I wholeheartedly support any moves for safety and find the current situation regarding postal workers and dog aggression wholly unacceptable. The consequences are devastating and life-changing.”
I have met this mother and I can assure the House that, every week, she has to live with what happened—week-in, week-out; year-in, year-out. Her view is that education is the key to changing attitudes towards dog ownership. Dogs need to be properly trained and owners need to understand that sensible precautions should be followed to protect visitors and children in the home.
It is common sense that a child should never be left unsupervised in the company of a dog and it is surely not too difficult for dog owners to protect health visitors, meter readers, social workers or even the people who deliver parcels to the door by putting the dog in another room for the duration of a visit or while the door is being opened to a visitor. Surely such simple measures as a post box on the gate or a cage around the letter box in the door would do a great deal to protect postal workers. In that context, the ability to prosecute would be a useful tool for the police to employ in the most extreme cases and it could act as an important deterrent, helping to reinforce the message that education programmes are designed to convey.
Many other organisations support the measure. The Royal Mail, crucially, is giving it full support, as are the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management, Prospect and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. Unison also supports the measure because of concerns for its members who regularly visit patients and clients at home; while the group safety, health and environment manager of Scottish and Southern Energy has also pledged support. The legal department of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has received 30 claims for dog bites from members over the past two years, the bulk of which were from home delivery workers. In one case, a worker was so severely traumatised by a dog’s attack on her as she delivered goods to a private address that she gave up her job.
The case for change is clear and the range of public bodies and members of the public supporting the Bill is growing by the day. The Bill proposes to take the emphasis away from the breed and focus on the deed. Currently, all dogs classified under section 1 of the 1991 Act as belonging to a breed dedicated to fighting are subject to seizure by the police, but on many occasions they are seized only to be registered and handed back to the owners on the grounds that those dogs are responsibly owned and managed. This practice ties up valuable police resources and time, which could be put to better use in tackling the growing problem of so-called status dogs.
The current law is not working. RSPCA inspectors, many police officers and local authority wardens are seeing many more different types of large powerful dogs on the streets, and section 1 of the 1991 Act has not had the desired result of preventing the four named types of dogs from becoming established in the UK. It has just not worked. It is the view of the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club that it really is time to change the Act in order to allow section 1 dogs to be exempted and added to the register without necessarily being seized—if it is the police’s judgment that that is appropriate.
As I mentioned earlier, the Bill will focus attention on the deed rather than the breed. It is the action of owners—what they encourage or allow their dogs to do—that is important, rather than the breed or type of dog involved. This measure in my Bill is designed to give the police discretion to act accordingly.
It is time to take action. Support for these measures is widespread. Furthermore, the Scottish Parliament is legislating on the issue in the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced on Monday 22 June. It proposes that warning notices be issued to owners of dogs whose behaviour is deemed to be unacceptable. We should consider doing the same in England as part of a process beginning with education and ending, in the worst cases, with prosecution backed by the appropriate penalties.
I understand that Northern Ireland is considering legislative change, as is the Welsh Assembly. England cannot afford to be left out. Its residents deserve the extra protection offered to their Welsh, Scottish and Irish neighbours, and the Bill provides the means to deliver it.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ms Angela C. Smith, Michael Connarty, Norman Baker, Mr. Bob Laxton, Geraldine Smith, Mr. Ian Cawsey, Natascha Engel, Joan Ryan, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Michael Clapham, Kelvin Hopkins and Miss Anne Begg present the Bill.
Ms Angela C. Smith accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 128).
Parliamentary Standards Bill
[Relevant Documents: Memorandum from the Audit Committees on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. Copies are available in the Vote Office. Seventh Report from the Justice Committee, Constitutional Reform and Renewal: Parliamentary Standards Bill, HC 791. Nineteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative
Scrutiny: Parliamentary Standards Bill, HC 844. ]
[2nd Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee.
[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]
MPs’ code of conduct
We begin with amendment No. 63, with which it will be convenient to deal with new clause 4 and clause 6 stand part.
On a point of order, Sir Michael. There has been a most extraordinary development since we met yesterday. The Justice Committee produced a report to the House this very morning in which it has recommended that clause 10 be not proceeded with. That was decided unanimously, and with a majority of Labour Members present. The Justice Secretary has already indicated that he will not proceed with clause 6, and I am sure that it would assist this Committee’s deliberations considerably if he indicated now whether he is minded to accept the unanimous report of a Select Committee of the House.
As far as the Chair is concerned, our proceedings must simply follow the order that is set out before us. I am sure that if the Justice Secretary wishes to alter those arrangements or make any other interventions, he will do so in his own time.
I understand that amendment No. 63 is not to be moved.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I am grateful to the Government for adding their name to my amendment proposing the deletion of clause 6. It seemed to me that the clause added absolutely nothing to the Bill, as the House already has a code of conduct that reflects the Nolan rules. It also posed a substantial risk in opening up to judicial review that which happens in the House. I am glad that the Government have recognised the force of the arguments against it, have heeded the wise counsel of the Clerk of the House, and have had second thoughts.
There are many other issues that we hope to address later, so I will not detain the House any longer. I merely express my gratitude for the fact that common sense has prevailed, and the clause is now not to be part of the Bill.
I am sure everyone will be relieved that the Government have shown such good sense. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on his amendment. If we are lucky enough, in terms of the timetable and in other respects, we shall deal later with new clauses 7 and 8, which will help to clarify issues relating to the application of article IX of the Bill of Rights 1689 and the supremacy of Parliament. However, I think that we can leave that debate until later.
We are, of course, pleased that the Government have decided to remove clause 6. However, we wish to make clear that that is not because we do not approve of the idea of a code—indeed, we already have one—but because, as the Clerk of the House made clear, the clause would have put us on a collision course with the courts.
While I welcome what I expect the Secretary of State for Justice to tell us in a moment, this does rather take us back to the future. I will not rehearse all the arguments that were in my Second Reading speech, but I will say that if clause 6 had remained in the Bill, the legitimate concerns of constituents would have been replaced by the vexatious concerns of litigants.
We are, however, disappointed that yesterday, having delighted us by saying that they would withdraw the clause, the Government brought it in again through the back door, in a slightly watered-down form, by changing all the language of clause 5 from the word “rules” to the word “code”. That, in our view, has introduced a new element of confusion. Before the amendments were passed, there was a welcome hint of clarity. The word “code” now refers only to financial interests. It is to some extent sub-divided in the language of clause 5, but, as with the use of the word “standards”, the Government have introduced that element of confusion, which could otherwise have been avoided.
