The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
I expect the numbers of retirements of parish priests between now and 2015 to be as follows: 224 in 2010, 304 in 2011, 336 in 2012, 310 in 2013, 313 in 2014, and 278 in 2015.
Perhaps that answer reflects the £350 million pension board deficit in the priests’ retirement fund and the consequent need to raise the retirement age to 68. Can my hon. Friend say whether, taking into account deaths and future retirements, the overall trend is for a falling number of stipendiary priests and whether that is balanced out by an increase in the number of non-stipendiaries?
As my hon. Friend will know, as with every other final salary pension scheme the cost of the clergy pension scheme has increased significantly over the past decade because of increased life expectancy, lower investment returns and increased regulation. The Church is committed, however, to ensuring that its clergy receive an adequate income in retirement.
On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, it is a fact that deaths and retirements mean that the overall number of stipendiary priests has been falling. However, I remind the House of two things: first, the Church is immensely well served by thousands of non-stipendiary clergy; and secondly, it is doing some very good work with vocational events to help people, especially younger people, to explore their calling.
Please can the hon. Gentleman tell us how many professional statisticians are employed by the Church of England at Church House and by the Church Commissioners?
I am certainly aware of one statistician who gives me excellent advice. If there are others within the recesses of Church House, I will be happy to search them out and give the hon. Gentleman a written response.
As so many parishes, including my own, are dependent on retired clergy for keeping their services going, is there not a lot to be said for raising the retirement limit and allowing clergy to serve in full post until they are 75?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, to which at this time I have no answer. However, it is certainly a problem that the Church would like to consider, because we need to deal with it. His suggestion is welcome and I will check it out for him.
We do not keep records of which parishes are rural and which are not. However, I know from the latest edition of “Church Statistics”—the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) will be very aware of this—that there are, on average, 2.1 churches to a benefice, with figures ranging from 1.3 churches per benefice in Portsmouth diocese to 3.6 churches per benefice in Hereford diocese.
Taking that with the hon. Gentleman’s answer to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), it appears that more parishes are going to be covered by the same stipendiary priests. I know that the Second Church Estates Commissioner has visited Teesdale, where I was brought up, and parishes in North Yorkshire are very similar. Parish priests are extremely hard pressed. What can he do to make their lives a little easier in getting around to administer to parishes?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding us of our last exchange, when I mentioned my visit to Teesdale churches. She asks about stipendiary priests, but I should point out that the Church is also well served by many thousands of others, including non-stipendiary ministers, chaplains and retired clergy. Taking that into account, at the end of 2007 more than 20,000 ministers were licensed by Church of England dioceses—that is one minister for every 2,500 people in England. Is not that a remarkable fact, Mr. Speaker?
I thank my hon. Friend for the information regarding stipendiary and non-stipendiary priests. Does he have a precise figure for how many non-stipendiary priests there are in the Church of England—and may I pay tribute to them? My second late husband, John Hammersley, spent his last four years of working as a Church of England vicar in the Oxford diocese training and preparing for ordination non-stipendiary priests, and he was terribly impressed by their abilities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the good work that the non-stipendiaries do and how much that work is appreciated in the Church. In response also to the earlier question from the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the clergy work load is always under review and it is part of the bishops’ pastoral care for the clergy. My hon. Friend’s point is very well made.
Christian Minorities Abroad
Supporting persecuted groups, whether Christian or not, is an integral part of the Church’s work at all levels. Centrally, funds are not separately allocated for that work, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the officers and advisers of the Archbishops Council, together with bishops, dioceses and the officers of the archbishops, provide substantial and continuing support to persecuted Christians abroad.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that positive answer. I know that my own Bishop of Croydon spoke at the international interfaith conference in Kazakhstan a year ago on this matter. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it is appropriate for the Church to do its very best to draw the attention of the media and Her Majesty’s Government to the persecution of Christians, for example in northern Iraq and in Orissa?
The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the work that the Church does, which does not get adequate media attention in the age of the 24-hour media, and he refers to his own bishop’s visit. There have recently been killings of Christians in Gojra and tensions in Nigeria, and they are matters of great concern to the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury has led the response, corresponding with the Pakistani Church and Government, and a delegation led by the Bishop of Bradford will meet Ministers and visit Gojra next month. The idea that we ought to draw the media’s attention to the matter more is positive.
