Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 21 January 2010

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

General Election Counts

1. Whether the Electoral Commission has had discussions with (a) media organisations and (b) political parties on the timing of the election counts for the general election. (312126)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it had discussions with the BBC about the timing of election counts in September 2009. The commission further informs me that the timing of election counts was discussed with representatives of the political parties who attended the October 2009 meeting of the parliamentary parties panel.

Recalling my re-election to Parliament in 1992, when the count was completed within an hour of the close of poll—I am advised that the result indicated that there would be the re-election of a Conservative Government, and financial stability—does my hon. Friend agree that we should continue with the tradition of counting immediately after the close of poll, in order to bring financial stability and reduce the possibility of electoral fraud?

That is, of course, my personal opinion, but as the House knows full well, whether to count votes on Thursday or Friday is a matter for individual returning officers; that has been our law for more than 100 years. However, the law does require returning officers to count votes as soon as is practicable after the election. The Electoral Commission website indicates which returning officers have so far decided to count on the Friday or are undecided, and I encourage hon. Members in those areas to enter into a dialogue with the returning officer to discuss whether their decision meets that criterion.

We all welcomed your statement on this issue, Mr. Speaker, and I completely agree with what has been said from the Opposition Benches—but will not the real story of election night be the fact that possibly up to 50 seats will have been bought by Lord Ashcroft’s money, and what—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he is far exceeding the boundaries of the question; it was a good try, but I am afraid it did not work.

As the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, the key words are as far as “is practicable”. There are constituencies where this is not practicable for geographical reasons, and sometimes simply because of historical practice. What an individual returning officer should not do, however, is delay the count simply because he thinks that verifying or counting postal votes might be a little bit difficult. That is the message the Electoral Commission needs to send out to returning officers.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Throughout our history, several seats at every general election have counted on a Friday; I am sure colleagues on the Opposition Benches will be interested to know that in 1979 121 seats counted on a Friday. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the Electoral Commission has encouraged returning officers to be clear about why they are making this decision, and be able to justify it to their local community.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Wireless Audio Equipment

2. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to assist cathedrals and parish churches to retune or replace wireless audio equipment which operates on frequencies within Channel 69 following the clearance of that channel by Ofcom. (312127)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to refer to David Taylor. As you know, he was an assiduous attender at our Question Time. He put pertinent and important questions before the House and assisted our Ecclesiastical Committee, and he will be greatly missed. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

I can tell the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) that the Church of England has joined an industry-led campaign to press the Government for compensation for affected groups. We are encouraging churches to contact their installation companies for advice and to seek a compensation package.

The Government are making hundreds of millions of pounds out of the spectrum auctions, and as the hon. Gentleman has said, some compensation has been promised. This affects not only churches, cathedrals and voluntary organisations, but organisations right across the creative arts. Should not any compensation include not only the residual value of equipment but replacement value, as churches have been forced off those frequencies by the Government?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. The compensation package takes into account the full cost of the significant disruption, particularly to larger churches that use a number of wireless microphones. I estimate that about one in eight churches will need to retune or replace their equipment, at an average cost of about £500. The Government agree with Ofcom that compensation is due, but the level, and eligibility, still need to be agreed.

May I tell the hon. Gentleman how much I welcomed support from the Church of England this week for early-day motion 323, in my name and those of 131 other Members? I urge him to use all the resources of the Church Commissioners to put the maximum possible pressure on the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that justice is done in this very important matter.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I have read his early-day motion 323 on the Save our Sound UK campaign. I agree with his point. The Government recognise the importance of churches in our communities, and I am sure they will recognise that this is an unfortunate anomaly, as they did in relation to our unfair surface water charges last year. I urged the Government to respond robustly then, and I do so now, with the support of the House.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

General Election Counts

3. What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of general election counts which will commence on polling day. (312128)

6. What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of general election counts which will commence on polling day. (312131)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has asked all returning officers to provide information about their current plans for commencing the count at the next UK parliamentary general election. This information has been made available in the House of Commons Library. In summary, as of 7 January returning officers for 586 out of the 650 constituencies had provided information. Of those, returning officers in 330 constituencies plan to start counting on polling day, a further 17 will commence counting on polling day unless the general election is combined with local authority elections, 52 have decided to count on the Friday and 187 were still undecided.

Unfortunately, one of the constituencies that plans to count on Friday is Wellingborough. Could my hon. Friend recommend to the Speaker’s Committee that the law be changed, so that counts have to be made on a Thursday unless there are exceptional circumstances and tin-pot, upstart little town clerks cannot change things?

I wish my hon. Friend would say what he really feels! When the Electoral Commission was set up the House did not give it the power to direct returning officers, and of course, if the law is to be changed that is a matter for this House, not for the Electoral Commission. As we know, returning officers are usually the chief executives of local authorities, and Members of Parliament and councillors up and down the land are usually not without influence in working alongside these hard-working and respectable individuals.