I think that the origin is, once again, interference by the Prime Minister. Page 8 and other parts of the document that he produced yesterday, “Building Britain’s Future”—itself probably an inaccurate title—state:
“We are introducing legislation to create an independent regulator for Parliamentary standards, and a tough, legally binding Code of Conduct for MPs.”
If we juxtapose the amended clause 5 and the soon-to-be absent clause 6 with what the Prime Minister has said about a legally binding code of conduct, and if we take what he has said at face value, we see that we may once again be heading for a justiciable code of conduct, which is exactly what the removal of clause 6 was designed to avoid.
We are not clear—I am convinced that there is still confusion—about whether that will create the problems surrounding justiciability that the Clerk of the House has already highlighted, but I am afraid that our pleasure at the removal of the clause has been tainted by our disappointment that many of its disadvantageous elements have crept into the Bill elsewhere.
As I said on Second Reading, it is good that the Secretary of State will remove clause 6, but when he rises to explain his reasoning for that, he might also explain his logic as to how it is consistent to remove clause 6 while retaining other provisions such as clause 10.
I am grateful for recognition of the fact that I have sought to respond to proposals from all parts of the House to improve the Bill, and I shall continue to do that wherever I can.
Let me say in response to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) that the provisions of clause 5 are completely different from those of clause 6, which we hope will be excised in its entirety in a few seconds. Clause 5 deals with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—and, for sure, various statutory duties are imposed on that. The fact that what was previously referred to as financial rules is now defined as a code relating to finance is a rose by any other name in that it does not make any substantive difference. I think I can see a twinkle in the hon. Gentleman’s eye as he understands that point.
We will remove clause 6 because we have recognised the serious anxieties expressed, not least by the learned Clerk, and because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it could have encouraged litigious constituents. I might just add, however, that that prospect remains. It happens to be the case that I was the first Member of this House to be subject to legal action from a constituent who believed that they had been badly served by me. That happened at the end of the 2000-01 Session, and a resolution of the House was tabled on that. A completely inadvertent error was made, compounding one made by the local authority, in which the name of an innocent constituent who lived at No. 9 in a street was transposed to the address of a drug dealer against whom the constituent was complaining who lived at No. 11. The local authority transposed the two addresses. My very good member of staff did the same on the basis of the mistake by the local authority, and I was the subject of legal action. The House very kindly decided to indemnify me against the £33,000 that that mistake cost. That risk remains, but I have no wish to compound it.
As we are discussing clause 6, I shall come on to deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) when we discuss clause 10. I see that an important amendment to it has been tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) to which I am very sympathetic, and I will make a further decision about it in the course of these proceedings. With that, I ask that clause 6 be excised from the Bill.
Question put and negatived.
Clause 6 accordingly disagreed to.
Amendment made: 84, page 4, line 33, leave out ‘financial interests rules’ and insert
‘code of conduct relating to financial interests’.—(Mr. Straw.)
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 10, page 4, line 42, at end insert—
‘(4A) No report shall be made by the Commissioner—
(a) in any case where the member concerned has agreed that he has failed to register or declare an interest, if it is the Commissioner’s opinion that the interest involved is minor, or the failure was inadvertent, and the member concerned has taken such action by way of rectification as the Commissioner may have required within any procedure approved by the IPSA for this purpose; and
(b) in any case involving the MPs’ allowance scheme, or the use of facilities or services, if the Commissioner has with the agreement of the member concerned referred the matter to the IPSA for the purpose of securing appropriate financial reimbursement, and the member has made such reimbursement within such period of time as the Commissioner considers reasonable.’.
Amendment 11, page 5, line 5, at end insert—
‘(5A) In determining the procedures, the IPSA must consult—
(a) the Leader of the House of Commons,
(b) the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and
(c) any other person the IPSA considers appropriate.’.
Amendment 48, page 5, line 6, leave out subsection (6).
Amendment 45, page 5, line 11, at end add—
‘(7) The IPSA must ensure that any member who is subject of an investigation is provided with independent advice and counsel on all matters relevant to that investigation.’.
New clause 5—Minimum requirements for fairness—
‘The procedures referred to in subsection (5) of section 7 must, in particular, provide a Member who is the subject of an investigation or complaint with—
(a) a prompt and clear statement of the precise allegations against the Member;
(b) adequate opportunity to take legal advice and have legal assistance throughout;
(c) the opportunity to be heard in person;
(d) the opportunity to call relevant witnesses at the relevant time;
(e) the opportunity to examine other witnesses;
(f) the opportunity to attend meetings at which evidence is given, and to receive transcripts of evidence.’.
New clause 11—Fairness: Minimum requirements—
‘The procedures referred to in subsection (5) of section 7 must, in particular, provide a Member who is the subject of an investigation or complaint with—
(a) a prompt and clear statement of the precise allegations against the Member;
(b) adequate opportunity to take legal advice and have legal assistance throughout;
(c) the opportunity to be heard in person;
(d) the opportunity to call relevant witnesses at the relevant time;
(e) the opportunity to examine other witnesses;
(f) the opportunity to attend meetings at which evidence is given, and to receive transcripts of evidence;
(g) the benefit of a standard of proof of beyond reasonable doubt where the allegation amounts to a criminal charge, and of the balance of probabilities in all other cases.’.
Clause stand part.
As drafted, clause 7 does not provide an opportunity for Members to refer their own cases to the new Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations. The Bill thus removes a facility that is currently available to Members and which has been used on several occasions in the past couple of years. Amendment 9 would restore that facility.
I think it is right that there should be no automatic entitlement for Members to refer their own cases. Currently, the commissioner seeks the agreement of my Select Committee on Standards and Privileges before he proceeds with an investigation into a matter that has been self-referred. In my view, it would be appropriate for the procedures that will be drawn up under this clause to prescribe a similar process whereby a self-referral leads to an investigation only if IPSA gives its assent. For example, there may be allegations made about a Member which receive widespread publicity but nobody actually makes a complaint. The only way in which that Member can have his name cleared is to refer himself, currently to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, go round the course and then, hopefully, be cleared. Amendment 9 would replicate that facility in the proposed new regime.