In the past I have travelled to Pakistan and Nigeria with that excellent organisation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and I must tell my hon. Friend how important Christians abroad view the Anglican Church in this country as being and how much they look to it for leadership. Anything that can be done to increase the budget and our representation in those countries to ensure that they are listened to is vital.
My hon. Friend again draws the attention of the House and the wider world to the excellent work that the Church does in difficult circumstances. He mentions funding, and although the Church Commissioners do not fund that particular work, the Church none the less applies significant resources to it through various budgets, including the expenses budgets of its officers, bishops and archbishops. Clearly, such work takes much time and involves significant travel and other costs, as he is aware, but it is vital work and it is vital that the House is aware of it.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Spending Limits (General Elections)
The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 has introduced significant changes to the limits on candidates’ spending, including for the first time the concept of a long campaign period during which their spending is regulated. The Electoral Commission issued briefings on the proposals while the Bill was before Parliament, which are available in the Library and on the commission’s website.
The monopoly of political power between the Government and the media threatens not only this place but the grass roots of our politics. Many of us of all parties know of the decline in the membership and activity of local parties. Will the hon. Gentleman make it his aim to extend the ability of the grass roots of our parties to thrive, not least by raising the amount that Members of Parliament can spend on their campaigns locally rather than at national level?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and he has campaigned diligently on the issue over the years. However, as the House has recently considered the matter in some depth as the 2009 Act went through, the Electoral Commission is not currently examining it and sees no opportunity for a review of candidates’ spending before the next general election.
One of the challenges for the Electoral Commission in trying to have a long-term limit on expenditure is not knowing when the general election will be. Has the commission made any representations on, or study of, the benefits of a fixed-term Parliament to making electoral expenditure more predictable?
Not as far as I am aware, but I will of course pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the Electoral Commission.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
As I told the House on 23 October 2008, Official Report, column 449, the Church provides such advice via the Churchcare and Parish Resources websites. In addition, the lottery providers give specific advice on their own schemes via their websites.
The hon. Gentleman will know that cathedrals, including Lichfield cathedral, have made several applications to people at, for example, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and have often been successful, but when they are unsuccessful, it has cost the cathedrals tens of thousands of pounds. Large applications have to be made and decided upon down in London. Surely, there is an argument for the Commissioners, who are based in London, to have a relationship with the Heritage Lottery Fund, so that they can advise cathedrals around the country.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and has highlighted an important paradox: cathedrals have never been in better condition, nor better cared for, but might soon be at risk if they cannot carry out their planned repairs. In relation to the specific point, he will recall that we had an exchange about Lichfield cathedral’s application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding for a scheme to improve visitor facilities. Colleagues at Church House supported the application, but unfortunately a ballot was held in which Lichfield cathedral was unsuccessful. However, his point about the centrality was well made, and I shall take it back to Church House.
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
National Audit Office
I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Public Accounts Commission, which took evidence on 20 October on the National Audit Office’s strategy for 2010-11 to 2012-13. The NAO proposed that its net resource requirement, which was £79.3 million in 2009-10, should remain at that figure for 2010-11, and the commission agreed. The NAO is also committed to cost reductions that will reduce corporate costs by 5 per cent. per year, while streamlined processes and better use of staff resources will reduce the cost of front-line audit and assurance work by 2 per cent.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will agree that that came out of an evidence session; no one sat down at a table and talked about cost reductions in general. Will he relay the fact that the House would like those gentlemen and ladies to sit down, talk and work out how they can save on costs? However, that should be done amicably and everyone should have an equal place at the table.
The NAO reports regularly to the commission on how it proposes to make savings, and we work on a ratio of £10 in Government spending saved for every £1 spent. So far it has been agreed that cost savings will be achieved by reducing expenditure on non-essential, back-office functions, using in-house resources rather than consultants wherever possible, and introducing a standard analytical framework for value-for-money work to use staff resources better. The NAO intends to ensure that quality is maintained through its internal and external quality control processes. We, at the commission, will be keeping a close eye on that.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Vote Counting (General Elections)
The Electoral Commission has received several representations about the timing of counts at the forthcoming UK parliamentary general election. The issue has also been discussed at recent meetings between the commission and individual Members of Parliament and with representatives of the BBC. The commission has written to all returning officers asking for information about when they intend to begin counting in the general election. As of 13 November 2009, it had received responses from 429 out of 650 constituencies, of which 225 will begin their count on polling day and 48 the day after. Some 156 were undecided. Details of responses received by constituency are available on the commission’s website.
