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Commons Chamber

Volume 506: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2010

House of Commons

Tuesday 2 March 2010

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Security

1. What recent discussions he has had in the General Affairs Council on measures to improve UK energy security. (319382)

There have been regular discussions of energy security at a wide range of Council meetings, both formally and informally. We wholeheartedly support a robust united European position on energy security and a liberalised energy market.

Has my hon. Friend given any thought to having discussions with his European counterparts about the development of a European super-grid, which would enable us to transfer excess energy from one country to another and thus to make better use of renewables and to use less carbon-producing fuels?

My hon. Friend has laid out all the key issues that we need to address in bringing forward a united position on energy security throughout Europe. The third internal market package, which was brought together last year, lays out a series of ways in which different regulatory authorities can co-operate and ensures that there is some funding available to enable greater transfer of energy supplies from one country to another, and that will help, but in the end we must have a wholly liberalised energy market in the European Union, so that it is not rigged in its relationship to countries such as Russia.

Is there not concern that we have paid a high price for being the first to liberalise, while the rest of Europe has not liberalised? It is important to have a level playing field. Given that Ofgem’s Project Discovery report is beginning to suggest that we need to row back from the completely open market in this country, where are we in trying to equalise the playing field between the UK and the rest of Europe ?

We need to ensure that there is a level playing field so that British people can own energy companies in Germany, Spain and France, just as people from those countries can own energy countries in the UK. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society are fully protected throughout the EU, especially in parts that sometimes have much more dramatic energy needs than we do, particularly in winter. The third internal market package makes specific provision for that.


2. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Yemen; and if he will make a statement. (319383)

The recent ceasefire in northern Yemen offers hope for a longer-term, political settlement between the rebels and the Government. However, tensions continue to run high in the south. Yemen also faces a growing terrorist threat. The London meeting of 27 January galvanised international support for the Government of Yemen's reform efforts, which are essential to address Yemen's challenges and ensure its long-term stability.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Can he tell the House the outcome of the Gulf Co-operation Council meeting held in Riyadh last month? Can he elucidate the current position on Yemen?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of the key outcomes of the Friends of Yemen meeting in London was that the Gulf Co-operation Council should play a more proactive role in helping economic and other development in Yemen. At the meeting in Riyadh on 27 and 28 February there was agreement not only to a more intensive process of GCC engagement with Yemen for the first time, but to bring forward the aid flows that were promised in the 2006 London conference, which in 90 per cent. or so of cases have not yet been delivered.

Before the usual suspects send foreign troops blundering into a fourth Islamic country, will the Foreign Secretary draw their attention to the fact that the northern frontier of the Yemen is only 360 miles from Mecca, that the two main land routes for pilgrims on the Hajj cross its territory, that thousands of Yemenis fought against the Russians in Afghanistan, and that very large numbers of their offspring work in the oil states of the Gulf?

I am very disappointed to have to agree with the hon. Gentleman. He has spoken with characteristic force but uncharacteristic accuracy in describing all the points. His warnings are well made. I note his commitment in respect of the role that Yemenis play throughout this country, including in South Shields, the historic centre of the Yemeni population in Britain, and I commend him for his views on the topic.

I declare my interest in welcoming the steps that have been taken so far, including the visit to Yemen by my hon. Friend the Minister of State and the lobbying of the GCC. Is it not important that we now have a fresh initiative? Given the strong personal relationship between the Secretary of State and Mrs. Clinton—I think that she last described him as “vibrant and attractive”—is it not appropriate for a joint visit to be made to Yemen? The German Foreign Minister has been there. I know that the Secretary of State sent his Minister of State, but a joint initiative between the United States and the UK could help the whole process.

Needless to say I have thought of many places for a joint visit with the Secretary of State and I shall certainly bear in mind the attractions of Yemen. To be serious, the Yemeni Government have taken some important measures since the 27 January meeting. For example, they have reduced fuel subsidies by about 9 per cent., arrested a major alleged arms dealer, removed an allegedly corrupt governor and, of course, brokered the ceasefire with the Houthi rebels. We should support such initiatives and will do so through the sort of visit that my right hon. Friend suggested and in any other way possible.

Israel-Egypt Frontier

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Israel on its plans to build a border wall along Israel's frontier with Egypt. (319384)

We are in regular contact with both the Egyptian and Israeli Governments regarding Gaza and related matters. We recognise Israel's right to protect its citizens from acts of violence but make it clear at every opportunity that all measures must be in accordance with international law.