Amendment 10 deals with a different point, but it is similar in that the purpose is again to restore a feature of the current system that will otherwise be lost, and which in the opinion of my Committee has worked well. I am referring to the rectification procedure. The amendment allows the new commissioner to rectify certain cases without making a formal report to IPSA. It closely replicates the language of Standing Order No. 150. Typically, cases suited to rectification involve the misuse of a few prepaid envelopes, or an inadvertent and relatively minor error in the content of a letter sent out using the communications allowance. Where the Member accepts that such a relatively minor error has been made and makes the appropriate restitution, the matter can be regarded as dealt with. I fear that if no provision of this kind is made, IPSA will find that it is kept very busy considering reports on relatively minor and inconsequential breaches of the rules.
Subsection (4) states:
“After conducting an investigation, the Commissioner must make a report to the IPSA on the Commissioner’s findings.”
If the reports are to be substantive they will, again, involve a lot of work about very little. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State could say something about how that unqualified requirement to report might work in practice.
Finally in this group, amendment 11 would require IPSA to consult before it determined a set of procedures applying to the treatment of complaints, the conduct of investigations by the new commissioner and the publication of the commissioner’s reports. The procedures will be of considerable importance to the House, and I am surprised that no provision for consultation was included in the Bill, especially as it very commendably includes consultation provisions in clauses 3, 5 and 11—a fact that should make it easy for the Government to accept this amendment.
I would have preferred the new commissioner rather than IPSA to be in the driving seat when it comes to drawing up the investigation procedures, and my failure to table an amendment to that effect is but one more symptom of the haste with which this Bill is being put through. I have, however, tabled such an amendment for Report, and it would be helpful if the Secretary of State could comment now on whether he will accept it.
A further question arises on this clause: its relationship with clause 9. Given that all the alleged breaches of the rules that the commissioner may investigate under clause 7 will also be offences under subsections (1) or (2) of clause 9, do the Government expect the commissioner to be at all busy, because these will now be criminal offences—and is it not the case that all serious breaches will be handled by the police, leaving only relatively minor cases such as the misuse of prepaid envelopes and the inadvertent inclusion of a party logo in a letter funded by the communications allowance to be investigated by the commissioner? Therefore, what exactly will the work load be?
Amendments 48 and 45 stand in the name of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) respectively, so I shall not comment on them. However, having successfully had a number of amendments adopted by the Government yesterday, I regard myself as being on something of a roll, and I hope that my good fortune may carry on to today.
I will not detain the House for long, and I apologise for not having been present at the beginning of our proceedings—although not so that I could have moved the amendment in my name in the previous group; I had no intention of wasting the House’s time on that, given the Secretary of State’s statement that he was withdrawing the clause concerned.
My amendment in this group echoes the concern of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that Members subject to the procedures of IPSA and the commissioner should be properly informed of what is going on and have proper advice.
My particular concern relates to a personal experience, which I discussed in abstract terms with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, so as to avoid lobbying him about a complaint that might arrive in his in-tray. I had found that I had inadvertently breached the rules, so I went to him to present him with a letter, which was, in effect, a self-referral. He said that he was minded not to accept it, but when I asked him what action he would take, he said that he would wait for a complaint. I then asked him what he would advise me to do, to which he said that he could not advise me, because he might receive a complaint and have to adjudicate on the case. I asked him which servant of the House of Commons could advise me on the matter, but he told me that nobody could. I then asked whether I should seek legal advice—that seems to relate to the import of my right hon. Friend’s amendment—but he said that his body discourages from people taking legal advice because it makes its proceedings so much more protracted.
I have great sympathy with that view, and now that, between IPSA and the commissioner, we are having a separation between the management of rules, and the investigation of and adjudication on breaches, it should be simple for IPSA and/or the commissioner—here I link my amendment 45 with my amendment 46, which seeks to amend clause 8—to ensure that a servant of IPSA or a Clerk in the service of the House, which means someone who does not cost the Member money and does not cost the House of Commons additional money, is made available to the Member who is subject to an investigation or to a direction by the commissioner under clause 8. There should be an informal way of ensuring that right hon. and hon. Members have access to independent advice without having to resort to expensive lawyers.
That would be simple to arrange, and my two amendments seek to put those obligations on IPSA and the commissioner to ensure that that advice is afforded to Members without additional and unnecessary expense. That would avoid the situation wherein hon. Members are left completely isolated in a system that they are fighting. The accusations may be unjust or arise out of a misunderstanding, but we still ought to have a means of providing, in a fairly relaxed way, relatively informal advice. Obviously it remains open to a Member of Parliament to obtain formal legal advice if he or she so chooses, but I hope that my proposal would save right hon. and hon. Members a great deal of anxiety, while also giving comfort to IPSA and the commissioner that the Member was capable of dealing with the matter in an informed and practical way, and was not being left on his own or facing huge legal expenses.
I shall speak to amendment 48 and new clauses 5 and 11, which I have tabled to give effect to recommendations made in the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Committee’s concern was about the need to ensure that Members receive a fair hearing throughout this process. It is often said that human rights are all about unpopular causes and, as I said on Second Reading, there cannot be many more unpopular causes around at the moment than us. However, our unpopularity does not detract from the fact that even MPs are entitled to due process.
The significant human rights issue raised by the Bill is whether it provides sufficient safeguards—I do not think that it does—to be compatible with Members’ right to due process under both common law and article 6 of the European convention on human rights. The Government accept, in their explanatory notes, that the provisions in the Bill relating to the functions of IPSA “may engage” the right to a fair hearing under article 6, but they say that no incompatibility is involved. Their notes say that the reason for that is, first, that
“the direction or recommendation functions of the IPSA do not involve the determination of civil rights or obligations.”
They say that in this context we are talking about
“a matter of ‘public law’ rather than private law rights.”
The notes say that the second reason is because even if IPSA’s functions do determine a Member’s civil right, there is no incompatibility because
“there are a range of safeguards in place to ensure the fairness of the procedures of the IPSA.”
In addition, they say that
“an MP will have the opportunity to make representations”.
However, if we examine the Bill we see that such safeguards are almost non-existent. The only safeguards are those in clause 7(6), which are that a Member has a right
“to make representations to the Commissioner about the investigation”
“to make representations to the IPSA in light of the Commissioner’s report.”
That is nowhere near enough.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, has admitted in evidence that he gave some time ago to the Committee on Standards in Public Life that even our existing procedures are not fully compliant with article 6. Yet the new procedures represent far less than we have at the moment before the Standards and Privileges Committee, and they are inadequate.
My amendment 48 would delete clause 7(6) with a view to replacing it with something a little more fitting, because I believe, as my Committee states, that the
“Government’s view that Article 6…does not apply to the disciplining of members is…not tenable in view of the very serious consequences that might result”.