The New Forest constituencies will be doing the right thing, but I hope that the only present occupant of the Treasury Bench, the duty Whip, will have noted the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). We all appear to be in agreement that either we are going to do something about this or we are not, and we are just going to hope. Perhaps someone on the Treasury Bench could give some instruction as to the meaning of the law: what does “as soon as is practicable” actually mean?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is to be hoped that the guidance that has been given from this House in recent days, including your own very powerful statement on this matter, Mr. Speaker, will influence the 187 returning officers who have not yet decided to take the view that counting on Thursday is the right thing to do. This is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

I shall give the right hon. Gentleman a second bite at the cherry, but I do not expect him to abuse the bite.

My understanding is that if a question contains a reference to an organisation—[Interruption.] No, no, let me ask my question first, and Mr. Speaker may then rule me out of order. May I ask the hon. Member representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission what conversations he has had with the Electoral Commission, not only on the counting of votes, which is so essential, but on the counting of the money that will be used to buy those votes?

Order. I say to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter)—I think he can guess what I am going to say—that although he will not want to ask me for a ruling on this matter, I shall give him one anyway: he cannot be expected to answer that which is not part of the question. I think that we have dealt with the matter, and the right hon. Gentleman had a go. I call Mr. Andrew Mackay.

I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, because I wish to return to the question. Does the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) agree that the real problem is that, as he has pointed out, most of the returning officers are the chief executives of councils? Understandably, their first priority is to keep costs down and offer good value to council tax payers, so they are choosing to count on Friday, whereas they had previously counted on Thursday. We need an absolute instruction from this House that that should not happen, except in exceptional circumstances. Without such an instruction all too many seats will count on a Friday, which will be—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is an immensely experienced parliamentarian, so he will know that it causes problems for the Hansard writers if a Member is not facing the House.

It is worth reiterating that returning officers are independent under the law of this land, and have been for 100 years and more. Of course the Electoral Commission can and does issue guidance to returning officers, but its primary concern is about accuracy and ensuring public confidence in the outcome of any count that is held.

Electoral Register (Britons Abroad)

4. What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of Britons living abroad who are on the electoral register. (312129)

The Electoral Commission informs me that although it has not made such an estimate itself, the Office for National Statistics collects and publishes annual electoral registration data. The most recent figures are for the electoral registers of 1 December 2008, and they show that there were 13,695 entries for overseas voters on UK electoral registers. The ONS is due to publish figures for the 1 December 2009 electoral registers next month.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us those figures, which appear at first sight to reflect a decline of some 2,000 since the previous year. Does he agree that this is a disgraceful performance, and what can he recommend that the Electoral Commission can do to give recommendations to any incoming Government to improve the ability of overseas expatriate citizens to participate in our national election?

It is a matter for the Government and for this House whether the law on how people can register and vote from overseas is changed. The Electoral Commission is committed to increasing the number of eligible people who are registered to vote, and has recently conducted a campaign that resulted in nearly 7,400 overseas voter registration forms being downloaded from the commission’s website. The commission plans to run further activity in advance of the general election targeting British citizens living abroad.

We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those answers. First, will he encourage the Electoral Commission to continue to work and to do more, because there are huge numbers of people in all categories, including overseas voters, who are clearly eligible to vote but are not yet on the list? Will he suggest that colleagues from all parties might like an urgent meeting with the commission to discuss maximising activity, and therefore the number of people who are on the register, and therefore eligible to vote in the elections that we know will happen this spring?

I am sure that the Electoral Commission is amenable to such a meeting. It plans to spend a further £189,500 targeting overseas voters in this financial year, and is committed to ensuring that the number of overseas voters who take part in our elections increases.

Order. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is a case of third time unlucky. He cannot expect me to help him out again. I call Mr. Hugh Bayley—[Interruption.] I have to say to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) that the length of time for which he lived abroad is neither here nor there when it comes to the selection of who asks questions—[Interruption.] With great respect, the right hon. Gentleman will hear this. He had two opportunities and I am not obliged to offer him a third.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Fires and Fire Safety

5. How much the Church of England spent on (a) repairs necessary after fires and (b) fire safety measures in churches in the last five years. (312130)

I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Speaker. This is a matter for individual churches and cathedrals, and the figures are not held centrally. I know, however, that many churches and cathedrals have undertaken work on fire prevention, detection and containment.