I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that the humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to cause grave concern to many, certainly in my constituency. I endorse his words about the security of Israel and acknowledge that the capacity of Hamas to fire rockets into Israel must be stopped, but I would like a reassurance from my hon. Friend that he is doing all he can to persuade Israel and, indeed, Egypt not to forget the people of Gaza who are suffering as a result of the current situation.

The UK and the EU use every opportunity to call on Israel to remove all obstacles to humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza. If we are to secure a mainstream majority for peace, we need to enable Gazans to begin to rebuild their homes, public institutions and businesses. Equally, Hamas must stop rocket attacks against Israel and should release Gilad Shalit without preconditions.

The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) has just asked the Minister to discuss the issues regarding Gaza with Israel and to persuade the Israeli Government, but how can we have proper discussions and a proper search for a peaceful solution with Israel when a leading Israeli political figure is threatened with arrest with a warrant issued by a British court under universal jurisdiction? What are the Government doing to clear away this effort to hamper the search for peace?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. We have made it clear, as have all parties in this House, that the principle of universal jurisdiction must be non-negotiable but that the means by which arrest warrants can be obtained is not acceptable. In this case, leaders from a strategic partner and close friend of Britain have been prevented from entering the United Kingdom. It could of course have the same impact on leaders of other strategic partners and friends of this country. We are seeking a satisfactory remedy that maintains the principle of universal jurisdiction but ends the unintended consequence whereby an arrest warrant can be obtained by individuals in dubious circumstances.

The Minister will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee recently visited the west bank. We were not allowed to go to Gaza. We witnessed the creation of settlements that are causing physical apartheid and depriving many Palestinians of access to their land and therefore their livelihood. Exactly what pressure are the Government putting on the Israelis with regard to settlements?

First, we should applaud the improvements that have been made on the west bank in security and economic development as a result of the leadership of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. We should also applaud the removal of some checkpoints by the Israeli Government. Having said that, settlements are both illegal and an obstacle to peace in the middle east. We have constantly called for a total freeze on those settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s partial freeze is an important movement but we believe that settlement expansion is not acceptable in the context of the peace negotiations that we hope are about to get under way.

Is the Minister aware that the blockade of Gaza has already turned a coastal strip into a net importer of fish—just one example of the damage being done to Gazans and to their economy by the blockade? While condemning all the rocket attacks launched from Gaza into Israel, has the Minister conveyed to the Government of Israel that they should be ending the blockade of Gaza, not tightening it still further with the wall? Do the Government oppose the building of the wall?

I think that I have answered the question. I said clearly that the Government at every opportunity make clear directly to Israel and in the context of international institutions that all obstacles to humanitarian assistance and the capacity of the Gazans to begin reconstruction should be removed. We equally make it clear at every opportunity to Hamas that the rocket attacks must stop and that Gilad Shalit should be released.

London G20 Summit

4. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the outcomes of the London G20 summit. (319385)

In essence, the G20 London summit showed that international economic crises require international remedies in the form of clear and co-ordinated action in all the major economies. It is noticeable that not a single major economy currently believes in making savage cuts now.

Will the Minister expand on that, and tell us whether any countries had been planning for that, and if they were, whether they thought that that was fiscally responsible and their patriotic duty?

My hon. Friend’s comments help to make the very good point that not a single major economy around the world is now proposing to make savage cuts. Indeed, all the major economies in the world, both within the European Union and elsewhere, are talking about how they can make sure that they maintain a level of fiscal stability by maintaining a fiscal stimulus. I would just quote the words of President Obama. He said last April:

“I think that this kind of co-ordination really is historic…I think that’s a testimony to the great work that Gordon Brown did…I’m very proud of what’s been done.”

We will have quite enough time for all these party political shenanigans, so will the Minister just focus on what needs to be done now? He knows that world trade dipped by 12 per cent. last year, which is an absolute disaster, and Pascal Lamy has already said that he believes high unemployment could lead to protectionism. The United States has got “buy American only” clauses in its stimulus package of $780 billion, which is regrettable. Will the Minister use his good offices to promote, and help ensure, world free trade?

The hon. Gentleman makes the very good point that it is important that nowhere in the world resorts to protectionism in this case. That is why the G20 summit last year was particularly successful. Some countries tried to advance significant protectionist measures across the EU, and we were wholeheartedly opposed to that. I should say, however, that this is not just about free trade; it is also about fair trade. That is why we want reform of the common agricultural policy as well.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for meeting members of the UK-India round table last Friday. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the best way of recognising the rise of India and other new economies in the global economy would be to develop a strong permanent secretariat for the G20, and to locate it in New Delhi?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point about the need for a full-time secretariat for the G20, because although there are those who adopt a rather little Englander attitude towards economic problems, around the world there is generally a consensus that big economic problems require big economic solutions. That means much more action on an international basis. I would also say, however, that if Britain is to get the best out of our relationship with India, we need to make sure that the whole of the EU plays a far more co-ordinated role in relation to India, and that requires action that the Conservative party always seems reluctant to take.