I am grateful for that response and glad that the Electoral Commission is considering the matter carefully. The truth is that Parliament and politics are less popular and of less interest than they used to be. If we are to forgo the count on the evening of polling day, people will not even have a Government the next day. We must have a count as soon as possible afterwards, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as a representation.
I do receive that as a representation. My hon. Friend knows that returning officers, whose role is independent in statute, make the final decision about when a count is held. The Electoral Commission’s foremost concern is that the count be accurate and the voters have confidence in the result, but my hon. Friend’s representations are certainly well received.
It is extremely rare that I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), but he refers to part of the tradition of our system. Although it is impractical in a handful of constituencies, will the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) press the Electoral Commission to encourage returning officers to hold counts on the night of the election?
The Electoral Commission does not look to influence the decision of returning officers, and the hon. Gentleman knows that the requirement to check signatures and dates of birth on postal voting statements accompanying postal ballot papers is the issue that has arisen about the forthcoming general election. Naturally, the commission will look at the outcome of the next general election and the processes, and make appropriate representations after that.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
After the House of Lords required the DPP to produce his interim policy for prosecutors on cases of assisted suicide in July, my office was consulted by him, as is appropriate for a superintendent Department. The DPP’s interim policy is now the subject of public consultation and a final policy will be issued next year.
Let me emphasise that all cases alleging assisted suicide are assessed on their facts and merits.
I am grateful for that answer. One of the things that concerns me about the DPP’s interim guidance is that serious disability is one of the factors that he will consider in assessing whether a prosecution is not in the public interest. I wonder about the message that that sends out to people with a disability about the extent to which we want a society that helps them live independently and gives them a good quality of life rather than encourages them to take their own lives.
I cannot for one minute think that any innuendo of that kind could be appropriately drawn. The court asked the DPP effectively to list, as a policy, all the factors that were capable of being taken into account. That is as far as the reference to disability goes. It would probably be odd to leave out disability caused by, for example, life-limiting illness in a case of someone assisting a suicide. The cases are complex and sensitive, but no innuendo such as that suggested by the hon. Gentleman could possibly be drawn. The DPP is consulting publicly to try to get every factor and to balance them. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, it was not the DPP’s wish to produce any guidelines. Let me emphasise again that each such case, when it arises, will be considered carefully on its merits.
The Judicial Committee in the House of Lords put the DPP in an invidious position in asking him to declare the law. That is a matter for Parliament, not the DPP. Do the Government have any plans in the near future to revisit section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961?
No, we do not. My hon. Friend is right that the law has not been changed.
The Bribery Bill will no longer require the consent of the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General before a prosecution for an offence under the measure can start. Instead, it will require the consent of the director of the relevant prosecuting authority. The Bill does not alter the role of the Attorney-General in any other way.
I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer, but what can she do to assure the House that never again will the Government use bogus reasons for not proceeding with Serious Fraud Office offences? I simply mention the murky BAE Systems-Saudi arms deal.
I suppose precedent would be a help because there never has been such behaviour by the Government. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the House of Lords said about the decision. First, it made it clear that the director of the SFO, not any member of the Government, made the decision. It was also clearly stated: that
“It may indeed be doubted whether a responsible decision-maker could, on the facts before the Director, have decided otherwise”.
This is a problem for the Government—and, indeed, for the House and the country. I engaged with the OECD investigation into bribery, in which it said that
“systematic deficiencies… make clear the need to safeguard the independence of the SFO”.
How will that happen if reform of the Attorney-General’s power does not take place?
The only power would be a power to use a direction in a case where national security was at stake. There is a process to go through before that happens. It has not happened for many, many years. Normally what would happen, even in a case where national security was at a premium, is that the director would take it into account when evaluating the public interest.
Does the Solicitor-General believe that the proposed Bribery Bill would deal with the Leader of the Opposition’s promise to make amendments to the inheritance tax regime which will benefit only the people on his Christmas card list?
I do not know that much about the Leader of the Opposition’s Christmas card list.
That is as well—let me say to the hon. and learned Lady that its relationship with questions 12 and 13 is, at best, I think, opaque.
The Solicitor-General seems to have missed the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) was making—that because all reform of the Attorney-General’s office has been removed from the Constitutional Reform Bill, the power of the Attorney-General to superintend in general the prosecutions put forward by the directors has been left unaffected. Has the Solicitor-General received any guidance, information or assurance from the OECD that it is satisfied with the arrangements that will now be in place, because if she has not, the lack of independence of the directors will continue to be a blot on the reputation of this country and may leave British business in a very difficult position?