After Christmas there was a fire in York minster’s stone yard, where the cathedral’s greatest window is being stored while it undergoes a £25 million restoration. The window was saved by firemen and minster staff, who carried it to safety. It is a work of art as important as the Sistine chapel ceiling. Will my hon. Friend ask the Church Commissioners to press the Government to protect such works of art from fire and other risks, just as they protect works of art in our national galleries and museums?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter. Fortunately no people were harmed in the fire, and the panels of the incomparable great east window were saved. The Church welcomes the recommendation by the Public Accounts Committee that cathedrals should receive direct funding from the Government.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that for specialised properties, bodies such as the National Farmers Union have created their own insurance companies. Have the Church Commissioners given any thought, given the nature of churches, to the idea that there should perhaps be a central insurance company to insure more effectively against the risk of fire?

I am grateful for the opportunity to reassure the hon. Gentleman. I can tell him that advice on managing the risk of fire is available from Church House, from dioceses and from the Ecclesiastical insurance group, which insures most Church of England churches.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

General Election Counts

8. What information the Electoral Commission holds on the number of election counts that are not planned to commence on the evening of polling day in the general election. (312134)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has asked all returning officers to provide information about their current plans for counting ballot papers at the next UK parliamentary general election. This information has been made available in the House of Commons Library. In summary, as of 7 January, returning officers for 586 out of 650 constituencies had provided information. Of these, 52 do not plan to count ballot papers on the evening of polling day at the general election. A further 17 have indicated that they may defer counting if the general election is combined with local authority elections, and 187 were still undecided.

I congratulate my hon. Friend. In 2001 the count in my constituency started at 10 o’clock at night and continued until after 5 o’clock in the morning. It was recommenced at noon the next day, and I did not get my result until well into the afternoon. I should point out that there was only one count. Is he aware that already the count may not be completed on election day, even without the extra day?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. I am pleased to see that his constituency has decided to continue to count on polling day itself even though, as he said, that may take some time. As we all know, some returning officers have decided to count on Friday because of the extra time and people required to check postal votes taken by hand to polling stations on polling day.

Solicitor-General

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Householders (Protection of Property)

11. What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service in charging householders who have used force in cases of burglary. (312116)

The Attorney-General and I have regular meetings with the DPP, at which we discuss a range of issues within the terms of the protocol between the Law Officers and the prosecution departments that was published in July 2009.

The Solicitor-General must be aware that hardly a week goes by without some sort of report of a victim of burglary bizarrely being prosecuted. There is certainly a feeling of great injustice in the country, so will she give clearer guidance to the CPS when it considers prosecution?

I do not accept that hardly a week goes by, although obviously I am well aware of the cases that hit the headlines recently and some years ago. As a consequence of the earlier case in 2005, a joint statement was issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the CPS that made it very clear that a person is entitled to use force to resist a burglar. The current case has brought the matter forward again, but it has not really impacted on the very good advice contained in that statement.

A survey of prosecutions shows that in the 15 years between 1989 and 2004, only 11 people were charged with responding in any way violently to being burgled. As the hon. Gentleman says, such cases clearly occur more frequently than that, which suggests that the law is right overall, and deals with them sympathetically. In his judgment yesterday on the most recent case, the Lord Chief Justice said that it was not at all about a person defending himself after a burglary, as the burglary was long over before the violence that gave rise to the sentence took place.

Does my hon. and learned Friend accept my opinion that the law is right and that there must not be a change? Otherwise we would be putting property above life, and that is something that I hope our law will never accept.

Certainly, an appeal against conviction in the current case was refused. There is no suggestion in the thorough judgment from the Lord Chief Justice that he considers there to be anything wrong with the law. The barrister who defended this family also defended Tony Martin, and he said on the radio this morning that he thought that the law was right. To avoid doubt, I emphasise that the law allows for what was referred to in the case as a “moment of unexpected anguish”, when a person honestly and reasonably thinks that they are doing what is necessary. Members of the jury have to try to put themselves in that person’s position, and evaluate how high their feelings would be. Even then, they must ask whether, taking all that emotion into account, the response was reasonable. I suspect that the law is pretty accurate, and that juries have every opportunity to give as much credit as they want to the incredibly tense situations that people can find themselves in.

Given that the courts have shown that they can defend householders and understand the situations that arise, will the Solicitor-General continue to resist those siren voices who want the law rewritten? We have had enough criminal justice legislation as it is.

Some of the criminal justice legislation that has gone through the House has been extremely good. It has benefited victims of domestic violence and rape and improved conviction rates enormously, so one cannot sweep all sorts of criminal justice law up together and say that it is all a bad thing. However, I agree that we should resist any calls to change the law. That is simply not necessary, as I think that the courts deal with such cases quite properly.

Is it not absolute nonsense to suggest that the current law, which has been in existence for so long, is soft on burglars? The law is quite clear, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, and if one believes in the rule of law one should not try to change the existing position.