The G20 discussed maintaining financial stability, which is an issue for Britain and many other EU countries, not least Greece. Does not their fate show how wise we in Britain were to retain the pound sterling? Why is it still Government policy to consider joining the euro when recent events only reinforce how mistaken that would be?

That question was very wide. I suggest that the Minister be extremely discriminating in the way in which he replies.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) on his ingenuity and imagination. In trying to stay within the realms of a discussion of the G20 meeting, I should say that he knows perfectly well that Greece is not a member of the G20, and at the moment I do not foresee any prospect of its joining the G20.


5. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Sudan; and if he will make a statement. [Official Report, 8 March 2010, Vol. 507, c. 2MC.] (319386)

This is a crucial year for Sudan, with elections due in April and the referendum on self-determination for south Sudan in January 2011. We welcome the recent Darfur framework agreement and ceasefire. We urge all parties to work together to build a peaceful future for Sudan, whatever the referendum result.

The Minister will be aware that following that ceasefire agreement the President of Sudan said Darfur is now at peace. Since then however, the Sudanese military has attacked the Jebel Marra region. What information does the Minister have on that, including on civilian death and displacement, and what representations are his Government making?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue, about which there is serious concern as it continues to destabilise prospects for progress. Our information is that more than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes—more than double the number in 2008. We have urged the Sudanese Government and the UN mission to prioritise the protection of civilians and to support reconciliation. We will argue for that in discussing the renewal of the UN’s mandate in April.

The EUFOR Chad mission in the region is key, and it is supported by more than 2,000 French troops, 500 Irish troops, 400 Poles, 200 Swedes, 160 Austrians and many more. Some in this House are very critical of other countries making small deployments to international operations, so could the Minister confirm whether only four UK service personnel are part of the mission?

It is rather a unique moment when the Scottish National party calls for more British troops to be deployed somewhere in the world—however, this is no place for political knockabout, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said. Let us be clear that the UK contribution to the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur has been more than £100 million. In March 2009, the UK contributed a further £1.85 million in discretionary funding for the training and equipping of a Sierra Leone reconnaissance company to deploy to UNAMID, and we continue to explore all possibilities for further and effective UK support. The UK is doing more than its bit to contribute to the mission.

Will my hon. Friend comment on whether it is possible to strengthen the democratic process across Sudan and on how that is emerging?

My hon. Friend raises the crucial issue. The elections are scheduled for next month, and we have so far pledged £12.5 million towards them. That funding has been focused on technical preparations, civic education and conflict management. We hope that the process will be credible; the voter registration process was conducted largely peacefully. The legal framework for the elections has been approved with a level of consensus, so we hope that they will be another milestone on the way to stability in Sudan.


6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of co-operation between Government Departments in the formulation of policy on Afghanistan. (319387)

The Prime Minister set out in April 2009 the Government’s strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is a comprehensive approach that draws on the range of security, political and development levers in pursuit of our objectives and those of the international community as a whole. The test of effectiveness is on the ground, and it is widely recognised that the co-operation in the civilian-military mission in Helmand, which is led by the UK, is the best of its kind.

At the London conference, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for International Development worked very hard to ensure that human rights, particularly women’s rights, were high on the agenda. Can the Foreign Secretary tell us what progress has been made to ensure that human rights, and in particular women’s rights, are protected throughout Afghanistan?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. The only basis for guaranteeing human rights is first, decent security, and secondly, the rule of law according to the Afghan constitution. That is why I think that since the London conference the major effort in Helmand province, including in Marjah, has been a significant step towards that goal. However, the strengthening of the constitutional framework at the national level remains a priority for the new Government.

What terms of reference has the Foreign Secretary set for the latest review of the Helmand road map and, crucially, how do they differ from those used two years ago?

I will not try to dictate the terms of reference from memory, but I am happy to set them down and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that we continue to support the Afghans in order to improve their Government’s capacity? We are still undertaking a similar process in Iraq, so does he welcome the forthcoming Iraqi elections as the next stage in that?

I certainly welcome the democratic advance in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. I am sure that everyone will recognise the significant role that my right hon. Friend has played in strengthening human rights in Iraq and the example that she has set for our work in Afghanistan too.

