House of Commons
Thursday 9 July 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
Domestic Energy Tariffs
I have frequent discussions with Ofgem and the energy companies on domestic energy tariffs. In the past nine months, and following Ofgem’s finding of unfair pricing, suppliers have removed £300 million in unfair premiums, including £96 million from those on prepayment meters. Ofgem is also changing the law to forbid future unfair discrimination against customers on the basis of where they live or how they pay.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Is he aware of the situation that faces some of my constituents? When changing from prepay meters to key meters—from card meters to key meters—they found that they had to pay the premium, which was later to be refunded by the energy company. Surely that system should not be allowed to operate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue and I hope that the change in licence conditions that Ofgem is introducing will prevent unfair pricing practices. I should be grateful if he wrote to me, or provided me with more information, about the particular practice he was talking about, and I shall obviously draw it to Ofgem’s attention to see what can be done.
The Secretary of State will recall that earlier in the year the Prime Minister met a group of MPs who were concerned about the complete mess the energy companies are making of social tariffs. Only 600,000 households of the 5.1 million in fuel poverty are included in the tariffs, many of which are so obscure and inaccessible that they are just a really bad joke. At the time, the Prime Minister said that he was in favour of a gold standard scheme that would be made mandatory for the industry as a whole. Can the Secretary of State say how close we are to having such a mandatory scheme?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. He has a long and distinguished record of campaigning on such matters. I believe that the social tariff system needs reform. At present, the system tends to be piecemeal—who gets into it and who does not is often an arbitrary process. We shall have more to say about it in the future.
I welcome the Secretary of State back from his paternity leave. He is looking fantastically well, considering that he is being woken every two hours of the night by bawling and screaming—but perhaps he is not returning the Prime Minister’s calls these days.
Does the Secretary of State think that the relationship between wholesale and retail gas prices is sufficiently transparent?
I think that we have brought greater transparency to it. The hon. Gentleman will know that as a result of the announcement made by the Chancellor in the Budget there is now a quarterly publication by Ofgem on the relationship between wholesale and retail prices. As always, I am open to any suggestions about how to improve the situation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need proper transparency so that people can see that when wholesale prices go down, retail prices follow.
I am grateful for that. Let me make a suggestion. At the moment, two Government quangos are saying contradictory things. Ofgem says that everything is under control, yet just last week Consumer Focus said that every household is paying £74 a year too much. As a suggestion, can the Secretary of State cut through the confusion and end it once and for all by a swift, forensic reference to the Competition Commission on that narrow point?
I will look at the hon. Gentleman’s proposal. Personally, I am worried about references to the Competition Commission, apart from the most extreme cases and I will tell him why: it is a lengthy process, which will not yield results on behalf of the consumer. However, I will look at the point that he raises and I undertake to discuss it with Ofgem.
On unfair electricity prices, I have been on my knees to my right hon. Friend’s predecessors about industrial electricity prices. My right hon. Friend, as a south Yorkshire MP, will know of the devastation of job losses in the steel industry, caused in part by high electricity prices. Will he talk to EDF, which is a state-owned company, and if the company will not listen, will he talk to his opposite number in Paris, and ask them to agree the same tariff with Corus as exists in France or other European countries, so that greater hope can be given on the future of the steel industry in south Yorkshire?
The difference between us and the French is that we do not direct tariffs for energy companies. We do not have that system, but I think that my right hon. Friend raises an important point. Yesterday, I met representatives of industry from the west midlands who are concerned about the position of other industrial consumers. I think that we need tough regulation in that area, which is one where Ofgem needs to act. It is something that I have discussed, and will discuss, with Ofgem.
Home Energy Efficiency
The principal schemes for delivering home energy efficiency in 2010-11 will be Warm Front, the carbon emissions reduction target, and the community energy saving programme. The budget for Warm Front in 2010-11 is £195 million. The other two schemes are funded by the energy companies, so the information for a specific year is commercially confidential. However, based on the measures that are to be delivered, we can say that estimated overall spend will be around £3.7 billion between 2008 and 2012.
I thank the Minister for that. I am sure that she is aware that there are 2¼ pensioners in fuel poverty—[Hon. Members: “2¼ million.”] Sorry; there are 2¼ million pensioners in fuel poverty, yet the pre-Budget report estimated that the increase in expenditure on the issue would deal with an extra 66,000 people only. Given that she has not told us how many people the energy companies will help, what impact will that extra expenditure have on reducing pensioner fuel poverty?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that, because of our fuel poverty policies, we managed to bring 4 million people out of fuel poverty. That was a huge achievement. It is the rise in global prices that has put people, including pensioners, back into fuel poverty. However, in the winter, we raised fuel payments for pensioners to the highest level ever, and we have said that we will do that again this winter. We have ongoing programmes with the energy companies, and they are giving social assistance as well, so I suggest to him that the Government are doing a great deal to alleviate fuel poverty.
While I welcome the Warm Front programme in particular, is the Minister aware that a large number of houses of a non-traditional construction will not be given a guarantee, and so cannot have the work done? It is estimated that there are 250,000 such houses across the country. Will the Minister meet me and others to discuss the problem, so that we can find some way of getting efficiency measures into non-traditional homes, and so that everybody can benefit from the work that is being done?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We have, of course, had due regard to the points that he and others have made, and we are looking carefully at how to bring non-standard homes into the scheme. For example, for solid-wall homes, we are producing new programmes and pilots that will give us the option of using air source heat pumps. Through other programmes, such as the carbon emissions reduction target uplift, which is an obligation on energy companies, we will make it possible to do more work in homes that are not conventionally built.
Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest and easiest hits that we can make when it comes to our climate change ambitions is tackling domestic carbon emissions? The measures taken in the home are therefore the most important. Why does she not bang heads together, get a smart metering agreement between the various companies, and implement it as soon as possible?
I agree with the hon. Lady’s proposition. About 27 per cent. of our emissions come from the domestic sector and result from the choices that we make, so that sector is very important. We have already announced a roll-out of smart meters. It is a complex programme—it needs to reach every household in the country—so it will start next year and will take 10 years. If we can speed it up, we will. It is very important, it is the way forward, and we will do it.
Is not a national energy efficiency programme important not only as regards climate change, but for job creation? On the economic stimulus packages that different countries have introduced in response to the economic crisis, is it not true that the proportion of those resources that we are allocating to green jobs is far lower than in the USA, China, France, Germany and South Korea? Would not a national energy efficiency programme, clearly identified and clearly branded, be one of the most effective ways of registering our support for action against climate change, and—
Order. May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that I think that he has had three questions? He will, however, get one answer from the Minister.
May I tell my hon. Friend that 21 per cent. of our targeted measures were on green jobs? We, of course, started from a much higher base than the United States; we had already put in place many measures, and were already on track to increase them. The home energy saving strategy, on which the Government recently consulted, provides for what is essentially a national energy saving programme, directed at homes and small business. That will go ahead very shortly, and I think that it will produce the kind of measures that my hon. Friend has championed in the House.
The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), is absolutely right. We need a national energy efficiency programme with far greater ambition than that shown in the three rather pedestrian programmes and the very vague funding that the Minister has mentioned. The fact of the matter is that, even if we include private sector funding, we spend about a third of what Germany spends on energy efficiency, and it is already far more efficient than we are. If we want a programme that is attractive and easy for consumers, and that will ensure the transformation in energy efficiency that the Government have failed to deliver, they will need to adopt our proposals of £6,500 for every household in the country, and a real partnership between a public—
Order. May I say for the benefit of the Front-Bench team in the future that what we need is not a statement, but a question?
The Government will not take any suggestions such as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) has made about his programme. [Interruption.] Let me explain to him. I wrote to his colleague, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), to ask him to explain exactly how the Opposition’s programme was to be funded. I have had no reply to that letter. We have costed it at £200 billion. Where will the money come from? His party is dedicated to cutting the Department that sponsors such programmes. There is no way in which the programme that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) mentions will be funded and we—
Order. I think the Minister of State is being led astray by the statement. We must focus on the policy of the Government, rather than that of the Opposition.
The recent UK climate projections spelled out the dangers of unchecked climate change: hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters. As people from rural areas have made clear, this would have a particular effect on agriculture and farming. My Department, working alongside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is seeking to inform people of the economic, social and human consequences of this for the UK, and therefore of the need to act on climate change.
Two years ago my county was under water, which sadly is a harbinger of what climate change will probably bring. What guarantees can the Government give that we will get appropriate measures—those that we have already spoken about—and that those measures will be applied in rural areas, where we have a disproportionately high number of older people living in older property that is in desperate need of measures such as loft insulation? Can the Government reassure me about what they are willing to do?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about rural areas. The truth is—this is why what the G8 leaders agreed yesterday is significant—that we need action throughout the world to protect people in rural areas, because we know that climate change is a global issue. Unless every country acts, we will not be able to avoid the dangerous climate change that would increase the frequency of events such as the one mentioned by my hon. Friend, which happened in my constituency, too. Again, he makes an important point about energy efficiency. One of the things that we have done in the Warm Front programme, for example, is to pilot measures for people off the gas grid, which is an issue in rural areas, to try to help them with new kinds of renewable heating. Also, the community energy saving programme that my hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned will pilot help for some of the poorest people in rural areas.
I very much welcome the huge investment that the Government have put into new sea defences in Blackpool and in Cleveleys, but what further action can the Government take to protect and inform people about the immediate risks of climate change and to plan for a low carbon economy that will safeguard our future?
My hon. Friend is right to say that spending on flood defences will have to increase. It already has increased to £800 million in the final year of the current spending review. That is an important investment, which will have to rise further. The best combination for us would be to adapt to the effects of climate change that are inevitable, and to strive domestically and internationally for the action needed to prevent dangerous climate change in future. That combination of measures is necessary and we must strive for it, particularly in the next six months in the run-up to Copenhagen.
I noted the Secretary of State’s responses. Surely informing the public should be a top priority to get them on board. His recent pamphlet was a start. How effective does he think measures such as pamphlets are in making the public aware of the important challenges facing individuals and households, as well as industry?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important and challenging point for all of us. We are sending out copies of the leaflet on the Copenhagen manifesto, to which he refers. My assessment of the state of the debate in Britain is that it is good, because there is broad consensus politically about the need to tackle the problem and among the public about the science. However, we need to bring home the point—this relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) made—that climate change will happen in the UK if we do not take action. The danger is that people think that it will happen to people somewhere else. We have to convince people that it will affect future generations in the UK significantly if we do not act.
We remain committed to doing all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that households do not live in fuel poverty. Between 1996 and 2005, the number of fuel-poor households in the UK fell from about 6.5 million to about 2.5 million. Rising fuel prices have reversed that trend, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last year announced a 20 per cent. uplift in the carbon emissions reduction target, a new community energy saving programme, higher Warm Front grants and a big increase in cold weather payments.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Given that people who use heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas are more than twice as likely to be in fuel poverty than the rest of the population, will he assure me that the ongoing renewable heating incentive consultation will not propose an additional levy on heating oil and LPG? That would be paid by people who use heating oil and LPG in rural areas, and it would add to the bills of people who already pay the highest prices in the country.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I am not prepared to give that assurance today. What I can say is that our proposals for feed-in tariffs and renewable heating incentives offer new opportunities for people to reduce their energy costs by producing more energy for themselves and, hopefully, selling back an excess afterwards. We will consult on our proposals for the renewable heating incentive, which we hope to have in place by April 2011.
Will my hon. Friend assure us all that his Department is alive to the fact that, when energy prices went up, domestic prices followed very rapidly, but when energy prices fell, domestic prices did not fall as rapidly? What is his Department doing to track those companies and ensure that they do not rip off their customers?
I should say two things about that: first, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made me responsible for consumer interests, so I personally shall take an interest in the issue; and, secondly, Ofgem has been asked to produce quarterly reports on the very point that my hon. Friend has made, so that there is both transparency and the information to hand to enable people such as me to take action if necessary.
Energy (Waste Facilities)
Renewables obligation certificates are granted only on the biomass proportion of the input waste in an energy-from-waste plant. To be eligible for ROCs, energy-from-waste plants must be accredited as combined heat and power plants and have agreed a fuel measurement and sampling procedure with Ofgem.
I am grateful for that answer but, from the proceedings of the Climate Change Bill, the Minister will be aware that if energy-from-waste plants are to be successful, they need to have access to ROCs on the same basis as other projects. Will she consider making the criteria apply in a similar way to the energy sector?
We need to acknowledge that, to date, there has not been the most effective provision. Indeed, in April, we altered the fuel measurement and sampling requirements on energy-from-waste plants to secure ROCs in response to industry feedback that the previous requirements were too arduous. We have seen a positive response to that, and departmental officials are working with industry representatives and Ofgem to establish new measurement techniques. As the hon. Lady knows, the Government support energy-from-waste plants. We have made a significant sum of money—about £2 billion—available to do that. A number of huge projects are on the stocks and we expect them to come to fruition soon. In May, the largest one was finalised in Greater Manchester.
River Severn Estuary (Barrage)
The Government response to the public consultation on Severn tidal power is expected to be published shortly. A decision on whether to support a Severn estuary power scheme will be made after further assessment of the costs, benefits and impacts, and following a second public consultation, which is likely next year.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. When he said that a decision would be made on whether to support the idea, what exactly did he mean? If it goes ahead, I presume that the entire barrage will be funded privately. What support can the Government give that project?
Furthermore, when the Minister assesses the appraisal, will he make sure that there will be no negative impact on my constituency of Tewkesbury, which flooded very badly two years ago? I am not against the barrage in principle, but will the Minister make sure that there would be absolutely no negative impact on my constituency in that respect?
The hon. Gentleman has asked me so many questions; I shall do my best to answer as many as you will allow me to, Mr. Speaker. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we take flooding extremely seriously and it will be considered as part of any environmental assessment for any project that might go ahead.
As to what project might go ahead, the hon. Gentleman knows that a range of possibilities are before us. The consultation that has just taken place is about which are feasible and practicable and should be pursued further. That further stage is due next. There are tremendous gains to be made from renewable energy, but we know that the environment in question is internationally important and that people locally are concerned about a number of navigation issues. All those subjects will be considered in that second consultation.
My hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that I have been hearing such statements for at least 30 years. I would very much like to know his opinion of the two technologies that seem to be emerging. One is a 10-mile barrage across the Severn and the other is the building of tidal lagoons. Which does he think will offer the best value for money, which will do the least environmental damage and when are we going to get on with building them?
A lot of progress has been made in just the past 12 months. My right hon. Friend is very unfair in asking me to announce my chosen project today; there are a good number to be assessed before that decision can be made. However, as the Sustainable Development Commission said in its report, there is tremendous potential. We would be irresponsible not to take seriously the prospects of possibly getting quite a large proportion of renewable energy from these sources. The technologies, their respective costs and who would pay for the investment, however, are matters still to be determined.
Will the Minister reassure us that the Government are not drifting relentlessly towards the solution of one giant barrage, with all the environmental consequences that that might have? We should keep open the option of a mix of technologies starting with a much smaller barrage, such as the Shoots barrage. That could start saving carbon much earlier and make more of a contribution to carbon budgets—and without those dire environmental consequences.
It does not even pain me to say that I have seen the Liberal Democrat proposals and that they will be taken into consideration when we assess the different options. I assure the hon. Gentleman that every practicable technology and scheme will be considered. Each will be assessed, and we cannot make a decision at this stage; there is work to be done before we can.
Carbon Capture and Storage
Since my statement to the House in April and our consultation document last June, we have had a wide range of representations on carbon capture and storage. There has been a warm welcome for the combination of the most environmentally ambitious conditions for new coal-fired power stations in the world, which we announced, and a plan, backed by legislation, for up to four CCS demonstration projects.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Companies such as Scottish Power have a strong interest in CCS technology. Has he estimated how many green jobs and what likely investment there will be for the UK economy off the back of the technology, if it moves forward?
There is huge jobs potential. It is estimated that, in the round, there could be 30,000 to 60,000 jobs in carbon capture and sequestration by 2030. That is an indication of the scale of the potential, but that requires a certain funding stream for carbon capture and storage. We have managed to find a proposal to make that happen, and it will be in a fifth-Session Bill, subject to consultation. I hope that it will receive all-party support.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Minister in another place said during a debate on the carbon budgets—alas, we have not had that debate in this Chamber—that there was no realistic prospect of commercial carbon capture and storage before 2025 and that, therefore, when the Prime Minister offered the prospect of four such stations as a way of helping us out of the recession, he was either misleading the House or presupposing that the recession is going to go on for another decade and a half?
If I may say so, that was, uncharacteristically, a slightly confused question from the right hon. Gentleman. The truth is that we will be demonstrating carbon capture and storage, and we want to do so as soon as possible; that is why we are introducing the funding mechanism. There is a separate question about when it will be commercially deployable on a widespread basis in this country and around the world. The figures that I have seen suggest that that will be possible by 2020; obviously, opinions differ. However, the most important thing is to drive the technology forward as quickly as possible and I hope that he shares that aspiration.
Does my right hon. Friend know about a Scottish company called Elimpus, which is at the forefront of technology in identifying leaks in nuclear power plants and from pylon wires? Recognising that it is a worldwide company, will he agree to meet me and its representatives so that its technology can be applied in Scotland?
Order. I fear that the question might be a little wide, but I will leave it to the Secretary of State’s discretion.
I am sure that the company to which my hon. Friend refers has equities in a range of areas, including carbon capture and storage. Subject to time being available, I am happy to meet him and its representatives.
Does the Secretary of State accept that as a result of the Government’s delays and dithering, we are not leading the world in this technology, and that we are now behind the United States, Canada, Norway, Abu Dhabi, China and other countries? Does he understand that one third of our coal plant is closing in the next few years, but because of the Government’s delays investment in new coal plant is on hold, as companies do not know what the CCS regime is? For nuclear, the Government set out a road map, with the Office for Nuclear Development and the Nuclear Development Forum. If that is good enough for nuclear, why have they not shown the same commitment to carbon capture, which could be at least as important for our future energy security and in meeting our low carbon commitments?
I wonder where the hon. Gentleman has been for the past three months, given that I made a statement to the House in April and set out a consultation document in June with the most environmentally ambitious standards for new coal-fired power stations and the most ambitious plans for the demonstration of carbon capture in coal-fired power stations. That will be taken forward with legislation going through this House. Unlike the Conservative proposals, ours are based not on funny money but on actual costed plans that will be implemented. I hope that the Conservatives will support them.
The opponents of carbon capture recently said in an article that I read that if we get this up and running only 25 per cent. of carbon would be taken out of clean coal. Is that a true statement or is it just them playing games?
We should never underestimate the ability of such people to play games. On the facts, we have said that as a condition of building any new coal-fired power station, at least 25 per cent. of the plant will have to be based on carbon capture and storage. There is a simple reason for that. Because it will cost significant amounts of money to build CCS plants, we think it right to demonstrate capacity at that scale. When the technology is commercially proven, which we hope will happen by 2020—that is the basis on which we are planning—plants will have to be 100 per cent. CCS-based. That is the most environmentally ambitious set of conditions for new coal-fired power stations of any country in the world.
All generators should be given a grid connection consistent with their development plans. We do not believe that the progress on that has been speedy enough, and we are determined to do more to make that happen, building on the recent agreement between Ofgem and the National Grid for an extra 450 MW of grid capacity, which will speed up connection for a range of projects by up to seven years.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. There are 2,500 anaerobic digesters connected to the German national grid and only 35 in this country— 36 if we count Ambridge. I can assure him that farmers in south Cumbria are very keen to help the Government to make up that embarrassing deficit, and want to create Westmorland’s first anaerobic digester. Will he agree to meet me and farmers in my constituency to help us to gain priority access to the national grid and to ensure that we transform organic waste, farm waste and off-farm waste into clean energy?
I am sorry to correct the hon. Gentleman on one point. I believe the Ambridge project did not go ahead. I may be wrong, but I believe it did not get planning permission, no doubt from a Liberal council.
On the hon. Gentleman’s serious question, this is a priority, and it is important that Ofgem sees it as very much part of its duty to drive this forward. It has a duty to future consumers in its remit.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s question about meeting him.
Part of that duty to future consumers has to be to drive forward connection to the grid. I am sure that one of our ministerial team will meet the hon. Gentleman and his friends.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that a number of important wind farm developments are still facing a wait of 15 years or so to secure connections to the grid, even though they are in the process of getting ready to run. Will he talk to the National Grid Company about its 2020 vision document, to ensure that it encompasses the most urgent possible strengthening of the grid so that connections can proceed much quicker?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I took powers in the Energy Act 2008 to take action if companies, the grid and Ofgem could not sort out that problem. If they do not do so quickly, that is exactly what I will do. We have to speed up grid connection, and it has to be seen as a central part of what Ofgem, the regulator, does under its duty to consumers present and future.
Given the Government’s regular warm words of commitment to the renewable sector in general, not least yesterday, and given that there is 25 per cent. growth a year in wind energy worldwide—we are clearly the best European country for wind energy—why is there no industrial or manufacturing strategy to ensure that we produce the jobs to support the industry’s development and give us the green road out of recession that the Prime Minister and Ministers regularly say we need?
There absolutely is an industrial strategy on that; my right hon. Friend the Chancellor allocated £405 million in the Budget for precisely that purpose. As for wind generation, last year we saw a 29 per cent. increase in the UK in onshore wind generation and a 67 per cent. increase in offshore wind generation, making us the world leader in the latter. Of course there is more to do, and we are determined to do it.
CO2 Emissions Targets (Skills)
Ministers and officials in DECC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have worked together to develop the Government’s low-carbon industrial strategy. It will set out how Government will work with employers, unions and training and education providers to address key skills gaps in the transition to a low-carbon economy. This issue affects work forces throughout the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can she say how much the Government are actually investing in the low-carbon industries and what the economic benefits will be?
The Budget 2009 announced £1.4 billion of new spending to support the low-carbon sector. That will contribute to a total of £10.4 billion of low-carbon and energy investment over the next three years. I do not think you would allow me to read the whole list, Mr. Speaker, but that includes £405 million for the development and employment of low-carbon technologies, improved insulation for homes, low-cost loans for small and medium-sized enterprises, energy efficiency loans for public sector organisations and so on. There are currently 880,000 people employed in the sector, and we expect that number to grow.
The Minister will be aware of the recent report by the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change on the UK oil and gas industry, and the point that it made about the transfer of skills from that industry to offshore renewables. In particular, the technology for offshore wind is very different from that for onshore wind. What will the Government do to encourage the use of facilities in the UK to build offshore wind turbines and create an industry here?
The way in which we will undertake that will be more obvious to the hon. Gentleman when the low-carbon industrial strategy and the skills strategy that goes with it are published. We are, of course, working intensely with the industry. The oil industry has a remarkable record of innovation and skills, and if we can have those skills deployed in other sectors for a low-carbon economy, that will give a great boost to the way in which this country can progress into that economy.
Climate Change (Public Awareness)
The Department takes steps to raise awareness of climate change through ministerial speeches, publications—such as the climate impact study and “The Road to Copenhagen”—the departmental website and the Act on C02 campaign.
My constituency covers the Tees valley plain, which, according to an independent report, can cater for between only 20 and 25 wind turbines, but 62 are planned and proposed. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while we all know the importance of making people aware of climate change, it is equally important to take people with us in solving the problem, rather than swamping them with wind farms? County Durham has already passed its renewable threshold for wind farms and is on course to meet its 2020 target soon.
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s area on its progress. Clearly, we must have developments that are sensitive to the landscape—that is a matter for the planning process. However, it is our responsibility as a Government to help people understand the real need for change in our production and use of energy, to protect the environment and to secure energy supplies. We all need to understand that climate change is the greatest threat to our wildlife and our countryside.
Would the Minister accept that, for many, especially those on low incomes and the elderly, the consequences of climate change have merely been higher energy prices than normal? Energy prices are so critical to the elderly and those on low incomes, so could she and the Government be a little more sensitive in introducing policies so that the most vulnerable are not the worst affected?
The most vulnerable need our help. The help is there and we will continue to keep constantly under review the impact of our renewable energy programmes on bills. However, there is no way in which we can have lower energy prices and high fossil fuel use in the future. It is destroying the planet and we have to make a change. We will make the change and do it in a way that is fair.
I have spent the past three and a half years campaigning on adaptation to climate change. I am delighted to say that the string of Government announcements in the past six months shows that the Government have finally got it. By approximately what date will the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change produce its first report?
My hon. Friend, who has done so much on adaptation, has caught me out. I will have to write to him to tell him exactly when the report is expected. He knows that we have recently appointed the chair of the sub-committee, who will join the independent Committee on Climate Change. I am sure that they will get on with their work as quickly as possible and I will write to him with the details when I receive them.
Low-carbon Economy (Employment Opportunities)
I have frequent discussions with colleagues, including the First Secretary of State, about building a low-carbon economy. We will shortly make announcements about allocations from the £405 million that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made available in the Budget to help build our green manufacturing strength.
My right hon. Friend has already made it clear in other answers how exciting the prospects are for the green revolution, which will create wealth and jobs. Given that public sector money will not be the most abundant resource available, what can be done to ensure that we mobilise those at the cutting edge of the industrial revolution, and not simply have a scattergun approach, which will lead to the sort of waste that we cannot afford?
My hon. Friend asks the right question. We must make the best use of the available money—I referred to the allocation that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made in the Budget. When we fund carbon capture and storage demonstration projects, it is important that our consultation documents reflect that, and that we build a network of CCS throughout the country to ensure that we have the clusters that will build the industries of the future. It is right to invest now—the Conservative party would not agree with that—because that will build the industries of the future.
Electricity Generation (Coal)
Coal power stations play a vital role in providing reliable and affordable electricity supplies. The Government believe that new coal power stations in the UK will be important in retaining the diversity and security of our energy supplies, but only if they can be built and operated in a way that is consistent with our climate change goals.
In 2008, we were 31 per cent. dependent on coal for our electricity supplies in this country. It has been, and remains, a valuable source of fuel. I am pleased that the Secretary of State recognises that, but we must not underestimate the role that coal—particularly carbon-abated coal—has to play in the future mix of renewables, coal, gas and nuclear. Coal needs to play an important role.
My hon. Friend speaks very knowledgably about this subject as a result of her background. It is important that we have coal as part of the energy mix. The problem in this debate arises when we try to pick and choose from the low-carbon technologies that are available; the truth is that we need all of them. We need clean coal, renewables and nuclear, as she has pointed out. All of them must play a part in overcoming the enormous challenge of tackling climate change.
My Department has responsibility for international negotiations on climate change. Last month, we published our manifesto for the Copenhagen climate talks, which are due to conclude in December. Yesterday’s decision by the G8 leaders to unite around the scientific consensus that we must avoid temperature increases of more than 2° was a welcome step towards shaping an ambitious Copenhagen deal. We hope that that will be reflected in an agreement today by the developed and the developing countries.
Earlier, the Secretary of State referred to trials being undertaken by his Department to tackle fuel poverty for those not on the gas grid. Given the Prime Minister’s warning this week that we are again facing rising oil prices, what reassurance can the Secretary of State give to my constituents and to those in the rest of the country that they will be able to heat their homes effectively this winter if they rely on oil?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. The volatility of the oil price is a problem for consumers in Britain and for our economy. It is hard to take steps to stabilise it, but there are regulatory and other measures that we need to look at. I would say to his constituents and to others who are off the gas grid that, first, we need to ensure that they get the best deal on electricity prices, and I am pleased that the regulator has taken action on that. Secondly, we need to help them to connect to the gas grid when they can. Finally, we also need to offer them alternative technologies, and that is the kind of action that we are piloting.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear about the G8 communiqué. This is the first time that the world has signed up to a 2° objective. The key issue for today, which is most important, is to get unity between the developed and the developing countries around that 2° objective. Why is that important? It is important because it will drive the action that countries need to take. Frankly, we need more ambition in the run-up to Copenhagen, but a 2° agreement will drive that action.
No, because we have rightly said that we are going to have zero-carbon homes here from 2016. It is right to set that standard—we are one of the few countries to have done so—and it will apply to every new house. We are also taking action to trial the new technologies to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and we will have more to say about that in the coming months.