The hon. Gentleman really does not live in the real world. He should try telling Richard Alderman or Keir Starmer that they are not independent: they are extremely independent individuals, and rightly so. There is a detailed protocol, which I commend to the hon. Gentleman, so that he can understand this area rather better than he appears to do now. The superintendence function has specifically been cast into a protocol to make its limits very clear. Our current law complies with the OECD convention, which the OECD makes very clear.
Why does the Solicitor-General propose a difference between the function of the Attorney-General on extra-territorial crime under the Bribery Bill and on other offences committed overseas?
So far as I am aware—it is not my Bill, but a Ministry of Justice Bill—the recommendations of the Joint Committee have played a role there. I am obviously answering on behalf of the prosecution departments today, as I always do, but a good deal of note has been taken of what the Joint Committee said, and that was its position.
The Bribery Bill, already referred to, will provide a modern and comprehensive scheme of bribery offences to equip the prosecutors and the courts to deal effectively with bribery both at home and abroad.
When I introduced my draft International Bribery and Corruption Bill in February 1998, it was opposed by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who sits on the Conservative Front Bench today, and who described it as “fundamentally naïve”. Has my hon. and learned Friend discussed the Bribery Bill with the Opposition Law Officers and will they now support it?
I do not think there is anything fundamentally naïve about this Bill. At first sight, it looks as if the Bill is going to hit the spot and will be much more modern, clearer and less fragmented than what applies currently. Whether the Opposition will support it, I do not know. It will be introduced in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Bach, and when it comes here it will be dealt with by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who I have no doubt at all will have conversations with the Opposition. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), who has had a long-term interest in this issue and has focused primarily on ensuring that bribery and corruption go out of overseas development funding? I hope that he will be pleased with the Bill when it comes through.
Has the Solicitor-General had representations about alleged systematic bribery in overseas offices by entry clearance officers, allowing people effectively to buy visas to enter this country?
No, I have not, although I have read, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, about some suggestions along those lines. When they are brought to the attention of the authorities, they will, of course, be taken very seriously.
Pro Bono Work
Our eighth national pro bono week, which is dedicated to raising awareness of pro bono work, took place two weeks ago. The number of activities increased to 128 from 82 a year before. The Attorney-General and I hold a pro bono reception to showcase such work to MPs, and we have introduced a guide to pro bono, which we have distributed to every MP. That guide informs MPs about sources of pro bono work in their constituencies, so that, if they cannot handle a problem, they can contact a lawyer who can help.
As Members of Parliament, we have constituents who come to our surgeries with legal problems, and we try to get them legal aid and access to pro bono, which is not easy. Why has access to justice become so expensive under Labour?
I do not think that it has. I receive the same sort of inquiries, and I can usually find a local lawyer to help if I cannot deal with the matter myself. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the guide to pro bono, he will find many networks that have local membership. Therefore, people can get something pretty close to their needs pretty quickly.
As the processes of the Infrastructure Planning Commission get under way, has my hon. and learned Friend had discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government about ensuring that individuals and communities have access to proper legal advice?
I have not had such discussions, but I understand the nature of the issue. From general knowledge, I am aware that some bodies help with planning applications, so I am sure that citizens will be able to find assistance if they want to be represented.
Does the Solicitor-General accept that de facto pro bono work has increased substantially as a result of the Government’s restrictions on the level of legal aid fees available to members of the Bar?
No, the number of acts of legal assistance has increased significantly through the reorganisation of the legal aid system. For instance, there were 2.5 million acts of assistance in the last year but one, and 2.9 million this year, and they have increased in both the civil and criminal areas. Pro bono is in addition to all the work done under legal aid, and it is an important part of a lawyer’s experience and training. As with most volunteering, it is good not just for the recipient but for the person who does it.
Prosecution Policy (Burglaries)
We have frequent and regular meetings with the DPP, and we discuss a range of issues. If there were particular concerns about prosecutions for burglary—perhaps the hon. Gentleman has some to raise—we would talk to the DPP about them, but under the terms of the protocol to which I have alluded between the Attorney-General and prosecution departments. In 2008-09, the Crown Prosecution Service conviction rate for burglary was 87.1 per cent. nationally, and 91.3 per cent. in Norfolk.