Last month, President Karzai signed a decree amending the electoral law to allow him to choose all five members of the Electoral Complaints Commission and exclude the three non-Afghan members. Is the Foreign Secretary not concerned that the impartiality of the commission will now be called into question? It was very important, given the issues that it raised, at the previous elections. Should we not be bringing all pressure to bear on President Karzai, because this is what our troops are fighting for—democracy in Afghanistan?

Yes, I am very concerned, to use the hon. Gentleman’s words, about the perception that might be raised about the impartiality of the Electoral Complaints Commission. The Electoral Complaints Commission, which sits alongside the so-called independent Electoral Commission, played a critical role in rooting out fraud in the presidential elections. The best way of making our views clear is to say the same thing in public as in private, which is that the people who are appointed to the panel will be scrutinised very carefully. If they are not to be internationals, they need to be people of the highest quality and integrity. I certainly hope that President Karzai chooses international representatives precisely to tackle the perception dangers raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Falkland Islands

8. What recent representations he has received on UK sovereignty over the Falkland Islands; and if he will make a statement. (319390)

Argentina has made a number of recent protests on this issue. The Government have made it clear that we have no doubt about the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. The principle of self-determination underlies that. There can be no negotiations on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless and until such a time as the Falkland islanders so wish it. They have made it clear that they have no such wish.

I thank the Minister for that response. May I ask in what ways the UK Government are supporting companies planning to drill for oil in the seas around the Falklands?

The best way of supporting legal and appropriate economic development around the Falkland Islands is to uphold the rule of international law. That is precisely what we are doing in the case of the hydrocarbons exploration that is going on at the moment. The companies are acting wholly within their rights and within the legality of international law—[Interruption.] I am happy to answer a question from the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) if he would like to put it properly rather than from a sedentary position. There is a good answer to his question, if he chooses to ask it, concerning where the proceeds go. The best way to secure such rights is for international law to be upheld.

May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his unequivocal and reassuring response to the original question? Will he tell the House what special action has been taken to ensure that the mistakes of the early 1980s are not repeated and that the Argentines are given no encouragement whatever to think that they can take unprovoked, provocative action against a sovereign country and an independent people?

The most important way in which we can continue to secure the Falkland islanders’ right to determine their own future is to continue the security presence that we have in the area. We do so on a routine and uninterrupted basis, and that is very important. We will continue to maintain in international forums as well as bilaterally with the Argentine Government the importance of upholding international law.

The people of the Falkland Islands have very broad shoulders and they deal with Argentine sabre-rattling with great resilience. They do so because they know that all Members of this House give them our full support. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to consider sending one of his Ministers to the Falkland Islands before the general election so that they know that they have our solidarity and support and our very best wishes may be taken to them?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is suggesting that our military capacity and security presence somehow needs the reinforcement of a ministerial flak jacket in the Falkland Islands. My hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has been extremely active bilaterally both within the European Union and with other South American countries. It is important that we say that the right of the Falkland Islands to self-determination is absolute while, at the same time, continuing to work for co-operation with the Argentines, for example in the forum of the G20, which is a good forum for international co-operation.

When the Foreign Secretary next meets the Argentine chargé d’affaires, will he perhaps suggest that the development of hydrocarbons around the Falkland Islands could benefit the people of Argentina as well as the people of the Falklands if Argentina were prepared to undertake normal commercial relations with the Falkland Islands, but that on questions of democracy and self-determination we cannot compromise?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not making a suggestion regarding the proceeds from that exploration. Perhaps he is trying to answer the question that the hon. Member for Moray raised earlier. I assure him that I do not have to go to see the Argentine chargé d’affaires, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe met the Argentine chargé on Friday and was able to discuss this issue fully and in the round.

Bermuda (Buckfast Prohibition)

I am always happy to discuss any matter with the Government of Bermuda, although the prohibition of Buckfast would be a matter solely for them.

I am very glad to hear that, because Buckfast is a noxious substance that causes tremendous difficulties with antisocial behaviour and crime in my constituency and throughout the west of Scotland. It is very welcome news that Bermuda is considering banning it, and I welcome the fact that the Government will not intervene to prevent the Bermudans from doing so. Will the Minister undertake to give them a warm welcome when the new aircraft carriers visit Bermuda?

My hon. Friend proves that, in the words of Horace Walpole, the anniversary of whose death is today:

“This world is a comedy to those that think, and a tragedy to those that feel.”

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the issues relating to Buckfast. The Government in Bermuda have not made it clear that they want to ban it, but they have made it clear that they are considering the issue. They have already decided to reclassify some other alcoholic and caffeine drinks.