CESP places an obligation on the energy suppliers and the energy generators. It will provide for about £350 million of energy-saving measures specifically directed at low-income areas. There are 284 eligible areas in Wales, a substantial number of which are in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am concerned that we should have a proper balance encompassing the rural areas and I hope that there will be projects in Wales. This will be a new type of programme, whereby we will go house to house and take whole-house measures, amounting to a real step forward in terms of a proper community-based energy efficiency programme.
Considering that the carbon capture competition has already slipped by one year, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give that there will be no further delays in the process, especially considering that only one bidder is capable of getting to the 2020 deadline? Will he guarantee that the deadline will be met by next year—before the general election?
The hon. Gentleman is not right to say that only one bidder is capable of meeting the 2020 deadline. Three consortiums are involved—ENR, RWE and Scottish Power, I believe—and all can meet the timetable. It is right that we need to get on with it, which is why we announced the new conditions and why we announced the levy mechanism for which we intend to legislate. I am confident that speedy progress can be made.
My hon. Friend has put his finger on a really difficult problem. We have looked very carefully at this market, and the truth is that it is made up of a very significant number of small companies and competition is a matter for the market itself. I agree the issue is crucial for people who are utterly dependent on LPG and we will continue to keep it under review. It may be, however, that we have to introduce new technology to these homes through our fuel poverty programmes so that in due course they are no longer dependent on that fuel, particularly if we cannot find a means of reducing its cost to the householder, which I acknowledge is significant.
I was delighted that the Secretary of State visited Green lane in Cookridge in my constituency in connection with the British Gas green streets competition. Will he join me in publicly congratulating the street’s residents who won the competition by decreasing their usage by 35 per cent. What lessons can the Government learn from that excellent initiative in order to roll out something that will benefit all households up and down the country?
I was very pleased that the street won the competition after my visit—although I should say that I cannot claim cause and effect. The competition was very informative in showing what communities can do together to save energy and there was huge enthusiasm in that street for the initiative and what it had been able to achieve. I agree that we need to roll out that sort of project more widely. That is what CESP is all about: a street-by-street, house-by-house approach to bring communities together to tackle carbon emissions.
My hon. Friend’s question follows up on an interesting visit I made to his constituency to meet the wide range of representatives that he gathered to discuss underground coal gasification technology. We want to move forward on that, so we will obviously come back to his group in order to do so.
The Secretary of State rightly congratulated the G8 on its 2° target as a limit on global warming, although to do otherwise would be to invite inevitable catastrophe, but will he tell us what that translates into in terms of the more important measure of the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in parts per million—or was that question too tricky for the leaders of the world?
It translates into the target aim of 450 parts per million. I was talking about this to John Holdren, the chief scientist of the US, yesterday. Now that we have this 2° target, the key task for developed and developing countries from here on up to Copenhagen is to say what the pathway is—including the mid-term targets we need for 2020—towards meeting that challenge. Now that the leaders have agreed to the objective, at least at the G8, we now need a 2° deal out of Copenhagen.
Yesterday the Energy and Climate Change Committee was told that a 500 kW tidal turbine would shortly come on-stream at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney as a result of co-operation between a small innovative company in Bristol, Tidal Generation Ltd, and Rolls-Royce in my neighbouring area. What can the Government do to encourage such co-operation, and to help small innovative companies involved in marine energy to bring their ideas to market and overcome the financial difficulties that they experience in trying to obtain support?
My hon. Friend is right to congratulate the parties concerned on their initiative. The marine deployment fund is intended to encourage precisely that form of technology. I believe that marine energy has great potential for Britain. Government must play a strategic role—I have mentioned the low-carbon industrial fund—to encourage the kind of co-operation that my hon. Friend has described.
If the Prime Minister is right and oil prices are going to rise dramatically again in the immediate future, what action will the Secretary of State take to prevent British industry from becoming less competitive, and to prevent the most vulnerable from having to bear additional costs that they cannot afford?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. We need to ensure that all the necessary mechanisms are in place to prevent speculation on the oil price, so that changes are based on the fundamentals rather than on speculation. That is why we are examining the regulatory systems—for instance, through the International Organisation of Securities Commissions, which is the international regulator.
One of the arguments for the transition to low carbon is that it will make us less dependent on fluctuations in the fossil fuel price. We need the right regulatory systems, and we also need to undertake that low-carbon transition.
Yesterday saw the publication of Oil and Gas UK’s annual economic report, which showed that oil and gas would play an important part in the energy sector for the foreseeable future. Key to that are enhanced recovery and lengthening the time for which reserves will be developed. How can the Government help to ensure that the industry does not shut up shop and go elsewhere, but continues to develop the North sea? Will my right hon. Friend arrange to visit Aberdeen to observe the showcase of the offshore oil and gas industry, and also—
Order. I think that that will do.
My noble Friend Lord Hunt greatly enjoyed his visit to Aberdeen. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s championing of the oil and gas industry. The initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget in relation to the new field allowance was designed to bring about investment in the North sea, but—through the PILOT group, with which my hon. Friend is importantly involved—we also want to continue our discussions with the industry about how we can best help it in future.
May I stress to my right hon. Friend the need to regulate the use of fluorine-based gases, or F gases, in supermarket refrigeration units? They are up to 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming. The industry itself is asking the Government to regulate to create a level playing field. May I urge the Secretary of State to discuss such action with his opposite numbers, so that it can be expedited as soon as possible?
The matter is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I will undertake to discuss it with him.
The Secretary of State and the leaders of the world have defined dangerous climate change as a change of more than 2°C in the average temperature. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the average temperature in Cornwall is more than 2° higher than that in the north-east of England? Will he assure people that if they move from the north-east of England to Cornwall they will not suffer any great danger, and that any dangerous consequences—
Order. I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that the whole principle of topical questions is that they should be brief, and that only one question should be asked.
For the second time today, I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is slightly confused on this question. The point about rising temperatures across the world is that it will drive temperatures up across Britain, so moving from Cornwall to the north-east will not solve the problem. The right hon. Gentleman is one of the few people in this House who does not seem to take the problem of climate change as seriously as I believe he should. I am looking forward to meeting him to discuss this further.
There is very poor availability of information to compare the prices and performance of the different energy companies. A very nice lady from Centrica British Gas, Catherine May, told me it leads the way in implementing the Government’s scheme for insulation in the homes of the elderly, but it has halted the processing of new applications and other companies do not do anything at all. When will we see a proper comparison of the prices and performance of the different energy companies?
The whole point of the Ofgem probe was to get to the bottom of complaints about poor information to consumers from the energy companies, and a number of changes to licence conditions will be made to try to remedy those problems. As regards the commitment of individual companies to the carbon emissions reduction target—CERT—which was, I think, the other point my hon. Friend was making, we are conscious that we need the information from each of the energy companies in order to make that assessment, and I will be talking to them about that.
Newspapers (Surveillance Methods)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the steps he is taking to look into the actions of the police, the prosecutors and the Information Commissioner in respect of the use by newspapers of illegal surveillance methods.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question. I should first of all inform the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is today in Manchester at the Association of Chief Police Officers conference and is therefore unable to respond to the question himself.
The original allegations date back to 2006, following which, as the House will be aware, there were convictions. However, serious allegations have appeared in the newspapers this morning, which clearly go much wider than the original case. That is why I have spoken this morning to the assistant commissioner, specialist operations, John Yates, and why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has spoken to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner within the last hour. The Metropolitan police are urgently considering these allegations and will be making a statement this afternoon.
It would be wrong for me in any way to pre-empt that statement as this is first and foremost an operational matter for the Metropolitan police. However, I give an undertaking to the House that I will report back following the considerations by the Metropolitan police, when I can do so.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he accept that I am not relaxed, that I do not think the House is relaxed, and that neither are the public relaxed in any way about fears not only of surveillance by the Government, but now of surveillance by newspapers and their agents? Will he further accept that we all want to see healthy, responsible investigative journalism, especially in respect of public figures who wield power, but that it must be within the law and seen to be within the law, and it would be extremely toxic for our democracy if vested interests were seen to be able to in some way buy their way out of the criminal justice system? I would be grateful if the Minister kept the House informed of the actions he is taking.
As I have said, the allegations that have been made are serious and deserve examination, and the Metropolitan police will this afternoon be examining them. I will report back to the House in due course. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the law itself: unlawful interception is an offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Where an individual intentionally intercepts a communication without lawful authority, that is punishable with a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. He will also know that in the case considered two years ago, punishments were given. I will have to reflect on what the Metropolitan police are looking at this afternoon, and as I have said, I will report back to the House in due course.
There is no doubt that the story that appeared in this morning’s newspaper raised questions. We rightly cherish the freedom of the press in this country, but it is vital that that freedom is not abused. Journalists do, of course, need to be able to pursue stories that are in the public interest and to do their job free from interference, but they are also obliged both to obey the law and to conform to the Press Complaints Commission code, which sets the standards for their industry.
I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation about the Metropolitan police statement that is due later today, and for assuring the House he will bring back further reports in due course. Does he agree that it is important that everyone in this House gives a measured response on these issues and that we leave it to the police to decide whether there is any new information that warrants further action?
With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is not for me to give the reflections of the House as a whole; individual Members will make their judgments and give their views in due course. I have simply said to the House that these are serious allegations that need examining, and the Metropolitan police will examine them. I have spoken to the Metropolitan police this morning, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We await their investigation and examination, which is ongoing as we speak. They will be making a statement shortly—this afternoon—and I shall report back in due course on its implications. I can do no more, because investigating these issues is an operational matter for the police.
Of course everyone in this House will want to see investigations in the public interest, but investigations should not be undertaken merely to titillate the interests of the public. The public have a right to protection against illegal intrusion into their privacy, whether by the state or by private bodies such as newspapers. If, as is reported, more than 1,000 phone taps took place, it beggars belief that this involved just one journalist or that senior executives did not know what was happening—indeed, the allegation is clearly that senior executives on this newspaper did know. I welcome what the Minister has said, but does he not agree that it is extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition, who wants to be a Prime Minister, employs Andy Coulson who, at best, was responsible for a newspaper that was out of control and, at worst, was personally implicated in criminal activity? The exact parallel is surely with Damian McBride. If the Prime Minister was right to sack him, should not the Leader of the Opposition sack Andy Coulson?
As I have said, the allegations relate to criminal offences and the police are examining those matters as we speak. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is legislation providing for a criminal offence to cover the allegations that have been made. I hope that he will accept that I can only respond in that way at this moment.
The Minister will recall that in evidence to my Select Committee’s inquiry into what happened to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), senior officers of the Metropolitan police told us that as a matter of practice whenever an investigation involved a high-profile person, politicians, including the Home Secretary and other politicians, and the Metropolitan Police Authority, were informed. Will the Minister confirm that no Minister has ever been informed of any of these allegations until last night?
My understanding is that the Metropolitan police and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, like me, discovered these allegations on the production of the newspapers overnight and this morning.
The Minister will be aware that the fact that a private investigator had intercepted the telephone calls of a large number of people was well known at the time. He will also be aware that the chairman of News International gave a categoric assurance to my Select Committee that no other journalist, beyond Clive Goodman, had any involvement in or knowledge of that matter. Can the Minister say whether he is aware of any evidence to contradict that statement? When my Select Committee reopens its inquiry, as it has decided to do, will he ask the Metropolitan police to provide us with any information that they have that is relevant to this case?
The allegations came to light today, we are examining them with the Metropolitan police and I obviously concur with what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Should elected leaders be relaxed about a spin doctor responsible for bugging the heir to the throne?
I hope that, again, my hon. Friend will recognise that those are allegations, the Metropolitan police will examine them and I will report back following their investigation.
The Minister cannot brush aside as an operational responsibility something for which the Home Secretary has responsibility. The allegation in The Guardian is that none of the many hundreds of people whose communications appear to have been intercepted were notified by the police that they were the victim of a crime. That is a matter for the Home Secretary, so can the Minister give an answer on that point?
Again, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that these allegations have come to light this morning. We are examining them, as are the Metropolitan police, and I will report back to the House on the outcome of those examinations when I have an opportunity to do so. I cannot give him any comment today on the allegations, given where we are on the time scale since they became public.
Given the existence of the Wilson doctrine, may we have an assurance that no one involved in the surveillance of politicians has been given a parliamentary pass?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has confirmed the Wilson doctrine. We will have to look at the issues and the investigations. I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer on the point now, but it will be a matter for the police investigation, and if there are responsibilities for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, we will examine that.
Since the Leader of the House is on the Treasury Bench, and since she has a responsibility to the House as a whole, may we have an undertaking that consideration will be given to whether any breach of privilege arises on this occasion?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that business questions follow these proceedings. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has indicated that she will consider those representations and will respond shortly.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is right that this issue raises profound questions that go to the heart of our democracy. Even though Statutory Instrument No. 1677 gives greater resources to the Information Commissioner, may we be assured that he will have sufficient resources to undertake his part of what will be a difficult investigation?
As of this morning, my colleagues and I have not had an opportunity to speak to the Information Commissioner or the Crown Prosecution Service, which was mentioned in the original question from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). We will examine those issues shortly.
It was my understanding that the inquiry into the bugging of the members of the royal family hinged on an inside employee of British Telecom giving out the numbers for celebrities and members of the royal household. Could the Minister give us some assurance that he is taking steps to ensure that telephone providers adhere to their data protection obligations so that we are all protected, as are other people?
Again, as with the serious allegations that have been made today, any such activity would constitute a potential criminal offence and would be investigated accordingly.
I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, and the Minister will agree that this is an extremely serious matter and that there are many avenues that the House and its Committees may wish to explore. For example, do Mr. Coulson and his employer, the Leader of the Opposition, stand by the comments that the former made to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in March 2003 that it is acceptable to make cash payments to police officers for private information? Why on earth did the Metropolitan police not properly investigate and prosecute those who were working for Mr. Coulson, who tapped the phones of Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament and other public figures?
I am afraid that I will sound repetitive, but the allegations that my hon. Friend makes are ones that the Metropolitan police are examining as we speak, as part of their efforts to uncover the truth of the matter. It is not for me to comment on those operational matters.
Many serious issues are raised by the allegations, and in Northern Ireland we are familiar with questions about phone tapping. However, in every case—unless, obviously, it was a police operation—the target of such surveillance was notified. May we have an assurance from the Minister that the issue of why people were not notified that they were being surveyed will come before the House and that a full explanation will be given?
I am confident that that is precisely the sort of issue on which we will reflect once we have discussed this matter further.