I am pleased to hear that, but does the Solicitor-General share my view that burglaries are invariably incredibly traumatic, and often lead to dreadful scars that last many years and tear families apart? Does she agree that as long as there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, burglaries should always be prosecuted through the courts, and never dealt with by out-of-court procedures such as cautions or penalty notices for disorder?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. I imagine that he refers to dwelling-house burglaries, which can be extremely injurious to the people who suffer them. There is an annexe to the DPP’s guidance on when to use conditional cautions, and burglary is not included among the offences for which they should be used.
Yesterday, I had a meeting with Slough Town Against Crime, which is an alliance of shops, police officers and public bodies. One of the participants suggested that prolific shoplifters who have been barred from shops and have shoplifted again ought to be prosecuted for burglary. Will the Solicitor-General raise that matter with the DPP, as it would be a practical way of tackling the appalling problem of prolific shoplifting, which is blighting Slough town centre?
This is an old, knotty problem in the law. In order to be a burglar, someone must enter as a trespasser. There have been prosecutions when people have gone from the public side of a shop to the private side, behind the counter. That has been deemed to be entering as a trespasser, and I can see an analogy with the case cited by my hon. Friend. I think that the local chief Crown prosecutor would have to examine each case in order to make a sensible decision, but my hon. Friend’s idea does have merit.
I should be very happy to look at that very good early-intervention project, whose aim is to help young children who would otherwise suffer trauma as a result of their experiences of domestic violence.
As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, we continue to work to improve prosecution performance in this area. The number of domestic violence prosecutions undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service has risen from nearly 35,000 in 2004-05 to nearly 68,000 now, and the proportion of successful cases has risen from 55 per cent. to 72 per cent. over the same period.
The perpetrators of domestic violence include a high percentage of cowards and bullies, even in comparison with the perpetrators of other criminal offences. Those two groups are particularly susceptible to a strong, clear message from Government about the consequences of their actions, but the performance indicators in the local area agreement relating to domestic violence have been dropped, and there has been a resulting drop in detection in the Nottingham area. Will my hon. and learned Friend emphasise once again how important the Government consider this offence, and will she consider again the possibility of restoring the performance indicators?
I cannot emphasise too strongly how important the Government consider prosecuting domestic violence. My hon. Friend was good enough to tell me that he was worried about the removal of the sanction detection count rate, and about the possibility that it had had a bad effect on arrest rates. I have looked into the matter for him, and have established that although sanction detection rates are no longer a target, they are still counted in Nottingham. The figures that I have found do not quite agree with those that he has given. As there is no offence of domestic violence, it is quite difficult to quantify it in the terms to which he has referred. However, if he is not satisfied with my answer, I shall be happy to meet him, and I should also be very pleased to visit Nottingham.
Crown Prosecution Service
Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate assesses the effectiveness of the CPS, and reports on a wide range of operational issues. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the chief executive of the CPS engage in regular area performance reviews with their chief Crown prosecutors, and a series of monitoring and evaluation reports are produced. The CPS performance reports on violence against women and on hate crime are due to be published soon.
Was the Solicitor-General not rather disappointed to read a recent report by Her Majesty’s CPS inspectorate which found that nearly a third of 367 advocacy assessments were rated lacklustre, less than competent or very poor? Has the CPS given her any indication of how it will improve its standards in future?
I do not know how that advocacy compares with other kinds of advocacy. Those ratings apply only to the CPS. They should be compared with those applying to the Bar and to defence lawyers to establish whether they are any less lacklustre. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will keep my eye on the position.
Is the Solicitor-General satisfied that the Crown Prosecution Service—engaging in discussions with the police—can get a grip on the problem of the mistaken use of out-of-court disposals, given the importance of ensuring that the interests of justice and, indeed, the needs of victims are satisfied, and that appropriate measures have been taken?
The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. I am aware of at least one chief Crown prosecutor who has already started to make representations about what he regards as the overuse of fixed penalty notices when he feels prosecutions would be appropriate. We should perhaps also have regard to the overuse of taking offences into consideration. I am confident that the CPS will play a full role in examination of the position.
Does the Solicitor-General not share my concern, which is also shared by the Justice Secretary, that there are too many out-of-court settlements and fixed penalty notices for the crime of shoplifting? I might also ask why the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) did not support my Bill in the previous Parliament, as it would have benefited her constituency.