We are talking about not only financial penalties, but expulsion or suspension from the House and, inevitably, the destruction of the Member’s political career. We have seen what can happen to Members as a consequence of the revelations in The Daily Telegraph and of previous recommendations of the Standards and Privileges Committee accepted by the House that have, in effect, meant that Members have had to decide to give up their seats at the next election as a result of what we have found out.
There is little doubt that the proposed procedure relates to the determination of Members’ rights. Sometimes the nature of the allegation will be such that the determination will be of a criminal charge—we have already seen some such cases before the Standards and Privileges Committee in which there has been a suggestion that a Member has acted fraudulently. Otherwise, the allegations will relate to the determination of a Member’s civil rights, given the seriousness of the consequences for the Member concerned. These cases will always have serious consequences for Members’ reputations, and may well affect their ability to pursue their livelihood. That view is reflected not only in my Committee’s report, but in the previous report undertaken by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege and in the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
We are recommending a series of relatively straightforward matters that reflect contemporary standards of fairness. We propose the following, which are minimum requirements of fairness:
“(a) a prompt and clear statement of the…allegations against the Member;
(b) adequate opportunity to take legal advice and have legal assistance throughout;
(c) the opportunity to be heard in person;
(d) the opportunity to call relevant witnesses…
(e) the opportunity to examine other witnesses”—
the Standards and Privileges Committee does not allow that last one at the moment—and
(f) the opportunity to attend meetings at which evidence is given”.
We also seek to ensure that the standard of proof to be applied reflects the nature of the charge. Thus, if the charge is so serious as to amount, in effect, to the determination of a criminal charge, it should be proved beyond all reasonable doubt, but for less serious charges the standard of proof should be the “balance of probabilities”. That is the basis on which the commissioner investigates a complaint and the Standards and Privileges Committee judges it now. The more serious the charge, the higher the standard that we will apply, as is only appropriate. I hope that the House will accept what I am saying about this issue.
Is there not also merit in thinking about whether we should have some procedure for appeal, so that the finding could at least be reviewed as to its merits by some appellate authority?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman anticipates my new clause 6, which will be discussed when we reach clause 10, and I entirely agree with what he says. New clause 11 is slightly fuller than new clause 5 because it also deals with the burden of proof. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is minded to accept, in principle, that I am on the right lines here, but I hope that when he replies he will make clear which of this shopping list of very basic procedural minimum requirements he does not agree with. He should do so if he wishes me not to pursue this matter, but to allow it to be dealt with in the other place. I cannot see which of my proposals anyone who is expecting a fair hearing could object to. If we are to consider turning our procedures to the outside world and having independent investigation, we should apply to ourselves the same standards as we would expect any other professional disciplinary body to apply in the outside world, be it one relating to doctors, lawyers or anybody else. We should not be treated any differently, fair standards of hearing are essential, and my proposals set out what those require.
My name is attached to new clause 11 and I support it strongly for the reasons cogently adduced by the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I rise at this point to refer to a more detailed aspect of clause 7, and in doing so I draw the attention of the Committee to the report on the Bill that the Justice Committee produced overnight, which deals with many of the clauses and includes the Clerk’s memorandum, the Government’s response to it and several academic notes on some of the issues.
The issue that arises in clause 7(3) is who would decide on the reasonableness of the commissioner’s requests, and whether a Member could seek judicial review of the commissioner’s actions. If in the meantime the House had used its disciplinary powers to punish a Member for failing to provide information that subsequent judicial review demonstrated that the commissioner was acting unreasonably in seeking, we would be in difficulties, because that would open the door to judicial review of the decision by the House or the Standards and Privileges Committee on the matter. That may sound like a technical point, but it is potentially important, and the Clerk has drawn attention to it.
The issues to which the Justice Committee wants to draw special attention arise mainly in clause 10, for which we recommend a route to achieve at least more measured reflection on all these aspects of privilege by setting them aside for the time being and concentrating on the parts of the Bill that set up the independent body so that it can carry out its central and essential function. In case the Government do not accept that wise advice, we will have to ensure as we go along that we do not build in the potential danger of undesirable judicial review of the proceedings of the House.
I can well understand that it may be necessary to require discovery of documents, but as clause 7(3) is drafted, it would enable a Member to be required to produce “any information”, and that raises issues of self-incrimination. Perhaps we should look carefully at the clause to see whether it can be tightened to apply only to the disclosure of appropriate documents, and does not require Members to incriminate themselves.
That is a sensible point and further illustrates the need for much more measured and careful consideration of some of these clauses than the procedures that we are now following allow. If we cannot reach sensible conclusions about them under this process, we should set them aside and consider them later, while concentrating on matters that can be dealt with immediately.
I support these amendments, especially those tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I hope that he will continue his remarkable run of getting his amendments accepted. In particular, I support what he said about the lack of proportion in the gravity of the offences to be investigated. We are all aware that there is no de minimis rule in the Bill, although inadvertent and trivial breaches may occur, through genuine mistakes, that could easily be put right.
My hon. Friend is right, and it is a scandal that we did not even discuss such a vital protection yesterday. The theme running through the whole of these proceedings is that there is no case for treating this Bill as an emergency. It is a complete abuse of how we conduct proceedings that we have been asked to sign up to matters affecting the rights, immunities and privileges of this House—and, more widely, of the people whom we represent—without discussing important clauses at all.
I am especially concerned by the lack of proportionality in these clauses. As I understand it—if I am wrong, I trust that the Justice Secretary will correct me—the same rules will apply to trivial or inadvertent offences. Many such offences will be referred to the commissioner as part of the party political contests in each constituency. Many people are itching to refer to the new commissioner matters that may be important locally but which, in the great scheme of things, are oversights that could be easily corrected. The commissioner will have to investigate all such matters, in order to decide whether they are unimportant or trivial, and will then have no option but to make a report to IPSA on his findings, under clause 7(4). The very fact of making any inquiry—even if the conclusion is that no action need be taken—must lead to a report. That will be immensely bureaucratic, and it is likely that in the intervening weeks the Member’s local paper will highlight the fact that he or she is under investigation by the commissioner. It is very important that we now try to assess what the commissioner will have to do, and to relieve him of the burden of having to make an investigation and report on unimportant matters.