These allegations have serious implications for national security. If Cabinet members and the Deputy Prime Minister had their phones tapped, what did the Metropolitan police know? Were they aware of this, and if so, why did they not tell the Deputy Prime Minister and other senior Cabinet Ministers?
Again, the Metropolitan police commissioner and assistant commissioner are examining the issue at the moment to try to get to the truth of what occurred and the impact of those allegations. I await this afternoon’s statement with interest.
Are the Government satisfied with the measures that are in place to prevent illegal access to the police national computer? If, in the light of these allegations, they are not satisfied, what will they do about that?
I am confident that we have security of the police national computer. As with intercept information, there are offences that would involve potential criminal action in the event of activity being undertaken in that field.
Has the Minister noticed the relaxed attitude of Opposition Front Benchers in relation to this matter, which contrasts with the indignation that they showed when the police interfered and intervened in the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)? Is it because they have something to hide, and is it because they are trying to hide Mr. Andy Coulson, who should be getting the sack?
My hon. Friend makes his points in his usual inimitable style, and I am sure the House will have noted them.
The allegations are that the phone tapping and hacking were widespread and that the people who were on the receiving end were not notified. Will the Minister now assure the House that those people who have been the subject of hacking or tapping will now be notified of the fact that they have been a victim?
Again, I think that the first duty of the Metropolitan police is to examine the issue. That is going on at the moment. There will be opportunities to look at some of the other consequences in due course and, as I have said, I will report back to the House on the matters flowing from this allegation today.
Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will remind the Metropolitan police and the Information Commissioner that the defence of “in the public interest” relates to something that is in the interest of the public body and not something that satisfies the curiosity of the public?
My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I am trying, given that we might have cases of criminal activity as a result of the investigation into these allegations, not to comment too much on these issues.
Whatever the operational decisions made by the Metropolitan police, will the Minister tell us what the Government’s policy is on informing people that they have been the subject of illegal surveillance? Is it the Government’s view that the principle should always be that those people should be notified? As a first step, will he tell us in his statement later this evening how many Members of Parliament and Ministers, according to the information held by the Met, were targeted as a result of the operation?
Again, I will report back to the House on these matters at an appropriate time. It might not be today, but we will look back on those issues in due course and I shall respond when the opportunity arises.
My right hon. Friend should be playing for England, so straight is his bat this morning. At 7 o’clock this morning, I saw a hunched figure with a suit-bag and a mobile phone crossing Speaker’s Yard. It was Mr. Andy Coulson. I thought that he was on the way out, having been fired. This is not now about him; it is about the judgment of the Leader of the Opposition in keeping him with a Commons pass. For the House of Commons—
Order. A number of other Members are standing whom I would like to try to get in. I must ask the right hon. Gentleman for a question.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not a matter for a Metropolitan police statement this afternoon, and that the House of Commons must decide to set up its own inquiry to hear evidence under oath from all concerned—from the employees of this foreign national, who so instructed them, and from the police officers—to get to the bottom of this matter?
If the House of Commons wishes to look at those matters, that will be a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, and for the Leader of the House.
It seemed that the Minister was saying earlier that the Metropolitan police heard about these allegations only in the newspaper today. However, the Metropolitan police decided not to proceed. Who in the Metropolitan police decided not to take this matter further? Was it the last commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, or the deputy commissioner, or was the decision made lower down the food chain?
Again, the purpose of the Metropolitan police’s examination of this issue following my discussions with Mr. John Yates and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s discussions with the commissioner is to establish the facts. These allegations appeared overnight and this morning and they are now being investigated.
It is quite clear from the revelations in the newspapers this morning that there are also questions about the role of the Press Complaints Commission, which seems to have failed completely in its duty to protect the public and properly investigate this matter. Criminal activity was clearly involved in what it was investigating, but it failed to ask questions of the appropriate people to get the right answers. Will my right hon. Friend continue to investigate that issue, too?
I will draw those comments to the notice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has responsibility for these issues.
May I return to the very serious allegation about illicit accessing of the police national computer? It is one of the more serious aspects of the matter. Will the Minister use this opportunity to re-examine the measures in place to make sure that the integrity of the PNC is maintained?
Self-evidently, the integrity of the PNC is a matter of high importance for the Government. We will take all steps to ensure that it remains secure. In the light of the allegations, I shall be looking at whether further steps need to be taken.
Given Mr. Coulson’s dubious reputation, none of us on this side of the House can feel comfortable while he is around to wander the corridors here. While he is under suspicion, can we not at least take his pass away from him?
Those issues are not for the Government. They are for the House authorities.
In response to an earlier question, the Minister said that the offence could be punishable by a fine or imprisonment. Some cases of hacking are not punishable by imprisonment. I believe that, in 2007, the Prime Minister was considering expanding the application of imprisonment for offences such as hacking into the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, but dropped the proposal after receiving a delegation from News International. Will the Minister look at the matter again to make sure that such hacking is an imprisonable offence?
I am not aware of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. As he knows, offences without lawful authority under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 are punishable with a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. That penalty was delivered in the case of two years ago.
Business of the House
May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming parliamentary business?
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 13 July—Consideration of a carry-over motion for the Political Parties and Elections Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Political Parties and Elections Bill.
Tuesday 14 July—Remaining stages of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 15 July—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on NHS dentistry, followed by a debate on caring for elderly. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Thursday 16 July—Topical debate: subject to be announced followed by a general debate on preparation for the climate change conference in Copenhagen.
The provisional business for the week commencing 20 July will include:
Monday 20 July—Second Reading of the Child Poverty Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Tuesday 21 July—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by motion on the summer recess Adjournment, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
The provisional business for the week commencing 12 October will include:
Monday 12 October—Remaining stages of the Health Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 13 October—Remaining stages of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 14 October—Opposition day [17th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 15 October—General debate on defence policy.
Friday 16 October—Private Members’ Bills.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. Last week, I raised the issue of the length of time that the Treasury has taken to respond to some MPs’ correspondence. We should perhaps be grateful that it replies at all. May I ask the right hon. and learned Lady for a further statement on what appears to have become common practice in the Department of Work and Pensions? Ministers there are passing MPs’ correspondence to their various agencies for a response, even when the matter concerns Government policy.
If the issue is administrative, of course it is right for the relevant body to reply, but I am aware of a number of cases in which a Member has sought clarification from a Minister on departmental policy, only to receive a totally inadequate response that did not come from the Minister, who had passed the buck to the Child Support Agency, which in turn stated that it was unable to comment on the issues raised in the letter as it could respond only to operational matters. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that it is highly disrespectful to this House, and perhaps also incompetent, for Ministers to delegate correspondence in this way? Will she endeavour to inform the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that, when a Member writes to a Minister, it is the Minister who should reply?
May we also have a statement from the Work and Pensions Secretary on the abject failure of the Government’s flagship welfare reform policy, Pathways to Work? This scheme was established—at a cost of £129 million this year alone—to help people get off incapacity benefit and find employment. However, statistics released by the Department yesterday show that fewer than one in 10 people who have started on the programme have actually managed to find work. How on earth do the Government plan to deal with the grim rise in unemployment that we are facing, and which has been caused by the recession, when the track record of what they have tried to do already seems such a dismal failure?
May we also have a debate on the Government’s strategy for reducing the alarming rate of teenage pregnancies? Yesterday, it was revealed that young people who took part in a £5 million Government scheme that aimed to help tackle the problem by encouraging 13 to 15-year-olds to talk to each other about sex were twice as likely to become pregnant as a similar group. That is a sad indictment of the Government’s failure to develop a coherent strategy. The fact is that Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe: more and more young girls are seeking an abortion, and the higher rate of sexual activity is leading to an alarming increase in sexually transmitted infections among teenagers. May we have a full day’s debate on this serious national issue so that we can help to develop a much more thoughtful response to the underlying problems and encourage young people to be more careful with their body and their life?
May I once again seek from the Leader of the House the guarantee that I have not yet received, even though I have asked for it many times, that the House will be comprehensively updated on how the Government intend to compensate those who lost out from the collapse of Equitable Life? We need that before we rise for the summer. Her response at Question Time yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) revealed a perhaps wilful, misunderstanding of the difference between proper compensation and ex gratia payments. They are not the same thing, and the ombudsman called for compensation.
The right hon. and learned Lady will note that 307 Members have now signed EDM 1423.
[That this House notes the Parliamentary Ombudsman has taken the unusual step of using powers under the 1967 Act to present Parliament with a further and final report on Equitable Life; also notes that the Public Administration Select Committee's second report on Equitable Life, Justice denied? concluded that the Government response to the Parliamentary Ombudsman's report was inadequate as a remedy for injustice; recognises the vital role the Ombudsman plays in public life; reaffirms the duty of Parliament to support the office of the Ombudsman; believes the Government should accept the recommendations of the Ombudsman on compensating policyholders who have suffered loss; welcomes the formation of the All-Party Group on Justice for Equitable Life Policyholders; and notes with regret its necessary formation and the fact that over 30,000 people have already died waiting for a just resolution to this saga.]
Given the scale of the concern about the Government’s reaction to the ombudsman’s report and her subsequent damning second report, will the Leader of the House confirm that the matter has been discussed at Cabinet level? Will she give us an assurance today that the House will have an opportunity to cross-examine the Chief Secretary to the Treasury next week? She keeps declining to confirm whether the promised statement will be an oral or a written one. The House requires an oral statement, and will she now give an absolute guarantee that that is what it will be?
In respect of Treasury Ministers’ responses to letters from hon. Members, this issue has been followed up. I am not yet in a position to reply to the hon. Gentleman, but I will make sure that I come to the House next Thursday with all the facts and figures about the response time. Of course, there has been a great increase in the number of letters from hon. Members to the Treasury, and that is a response to constituents’ concerns at this time of economic crisis. However, that does not mean that people should have to wait longer—far from it: they should get a prompt reply to the concerns and anxieties of their constituents. I will make sure that I have an up-to-date answer ready for the House next Thursday.
The shadow Leader of the House is absolutely right in what he said about ministerial responses and agencies. Responses on policy are a matter for Ministers, and should not be delegated for explanation by an agency. Agencies have to account for their administration of policies, but they do not have to account for the policies themselves. That remains a matter for Ministers. If the hon. Gentleman gave me some examples, that would assist me in following the matter up on behalf of Members of the House.
The hon. Gentleman talked about Pathways to Work. It is very important indeed that we help everybody who wants to get into work to find their way back to the world of work. He will know that the pathways programme deals with those who have the greatest problems. They may have had a problem of alcohol or drug abuse in their past. They may have mental illness problems or they may have been in prison. They may have a range of problems or a combination of them all. The pathways programme says that there is nobody we write off. We do not say, “That’s it. You’re written off, you can’t ever play your part in the world of work.” We should recognise that it is sometimes very difficult to help those people back into work and we will not have a 90 per cent. success rate, but that does not mean that it is not important for those programmes to go ahead and help people into work.
The hon. Gentleman is right that teenage pregnancy is a complex and difficult issue. We all agree that we want to see a fall in the number of teenage pregnancies. That has to do with good sex education, contraception and girls having aspirations to something other than early pregnancy. Their opportunities in life need to be more than that. The responsibility of boys is also involved—mentioning that is often forgotten.
The hon. Gentleman was talking about a pilot scheme—an experiment that was tried out. The whole point of a pilot scheme is to find out whether something works. There is no dishonour in piloting something to see whether it works, and if it does not work, acknowledging that while pressing forward to try to find out what does work. If there was a magic answer to the question of teenage pregnancy, it would have been found before now.
On the question about Equitable Life, there is absolutely no need for the hon. Gentleman to patronise me over not knowing the difference between ex gratia payments and compensation. I do indeed know the difference. The Government’s position is that there is not a legal obligation to pay compensation, but there is a moral obligation to make ex gratia payments, and that is what Sir John Chadwick is working on. I have said there will be a statement before the House rises; there will be Treasury questions next week, so the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to ask the Chancellor in person during oral questions next week.
Dealing first with the urgent question we have just discussed, we heard a deplorably weak performance from the shadow Home Secretary, and it was not mentioned at all by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). As the question clearly raises potential issues of privilege, may I ask the right hon. and learned Lady to consider those issues and report to the House? Will she also ask of her Cabinet colleague, the Attorney-General, about the prosecution policy that was adopted previously? Perhaps the Solicitor-General could make a statement to the House.
A useful innovation recently was for notice to be given to the House when it was known that a statement was to be made by a Minister. Last week, two White Papers were published and oral statements were made to the House. One of the White Papers was about banking, where I accept that there may have been market-sensitive material, but the one on Monday was about international development and I cannot quite accept that it was not known last Thursday that a White Paper was to be published on Monday. Will the Leader of the House look at the matter again and give Members of the House proper notice when a statement is to be made, particularly on the publication of a White Paper? Will she also make good the promise of the Secretary of State for International Development that we will soon have a debate on international development issues?
May we have a debate on the case of Gary McKinnon, the Asperger’s syndrome sufferer who is being cynically handed over to the United States authorities, possibly to serve 60 years in an American jail? The Home Secretary, somewhat disingenuously, says he cannot instruct prosecution. That is absolutely right, but what he can do is stop the extradition and allow the circumstances in which that unfortunate gentleman could be tried in this country. Many of us felt that the one-sided extradition treaty was a disgrace to Britain. This use of that disgraceful treaty is a further disgrace and a shame, and I hope we will have the opportunity to debate it.
I support the view already expressed about Equitable Life. The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right to make the distinction between an ex gratia payment and compensation, but she ignores the findings of the ombudsman. The early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), which has attracted 307 signatures, shows the strength of feeling across the House. If we can get 16 more signatures, there will be an absolute majority of Members who want something to be done. May we have a proper debate and an oral statement on the issue?
The House rises for the summer recess on 22 July. Will the Leader of the House ring round all the Government offices to make sure that we do not have what we have every year, which is a profusion—a plethora—of written statements in the last days before the House rises, so that people cannot examine the statements and ask questions in the House? Last year, we had 63 written statements in the last two days. The worst offender, incidentally, was the Prime Minister, with no fewer than 10 written statements on the last day. That is unacceptable. The Leader of the House has time at least to phase the statements over the next week. Will she do so?