I cannot comment on the use of out-of-court settlements in particular cases, but I know that the hon. Lady has been very concerned about this matter for some time. Clearly, systematic shoplifting should be prosecuted, although perhaps the occasional instance should not. I know that the hon. Lady agrees that there needs to be a proper balance. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has raised a very interesting point that would add gravity to this: the threat of prosecuting systematic shoplifters for the higher-sentence offence of burglary, rather than for theft.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Modernisation of the House is taken forward in a number of ways. The parliamentary reform Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), is the most recent development, and it has now reported. The Procedure Committee also looks at ways of reforming the House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that all that is important work.
What the House of Commons desperately needs is sensible and considered reform. When this Government came into office in 1997, they set up the Modernisation Committee, under the cloak of which they have severely restricted the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Executive to account and, furthermore, have stopped us scrutinising legislation properly. Will the Government now scrap the Modernisation Committee, which has not met for over a year, and give us a proper opportunity, through making time available in the House of Commons, to debate the Reform of the House of Commons Committee report that has just been published?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Modernisation Committee has achieved a number of things that have all helped with House scrutiny.
The commitment to more draft Bills, earlier sittings on Thursdays, sittings in Westminster Hall—[Interruption.] Select Committee reports can be debated in Westminster Hall. Deferred Divisions—
Yes, topical debates. For Select Committees, there has been the introduction of core tasks and the creation of the Scrutiny Unit. For oral parliamentary questions, notice has been reduced so that they are more topical. There are also earlier sittings, the carry-over of Bills, the connecting of Parliament with the public and Public Bill Committee evidence-taking. I rest my case.
A Justice Department Bill is due to come before the House in early January. Can my hon. Friend give me a commitment that the compensation scheme for the victims of Mumbai, Sharm el-Sheikh, Bali and other terrorist incidents, which was promised by the Prime Minister and other colleagues and which the Government were supposed to put in the Queen’s Speech, will be included in the Bill?
Order. As always, the right hon. Gentleman’s ingenuity is to the fore, but the relationship between that question and the question on the Order Paper is at best tangential, and at worst non-existent, so I suggest it is not answered.
As the longest-serving member of the Modernisation Committee in this House, and as a past Chairman of the Procedure Committee, may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether she thinks it is time for the Modernisation Committee to meet again, not least to discuss the proposals in the Reform of the House of Commons Committee report, bearing in mind that many of them originated in the Modernisation Committee under the inspired leadership of the late Mr. Cook?
The hon. Gentleman put a question to me on this matter some weeks ago. As he has said, there is a continuum of modernisation. On that earlier occasion, I said that we would bring forward our proposals to establish a new Committee on parliamentary reform. It was established, it has reported, and we are now considering its proposals.
Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that we need to discuss the report of the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and that we also need quickly to secure cross-party agreement to introduce the reforms before the next election? We must do this quickly.
Of course the House will need to debate the report and come to a decision on any changes, but we should reflect on the fact that the report was published only two days ago.
The Minister has acknowledged that although the Modernisation Committee has not met for some time, the process continues. Can we therefore have an early opportunity to make a decision on the Procedure Committee’s report on the principle of electing our Deputy Speakers?
Recommendations have been made on that and are being considered.
Having served on the Modernisation Committee, the Procedure Committee and, more recently, the parliamentary reform Committee, may I say that it makes eminent sense for the Modernisation Committee to be rolled into the Procedure Committee and for us to bolster the powers of that Select Committee, which has done valiant work and could do so even more?
I do not think that I can add to what I have said on that matter.
That is very disappointing, because a lack of urgency is being shown by those on the Government Benches, given just how little time is left to make these reforms stick before the end of this Parliament. The Modernisation Committee was a great betrayal, because it was meant to bring forward reforms to improve the accountability of Parliament. The promise was that we would get proper management of the business throughout the year in return for the programming of Bills, but instead we have just had guillotines by the back door. Many of the reforms that the Minister talked about have come from the Procedure Committee. It should be left to get on with reforming the procedures of this House and the Government should make clear how much urgency will go into ensuring that these reforms are introduced.
I have said that we are expecting to have a debate and to come to decisions about any changes on which we need to proceed. A great deal of work is going on in this place; I have read out a number of the things for which the Modernisation Committee was responsible, and a great deal of consideration is being given at the moment to reform.
Expenses and Allowances
The Government have accepted the recommendations in the Committee’s report and will bring forward any legislation that may be necessary to implement them.