Yes, I do agree. The case of Palmer, which essentially set out in common law the principles that are now in statute, has been working since 1971 with very little complaint. In the two cases that have given the most cause for concern, the courts have made it clear—in both instances—that the violence happened after the burglary was over, and we do not allow that. That is breaking the rule of law, itself; it is revenge, not self-defence.

One aspect of the Hussain case that has escaped public attention is the way in which the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, and before that the Criminal Justice Act 2003, badly restricted the discretion of the sentencer. Judge Reddihough would have been more able to produce the sentence that the Court of Appeal produced yesterday had he not been hogtied by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, or the Sentencing Council. Will the Solicitor-General please discuss with her Government colleagues getting rid of the Sentencing Council, so that judges can sentence on the facts before them, rather than having to follow a template issued by other people elsewhere?

There is no template, as the hon. and learned Gentleman well knows. The judiciary have a discretion and they rightly exercise it, because they, at first instance, are the people who see the dramatis personae before them, and who can make a proper assessment of the absolute detail and the nature of the person. Judges have plenty of discretion, and in the judgment that I have read, the trial judge made no suggestion that he found himself hogtied—and the Lord Chief Justice certainly did not, either.

Criminal Charges

12. What guidance is issued to the Crown Prosecution Service on the period of time within which charges in criminal cases should be brought. (312117)

The Crown Prosecution Service is responsible for charging in about 35 per cent. of criminal cases. There is no separate guidance on time, but the principle is to charge as soon as possible, and there are obviously controls over the situation when people are remanded in custody. The hon. Gentleman made a freedom of information request about the average time between the police reporting to the CPS and a charge, and he received the answer 8.3 days. I do not know whether he found that helpful, because some cases are dealt with very quickly and others require a forensic report before there can be a charge. However, that is the average.

The longer it takes the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to charge somebody, the longer very serious criminals could be out on the streets on police bail committing further crimes. The average time that the CPS spends making a decision ranges from three days in Cumbria to an astonishing 20 days in Northamptonshire. What is the Solicitor-General doing to address that?

It is hard to pinpoint the hon. Gentleman’s complaint. I do not know the nature of endemic offending in the two parts of the country to which he refers; there may be significant differences. However, people are not automatically on bail pending charge; some are remanded in custody. Then a charge becomes urgent, and the CPS respond accordingly. There have been vast improvements through statutory charging, and its efficacy has been praised in no less than four recent reports.

Defendants’ Health (Prosecutions)

13. What consideration the Crown Prosecution Service gives to the physical and mental health of defendants in making decisions to prosecute. (312118)

The evidence that a defendant has a significant physical or mental illness may mean that the Crown Prosecution Service decides that the public interest does not always require a prosecution. However, the defendant’s health must be balanced with the seriousness of the offence and the need to safeguard the public.

Is the Solicitor-General willing to see me about a case in which the charge has just been dropped at the second review by the CPS? It relates to a constituent of mine, whose son, a member of our staff, has worked for us in this building. It was clearly inappropriate, for a domestic matter that occurred at home, with no support from the victim—another member of the family—and where the evidence was clear from the beginning, to prosecute a seriously mentally ill individual.

I know the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because we looked into why the hon. Gentleman was asking the question. Of course I shall meet him, and it is better if we talk about it privately, as it were, because it is a family matter. However, my general understanding is that there was a mental health issue, and that the CPS received information early that the condition could be controlled, but had not been at the time. That raised the question of whether, if the man in question again did not take his medication, there would be a further threat to someone else. Later medical evidence has, I think, helped to put the matter to rest, but I am certainly very happy to discuss the case with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that nothing that I have said here upsets the family further. There are clearly issues to discuss.

Bribery Bill

14. What recent assessment she has made of the extent to which Crown servants are engaged in the activities contemplated in clause 12 of the Bribery Bill. (312119)

17. What recent assessment she has made of the extent to which Crown servants are engaged in the activities contemplated in clause 12 of the Bribery Bill. (312123)

The Government have assessed that there are occasions when the fight against serious crime, the protection of national security or the safety of the armed forces may require the authorities concerned to offer financial or other kinds of inducement in order to carry out their functions effectively. The extent to which such conduct occurs has not been quantified, as far as I am aware, but the Government are satisfied as to the need for the defence in general.

Can the Minister explain why the Government have felt it necessary to give the police and the Army a licence to bribe, given that the draft Bribery Bill covered only the security services, and that the Joint Committee on the draft Bill said that it had received no persuasive evidence that even that was necessary?

The Bill is in the House of Lords, is it not? I understand that those responsible for the Government’s business there have accepted that the Bill’s current definition of who may be covered by this is too wide, and that it would probably be better to specify a list. Perhaps there would then be arguments about who was on the list, but that approach would significantly narrow the present terminology, which is pretty general.