The hon. Gentleman made further points about Equitable Life. I think 100 per cent. of Members want justice for Equitable Life policyholders who have lost out. We all agree with that, and a process is under way to make sure that ex gratia payments are made.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the custom and practice whereby loads of written ministerial statements are put out in the final days. I am already raising that with ministerial colleagues, to encourage them not to leave things until the last moment. If every Department does that, the difficulty is that there is an unmanageable amount of statements for colleagues to respond to. I shall remind all colleagues that the matter has already been raised by the House and that this time we have to try to break the habit of a lifetime—of tipping them all out before the summer recess. I will do my best, and so will my deputy and the Chief Whip—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”] So it is sure to be all right.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the case of Gary McKinnon. As I understand it, the matter is not for the Home Secretary’s decision; it was for decision by the courts, which have decided that this man should be extradited. It is not at the discretion of the Home Secretary, but a decision by the courts.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that when a White Paper is to be produced there should be an indication to the House—perhaps the previous week—even if the particular day was not specified, so that Members at least know that something is coming up. In order not to give a date that then turns out to be wrong—because something else happens that moves the date a day or two, and everybody says, “Aha, something’s gone wrong”—we have been deterred from announcing oral statements in advance, but actually the outcome is perverse. We are planning something and we know about it within a day or so, but we do not inform the House. When we come back, I think that perhaps for an experimental period, we will try to give a business statement indicating when oral statements about major documents are likely to be coming up. That is a good suggestion.
On the question about the revelations in The Guardian, the hon. Gentleman will have heard the responses given by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism to the urgent question. A number of Members have already raised with me whether there is a question of privilege. It certainly does raise issues of grave concern. We are elected to represent our constituents and, to do our duty in that respect, to hold the Executive to account. We must not be impeded in that work by interference through the interception of our communications. That would constitute contempt of Parliament and a breach of parliamentary privilege, and it is something I shall have to consider.
Order. Thirty-seven Members are seeking to catch my eye and, as always, I am keen to get in as many as possible, so I must ask each hon. Member to ask one brief supplementary question and, of course, I look to the Leader of the House, as always, to provide a pithy reply.
There was a very short but excellent debate in Westminster Hall last week on the Government’s response to the Archer inquiry. Given the huge importance of the issue to those affected, may I join calls made by other Members for a much longer debate on the Floor of the House on that important issue?
I know that despite the increase in compensation for the victims of contaminated blood supply, there is still a great deal of concern for people who have, unfortunately, been contaminated through no fault of their own. I will bring my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of Ministers in the Department of Health.
One of my local papers, the Keighley News, recently reported that a judge who had sentenced people involved in gang violence to prison had complained that he had to give “extraordinarily lenient sentences” to those people
“Because he was hidebound by the law”.
He went on to criticise a system in which people who have spent time on bail subject to a curfew receive a reduction in sentence. Given that judges are complaining about the lenient sentences being handed out, may we have a debate on the subject? It causes a great deal of concern in my constituency.
It is best if we leave the judges to get on with sentencing, which is their job, not ours, and the judges leave us to get on with legislating, which is our job, not theirs.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend reflect, with her colleagues, on the mechanisms to be used to inform the House and me, the constituency MP, when it is known how the Serious Fraud Office intends to proceed with the MG Rover inquiry? Will she confirm today that it remains the Government’s intention to publish the inquiry report as soon as possible, and that the Government will do everything that they can to ensure that the former workers of MG Rover receive the money that is their due from the trust fund that has been set up?
The Government agree very much with my hon. Friend that those who are owed money should be paid as quickly as possible by the trust; my hon. Friend has championed his constituents in that regard. As far as the publication of the report is concerned, as he said, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has referred the question of whether there should be a criminal investigation to the Serious Fraud Office. The SFO has undertaken to decide whether the matter warrants a full investigation within, I think, 20 days of the matter being referred to it. If there is not to be any further criminal investigation, the report will be published. Obviously, if there is to be a criminal investigation, nothing must be done that would prejudice it, but the report will be published once any criminal investigations have been concluded.
May we have a debate on the effectiveness of Jobcentre Plus in helping people to get back into work? In 2002, my London borough of Wandsworth had five jobcentres; now we have just one. Local people are concerned about the resource ability of Jobcentre Plus to give them meaningful help to find employment again. May we have a topical debate on that?
I would like to pay tribute to those who work in jobcentres and Jobcentre Plus. They do an incredibly important job. The service has been transformed from what it was during the last recession, when people sat behind grilles and paid out unemployment benefit, or signed people off on to incapacity benefit, but did not help them to get back into work. There is a whole range of work and training now available to people who face the awful fact of unemployment. I hope that the hon. Lady will support the extra investment that we put into Jobcentre Plus to make sure that it can work even better on behalf of those who face unemployment.
May we have a debate on health and safety for those employed in the construction industry? My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of a report recently produced by the Department for Work and Pensions on the issue. Its author, Rita Donaghy, a senior employment expert, made a number of recommendations, foremost among them the extension of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to the construction industry. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that those recommendations will be given serious consideration?
The Rita Donaghy report is very important, and I should like to thank her for her work. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which my hon. Friend was instrumental in setting up, has ensured that workers are not undercut by exploited labour and has protected migrant labourers from being exploited. It has saved the taxpayer money by reducing the evasion of tax, and above all, it has helped with health and safety. Rita Donaghy’s suggestion that the 2004 Act be extended to the construction industry is well worth considering.
Given that a clear majority of those who can sign early-day motions have signed the motion on Equitable Life, why does not the Leader of the House simply list it as the subject of the topical debate next week? Or does she think that 307 Members of this House can be persistently and consistently ignored?
Everyone—all Members of the House—are concerned that there should be justice for the Equitable Life policyholders. There has been a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall and a statement in this House. We all agree that the policyholders should receive ex gratia payments, and the Government are setting about enabling that to take place.
The House will be grateful for the statement made by the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism on the serious allegations made against News Group Newspapers today. I remind the Leader of the House that the allegations are serious. There are allegations of hacking into Cabinet Ministers’ private telephone numbers and the numbers of Members of Parliament from three major parties, and allegations that a parliamentary Select Committee was misled. Given all those serious breaches of our privileges and sovereignty, I invite my right hon. and learned Friend to lay a motion before the House next week, referring those matters to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Those are issues of grave concern. It is absolutely fundamental that once we are elected to this House, we are able to get on with our job without let or hindrance. Certainly, if unlawful interception of telephone communications, voicemails and texts had taken place, it would be contempt of Parliament and a breach of parliamentary privilege. Those matters are of grave concern, and I will certainly consider what issues have arisen and what would be the appropriate action for me to propose to the House.
Transport bosses from Manchester are meeting the Minister with responsibility for rail later this afternoon to discuss their concerns about the Government reneging on their promises on the number of railway carriages for Greater Manchester. May we have an oral statement to the House to assure hon. Members about the number of railway carriages that we are getting, and about when we will get them, so that we can start dealing with congestion on our railways in Greater Manchester?
I am assured by my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who represents a seat in Greater Manchester, that there has been no reneging on any commitments on important transport infrastructure in Manchester.
Corus in Scunthorpe has today announced a further 360 job cuts. That comes on top of 500 job cuts that were announced recently. Given the severe impact on the steel industry in Scunthorpe, and indeed nationally, will my right hon. and learned Friend ask the Business Secretary to have urgent talks with Corus about its plans, to bring some stability to the company? While I am grateful for the regional development agency taskforce, which is being sent into Corus to help staff, may we have a debate about how we can use selective regional aid to help areas such as mine, which are being hit so badly by the global downturn in manufacturing?
My right hon. Friend makes important points on behalf of his constituents. There will be a Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills at the Dispatch Box later this afternoon, responding to the topical debate on manufacturing in Britain.
May we have a debate on access for international observers to Gaza, in the light of the apprehension of a boat in Gazan waters recently?
I will raise the matter that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Business Secretary to make a statement on the operation of the guidelines on the recently passed amendment to the National Minimum Wage Act 1998? That amendment forbids the use of tips, gratuities, service charges and cover charges to pay the minimum wage. She will know, because I gave her a copy, that it is almost the sixth anniversary of my ten-minute Bill on the subject. My proposal resulted in a change to the law recently. Confusion has reigned since the regulations have been in place, because it is not clear how one can prevent people from taking and keeping payments made by customers, so can the guidelines be published soon, as the regulations will come into force in October—
Order. I think we have got the drift.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has done, which began even before we came into government and brought into effect a statutory national minimum wage. I congratulate him on his private Member’s Bill, which he introduced in 2003 and which amended the national minimum wage in respect of tips. We are very proud that we introduced the national minimum wage. It has helped millions of people. Secondary legislation will go through Parliament to address the points that he has been raising, including in his Bill, and there will be consultation.
Sadly, the motion on the setting up of a Select Committee for the reform of the House did not go through last night. It is therefore future business. In order to facilitate the passage of a measure that the Leader of the House clearly wants, will she give me an assurance that she would look very sympathetically at the transfer of the drawing up of Standing Orders from the Executive of the day to the House of Commons as a whole? That would provide the House of Commons with the independence and integrity that it deserves.
I did commit to bringing a motion to the House to establish a Committee that could look at a number of important issues to strengthen the role of the House, including the way in which we select Chairs of Select Committees and the role of the House in arranging the business of the House. I tabled a motion which was not regarded as broad enough. Having seen the amendments, I withdrew the original motion and tabled one that incorporated the spirit of the amendments. Unfortunately, an hon. Member objected to it when it was brought to the House last night, but I hope that they will withdraw their objection and that the House will have another chance next week to make sure that the motion goes through.
I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend is aware that the Ashes is taking place in Cardiff for the first time ever. Does she agree that this is a good move? When may we have a debate about spreading major sporting events around the UK?
Cardiff has shown how, with the Welsh Assembly and great leadership by the First Minister of Wales, it can be made the centre of a range of international events, and I am sure the Ashes will be very successful.
Will the statement on Equitable Life be in oral form?
I cannot say now whether there will be an oral or a written statement, but the Chancellor will be responding to oral questions next week.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families rightly reviewed the progress that Haringey council had made in improving children’s services following the terrible killing of baby Peter, but there are eight authorities whose services were found wanting by Ofsted, including West Sussex county council. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for us to debate these important matters on the Floor of the House?
I will raise these matters with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and look for an opportunity for further accounting to the House. My hon. Friend will know that the Secretary of State is today taking part in a programme of encouraging more highly qualified people to go into the important job of social work so that whether for old people, people with mental health problems or, above all, children, there are proper social services to take care of them.
An unsuccessful independent candidate at the recent local elections in Cornwall has accused the Conservative party of targeting the second-home vote in particular at elections. If that were true, the Conservative party would be acting entirely legally because those people are on the electoral register, but it has stimulated a debate locally about whether it is right for people with multiple houses around the country to have votes in different places. Will there be an opportunity for the House to debate that?
The Political Parties and Elections Bill is going through Parliament. It has just gone through the House of Lords and will come back to the Commons following the debate on amendments in the other place. I am not yet clear whether there would be an opportunity for that point to be raised when the Bill comes back to this House, but the hon. Gentleman can have a look to see whether there is one.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a topical debate on the success of the Freedom pass for pensioners? We should be able to extend it to young people. People spend a lot of money sending their children to school and college, and we are now coming to the summer holidays, so can we introduce a Freedom pass for young people? That would make an excellent subject for a topical debate, which my right hon. and learned Friend has promised in the past, but it has failed to reach the House.
My hon. Friend is right: the Freedom pass has been incredibly important in providing opportunities for older people to be out and about all over the country. It was led by the Government and we are extremely proud of it. The extension of such passes to young people was made by Mayor Ken Livingstone in London, and other authorities can no doubt consider doing the same.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the closing date for the consultation on the Building Britain’s Future White Paper is 21 September so, rather perversely, we will clearly not get the debate in the House as promised on page 113 of that White Paper before the closure of the consultation period. However, is there not a broader point here? When the Government bring forward White Papers, their provisions are either otiose, in which case they are just ministerial window dressing, or they are significant. If White Papers have significant proposals, such as the Department for International Development White Paper earlier this week, it is right that we should have an opportunity to debate them properly at some stage. Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that, following a reasonable period after the publication of a White Paper, the House will have the opportunity to debate the proposals in that White Paper before we get to the point when legislation is brought to the House?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. There is an opportunity in the debate on 21 July on the motion on the summer recess Adjournment for hon. Members to make contributions exactly to that effect.
My right hon. and learned Friend will remember that at the last business questions I asked a question, and I shall ask it again because we need clarity. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the issue of Secretaries of State in the other place not being able to make statements to this House and not being answerable to this House? There is great concern among Members in this place that those Secretaries of State are not answerable to the House of Commons.
I can say no more to my hon. Friend than I said last week, which is that there are Ministers from every Department accountable to hon. Members in this House.
The acting Prime Minister was quite right when she said it would be a contempt of Parliament for hon. Members’ phones to be tapped, so when the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism makes a statement later, could we have an assurance that no hon. Member’s phone has been tapped by the Government since 1997?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Wilson doctrine stipulates that the work of hon. Members should not be impeded by any interception by way of the security services. What my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism said in response to the urgent question is that if there was anything further to report, he would make sure that he kept the House informed. I do not think he promised to make an oral statement to update the House this afternoon, but he will make sure that the House is kept informed if there is any further action or any outcome.
On Tuesday, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the Minister for Housing announced that he would make a statement on Pennbury and other proposed eco-towns before the summer recess. Given that the Pennbury proposal will have a devastating effect on my constituency and the regeneration of the city of Leicester, and indeed on the constituencies of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and many others, may we have an assurance that that statement will be made at such a time and in such a way that we can have a full debate on its content?
I will bring my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of the Housing Minister and make sure he realises that my hon. Friend’s comments are supported by a number of Members across the House.
In the light of the newspaper articles this morning about Cabinet Ministers possibly having their phones tapped, which shows that the Government are incompetent even at protecting the Government and their people from intercept, may we have a debate on information security which, as the Leader of the House knows, is the responsibility of the Cabinet, so that before we rise for the recess we can hold the Government to account for the function of national security, in which they have failed?
On national security, accountability is not only to Ministers but to the Intelligence and Security Committee. The hon. Gentleman will have heard my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism informing the House of the actions that the Metropolitan police are taking, when he responded to the urgent question this morning.