I note that answer, but it is rather unspecific. The Kelly report contains specific proposals that require primary legislation, so can the Deputy Leader of the House give us any more detail about when those specific measures will be brought forward, given that relatively few sitting days are left before the end of this Parliament and therefore it will not be able to introduce some of those measures if she does not get a move on?
We are in discussion with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Committee on Standards in Public Life about what legislation is necessary. When we reach agreement as a result of that discussion, we will introduce the necessary measures.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has today responded to the Procedure Committee report on written parliamentary questions. That response sets out how the Government plan to improve the quality and timeliness of answers to written parliamentary questions.
Which Minister did the Deputy Leader of the House admonish for tardiness most recently, and have things got better since she intervened?
The hon. Gentleman is talking about a very recent meeting with a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions. As it took place only very recently, we would not be expecting that quick a recovery to have been made, but we hope for an improvement.
I note the Minister’s comment about the production of the report. Does it include a league table of the quality, timeliness and performance of Departments? If not, why not?
The Government have accepted the following recommendations: that there should be regular monitoring of the number of questions answered later than the answering period of five days; that better guidance should be provided for Ministers and officials on answering questions; and that further work should be done by the Procedure Committee on challenging unsatisfactory answers. It certainly is a good idea to list performance by Department so that people can see that.
As well as the admonishment referred to by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), are the Government considering any sanctions that would deal with the issue of questions that are not answered in a timely or substantive way?
It is a question of transparency monitoring and reminders at this stage. We have also recently published guidance on answering written questions in a guide to parliamentary work that is published on the Cabinet Office website. There has been a great amount of activity in guidance, monitoring and transparency and we hope that that will do the trick.
In June, I raised the issue of inadequate answers to written questions, because the practice was simply to refer to information being available in the House Library. The then Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), said that he would write to every Minister to ensure that that practice did not continue. However, since then matters have not changed, as Members on both sides of the House will confirm. In fact, I have received five replies that conform to the old practice.
For example, a reply on carer’s allowance on 7 July from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), simply said:
“The information has been placed in the Library.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 740W.]
Again, a reply on 12 October from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), simply said:
“A set of tables containing the information requested has been placed in the House Library.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 356W.]
That is not acceptable. Rather than simply going to a Committee and giving evidence, as she has just mentioned, will the Deputy Leader of the House have stern words with her colleagues and ensure that we receive the proper information, particularly on behalf of members of the public who do not have the easy access to the Library that Members have?
It was not me who gave the evidence to the Committee, but my predecessor. I have quite recently had a meeting with an individual Minister and officials, when I used very stern words; I am prepared to do that. I am always happy to consider individual cases. If the guidance that my predecessor set out has not been followed, I would be very happy to take up the cases that the shadow Deputy Leader of the House has raised. Let me reiterate that the Government’s recent response to the Procedure Committee’s report supports further work on challenging unsatisfactory answers. I shall take that forward and I hope the Procedure Committee will decide to do so, too.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The Commission is very sympathetic to the requirements of Members who are unable to stand when addressing the House and whose words might therefore not be heard fully. I have therefore asked the relevant officials to investigate having microphone coverage throughout the Chamber. From the information available, I understand that the improvement sought by the hon. Gentleman should be possible, although significant physical work might be needed in the Chamber. I shall of course inform him and the House when the full investigation is complete.
I am grateful for that answer. We have at least two colleagues in this Chamber who find it impossible or difficult to stand. They speak with clarity of mind and voice, yet listeners and viewers at home often cannot hear them clearly because of the positioning of the microphones. We all look forward to receiving an update on precisely when that information, and the microphones, will be provided.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. A range of options might be possible. They are being investigated at the moment and once the best option is identified I am sure that we will be ready to crack on and do it.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
All parts of a Bill are subject to parliamentary scrutiny at all stages of its passage. In many cases, Bills also undergo pre-legislative scrutiny. Elements of a Bill that are not debated in detail at one stage may clearly be considered at another stage and, in any event, may be divided on. It is therefore difficult to say with certainty which clauses of a Bill were not considered at all as a result of programming, but in Public Bill Committees no clauses were not reached for debate.
Is the Deputy Leader of the House not totally embarrassed by that answer?
No, I am not. The important thing is the last point that I made—that, in Public Bill Committees, there were no clauses that were not reached for debate.
Will the hon. Lady give thought to the suggestion from the noble Lord Rooker that, when a Bill has been inadequately discussed or not discussed at all in this place, a certificate should accompany it when it is sent to the other place? In that way, the other place can know which parts of the Bill have not been discussed or need to be discussed more fully.