What I find particularly odd in this proposal is that under clause 6 the police are to be allowed to bribe a UK official but not a foreign official. Why is that?

There is a specific exclusion from clause 12 to match the OECD treaty, which prohibits bribery of a foreign public official. The services are not going to be allowed to bribe, except in very particular cases. It will be a defence, which would have to be raised if somebody were prosecuted for bribery, and the burden would be on them to raise it. The matter is still being debated in the House of Lords, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues are putting forward full frontal attacks. It seems to us, however, that we must not hamstring the security services.

Obviously, the Bribery Bill is very welcome. However, can the Solicitor-General confirm that this particular proposal allows not only the giving, but the receiving, of bribes by the armed forces, the police and the intelligence services? Can she also confirm what appeared to be said in the House of Lords—that in the view of Ministers the purposes for which this can be done include not only national security and suppression of crime but the furtherance of national economic purposes, which would not be consonant with our international obligations?

It is very hard to give somebody a defence for giving a bribe if he has not given one already. Of course, the people to whom he has given it are ultimately likely to be involved in far more serious charges themselves. I have not understood economic advantage to have the remotest connection with it. This is about security, and it is intended to be used within a very narrow ambit.

Rape Cases (Prosecution)

Steps that we have already taken have led to reports of rape to the police more than doubling in the past 10 years, and there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of convictions. We have set up a cross-governmental rape monitoring group, and there is a body continually going around areas of criminal justice to spread best practice from one place through all the others. We have commissioned Baroness Stern specifically to review the response of public authorities to rape, and she will report in February.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that very useful reply; we are clearly moving in the right direction. However, I think she will agree that at the end of the day there are too few successful prosecutions in rape cases, which could be because too many women are withdrawing. What are the Crown Prosecution Service and various police forces doing to support women so that they do not withdraw? Is anyone explaining to such women that when they do withdraw, the person concerned—the rapist—could well go on to rape and rape again, as in the recent “black cab” case?

My hon. Friend hits on a very important point that needs to be made much more regularly, which is that much rape is serial offending. When women do not complain or when they withdraw a complaint, they are not just making a decision on their own behalf; in many cases they are potentially putting other people at risk. I do not want to put any more pressure on rape complainants than there already is, but there is a clear and emerging position that much rape is serial offending.

Almost all sexual offence complainants are now given an independent sexual violence adviser who stays with them as a befriender and supporter from complaint to at least the end of the criminal proceedings and who helps them into counselling after that. That is a great support that is helping more women to be ready to come forward and to sustain a complaint when they do.

Although it is true that the interests of complainants are very high in importance, so too are the interests of defendants. May I say that we must do nothing to dilute the principles that require a case to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and ensure that the burden rests on the Crown?

Wise words with which I totally agree. We are not seeking to do that and have not done anything that will. What is important is to support complainants so that the pressures of having to talk in front of a court about something extremely intimate, distressing and traumatising are not so overwhelming that people will not come forward and ensure that justice is done. That is what we have been trying to do.

Corston Report

16. What contribution the Law Officers’ Departments are making towards the implementation of the recommendations of the Corston report on meeting the needs of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. (312122)

The Government accepted almost all of Baroness Corston’s recommendations and are committed to diverting from custody vulnerable women who are not dangerous or serious offenders by strengthening services in the community that can tackle the complex needs of such women, who are frequently convicted of a lot of low-level offending. There have been 31 grants to such organisations, including Together Women and the Cardiff-based women’s turnaround project, which is hosted by Safer Wales and offers practical support so that women can manage their lives better and do not fall into offending. My hon. Friend has been a great champion of the turnaround project.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend and congratulate the Government on the progress made on the Corston report and on the fact that the number of women in prison is now falling. I am particularly pleased about the Cardiff project. Does she agree that many women offenders are, or have been, victims of abuse to a disproportionate level? What more can the Law Officers’ Department do to help women who have been abused as either children or adults when they present as offenders?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I chaired the Fawcett commission on women and criminal justice, the evidence made it plain that a disproportionate number of women in custody for low-level, non-dangerous offending had either been sexually abused or suffered domestic violence, and through the chaos that followed that treatment had declined into crime. Because at that stage we were not intervening as quickly and as well as we do now in cases of either domestic violence or sexual abuse, we were, in a sense, punishing them twice—by not helping them early enough to prevent them from descending into offending and then by putting them in custody when they offended. We are now trying to tackle the problem, and it is notable that organisations such as the turnaround project and Together Women deal with women not just after they have they have been convicted but after they have been abused, when their lives are becoming chaotic, to try to save them from ever descending into criminality at all.

Snow and Ice Clearing

18. What discussions she has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on whether householders may be prosecuted in relation to snow and ice clearing activities which lead to the injury of another. (312124)

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman—I hope that he will not take it badly if I put it briefly, and I know that you will not, Mr. Speaker—is that there have been no discussions about prosecuting people for clearing snow and ice.