Gary McKinnon should be tried in the United Kingdom. He suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, and to remove him forcibly from the UK would be a brutal act. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that people will rightly be angry that one man involved in hacking is forcibly removed from this country, while another has a security pass to the parliamentary estate?
Order. May I just say to the Leader of the House that the hon. Gentleman has made his point and it is clearly on the record, but that the case is, I am advised, sub judice? I know that the Leader of the House will want to be very cautious about the way in which she responds.
The Extradition Act 2003 provides for extradition to the United States in respect of a number of serious offences. If the courts decide that there is a case to answer, the case will go before the courts and be considered on its evidence. There is also an appeal mechanism.
At the time of the most recent Health questions, there had been only one fatality from swine flu. Now, there have been seven deaths and thousands more cases have been brought to light. Given the dramatic escalation in the number of cases, and with the parliamentary recess almost upon us, will the Leader of the House agree to press the Secretary of State for Health on the need for a further debate in Government time on the UK’s preparations for dealing with the swine flu epidemic?
The Secretary of State for Health has kept the House regularly updated on action both to protect people from swine flu and to work internationally to tackle the pandemic. If any further announcements are to be made, he can make them while the House is sitting. If the House is in recess, he will obviously make sure that all hon. Members are kept informed.
In response to two questions from hon. Members yesterday, the Leader of the House became the latest in a long list of Ministers to support the case for compensation for pleural plaque sufferers. However, she did not answer the question whether there would be a statement in the next two weeks. Will there will be a statement in the next six days, before any more suffering takes place?
I am afraid I cannot give an exact answer to my hon. Friend, but I shall discuss the issue further with the Justice Secretary.
Following on directly from the issue that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) raises, I think the House will be aware of the excellent statement made in Northern Ireland, recommending a change in the law which would overturn the House of Lords decision on compensation for pleural plaque sufferers. The law has already been changed in Scotland. Is it not time that we had a statement, before the summer recess, ensuring that there is consistency throughout the country so that all sufferers can benefit from a change in the law and access compensation?
I shall bring that point to the attention of the Justice Secretary.
It is normal practice in many workplaces for an employee who is accused of a serious criminal offence to be suspended from that workplace, irrespective of where the alleged offence took place. Is it therefore not appropriate to have Mr. Coulson’s parliamentary pass withdrawn?
I think that there is an established procedure, which the House authorities and the Speaker operate, for the consideration of any suggestions that a House of Commons pass be withdrawn.
With discussions on reform of the House under way, will the Leader of the House reflect on answers given during Work and Pensions questions, showing that, between 1997 and 2000, each page of primary legislation received 14 minutes of scrutiny in this place, and the most recent figures, showing that that time has halved to seven minutes? May I suggest to her that if this place is to do its job properly, either we must have more time to scrutinise legislation or we must introduce less but more effective legislation?
The balance between the scrutiny of Government Bills and all other non-Bill debates, such as Opposition day debates, debates chosen by the Liaison Committee, general debates, topical debates and Budget debates, will be considered by the Committee that I hope the House will set up next week, with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) as Chairman. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) raises an important matter, and senior Members are prepared to get on and look at it on behalf of the whole House, so I hope that the friends of the hon. Member who last night objected to the Committee and prevented its being set up, will prevail upon him. I suggest that to the hon. Member for Billericay, and I shall talk to him afterwards.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is a strange legal system that allows an out-of-court settlement to gag somebody from giving information that may lead to a criminal investigation? Does she think it a matter worthy of further investigation? Mr. Gordon Taylor, who is head of the Professional Footballers Association, signed such a settlement with the News of the World, and he may have been implicated in covering up criminal activity. He may also have compromised his representation of the players whom he is paid to represent, because it has now been revealed that the News of the World may have investigated the private lives of some of those people, too. Does my right hon. and learned Friend not think it a curious situation and something worthy of examination on the Floor of the House?
There are a number of issues of concern. There are issues that concern the Press Complaints Commission and the operation of the press, which are the responsibility of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. There is the issue of the potentially criminal actions, which is a matter for the police and, ultimately, Home Office accountability. Of course, the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism answered an urgent question today. There are also the serious allegations of interference with hon. Members as we have gone about our responsibilities to represent our constituents, and that is a matter for the House. All those matters must be looked into, and we must have clear answers.
On Sunday, there was an uprising in Urumqi, in the Xinjiang province of north-west China, and its suppression led to more than 150 people being killed and to more than 1,500 being detained. May we have a statement early next week about the action that the Government have taken on the issue? And may we have a guarantee that the Prime Minister will contact Hu Jintao, if he has not already done so, to ensure the human rights of those who are being detained?
I know that the Foreign Secretary has joined other Foreign Secretaries and the United Nations in calling for the exercise of restraint so that there is a right to demonstrate and there are no more injuries, but I shall ask the Foreign Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman with further details.
May we have a full-scale debate about the media in this country—not just about the Coulson illegal phone-tapping affair, but about BBC pay and pensions, which far exceed those of Members, the vile bile that is written about Members and, paradoxically, the need to save local journalists’ jobs? May I put this question to the Government and ask the Leader of the House about Government policy? Self-regulation seems to have failed in the financial sector and in Parliament; why, then, is it all right for self-regulation to persist in the media?
I shall bring my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
The Secretary of State for Health has so far ignored calls for an inquiry into the NHS using independent sector treatment centres, including calls from the family of Dr. John Hubley, who tragically and unnecessarily died at the Eccleshill treatment centre. May I say to the Leader of the House again—this is the second time—that we need a debate? I cannot call for one, because I am my party’s health spokesperson, but this is an important issue, and the NHS National Patient Safety Agency has warned that such treatment should not go ahead without proper procedures in place. May we have a debate on that important issue in Government time?
Safety for all patients is important, irrespective of where the NHS provides that care. I shall have go back to the question that the hon. Gentleman asked me before, and to his question today, and ask the Health Secretary to write to him.
A number of my constituents have raised concerns about newspaper reports that Lloyds Banking Group is employing and recruiting overseas IT workers while laying off staff. Should not a so-called British bank, which is supported by British taxpayers’ money, support British workers? May we have a debate on that urgent matter in order to hold Lloyds Banking Group to account?
Perhaps my hon. Friend could ask Treasury Ministers about that issue during oral questions next week.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend approach the Secretary of State for Health about the postcode lottery as regards drug treatment and the financing of individual health authorities? At the minute, it seems that one health authority has it and the other does not. It really is a dog’s dinner, and the Government need to look at the issue.
That is an important matter, but it is one for the individual primary care trusts; my hon. Friend will no doubt seek a discussion with his. If he is not satisfied with his PCT’s response, he should raise the issue directly with Health Ministers.
As the Leader of the House will recall, some months ago I raised the matter of Bolsover district council’s need to replace 108 prefabricated bungalows, which were built after the end of the second world war. We had a meeting with the previous Housing Minister, who has now gone. We need to debate the issue because Bolsover district council had been led to believe that if it did not own its own housing stock, but had an arm’s length management organisation, it would get the money from the Government to replace those bungalows. Their foundations are rotting and we need a debate on the issue.
More importantly, will the Leader of the House convey to the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that we need him to meet Bolsover council representatives, to ensure fair treatment between councils that retain council stock and those that have gone over to ALMOs?
I shall ask the Minister for Housing to meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives of his council, to sort out how the upgrading of that housing should be dealt with. Perhaps some of the Building Britain’s Future investment of £1.5 billion will find its way to Bolsover.
Until and unless we can be assured that the Leader of the Opposition’s director of communications has not been involved in the surveillance of Members of Parliament—[Hon. Members: “Out of order!”] Until and unless we can be assured that that person has not been involved in these crimes, can the Leader of House not withdraw his parliamentary security pass?
I have to say to Opposition Members that the question of who has a pass to the House is a matter for the House—not for me, personally, as Leader of the House. All I can suggest is that my hon. Friend raise the matter with the House authorities and ask them to respond on whether it is acceptable for that person to continue having a pass, allowing him to move freely around the House.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought about raising this matter at business questions, but I think that it is more appropriate on a point of order. Mr. Speaker and his predecessor have always deprecated the release of information to people outside this House before its announcement here. A few moments ago, the Leader of the House gave the future business and provisional business for October, and announced the delay of the Report stage and Third Reading of the Health Bill until Monday 12 October.
That information was given to lobbying organisations, NGOs and others long before it was discussed through the usual channels or with anybody else, including shadow Ministers from my party or, I believe, the Conservative party. It was certainly made known long before it was announced to the House. I know that this has happened before and that it is not unusual, but it seems wrong that Departments should be able to make announcements about the timing of the future business of the House to organisations that are not part of the House, before hon. Members know about it. Could not instruction be given to Departments to ensure that that does not happen in future?
The hon. Gentleman could have raised that issue during business questions rather than as a point of order. The whole House will be aware of how strongly Mr. Speaker feels about such activity. The points that the hon. Gentleman has made are on the record and will be studied by everybody—not least Treasury Benchers and, I feel sure, Mr. Speaker.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The truth is that Departments do not know exactly when their Bills are to receive Second Reading or have further stages debated until the business managers have decided, following discussions with the usual channels, and told them. Obviously Departments can make inspired guesses and put them around, but if they do that they might find one of these days that they are proved wrong. I assure the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that the business managers do not discuss the business of the House in advance with anybody at all. We would not do that, because it would not be right.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given the seriousness of the urgent question this morning, do you agree that it would have been appropriate for the Home Secretary, rather than the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism, to have been here to answer? The Minister had obviously not been afforded the information with which to answer properly to the House. Mr. Speaker is committed to ensuring that the House can hold the Executive to account. The Home Secretary is in this country at an event that could easily have been rescheduled, and he—not the Minister—should have been here this morning.
Obviously the Home Secretary would ideally be here to answer such an urgent question. However, it is extremely difficult—particularly on a Thursday and when the urgent question is granted at the last minute—for the Government to rearrange all their business. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is firmly on the record. In some circumstances, however, what has happened is quite understandable.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the responses to the urgent question earlier today, the Minister said that there probably would not be a statement on the matter later today. May we have some indication of when a statement is likely to be made, given that the Metropolitan police are likely to say something about the issue later today? Is there any reason the House cannot be informed about when that ministerial statement is likely to be made—on Monday, for example? If the House cannot be so informed, what is the problem?
Order. That is not for the Chair to answer today. The situation is developing and more information about it will become clear as time goes by. If the Government decide to make a statement, I am sure that they will make it at the appropriate time.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Last Thursday, Mr. Speaker made a statement to the House and a number of Members were disappointed that they were not able to ask him questions about it as they ask Ministers questions about their statements. Mr. Speaker himself canvassed the idea of a Speaker’s question time when he was seeking election to his post.
I wonder whether—through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—we could raise with Mr. Speaker the idea that when the Speaker makes a statement to the House, he will accept questions about it from right hon. and hon. Members. I am sorry that Mr. Speaker is not in the Chair at the moment and so cannot respond directly. However, I hope that, having put my point on the record, I can obtain a response from him in due course.
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, I cannot respond directly to him. I suggest that he write in detail to Mr. Speaker, setting out his suggestions. I am sure that he will get a response to them.
Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism
[Relevant documents: The Eighteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights (Fifteenth Report): Annual Renewal of 28 Days 2009, HC 726.]
I beg to move,
That the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2009, which was laid before this House on 18 May, be approved.
May I start, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by saying that the urgent question was granted today at 10 o’clock? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in Manchester and the transport system is not yet effective enough to have him back here for half past 11. In response to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), I should say that I indicated that I would update the House at an appropriate time when further information came to light.
In our debates on what became the Terrorism Act 2006, the Government agreed that there should be a requirement for the annual renewal, by order debated in Parliament, of the extension of the maximum period of detention of terrorist suspects from 14 to 28 days. As the House will know, two such orders have been made since the commencement of the 2006 Act and the order today renews the maximum period of 28 days for a further period of one year, beginning 25 July 2009.
Over the past 18 months, pre-charge detention has been the subject of considerable debate—that is an understatement—in the House, including during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism Bill last year. The issue has been discussed by the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). It would not be appropriate for me to go over those discussions today, because they have been, and will continue to be, an important contribution to the debate.
It is worth reminding ourselves of and reflecting on why Parliament agreed the exceptional 28-day limit. As Members will know, terrorist investigations are hugely time consuming. The increase from 14 to 28 days was necessary primarily as a result of major investigations into the use of encrypted computers and mobile phones, complex terrorist networks, the international nature of networks, and the use of more, and different, languages. From my perspective and that of the Government, public safety is paramount; it is our main responsibility.
Is my right hon. Friend going to announce to the House how many individuals have been put on pre-charge detention because there is concern about their activities?
I can give my hon. Friend those statistics. She will know that to date 11 individuals have been held for more than 14 days on pre-charge detention. As a result of what happened in that 14-day period, six of those 11 were held for the maximum of 27 to 28 days, of whom three were charged and three were released without charge. She will also know that in the past two years nobody has been held beyond 14 days.
Sadly, terrorism is with us. The situation is very fluid. We are still at a level of severe threat to the United Kingdom. The issues of encrypted computers, mobile phones, terrorist networks, international languages and the need to gather evidence abroad may well require us, in response to further terrorist activity, to take actions— I hope they will be uncalled for—whereby the use of 28 days may be appropriate.
I have heard all this before. In Northern Ireland, we had this debate year after year, and it was pretty much unequivocally proved that detention without trial was a recruiting sergeant for terrorism, rather than something that helped to reduce it. Why does the Minister think that the lessons of history can be ignored today?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s interest in and affinity with Northern Ireland. He will know that I served as a Northern Ireland Minister for two years. He will also know, as will the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), that in Northern Ireland there have been, and will continue to be, considerable terrorist threats to the security of the population. I believe that it is important that we retain these powers. We have had, over some years, debates on extensions beyond 28 days, but now, I hope, we have a settled will that 28 days provides the opportunity for detailed investigation—where appropriate, with the appropriate legal safeguards—to ensure that we protect the public, which, for me, is key.
An issue that has been raised in every one of these debates, in all parts of the House, has been the impact on communities. A whole section of the excellent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights is devoted to the need for the Government to place an impact assessment before the House. Has that assessment been done, and is it available for Members to read?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for his comments, through the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on the impact on suspects and communities. I have looked at that issue this very week, and I will commission an impact assessment shortly. If the House will allow me, I will report back to it when the final commissioning has taken place to ensure that we deal with those matters.