Many of the things that we are talking about this morning in respect of reforming how Bills progress through the House are under consideration at the moment, but I do not think that there is anything specific on that particular recommendation. However, the other place knows how much debate on a Bill there has been here, so the process that has been described does tend to happen anyway.
The Deputy Leader of the House should know that Government new clauses and amendments are not discussed in Public Bill Committees—clearly they cannot be, because they are moved after that stage. The Library has told me that, on four Bills alone, nearly 200 amendments, including 50 Government new clauses and amendments, were not scrutinised. Does she accept that we cannot go on like this? The Wright Committee has set out a way to avoid the problem so that we do not have to demonise Government and the Government do not have to infantilise Members of this House.
We have had a number of exchanges this morning about the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. We have had the Committee’s report for two days, and we will be considering the recommendations in it that relate to the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Select Committee Reports
The Government have already created additional opportunities for debating Select Committee reports by establishing sittings in Westminster Hall. That provided an extra 52 hours of debating time for Select Committee reports in 2008-09. I should like to remind the House that the Government will always consider requests from Select Committees for a tag on the Order Paper for any Government business that may be relevant to their work.
The Minister knows perfectly well that, since we have had a Labour Government, it has been practically impossible to scrutinise anything other than through the Select Committee procedure. Will she now agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and give more time to debating Select Committee reports on the Floor of the House?
It is always open to the Chairs of Select Committees to ask for a topical debate when they produce a report, given that such reports are often topical. That would be a way to give more time to Select Committee reports, over and above the extra sitting hours and days that arise from debating them in Westminster Hall.
When Select Committee reports come before Westminster Hall, they are very often timetabled in a way that makes proper debate impossible. The most recent Health Committee report came before us right on the edge of Prorogation: instead of having a proper three-hour debate on inequalities in health, we had to try to work out when the House was going to rise. We lost half of our debate because of Prorogation and we did not have enough time, so is it possible to bring the report back for further consideration?
As I have just said, it always open for Select Committee Chairs to ask for topical debates. If a debate is unfortunately chopped about because of voting around Prorogation, I am sure that the Leader of the House would be open to looking at that.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Energy Efficiency (House of Commons)
In the last 18 months, the House service has reconfigured building management systems and installed new remote energy meters and kitchen ventilation and lighting controls, as well as energy-efficient lighting and movement sensors. It has also initiated an IT upgrade and a server virtualisation programme, and begun an insulation trial as part of the cast-iron roof project. An estate-wide environmental assessment is currently under way to identify future options, which include further building management system changes, voltage optimisation, draught-proofing and behaviour-change programmes. That will allow for a challenging but realistic environmental target, supported by an action plan to be set before the House in 2010.
Like hundreds of colleagues, for nine years I have had the pleasure and privilege of working in the superb surroundings of our fine and iconic building, Portcullis House. Sadly, it has the lowest possible band G energy performance rating of 203. What is the Commission doing to ensure that buildings on the parliamentary estate rise up league tables to become public sector exemplars to the commercial and industrial sectors?
The Management Board recognised in 2007-08 that there was a need for improvement in the House’s environmental performance. A new post of head of environment was filled on 31 December 2008, and the aim since then has been to lay foundations for Parliament to make an improvement, and a good-practice gap analysis has been undertaken. As I said, that will result in a comprehensive plan being brought before the House in 2010.
Notwithstanding the comprehensive list that the hon. Gentleman has just read out, it seems to many of us in the Palace of Westminster that when the weather is uncharacteristically warm outside it becomes even hotter inside. Most of us have something in our homes called a thermostatic control. Could that not happen here, and save the taxpayer a lot of money?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there are thermostatic controls in the Palace of Westminster and in Portcullis House, although it would be fair to acknowledge that they are not always hugely efficient.
A few weeks ago when the House of Commons Commission considered the proposal of the 10:10 campaign that the House should cut its carbon emissions by 10 per cent. in 2010, it was decided—sadly—that it was impractical. Was that decision taken by consensus among all members of the Commission from all parties, and did the Commission receive any representations from the right hon. Members for Witney (Mr. Cameron) or for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), who proposed to the House two days later that 10:10 should be supported?
The Commission received a variety of representations but felt that it was not possible honourably to commit the House to doing something in the course of 2010 that we could not be confident of achieving. As I have already indicated, we are determined to make improvements way beyond that, but we cannot guarantee doing so during the calendar year 2010.