I appreciate that the Solicitor-General might have been trying to clarify the fact that clearing is not subject to criminal action, and if that was what she intended to say, I am grateful to her. However, she will be aware of the considerable concern among householders in recent weeks that they are potentially liable to prosecution either from local authorities or in civil cases. It would be helpful if she could get clarification from colleagues, perhaps in the Ministry of Justice, that that is not likely to occur.

When I saw that the hon. Gentleman’s question was about prosecution, which is our responsibility as Law Officers, I sent back to the Crown Prosecution Service to ask it to scour the four corners of jurisprudence to look for anything that looked like a possible prosecution for snow clearing with some bad effect, but we could not find anything, whether relating to local authorities or anything else. Between us, the hon. Gentleman and I can probably rule out prosecution for clearing snow. Civil liability is a different thing. It looks very remote to me, but I am not going to give free legal advice.

Youth Matters (Expenditure)

The hon. Gentleman asks in general terms how much was spent on youth matters. Reducing youth crime and improving the criminal justice system for young people is a central part of the Government’s effort to build safer communities, and action is planned for that.

However, if he is asking about such things as the Law Officers’ youth network, which encourages understanding and respect for the rule of law and the criminal justice system, I can tell him that in the past 12 months, it has cost just over £4,500. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service has spent almost £86,000 on a national schools project, with a similar information motive.

Is there a danger that police officers spend too much time doing youth work that should really be provided by professional youth workers?

The hon. Gentleman would be asking me only for a view about that, because the police are not my responsibility. My constituency engagement tells me that police are very usefully involved in talking in schools, and they are sometimes even posted at schools for a while and have regular liaison with them, but I doubt they go beyond the four corners of their responsibilities and try to give people counselling and advice. I am not sure anything is going wrong, but he should take the matter up with the Home Office if he is worried.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Reform of the House of Commons Committee

20. When the Government plans to respond to the report of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons; and if she will make a statement. (312136)

The Government firmly believe in strengthening the role of the House of Commons, and making Parliament more effective is an essential part of restoring public trust in our political system. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, the Government propose to accept a large number of the recommendations of the Wright Committee’s report, including the election of Chairmen and members of Select Committees, a House Committee for scheduling non-Government businesses, and allowing Back Benchers to initiate debates on motions that will be voted on by the House. We intend to bring the matter to the House for debate and decision on 23 February.

I thank the Leader of the House for that response, and particularly for giving us the date, for which we have all been waiting, on which we will be able to discuss and vote on the Wright Committee proposals. I welcome the fact that the Government are minded to accept many of the proposals, although I would imagine that we are talking about House business, and therefore a free vote, and that it would not be for the Government to accept or reject the proposals. If the Government are accepting most of the proposals, which will she personally be rejecting?

There will be a free vote on this—of course, this is House business—but the hon. Lady will be aware that it is for the Government to table the motions. We take the Wright Committee’s argument that that needs to be done with two characteristics: first, we need to seek consensus in order to take the matter forward, which is certainly what our approach will be, and I look forward to working with her and other hon. Members; and secondly, we need to make progress bit by bit. We will be making a good start and, I hope, a substantive and major start, with four key areas that I have outlined for debate and, I hope, decision by the House on 23 February.

So now we know, after months of prevarication, that the full recommendations of the Wright Committee are not to be put before the House, that the House is not to be trusted to vote on all the recommendations, that the Government will choose those they accept, and that those will be the only ones put before the House. May I suggest to the right hon. and learned Lady that that is simply not right? It is not what was anticipated when the Wright Committee was set up, and it will be a grave disappointment to those who want genuine reform of this House.

I do not think it acceptable to suggest that what we have done is prevaricate. I think the Wright Committee worked with expedition and on a wide-ranging area of complex issues. The Committee itself said that the matter needed to be dealt with bit by bit and that further work was needed on some proposals. The hon. Gentleman has a choice. Either he can seek to work with us to make progress, or he can get in a huff about the process. It is down to him to choose.

The Wright Committee did indeed work with expedition, as the Leader of the House has just said, which is more than the Government have done—23 February is a long way off the eight weeks that the Wright Committee proposed for a response. Further to the question posed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), can she confirm that, whatever the House decides on 23 February, those recommendations will be implemented before the Dissolution of Parliament?

Indeed, we intend to give the House an opportunity to decide on a series of motions that will go beyond being an endorsement in principle and actually give to recommendations. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reflect on his attempt to suggest that we are dragging our feet on this issue. We want to ensure that we work together to bring forward changes that are comprehensively agreed.