My second point confirms that made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) about the possible role of the courts in this matter. Serious offences will of course be subject to the criminal law on fraud, theft and false accounting. In addition, and unnecessarily, we will also import some more criminal offences into the Bill. I am especially concerned by the word “reasonably” in clause 7(3). It could be judiciable—it will, after all, appear in statute law. I can imagine a case in which the commissioner gets into a dispute with a Member under investigation—for what may well be a serious matter—who resists having to disclose personal tax records. The commissioner may demand those records, on the grounds that that is the only way in which the evidence can be found for income received that should have been disclosed. Or the financial disclosure requirements could require the production of names and addresses of professional clients or customers, in the case of a business. The Member concerned may consider, reasonably, that that would be improper and that he owes a duty of confidentiality to his customers or clients. So there may be a genuine dispute between a Member and the commissioner—an external person, appointed by the Crown and therefore with no particular duty to or affection for the House, and driven by public opinion. The Member concerned may feel that he is on the receiving end of unfair inquiries.
As I understand it, such a dispute would be judiciable, and therefore the court would have to decide what was reasonable. In that case, the court would be interfering in matters that should remain within the purview of the House.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for pointing that out. I think that that gives it additional weight and authority, and we should all be concerned when a servant of this House raises such points. The Clerk cannot make a speech; he relies on us to reflect his concerns, which is what we are doing.
It is a regrettable fact that the courts might be required to make a judgment on what is essentially a dispute between the House and the commissioner, with unpredictable consequences. If I understood the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed correctly, if the House decided to discipline the Member concerned and it was subsequently found that the information was demanded unreasonably, the court would be interfering directly in the disciplinary matters of this House. If there is something on which we all agree, it is the fact that the House must retain the ultimate sanction to discipline its own Members. If I am wrong about that—[Interruption.] No, I think that the Justice Secretary is agreeing with me. Will he explain, then, how that sanction is not put at risk if a court can declare that disciplinary action by the House is unreasonable because the commissioner had been unreasonable in the requiring certain information from a Member under investigation?
I, too, shall endeavour not to detain the Committee overlong. We have before us a range of amendments. The amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) seem, as others have said, sensible and workable. They represent an improvement to the mechanism of the Bill and I hope that the roll that the right hon. Gentleman is on will continue.
I was impressed by some of what the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said about the availability of informal legal advice—I think that that was the way that he put it. Experience teaches me, however, that legal advice is never informal. One either gets legal advice or one does not. It seems to me that his suggestion, superficially attractive though it is, is a parliamentary equivalent of the legal aid duty solicitor scheme. For many years, I trawled around the police cells of the north and north-east of Scotland as part of that admirable scheme, and although I find the proposal not unattractive, even a legal aid duty solicitor has a direct lawyer-client relationship from which there can be no departure. The standard of service and care, as well as the duty of care, that is owed by the legal aid duty solicitor to the client in the cells is exactly the same as that which would be owed by any City solicitor to a blue-chip client.
I did not say “informal legal advice”, but “advice”. In fact, my amendment referred to “advice and counsel”. Let us suppose a Clerk of the House was allocated the duty of advising Members who were the subject of complaints, or of advising Members on how to conduct themselves if they believe that they have broken the rules. It seems quite reasonable that an hon. Member should have someone in the House to turn to. They might well say, “Well, in your circumstances you should go and get legal advice,” but we should avoid somebody’s having to take that step initially as it might be quite a low-level complaint. There should be some way of dealing with low-level complaints without resorting to lawyers.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and I do not want to labour it because I do not know whether he will seek to press his amendment to a Division. There is certainly merit in the notion, but my concern is that once we come to the practicalities of how to make this work, the advice provided will effectively be legal advice. It would be a brave Clerk who would advise a Member not to take legal advice in those circumstances.
Although one might argue about the legalities, surely the proper position is to say that the hon. Member should have an opportunity to take legal advice. It would be for the hon. Member to determine where he got that advice from and how he paid for it, but he should have an opportunity to take legal advice and to be represented by that adviser if he so chooses. Surely that is a requirement of natural justice.
That is one of the most basic norms of natural justice, and once we go down the route that the Government are taking us down with this clause, that is the inevitable consequence.
That point brings me to new clause 11, tabled by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I thought that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) succinctly and cogently showed why I would also support the new clause. It is a basic statement of best practice and I do not see what part of it could be objected to. I, too, will listen to the Secretary of State when he responds on that point.
Let me return to the practicalities of all this. The hon. Member for Hendon has tabled a new clause that will rebalance the rights and obligations under the Bill in a way that is very necessary. However, if we go down that track, what is there by way of effective investigation? It is in the nature of investigation that we do not always know what we are looking for when we start. Although much of what we have here provides necessary protection for the rights of the person being investigated, as consequences could subsequently flow to him, will we have an inquisitorial process that achieves the objective that we aim it to have at this stage?
Under the existing arrangements between the commissioner and the Standards and Privileges Committee, there is an obligation on a Member to co-operate with the inquiry. Co-operating with the inquiry does not preclude a Member’s having the benefits of due process.
It is a question of checks and balances. The system at the moment is reasonably well balanced because the consequences that can flow from an investigation are that much more restrictive. It is clear from the Bill, and from clause 9 in particular, that a lot more could follow by way of consequences in the future. That is where the inquisitorial element, I fear, could become deficient at the end of the day. The hon. Gentleman’s amendments are good, well founded and necessary. However, I fear that as a consequence of the effectiveness of the Bill as a whole, we will be left with a system that will not work as well as it ought to. That is the consequence of the Government’s having proceeded in the way in which they have. They persist in that, notwithstanding the evidence that has come from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by the hon. Member for Hendon, and the Justice Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) expressed the wish that his roll would continue. I want to back that wish in respect of amendments 9, 10 and 11.
I am of an age where in my Church we still said the old-fashioned confiteor, with “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”—“Through my fault, through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault.” Clearly, we have to ensure that the system can allow for occasions where Members spot some discrepancy or indiscretion in relation to returns, claims, mistakes that were made by their office or the inadvertent misplacement of claims. When they identify them, they need to be able to have them corrected properly without being told, as the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, that although they have corrected the error themselves, they still have to await the peril or jeopardy of a complaint or to be subject to some wider observation. Self-correction must be able to be taken and we need to ensure that the system recognises the difference between venial sins and sins of omission and the mortal sins and more serious sins of commission. I believe that the amendments go some way towards doing that.