Why is the Minister so intent on ignoring the evidence against long pre-charge detention periods? Having served in Northern Ireland, I know that it was a recruiting sergeant for the IRA in turning communities against us. However, that question has already been asked, so let me refer him to the international evidence, which suggests that in the vast majority of countries across the world, and in most western democracies—in places such as Turkey, for example—pre-charge detention periods are less than a week. The evidence simply does not stack up.
There are, self-evidently, different legal systems with different nuances throughout the European Community. The Government judge that 28 days is a mechanism that we need, with the appropriate legal safeguards, to ensure that we protect the public—that is our first priority. The fact that the power has not been used for two years does not mean that in difficult, trying circumstances where terrorist activity could have been commissioned or undertaken, we would not need it again. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), I gave details of 11 individuals who have been through that maximum period since the legislation was enacted, three of whom were charged as a result, and who may well not have been charged had we not had that extra 14 days, with the appropriate legal safeguards.
The Minister mentions the number of individuals who were released during the 27-day period. We have discussed this extension ad nauseam in this House and in Committee. Can he indicate any level of dissatisfaction among the security services, the police and so on about having to release these individuals, because none has come my attention?
One of my responsibilities as Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism is to look at what the police are saying about these issues. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the former assistant commissioner, Bob Quick, who said in giving evidence on the Counter-Terrorism Bill:
“In some investigations, we have seen”
attack planning activity
“materialise so quickly that on public safety grounds we have had to act pre-emptively before we have had the opportunity to exploit pre-arrest evidential opportunities. That places a huge burden on the investigating officer.”
That view has been supported by the current post holder, Assistant Commissioner John Yates. Only in the past few months, Jonathan Evans, the new director general of the Security Service, has stated:
“Al Qaida and other international terrorist organisations remain a very serious threat.”
We need to be aware of that and able to take action.
I am grateful to the Minister, but he has not answered my question. As he knows, I head up the counter-terrorism sub-committee, and I am not aware of any great tensions or worries among the police or security services about the individuals who had to be released at the last moment. Am I wrong, or has he, or the Home Secretary, been under pressure about the individuals who have gone to the wire and had to be released?
It is difficult for me to comment on individual cases, but the key point is that we have used the power in respect of 11 individuals, for 28 days. Three individuals were charged in that 14-to-28 day period, and the fact that three were released because there may not have been sufficient evidence, with the allegations being dropped, does not hide the fact that without those extra 14 days there would have been no possibility of charges being made.
This is not just a question of reducing the debate to numbers and to how tough one is measured by how long the period of pre-charge detention is. There is a clear change to the threshold test, which persuaded some of the Minister’s former colleagues to change their views. Why would not the flexibility that the Crown Prosecution Service now has on the threshold test substitute for this measure? Why should we not reduce the period to 14 days? What proportion of terrorist cases, on the latest available figures, have resulted in a conviction, and how does that compare with other cases brought by the CPS? The figures I have seen show that terrorist cases continue to have a higher conviction rate than non-terrorist cases.
I do not carry the number of convictions in my head. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I am trying to answer to the House in an appropriate way. I will consider those issues. If the figures materialise before the end of the debate, I will give them to him when I wind up.
We judge that 28 days is a necessary opportunity, in difficult circumstances, in the event of such activity.
On the lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland, there is a difference between indefinite detention without trial—a measure that our party opposed—as it applied in Northern Ireland and the measure before the House, which retains 28 days with all the safeguards and so on. Whatever other points may be made, it is a bit invidious to make that comparison, because the two things are not the same at all.
The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. He will know that internment without trial, which was used for public safety reasons in Northern Ireland at a certain time in history, is not the same as a 14-day extension to 28 days with judicial oversight. A judge has to examine the case, and I am accountable to this House and to the noble Lord Carlile, who reviews these matters. The situation is entirely different, although, if I may say so, we are dealing with some of the same problems. There might well be complex, difficult cases involving detailed trails of evidence that require a level of investigation for which 14 days will simply not suffice.
I should like to make some progress, but I shall give way finally to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South, and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). I have been quite generous.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has indeed been generous. Will he acknowledge from the Dispatch Box that the Home Office is not communicating effectively? In the Yorkshire bomb factory episode, it was 14 days before officers could get into the factory to start the investigation. It is critical for all of us to feel that we have a sense of what is going on, so that we can confidently support pre-charge detention of up to 28 days. I ask him to accept that the Home Office is failing to acknowledge its responsibility in that regard.
My hon. Friend makes a passionate case for the use of the power that we currently have. She will know that I have been in post for, I believe, six weeks and four days. I will attempt to examine that issue, because there is a genuine argument, in the interests of public safety, for ensuring that we make that case. What has happened over the past two years has not required the use of the power, but with the threat to the UK still at severe level we need to be sure that in the event of a plot either being thwarted or happening, those who are trying to damage our constituents and disrupt their daily lives are brought to justice within a legal framework and within the time that we have.
I give way for the last time. This is a short debate, and I want Members to be able to have their say.
I thank the Minister. Other democratic countries do not have anything like 28 days’ detention without charge. Typically, they have two to seven days. The USA and Canada have two days and New Zealand has one day. The Minister pointed out that they have different legal systems, and one difference is that they make extensive use of post-charge questioning to overcome the difficulties of getting into encrypted databases and so forth. The Government have given themselves limited powers to do that. What use has been made of them, and why cannot the Government adopt the practice of other countries by making extensive use of post-charge questioning?
We could have adopted, for example, the model used in France, where pre-trial detention can last four years and it is theoretically possible for someone to be held for that full period. We could have taken the approach of our good colleagues from Spain, who can hold people for five days before handing them over to judicial authorities, after which they can be held in preventive judicial custody for up to four years. We have not taken that approach. We have made a judgment, which will be tested again in the House this afternoon, that 14 to 28 days is a reasonable period, with reasonable judicial safeguards, to ensure that individuals can be charged. Let us not forget what this is about. It is about real threats to our community, and we need to have discussions about that.
As I have mentioned, there are not just general safeguards but specific ones in the judicial system. A Crown Prosecution Service lawyer has to make an application for an extension beyond 14 days, with the senior investigating officer present. Defence solicitors are provided with a written document in advance of each application. Applications are usually strenuously opposed, and the hearings last for several hours. The investigating officer may be questioned vigorously about all aspects of the case.
There is judicial oversight of extensions. A judge can grant an extension of less than seven full days, but he can also grant up to 14 days. That remains subject to judicial oversight. In my view, there is no contradiction between pursuing counter-terrorism objectives and providing a legal framework to defend individuals’ liberties and ensure that they are represented and have the opportunity to state their case. Pre-charge detention of 14 days remains the norm, and 28 days is for exceptional circumstances such as those my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South, described.
As hon. Members know, the threat level remains at severe. That means, sadly, that we are preparing for an attack that may be highly likely. Since July 2005, when British terrorists attacked the London transport system, murdering 52 people, the anniversary of which was only this week, there have been numerous plots against UK citizens, including in London and Glasgow in June 2007 and Exeter in May 2008. I cannot predict what might happen in the next 12 months. The 28-day limit has been used, and the noble Lord Carlile has consistently highlighted in his annual reports that he expects in the course of time to see cases in which even the current maximum of 28 days will be proved inadequate.
I believe that we have made a good case. I recognise that people are concerned about civil liberty issues, but I believe that judicial overview is sufficient to ensure that the security of individual freedoms is protected at the same time as the liberties of others in the state. I hope that the House will agree to the order. I shall try to answer points that are made in the debate, and if possible I will return to the figures that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) mentioned. If I do not have them by the end of the debate, I will certainly write to him in due course. I carry many things around with me, but not every precise figure, and I would not wish to mislead him or the House.
When we debated the last such order, the Government were in the midst of attempting to increase the pre-charge detention limit to 42 days. Having failed to convince the House of the case for 90 days, they then failed to convince Members of another place of the case for 42 days. The fact that we are here again debating an extension of the application of the 28-day limit reflects the fact that these matters are not set in concrete. The fact that the extension must be renewed annually reflects the fact that it is an exceptional power. Although we will not oppose the order, the Government should be aware that the consensus on 28 days is not in any way unconditional.
The statistics on the use of 28 days do not demonstrate to us a continuing and permanent need. In 2006-07, 10 people were held for between 14 and 28 days, of whom seven were charged and three released without charge. In 2007-08, one person was held for longer than 14 days and released on day 19. Since March 2008, no individual has been held for longer than 14 days. I wonder whether, reflecting on those figures, the Minister accepts that the evidence for the year’s extension is not completely compelling.
As the Minister will be aware, there continue to be problems with the legal framework for pre-charge detention. The Joint Committee on Human Rights report last month raised a number of questions about the 28-day period. There are concerns that the current law does not uphold a suspect’s right to a judicial hearing, and about the amount of information that suspects are given about the reason for their detention. A recent ruling by the Law Lords on the cases of three individuals under control orders is a sign that despite all the safeguards that are in place, the right of all citizens to a fair trial means that the Government need to re-examine the nature of evidence presented to suspects. The same applies to the order before the House.
We all accept that this country faces a real and increasingly complex terrorist threat. There is no debate about that at all, but for exceptional measures such as those in the order to be acceptable to the public, the Government need to continue to make their case for them.
The hon. Gentleman is making a careful and measured case in support of the order. He participated in the previous debate on its renewal and will recall that several Members asked about the assessment of the impact on communities. Is he as concerned as I am that it has taken the Government so long to initiate the risk assessment, when it is clear from all our debates so far that our support for the measure is based, as he has just said, on the Government’s making the case?
The right hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point. I was about to say that the Government, in publishing their Contest 2 counter-terrorism strategy, have attempted to explain the nature of the terror threat and the need for robust policies to face it, but the fullest explanations are required. It is therefore pertinent to consider the concerns about Operation Pathway and the arrest of 12 students in Manchester. Hon. Members will recall that the then Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bob Quick, was forced to resign for revealing the operation. The Prime Minister told us that it was a serious plot based on solid evidence, yet not a single charge has been made. Pursuant to that and the comments of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), does the Minister agree that if talk of alarming and dangerous plots is not followed up with transparent judicial process, the wider public will not necessarily be assured of the need for intrusive and tough counter-terrorist measures?
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case for treating the provisions as temporary. Why, therefore, will not the official Opposition vote against them today? Are they insisting on taking St. Augustine’s position—Lord, make us virtuous, but not yet?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Our position is that we will, on balance, give the Government the benefit of the doubt on the basic condition that the order will be kept under review. I shall make some further remarks at the end of my speech that will answer the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. The subject is difficult and detailed and we all need to ensure that we are concentrating. I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. There is a small but vocal ethnic group in my constituency and in Teesside. None of its members has spoken to me about pre-charge detention and none has criticised it or perceived it as problematic. Indeed, members of that group work with Cleveland police. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that groups have spoken to the Conservative party or to him personally to express serious concerns about pre-charge detention? It is important to share our knowledge as well as the concerns that we clearly have.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Colleagues have already said that draconian measures, which are not fully explained or transparent and do not carry public support, can in some circumstances become a recruiting sergeant for those who wish to commit terrorist atrocities against this country.
May I answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor)? I have certainly received representations from the small but influential Muslim community—Sufis, who are remarkably balanced, sensible and loyal people—in my constituency, asking me to explain the implications of the order. Sources that I handled in Northern Ireland in years gone by have also expressed reservations about it. I will expand on that later, should I be allowed to speak.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that that goes some way towards answering the question about the representations that we have received. I suspect that Labour Members have also received such representations—the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee is nodding. If he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may wish to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor).
The Minister has reiterated the case for 28 days, relying on many of the arguments that were made previously—often for 90 days and then 42 days. Although I accept that the complex nature of some terrorist plots and the difficulty in gathering admissible evidence means that extensions will be required, can the Minister offer an update on moves to allow the use of intercept evidence in criminal proceedings? We have not heard much about that in the debate. It is now more than 18 months since the Chilcot review recommended that it was in the interests of national security to develop an acceptable way of bringing intercept evidence to court. I do not know how much progress the follow-up committee has made—perhaps the Minister can give us an update. Sir John’s new responsibilities for the Iraq inquiry will place further burdens on his time. It will be interesting to hear about that from the Minister because it bears on the case for the necessity of 28-day periods of detention.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and the House for having to leave the chamber, once the Minister has finished speaking to meet a party from my constituency. We are fortunately a long way from 90 days, which was proposed four years ago, and from 42 days, which was proposed more recently. I give the Government the benefit of the doubt on 28 days, as the official Opposition intend to do, because witnesses who gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee and were unhappy with 42 days were satisfied with 28 days. They included Ken Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions. There is therefore a case to stick to 28 days for another year, but the Government should keep the matter under review. The sooner we can get back to 14 days—or even seven days—the happier most of us will be.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The order must be kept under review. If the evidence suggests that the period can be reduced from 28 days in future, we will support that. However, we must examine the evidence.
From today, our support for the extension of pre-charge detention in the order will depend on what any Government are able and willing to do about two things. First, they must demonstrate convincingly to Parliament that the security situation is such that 28 days remains indispensable and cannot be shortened. It may seem self-evident, but that means that we need a proper and continuing discussion in Parliament about the security situation. Secondly, they will need to look at the legal framework governing the judicial authorisation of extended detention to ensure that it meets the procedural protections afforded not only by our common law but by article 5 of the European convention on human rights. I hope that this will give an indication of the approach that we want to take, should there be a change of Government before the next renewal.
The Government of the day have a duty to keep the people of this country secure, with parliamentary consent and public understanding, and to take the measures that are strictly necessary to achieving that end. Protection for the public and for this country must be, and can be, achieved in ways that uphold our historic freedoms and our reputation for justice and procedural fair dealing. It is in that spirit, and that spirit alone, that we make our case today and will not vote down or seek to divide the House on the measure before us.
I should like to speak to the tagged report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Select Committee starts with the premise, as it always does, that human rights law imposes a duty on the state to protect us all from terrorism, and it is on that point that today’s debate must focus.