The convention is that, after a Select Committee report, the Government have two months in which to make a response. It is 21 January today and the two months is up on 24 January, and I am giving the Government’s response here. The response is that we will have a debate on 23 February and suggest that we go forward in four key areas. Rather than a written response that can be debated generally outside the House, we think that it is better for the Government to give the House the opportunity to debate and decide these issues. Again, I put to the right hon. Gentleman the point that I made to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). He can either get tangled up in an argument about the process or he can accept my suggestion that we work together to make substantive progress on four key areas of the Wright Committee’s proposals.

Having campaigned for the handing back of authority from the Executive to the House for more than a decade—certainly while I was Chairman of the Procedure Committee and as a member of the Modernisation Committee—may I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House, which was signalled yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions? The Leader of the House has chosen the important and fundamental issues that will give greater authority to Back Benchers. As long as the motions will be decided on a free vote, I warmly welcome what she has said in answer to this question, and I look forward to the House having more authority by the time that I leave it at the general election.

The request from the House to the Wright Committee was to make proposals that will—as the hon. Gentleman suggests—strengthen the way in which the House works.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

CO2 Emissions

21. Which hon. Members have written to the (a) Serjeant at Arms and (b) House of Commons Commission in the last 12 months with proposals for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from the House of Commons part of the parliamentary estate. (312137)

Responsibility for environmental matters in the House rests with the Director General of Facilities. In the last 12 months, four Members have written in with proposals for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions on the parliamentary estate. Such correspondence is viewed as confidential, so it would not be right to name them. The number does not include Members who made requests for the Commons to participate in environmental campaigns, and several proposals were made orally or through parliamentary questions—[Interruption.]

Order. Far too many private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. A question was asked and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) was answering it, but people kept on chuntering away. That is just bad manners.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. On 19 October, all members of the House of Commons Commission, from all parties, agreed that the House of Commons was not in a position to sign up to the 10:10 commitment. Two days later, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) proposed a motion committing the House to 10:10. Did the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) tell his party leader that the House of Commons Commission had considered the matter and decided that it was not practical and that he personally would not vote for that motion?

I had a discussion with my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who was, I think, moving the motion to which the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) alludes. I had a discussion with my hon. Friend and explained why the Commission, much as it would have wished to sign up to the 10:10 campaign, did not feel able to do so.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

22. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the accuracy of responses to parliamentary questions. (312138)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I keep the quality and timeliness of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions under continuous review. Following recommendations by the Procedure Committee and discussions with my right hon. and learned Friend, the Prime Minister has recently written to Cabinet colleagues reminding them of the importance of answering written and parliamentary questions in a timely way and to an acceptable quality. We are, of course, always happy to make representations to Ministers on behalf of Members.

The number of ministerial corrections in the column headed MC in Hansard seems to be growing. Does that mean that the accuracy of ministerial responses is improving or getting worse?

I have not reviewed that recently, but I am perfectly happy to look into it. Of course, both the Leader of the House and I, and the Procedure Committee, are aware that the number of written questions keeps climbing, and sometimes very large numbers of written parliamentary questions are tabled to Ministers and Departments on the same day. However, if there is interest in checking the accuracy figures, I am certainly happy to do that.

Obviously, I am sure that the deputy Leader of the House will agree that there seems to be a growing problem with Ministers taking the easy option and saying that they do not have the information available. That could be on the salary of chief executives in the north-west or ambulance times, or even a basic question on Monitor. MPs are being denied such information because Ministers are taking the easy line. Will she do something about this?

I am very happy to take up individual examples. The best response to such issues is to say that if Members give me examples of where they have had issues, I will be happy to write to Ministers and have meetings with them and officials, which I have done quite recently.

Question Time

23. If she will bring forward proposals to amend the procedures of the House to prevent hon. Members who have secured a question for oral answer by a Minister from also asking a topical question to the same Minister at the same Question Time. (312139)

When it recommended the introduction of topical questions, the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee concluded that Members should not have to choose between the two types of question. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the Procedure Committee might have to consider the matter further based on the number of Members called on both substantive and topical questions at the same Question Time.

Under the old system, for an hour’s Question Time to a particular Department, each Member of the House got one chance to ask a question. Under the present procedures, some Members get to ask two questions, while others are frozen out altogether. Given the interest of the deputy Leader of the House and her boss in issues of equality, would she be kind enough to look seriously at that?

It would be for the hon. Gentleman to make representations to the Procedure Committee if he wanted to have a change. Members feel that topical questions are quite a good opportunity to raise a question without notice, and they have proved to be one of the most popular innovations, so the issue is difficult. The Leader of the House is not responsible for the fairness of the shuffle, but this issue might be something for the Procedure Committee to look at.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Severe Weather (Staffing)

24. What estimate the House of Commons Commission has made of the number of hours spent by staff covering for colleagues unable to get to work owing to the recent period of severe weather; and if he will make a statement. (312140)

It is not possible to identify separately the additional hours worked by staff as a result of the recent severe weather, but I am sure that I speak for all Members of the House when I say that we are very grateful to the staff of the House for their commitment and flexibility in ensuring that services to the House and its Committees continued as usual.