Many of us have been looking at various claims and other things, and I found myself listed among those who had made repayments in the recent context. I refused an offer of a new mobile phone from O2, and was then told that I would get £200. I thought that that would be credit on my mobile phone bill, but instead I got a cheque for that amount as cashback. Normally, I claim most bills for the phone on expenses, so I said that the cashback should go back to that source of payment, which is the House of Commons. The £200 payment was not in respect of any specific claim, or any claim that was wrong or undue, but it constituted a repayment in the context of everything else that was happening.
Clearly, hon. Members must be allowed to make sensible and proper judgments without finding themselves with some sort of criminal record. We are doing something that is on a par with tidying up The Highway Code, and it should not end up with people being investigated as though they were involved in some sort of federal case.
I have some sympathy with the situation that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) found himself in. He was caught in a conundrum but, for the reasons put forward by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), I am wary of creating a system that means that everything could automatically be the subject of legal advice. People may feel compelled to seek that advice, but the fact that such advice was being sought could also became a matter of record and freedom of information.
The way that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) presented new clauses 5 and 11 made them sound reasonable and compelling, but again I have some concern that investigations could turn into hearings. We must not let the process grow beyond its limits, and I believe that the test will be how we strike that balance.
Mr. Dominic Grieve.
Order. Let me make it clear that there is no reason why hon. Members may not take part. Those hon. Members who stand are called to speak in the way that the Chair thinks appropriate. Mr. Dominic Grieve.
Thank you, Sir Michael. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to respond positively. It is clear that clause 7 moves us towards a much more structured system of investigation than we have at present. Whether or not the current investigation regime falls within what we like to call parliamentary privilege, it certainly happens in-House. I am the first to accept that much of what will be investigated probably will not concern parliamentary privilege in any way at all, and that is why investigating whether an MP has misclaimed or overclaimed is of very little consequence to the wider constitutional framework of this country.
However, if we move down this road, it is important that we acknowledge that we will have to look very carefully at the fairness of the system that we introduce. It will come in for more scrutiny, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) was right to say that it will be justiciable—that is, anyone unhappy with any aspect of the proceedings will be able to seek judicial review.
In that context, the amendments put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) are extremely sensible. They would allow people to self-refer, but the most telling proposal is for a system that would allow very minor matters to be handled without a report having to be made.
One problem that we will face was touched on by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). In a sense, Members of Parliament are sole practitioners, and we handle offices and budgets that are quite substantial. Also, I suspect that most Members of Parliament work rather longer hours than the average, and that the administration of our offices is not the thing that we do best. Our capacity for making mistakes is very great.
When our documents going back to 2004 were published, I looked through them and found that it was not difficult to pick out examples of things that might have been done differently. Perfectly reasonably, most of us tend to sign off on things presented to us by members of staff. Keeping our office expenses under proper scrutiny is not what we are likely to do best.
We need a system that recognises the importance of self-regulation. People must be able to own up quickly to making mistakes without the fear that they will be dumped on and dragged through the mud. Also, we need a system that can reflect the de minimis rule: that is, we must ensure that people do not have to go through convoluted procedures for absolutely minimal mistakes. Those points are dealt with by amendment 10, which I consider to be extremely sensible.
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) introduced new clause 11, which is a substantial improvement on what we have at present. I do not know whether he is minded to press it to the vote, and I appreciate that it may be possible to do something about the proceedings when the Bill comes up for further consideration elsewhere. My judgment, however, is that new clause 11 is a substantial improvement, and my concern is that not putting a similar provision in the Bill will lead, because of justiciability, to a decision by the commissioner being overruled or overturned.
I also have great concerns about the potential impact of the procedures on disciplinary decisions. Such decisions may be found to be in conflict with decisions taken by the commissioner that are subsequently reviewed and found to be wanting. I shall say more about this in connection with clause 8, but I do not think that the House can lightly ignore the problem.
Yesterday, we discussed at considerable length questions of where Parliament’s rights will be intruded on. The problem is not so great with clause 7, but the fact is that the clauses cannot be looked at in isolation. I make this point because the Secretary of State may wish to respond now as well as later, but the linkage between investigations, enforcement and offences must be looked at as a whole.
I have the most serious concerns about what we are doing. If we confine the commissioner’s activities to looking at our expenses and salaries, there will be no great difficulty, and that was exemplified in the evidence given yesterday by the Clerk of the House to the Justice Committee. However, conflicts will start to arise once we stray outside of that, and the potential will grow for the courts to intrude into the House’s affairs in ways that touch on our constitutional responsibilities. I hope that the Secretary of State will be open-minded now—I suspect that he will be, as it has been hinted that he may accept some of the amendments—and that he will also bear what I have said in mind when we consider later amendments.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) has also tabled some amendments that highlight areas of anxiety in exactly the same way. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to provide some reassurance that those problems will be addressed. It may be that they can be addressed now, but they could also be dealt with by looking at the matter in its totality. We need a proper set of rules to govern investigation and inquiry, and those rules should also cover hon. Members’ ability to get proper advice as an investigation proceeds.
I shall be brief, but there are two points that I would like to put to the House. Parliaments tend to get known by particular names. The other week in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) talked about how this Parliament would come to be known in the future. I fear that it may go down as the tarnished or tainted Parliament. Among those of us who have sat in this Chamber in the past few weeks, it will certainly go down as the depressed Parliament. I look forward to the next Parliament and hope that its Members can perform their duties untrammelled, both here and in their constituencies.
However, we must have regard to one overriding fact in that context. The new Parliament, no matter who decides to go or stay, will contain many new Members. Some papers calculate that half the new Parliament could be composed of Members who have never sat here before. However many new Members there are, it will be a lot. Those new Members will come here, as we all did at one stage, somewhat overwhelmed by the honour of being here, I trust, and somewhat perplexed by the rules of our procedures, which we all have to try to learn. There will be a new dimension, too, provided by the Bill, which the House is rushing through this week. It worries me very much that that new Parliament could come to be known as the frightened Parliament, or the blighted Parliament.
Just think of the enormous scope that there will be for vexatious and frivolous complaints, yet according to the Bill, every one of those complaints will have to be investigated. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made an excellent speech when he moved amendment 9. He referred to the fact that when a Member is under investigation, he or she is under a cloud until it is completed. We all know from our constituencies that if we read that somebody has been arrested on a particular charge, a question mark automatically flashes up in our minds about the integrity of that person, even though we all subscribe to “innocent until proven guilty”. How dreadful it would be if 50 or 60—the number could even run to three figures—new colleagues in a new Parliament were subject to some form of orchestrated complaint, or to a series of complaints. That is quite possible.