The 28-day provision was supposed to be a temporary measure, but this is the third annual renewal debate since it was introduced in 2006. There is therefore a risk of its developing an air of permanence, as the Prevention of Terrorism Acts have. That legislation was originally aimed at Irish terrorism, but it has been renewed year after year, decade after decade.
In preparing for today’s debate, I looked at my notes for last year’s debate and the relevant report. Little seems to have changed, save that yet another year has passed without the power having had to be used. I concede that that is not, in itself, proof that the measure is not needed, but it does mean that we need to scrutinise ever more closely the question of its renewal.
The recent report of the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights warned of the corrosive effect of open-ended departures from ordinary procedures and of the danger of special measures, introduced to deal with a temporary crisis, becoming permanent. The point appears to have been accepted in principle by the Secretary of State for Justice, who was recently reported in the press as having indicated, in a public lecture on 12 May, that UK counter-terrorism laws built up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the 7/7 attacks on London should be reviewed and may need to be scaled back. He is reported to have said:
“There is a case for going through all counter-terrorism legislation and working out whether we need it. It was there for a temporary period.”
The Government have set out their case again today, stating that the complex nature of terrorism investigations requires the longer period of detention. However, we know from what the Minister has said, and from published documentation, that only six people have been held for the maximum of 28 days, of whom three were charged and three released. In our previous reports, my Committee indicated that detailed, qualitative information was needed for Parliament to make an informed decision. Since September 2008, three people have been convicted. There is a retrial involving other defendants, and I accept that we cannot scrutinise those cases until the retrials have been concluded, but, as I said last year, we could carry out a detailed analysis of the cases of the three people who were released. However, we were told at the time that the Home Office does not hold information on those cases, as they are an operational matter for the police, in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service. That was a surprising response, as lessons could be learned from the cases of innocent people who have been held for 28 days. Despite last year’s assurances of more detailed information being made available, it seems that all we are getting now is the Home Office’s statistical bulletin. That gives only the bare figures, which are not a great deal of use.
During last year’s renewal debate, the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), expressly accepted the need for detailed information to be made available about how the power had been used in practice when debating future renewals. Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate reported on the counter-terrorism division of the CPS in April 2009. The Government relied on that inspection in response to our inquiry into their plans to conduct a qualitative review.
As I have indicated, I am not in favour of reducing the period of 28 days at this stage. Should we not, however, pay tribute to the other place—which I do not always do—because the proposal to increase the period of detention from 28 to 42 days was carried in this House and even, unfortunately, in the Home Affairs Committee, with various qualifications, but their lordships rejected it. So, although it was carried in the Commons by a majority of nine—the number of Unionist MPs at the time—the period was not increased from 28 days, and nor should it be in any circumstances.
My hon. Friend has made his point. I would simply say that my Committee did not endorse the proposal on 42 days, even though his Committee did.
Unfortunately it did, yes.
I was referring to the inspection by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. The Government say that, on the basis of that inspection, there
“does not appear to be any need for another inspection.”
However, the CPS inspectorate has not conducted the qualitative analysis that we recommended in earlier reports. We therefore reach the same conclusion that we reached last year on the question of the need to go beyond 14 days to 28 days—namely, that we are unable to reach a view as to whether the Government have made their case. In our report, we repeat our call for a thoroughgoing review of all those cases in which the power has been exercised, with a view to ascertaining whether those released could have been released earlier, and whether those charged could have been charged earlier, on the threshold test. We simply do not know the basis of those charges.
The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism has made much of the safeguards available through judicial hearing and oversight. We have grave reservations about that, however. A person who has been arrested on suspicion of terrorism has a convention right, under article 5(4), to a judicial hearing to determine the lawfulness of their detention. They have the same right to a judicial hearing under the common law principle of habeas corpus. In a number of our reports, we have expressed our concern that the current arrangements for judicial authorisation of extended pre-charge detention are not compatible with the right to a judicial hearing. We are concerned that the hearing of an application for a warrant for further detention is not a fully adversarial hearing, because of the power to exclude the suspect and his representative from the hearing, and to withhold from the suspect and his lawyer information that is provided to the judge.
We are also concerned about the adequacy of the judicial oversight at such extension hearings, because the judge is empowered to consider only the future course of the investigation and whether it is being conducted diligently and expeditiously by the police, rather than whether there is sufficient evidence to justify the suspect’s original arrest and continued detention.
Since the last annual renewal of the 28-day measure, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights and now the House of Lords have held that the requirements of a fair hearing under article 5(4) include the requirement that the detained person must be given sufficient information about the allegations against him, to enable him to contest those allegations or to give effective instructions in relation to the allegations to the person representing his interests.
The statutory framework for the extension of pre-charge detention expressly provides for the withholding from the suspect and his lawyer of information that is seen by the judge, and for the exclusion of the suspect and his lawyer from parts of the hearing. There is no provision for special advocates in the closed part of extension hearings, and even if there were, it is now clear that the essence of the case against a detained person must be disclosed to that person to enable them to contest the allegations.
The decisions of the Grand Chamber on the Belmarsh regime, and of the House of Lords on the control orders regime, concerning the minimum that is required for a judicial hearing to be truly judicial in nature, make even clearer the risk of breaches of article 5(4). Unless amendments to the statutory framework are made, renewal of the maximum extended period of 28 days risks leading in practice to breaches of article 5(4).
Our report also notes with interest that our concerns about the compatibility of the pre-charge detention framework with the right to a judicial hearing following arrest are shared by the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights in its recent report. The panel also comments on the example that this sends to the rest of the world, stating:
“It is distressing to see how the slackening of procedural safeguards in countries like France, the UK and the USA, has been exploited by other States with less well-entrenched legal systems and human rights safeguards.”
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, asked about the impact of the measure on communities. Last year, we recommended that the Government seek and make available to Parliament independent advice assessing, in general terms, the likely impact on individuals of being detained without charge for up to 28 days, and—this point has not yet been raised—the actual impact, including the psychological effect, on individuals who have been detained for more than 14 days pre-charge. We should look not only at the collective impact on a community but at the impact on the individual people concerned. Every person has their own individual human rights. Human rights are personal, not collective.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Bearing in mind what the Minister said from the Dispatch Box today—it is still a puzzle to me why it has taken the Government so long to begin the process of assessment—this process should involve consultation with Parliament on how the risk assessment is going to be conducted. It should not be done solely from Whitehall for Whitehall; it should include the process of parliamentary scrutiny.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that good suggestion.
Last year, the Government undertook to conduct a risk assessment on the effect of the 28-day extension on communities. Asked when the community impact review would be complete, Lord West told the other place:
“We hope to have the initial findings out by the end of the year”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2008; Vol. 703, c. 203.]—
namely 2008. A year later, neither type of impact assessment—individual or community—has been made available to Parliament.
The Government acknowledge in their reply to our queries their commitment to undertake a review of the impact of all counter-terrorism legislation on our communities, but they now envisage publishing a research report by late November 2009. However, the psychological impact of extended pre-charge detention on individuals will not be included within that review. Such an assessment could already have taken place in the case of those held for more than 14 days and then released without charge. We recommend again that the Government obtain and make available to Parliament such an impact assessment.
The other main new point is about the presumption of innocence. Last year, the Minister conceded that a special paper on the impact of press speculation on the right to a fair trial had not been prepared, but it “might be worth considering”. Strasbourg case law is very clear that the presumption of innocence requires Ministers to refrain from pronouncing on a suspect’s guilt before a suspect has been convicted. The approach of the Attorney-General, whereby a specific newspaper or broadcaster may have their attention drawn to risks of publication and prejudging a particular case, is very ad hoc and does not address the problem of possible prejudice to fair trials caused by Ministers commenting on cases when suspects have been arrested—even before they have been charged. In our view, the Director of Public Prosecutions should draw up and consult on draft guidance on how to avoid prejudicial comment—by the press or Ministers—following the arrest of terrorism suspects, particularly after they have been charged.
In common with the official Opposition, I do not oppose the order, and I say that simply because we have insufficient evidence to form a view either way. If renewal is sought next year, the Government must produce an evidence-based case with the analysis that my Committee has recommended for several years, especially if the power is not used over the next 12 months, bearing in mind that it has not been used over the last two years. Either way, further safeguards are needed in the light of recent judicial pronouncements—and, indeed, in the light of common law and common sense—so we look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to these points.
I am always very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who made a number of good points. I have to say, however, that as with the speech of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), I am slightly confused by the hon. Gentleman’s position, as it seems to me that this House has a very long and honourable tradition of giving the Executive powers only when the case for them is clearly made out. What we have heard from the hon. Member for Hendon, based on the deliberations of his Committee, is that the Government have not made out a case for the extension of the period of detention without charge.
We on the Liberal Democrat Benches are unhappy with the further extension of what was clearly introduced as a temporary provision. That is why we will divide the House on this issue later today. There is an old adage that there is nothing so permanent as the temporary, and there are many examples of that in our legislation, but we should not seek to extend that principle to these particular provisions.
My argument today is that 28 day pre-charge detention is no longer a necessary or appropriate length of time to detain a terrorist suspect. The Government have not made their case on that. The Joint Committee on Human Rights released its report last month suggesting, as the hon. Member for Hendon said, that the Government have not made their case, which I believe is because they cannot make such a case.
I am not naive. I recognise that the western world has changed substantially since the 11 September bombings and there is no doubt that the UK faces serious terrorist threats from sophisticated international groups intent on doing us harm. It follows that investigations into these threats will be complex, transnational and will involve difficulties such as dealing with foreign languages and computer encryption. But the methods we use to tackle those threats need to be proportionate and effective, which pre-charge detention, I suggest, is simply not.
Since 2000, the Government have drastically altered our detention periods. We have rapidly progressed from a position of seven days to 28 days of maximum detention. That is to ignore the frankly quite staggering attempts in between to extend detention to 90 days, following the 7/7 bombings, and then last year to extend it yet again to 42 days through the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. Luckily, the Government were defeated due to almost universal opposition. I believe that the Government seriously lost their case on this matter, particularly if we look at some of people who peeled off and became critics. Despite that defeat, 42 days’ detention lurks as a threat on the statute book, not least due to the draft Bill that the then Home Secretary placed in the Library.
This is all part of a pattern from a Government who have an obsession with tough-sounding policies that may appease parts of the electorate but, in reality, have little impact on the problem—or, as we have heard from some hon. Members, run the risk of having a completely counter-productive impact on the problem. It seems to me that attempts to reduce the period of detention are long overdue.
Let us look at the facts surrounding the detention period. Since June 2007, no one has been held in pre-charge detention for longer than 14 days. Over the whole period reported to us, only 11 people who were terrorist suspects have ever been held for longer than 14 days and only six people have ever been held for the full 28 days; half of those, moreover, were eventually released without charge. Half were released without any surveillance or suspicion, which tells me that the innocent have been made to suffer most. This House should surely be exceptionally careful about affecting British law and the rights of the innocent.
Many numbers have been used dispassionately in the debate today, but we must not forget the human implications of what it is like to be imprisoned for close to a month. It is a terrifying and disorientating experience even for someone who is guilty, let alone for a potentially innocent person, and it can have a huge impact on their life, particularly when they do not even know what they have been charged with. How fundamental an assault on the principle that we are innocent until proven guilty is it to be incarcerated for a long period without even knowing what we have been accused of?
Two weeks should be long enough to decide whether someone should be charged with a terrorist offence or not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) pointed out, our current 28 days far exceeds the equivalent limits in other comparable common law democracies. Australia has 12 days, the United States two days and Canada allows for one day. The Minister’s answer was basically “What about France and Spain?”. We deliberately chose our comparison because these are Commonwealth countries whose traditions of law stem from the law that began in this country—namely, traditions of freedom and liberty. Let me reiterate that, as it stands, our current 28 days far exceeds equivalent limits in other comparable common law democracies. We have never traditionally compared ourselves and our tradition of liberty with that of Spain, France and other continental countries, which have a very different tradition. However, it is perfectly legitimate to compare ourselves with other common law countries.
Why do the Government insist that we need to hold people for close to one month when so many other countries manage to charge and convict with pre-charge detention periods of less than a week? Surely the Government are not suggesting that our police and Crown Prosecution Service are slower and less equipped to deal with terror threats. Are the terrorist threats we face more complex than those of our Commonwealth cousins? I think not.
We consider that the arguments previously used in favour of retaining 28 days’ pre-charge detention have been particularly weakened as other methods of combating terrorism and bringing charges have been strengthened. The counter-terrorism landscape has changed over the intervening period. The Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 allows for post-charge questioning. The Chilcot report, published in February 2008, has paved the way for the admissibility of intercept evidence. Perhaps if the House were to agree with us today and vote this temporary provision down, the Government might put a little more effort into ensuring that intercept evidence is admissible in court and the security services are better resourced to deal with the modern threat.
According to the Home Affairs Committee report on Contest, released earlier this month,
“the UK’s counter-terrorism apparatus is first-class, effective and as ‘joined-up’ as any system of government can expect.”
Surely that makes the point again. Why do we need to do particular violence to our traditions of liberty and of trial, given that the Home Affairs Committee—and I am sure that the Government would support its judgment—says that our counter-terrorism apparatus is first-class?
I am just about at explosion point. I am really very sorry to say this to the House, but when the hon. Gentleman tells us that if the Government put in a bit more oomph or the Home Office handled its work load with a bit more urgency so that intercepted material could be used as evidence today, it is obvious that he does not know what he is talking about. Chilcot and the rest of them have been trying for months to work out how intercepted material could be used as evidence without damaging our agencies in any way. If the hon. Gentleman does not know that when he is addressing the House, he should do.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady is getting so worked up. I merely remind her that in both Australia and the United States—the United States example is particularly relevant—intercept evidence is already admissible in court. If she spent any time talking to serious investigators of both terrorism and organised crime in the United States, she would find that they think it astonishing that we are not prepared to avail ourselves of a fundamental tool for the bringing of successful prosecutions.
Let me also remind the hon. Lady that the reason it is so important for us to think about the United States is that we have such a close intelligence relationship with it. I suggest that if the United States can use intercept evidence without blowing a hole in the abilities of its security and secret services, we too should be able to do so. As the hon. Lady knows very well, this issue has been dragging on for ages.
I apologise for intervening when I have only just come into the Chamber, but an even more relevant example is Australia, where the head of counter-terrorism has stated in terms that those who do not use intercept evidence in court are not being serious about counter-terrorism.