The hon. Gentleman has stolen my thunder, because I was going to ask him if he would join me, and indeed the whole House, in praising the valuable work undertaken at a very difficult time by members of staff who came in, in very bad weather, worked quite late on occasions to replace those who were unable to come in, and enabled a functioning democratic process, such as that in our House of Commons, to continue despite the appalling weather conditions.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. We are grateful to those members of staff who battled in against the weather conditions and to those who worked extra hours. The House takes business continuity very seriously and has done everything possible to learn the lessons of last winter.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Members’ Expenses

25. When proposals will be brought forward to implement Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations on hon. Members’ expenses; and if she will make a statement. (312141)

In relation to those recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that were identified as requiring legislation, a written ministerial statement was made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House on 10 December 2009 detailing the Government’s proposals for legislation. The House will have the opportunity to debate those proposals shortly.

We have now got a real dog’s breakfast from Sir Ian Kennedy, who has come up with a series of proposals that totally contradict Sir Christopher Kelly. Kennedy clearly does not understand the role of an MP—how he perceives it is more than 30 years out of date. Why are we not implementing Kelly’s thought-through proposals in full, so that we can move beyond the problem of MPs’ expenses?

MPs did decide not to decide on their own allowances. We have legislated to make the Parliamentary Standards Authority independent, and that body is consulting. I note my hon. Friend’s strength of feeling on the issue, but that body is two or three weeks into its consultation. If he has strong concerns, which he clearly does, I would urge him and other right hon. and hon. Members to get involved in that consultation and tell the independent authority what they believe should be happening.

Does the deputy Leader of the House agree that if we are to build on the progress that we have made over 25 years in enabling women in particular to live with their families both in London as Members of Parliament and in their constituencies, it is vital that we should have an allowance system that facilitates that? Moving to a system whereby new Members would be forced to live in tiny state-run flats in London would not help families to stay together in London and their constituencies.

As I have just pointed out, Members have opinions and comments that they want to make, and it is important that they should do so. Sir Ian Kennedy and some of the other IPSA board members were here for a meeting with Members on Monday. They are due to have three other meetings as part of their consultation. I urge the hon. Gentleman to make his points in one of those meetings or in writing, whichever he prefers.

I want to add my voice to the concerns expressed about weakening Christopher Kelly’s proposals, which were welcomed by every person in this House—well, most people. The proposals outlined by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority weaken his proposals on travel, employing relatives and the capital gains allowance. My hon. Friend really must keep an eye on the proposals coming out of IPSA, because they are deeply concerning to everybody.

I have to keep re-emphasising that that body is independent. This is not the place to debate such matters. The place to talk about them is in the consultation, either in writing or at meetings; it is not in this Chamber.

Can the deputy Leader of the House explain to some of her colleagues that if Sir Christopher Kelly does not hold a proper consultation, any decision that he makes thereafter will be at risk of being challenged by judicial review? It is therefore in everyone’s interest that, for future certainty, there should be a proper consultation, so that whatever proposals emerge are not vulnerable to being struck down by judicial review.

Yes, indeed. The consultation process that is being embarked upon is statutory. The Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 says which Members are to be consulted, but in addition to the specific consultees who are listed, for the first time there will also be a substantial consultation with the public. The public can express their views, Members can and should express theirs, and I urge people to take part in that consultation.

Private Bills

26. If she will bring forward proposals for amendments to Standing Orders to reduce the number of private Bills introduced in a parliamentary Session. (312142)

Private Bills enable individual local authorities to obtain legal powers that are additional to those generally given to them. Reducing the number of private Bills would mean denying that facility to local authorities or other bodies. Private Bills are also needed to deal with those bodies that are established under private Acts such as the Crossrail Act 2008 and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996, which can be amended only by private Bills. I therefore have no plans to bring forward changes to Standing Orders.

I regret the response of the deputy Leader of the House. She is quite correct that large-scale projects such as the channel tunnel should be dealt with through private Bills. However, a lot of cities are currently trying to change the law on pedlars through private Bills, which is wasting parliamentary time. This afternoon we will spend another three hours on such Bills. Their number should be limited.

I have figures for the length of time that was spent on private Bills in the 2007-08 Session: it was less than 0.5 per cent. of our sitting time. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman cannot see the benefits of a localised approach that gives specific powers when they are needed. There tend to be only three or four private Bills each year, and they do help local authorities when they have specific issues.