I was very impressed by the speech of my friend, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who talked about his payback. Just think of the deterrent to saying “Mea culpa.” A Member may say, “Oh, good gracious me. I didn’t look sufficiently carefully at that, and now I have signed it off and all those letters have gone out. Let’s be quiet about it.” Members could be frightened, their careers could be blighted, and they could feel deeply self-conscious. All those factors will make it less easy for them to be effective Members of Parliament.
When we finish considering the Bill today—I deplore the fact that we are dealing with it in such haste—we must bear in mind that we are agreeing a piece of legislation that will not particularly impinge on many Members in the House at the moment. By the time that it is fully in force, it will probably be the turn of the year; the Justice Secretary made that point. However, by May or June next year, there will be a new Parliament. If the Act, as it will then be, hangs above that Parliament like the sword of Damocles, just think of the effect that that could have. I therefore beg the Secretary of State to accept the amendments—or, at the very least, their spirit—and to try to inject into the Bill a note of discernment and discrimination between the trivial and the serious. If he does not, we will pass an Act that will have a very bad effect on the next Parliament.
I just want to say a brief word about amendment 10 and new clause 11. I am a strong supporter of amendment 10, which was moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), for the reasons that were advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). It is entirely right to say that individual Members could face vexatious complaints, and that would be very bad because it would put the hon. Member in question under a serious cloud and inhibit him or her in the performance of his or her duties.
One cannot exclude the possibility of co-ordinated and coherent campaigns against individual Members, in which vexatious complaints are made. The amendment put forward by my right hon. Friend addresses that, in part, by providing for the hon. Member in question to make a repayment, if the sum involved is modest and if there has been an oversight. The amendment would guard against errors of a de minimis kind. I think that the Justice Secretary is saying that he is minded to accept the amendment. If he does not, let us hope that he will accept the spirit of what my right hon. Friend is doing.
I note that new clause 11, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), has the support of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, because the amendment is drawn from the text of the Committee’s report. It also has the support of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Those are two all-party committees of considerable authority, and the fact that they are both signed up to the new clause seems to be of considerable importance. As the hon. Gentleman said, the commissioner’s report could have dire consequences for the future of any right hon. or hon. Member affected by that report. That is even more true of the IPSA report. It is therefore important that the House should try to ensure that the process is conducted in accordance with the rules of natural justice. The hon. Gentleman’s new clause ensures that that happens.
I have only one proviso to make. The process has two stages—at least, it does at the moment, but there may be more later. The first stage is the investigation by the commissioner, leading to a report to IPSA. IPSA is then obliged to enable the right hon. or hon. Member to make representations, so there is a second stage. I am not entirely clear—this is a matter for further consideration—about whether all the protection afforded by new clause 11 should apply to both stages or one stage. That is a matter on which there needs to be some reflection. My feeling, at this stage, is that the full panoply of the protections should apply to the hearing of the representations by IPSA, and that there should be a lesser stage of protection relating to the inquiry undertaken by the commissioner. The commissioner should be obliged to accord quite a lot of protection to the hon. Member concerned, but not the full panoply that is contemplated in new clause 11. That full panoply should be confined to the IPSA hearing.
Like many of these debates, this has been an interesting one. I shall deal with the amendments by grouping them together.
First, I accept amendment 9, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), as it is entirely right to add it to the Bill. I accept amendment 11, too, and there should be no argument about that. I shall also accept amendment 10, but I want to add a gloss. Sometimes one has reservations about amendments, although one accepts their overall principle. If there are questions about their drafting or their full impact, one might ask the Member who tabled them to withdraw them and wait for the matter to return at a later stage.
On amendment 10, I accept entirely the argument made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that the cases captured by proposed paragraphs (a) and (b) will be relatively trivial and so on, so it would be ridiculous to have the full panoply of a report to the authority without any discretion in the hands of the commissioner. I am therefore going to accept the amendment, but I reserve the right—of course, it will be a matter for the House and the other place—to submit a revised drafting. I will consult the right hon. Gentleman about this, but if a member of the public—and we are not talking about vexatious complaints; if they are vexatious, hopefully they can be dismissed at an early stage—makes a genuine complaint it is important that even if there is no formal report by the commissioner, they are told what has happened. We must check that that is the case.
I am thinking of myself, too, because I was the subject of a complaint to the commissioner, which would receive consideration by IPSA, and a complaint was made in respect of a separate matter to the Electoral Commission. It made a difference to me to be able to spell out the conclusion, which was that I could continue to be a Member of Parliament. The most recent complaint was about my repetition of an entirely inadvertent error by my constituency party treasurer, who received a donation that he misrecorded, without misleading anybody—it was from one of two companies owned by the same person—and I repeated the error, because I obtained the information from him. How else could I have obtained it? The newspapers made quite a lot of the fact that I had been referred to the Electoral Commission by a Member of the House, and it took a bit of work to get them to accept that there was a further story, and that I had been cleared by the Electoral Commission. We must bear that in mind.
I hope that that deals with those amendments satisfactorily. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough have continued their clean sweep—every one a winner—so I shall now turn to the other amendments. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) tabled amendment 45, which states:
“The IPSA must ensure that any member who is subject of an investigation is provided with independent advice and counsel on all matters relevant to that investigation.”
It is important that we do not over-egg the pudding and seek to provide ourselves—and the implication is that this would be provided free—with something that is not available to others in similar circumstances. The availability of civil legal aid has been restricted for a long time. Although the costs of such aid continue to rise, eligibility, particularly outside the area of family law, is restricted. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) is confirming that that is the case. Civil legal aid is also subject to means-testing, and it would be improper of the House to establish by means of a single amendment—I know that the hon. Member for North Essex does not intend this—a Rolls-Royce of a legal aid scheme for ourselves that is not available to others.
We all have constituents in that situation—I have one at the moment—who are subject to a process by their employer that could lead to dismissal and be reputationally terminal. They do not receive legal aid, although they may receive legal assistance from their trade union, so we must bear that in mind in relation to the question of fairness.
As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, I do not intend that the Exchequer should end up providing legal aid to Members of Parliament. I am talking about practical, reasonably expert advice that might result in a Clerk of the House saying, “Go and get a lawyer. You’re in trouble.” Before reaching that stage, there should be provision for some advice. If I may say so, the exception for Members of Parliament is justified in this case, given that we are creating offences that apply only to Members of Parliament, who are particularly vulnerable to attack from members of the public who may have grudges against us for some peculiar reason.
We will come on to the offences later, but it is fair to point out that the House has been ready to impose similar offences on other bodies. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is mouthing derogatory comments about the provision of those offences, but when the Scotland Act 1998 was before Parliament I do not recall any adverse comments from the Conservatives.
I remember the generality of discussions on the Scotland Act, but I certainly would not be able to recall exactly what I said in the course of that debate. The Secretary of State must accept that since I have been in the House I have said pretty consistently that the tendency of the House, and particularly the Government, to impose new criminal sanctions—I think that more than 3,000 have been created since 1997, mostly of a regulatory nature—appears to have done nothing to benefit our country whatsoever, and is a habit that we would do well to cease.
We try not to have criminal offences unless they are necessary. The hon. and learned Gentleman makes a nice rhetorical point, but when one goes into the detail of those offences, one discovers far less enthusiasm for removing them from the statute book. I have had a lot of correspondence from the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has waxed eloquent on those 3,000 offences. I have asked him to name which of them he would repeal, were he ever in a position to do so. We have got it down to two out of 3,000. I also set that homework to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I accept that Members will need advice, but provision does not necessarily need to be made in the Bill. They ought to receive advice—indeed, advice is available—here, but I will certainly take the proposal away and think about it. I promise the hon. Member for North Essex that I will do so.
I come now to amendment 48 and new clauses 5 and 11. It is probably sensible to look at the more comprehensive new clause 11 first. No one can argue with the fact that the methods adopted by the commissioner and the authority’s proceedings have to be fair. Clause 7(6) seeks to capture that injunction, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and his Committee for their further, rapid consideration of the matter. However, there are some issues that we need to think about. I invite my hon. Friend to accept that we do not have a vote on the matter, and I in turn will accept that what is in subsection (6) will need to be added to, though perhaps not in the detail he proposes. There is one point that I need to raise in respect of subsection (g), which is the standard of proof, but I accept that there should be greater clarity about the rights of those who are subject to a report by the commissioner.
Let me pick up the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), the name of whose constituency has changed with extraordinary rapidity, although I dare say the boundaries have almost always stayed more or less the same. He argued—I paraphrase—that the commissioner carries out a preliminary investigation, which must of course be fair. Now that we have accepted amendment 10, the commissioner, if he so judges, makes a report to the authority. Plainly, less elaborate processes can apply in respect of that initial consideration by the commissioner.
I emphasise the point that, paradoxically, the overall process that we are providing under the Bill is more substantial and provides more inbuilt protections for Members—[Interruption.] Yes, it does, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon—than the existing process. Why? Because there will be a complaint, whether it is a self-referral or an external complaint, to the commissioner and an investigation by the commissioner. The commissioner then produces a report, which goes to the authority. We are making extensive provision for an arm’s length relationship between the authority and the commissioner.
The authority considers the matter and can make a finding. The finding is either, under clause 8(1), which we shall come on to deal with in more detail, to require the Member to make a payment or to correct an omission or an inaccuracy in the register, and/or to recommend to the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee the exercise of its disciplinary powers. When the matter goes to the Committee, the normal rights of Members before the Standards and Privileges Committee, and from there to the Floor of the House, apply. Although under our current proposals the authority may recommend that a Member be suspended or expelled, the decision on that or a further recommendation is for the Standards and Privileges Committee and then for the Floor of the House.
My right hon. Friend is outlining a series of steps, of which there is one more than we have now, in practice. At present the commissioner reports to the Standards and Privileges Committee, and we report to the House. Under the Bill, the commissioner reports to IPSA, the Standards and Privileges Committee and the House. An extra stage does not mean extra fairness; it simply means an extra stage in the process. My question to my right hon. Friend is the one that I asked earlier: which of the elements (a) to (g) does he disagree with in principle as part of the IPSA process?
The one that I am particularly concerned about is that related to the standard of proof, (g). We need to think very carefully about that. This is about a recommendation by the authority, not about the determination by the Standards and Privileges Committee. I am not an employment lawyer, as I think my hon. Friend was. I want to think about the matter. I also want the opportunity to go through the drafting of the new clause in more detail. That is not in the least a complaint to my hon. Friend. It is a recognition that we are proceeding with some rapidity. His report came out yesterday and we need to think about the matter.
Two things—first, the Secretary of State says he needs to think about the report. We need to think about it as well, but the trouble is that our consideration of the Bill will all be finished at 7 o’clock this evening. Secondly, I would have more sympathy with his concern about having a criminal standard of proof—the point raised by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—if it were not for the fact that the system of investigation, when linked to clauses 8 and 9, is a seamless line potentially moving towards a criminal prosecution.
Because the Government have set up the structure in that way, and—I come back to this point—given powers to the commissioner of a kind that I do not believe he needs to do his job properly and make sure that our allowances are properly given to us, we will be ratcheted into much higher standards of proof. If this is the model that the Government insist on adopting, which I wish they would not, the line taken by the hon. Member for Hendon will have to be followed.
I want to remind the House of this, and it is fundamental: it is astonishing how quickly the focus of a debate and of concern in the House can move, but there is a public outside that remains highly sceptical, as well as cynical, about the way we have operated our affairs up to now. We must bear that in mind all the time. One of the major problems that has been faced in this terrible expenses scandal is that no one outside the House accepted the legitimacy of decisions made by the Fees Office or any other part of the House about whether an expenses claim was or was not acceptable. That is why there must be an external adjudication of such decisions.
The hon. and learned Gentleman seems to want it both ways. Of course we must get it right, but if there is to be an external authority, it must be able to come to some decisions, in a parallel way to decisions that would be made by similar bodies with similar tasks external to a particular profession and so on, not with lesser rights to the individual, nor with more. We need to end up with a situation where, if there were misconduct—not inadvertence, error or light negligence, but misconduct—by a Member, that could lead to a criminal prosecution and/or discipline in the House, and equally, where there is an allegation against a Member, but that allegation falls to be dismissed by the authority—or subsequently by the Standards and Privileges Committee, but let us leave it at the authority—that is accepted as having authority behind it.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, which we will consider. We will respond in the other place. This evening will not be the end of proceedings on the Bill. It will go to the other place and come back here. One of the serious concerns that I have about a raft of amendments that have been tabled—not, I may say, by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—is that their overall effect is to emasculate and undermine the basic purpose of the Bill, which was accepted by Members on all sides and all three party leaders.