10. What representations he has received on the effects on the indigenous Tibetan population of his Department’s change of policy in relation to the status of Tibet. (319392)

The decision to update our position on Tibet brought the UK into line with international partners, including the United States, and the position of the Dalai Lama himself. It gives us a stronger platform to raise the issues that matter to the people of Tibet, and we have been raising those issues. I have been very clear in my contacts with the Chinese leadership that we have serious concerns with the human rights situation and the lack of meaningful autonomy in Tibet. I have urged them to engage in dialogue, and I will do so again when I visit China later this month.

I am grateful for the response that I have been given, and I recognise that the Government have been doing lobbying of that nature, but I am concerned that there has not been one single concrete achievement for the Tibetan people as a consequence of that change of policy. I do not refer to the visit to Tibet by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), as that was not for the Tibetan people. Can the Foreign Secretary, in all honesty, point to a single thing that has been achieved for the people of Tibet arising from that change?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. In the end, the test is whether there is an improvement in conditions on the ground. If we are to have any kind of engagement on that internal issue, we have to do so through forums such as the human rights dialogue that we have now established with China, in relation to which there has recently been a visit to Tibet. Such engagement is important, and I look forward to reporting back on the discussions that I shall have in China later this month.

Has my right hon. Friend any information about the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama, who was for all practical purposes kidnapped at the age of five or six by the Chinese Government and has not been heard of since, even now, about 15 years later? Has my right hon. Friend ever asked the Chinese about the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama?

Yes; the issue is raised regularly. It was raised most recently by my hon. Friend the Minister of State during his visit to Tibet, but no we have never had an answer.


11. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Iran; and if he will make a statement. (319393)

Iranian authorities continue to suppress legitimate protest, restrict civil liberties and threaten violence, even execution, to silence dissent, but the Iranian people continue to demand their fundamental rights. We urge the authorities to respect the right of their citizens to be heard.

Efforts for peaceful regime change seem to have stalled at the moment, but the Iranian President continues with his development of nuclear weapons and his hatred of Israel. Will the Minister tell the House what specific pressure is being put on the Iranian regime to improve its human rights record?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue at this time. Amnesty International says that it is the worst human rights situation for 20 years. The way in which the Iranian authorities attempted to quell protests during the national day celebrations has rightly been described as

“a chilling campaign of threats and intimidation”.

We, in the context of the European Union and with our allies in the United Nations and the United States, constantly apply pressure to the Iranians about their human rights record and their nuclear file.

Frankly, we have reached out an olive branch to Iran. We have offered a diplomatic and political way forward but, instead of getting a positive response, we have seen a deterioration in internal human rights there. In addition, Iran has not co-operated in meeting its responsibilities under international obligations with regard to its nuclear weapons capacity. That is why we now believe that the only way forward is to consider tougher economic sanctions against Iran.

Has the Minister had any discussions with representatives from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which involves Russia, China, India and Pakistan among others, to see whether it can exert pressure on the Iranians to cease their nuclear installation programme?

We have had those discussions with Russia, but not with the Shanghai organisation to which my hon. Friend refers.

Is the Minister aware that on 14 February, in the presence of representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iranian authorities transferred almost their total supply of low-enriched uranium from a deeply protected underground facility to a surface plant, for no obvious reason? Does the Foreign Office have a view about why that might have happened, particularly as it makes the country’s very valuable enriched uranium far more vulnerable to possible military action?

This has been discussed in the IAEA only this week. It is a serious escalation of the situation that should give the international community more cause for concern. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman is fully aware, it is essential that we achieve international unity over the next stage, which is adopting economic sanctions, especially against the decision makers in the regime. We have seen no attempt by the Iranian authorities to respond positively to our requests for diplomatic and political solutions. The door remains open, but we have no choice now but to consider economic sanctions.

I thank the Minister for what he said about human rights in Iran and I agree with him on that. Will he look forward to the non-proliferation treaty review in May and extend efforts to create a nuclear-free middle east? That would help to defuse the situation and bring Israel into discussions about nuclear disarmament, which in turn would remove any arguments that could be used in favour of developing nuclear weapons in the region.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Every UN resolution on the question of Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity that has been proposed and passed talks about a middle east that is free of nuclear weapons. As a result, it is simply untrue for the Iranians to say, as they sometimes attempt to do, that we are not playing on a level playing field when it comes to our response to their nuclear weapons capacity. We should remember that this is not just about the threat to the stability of the middle east that would be posed by Iran developing nuclear weapons. The arms race that would be triggered in the region would be like nothing we have ever seen before, and that is why it is so crucial that we stop Iran developing nuclear weapons.

At the last Foreign Office questions, the Foreign Secretary assured the House that it would not take “several months” for new UN sanctions on Iran to be agreed. That was in January; it is now March, and the US Secretary of State has said that it may take up to two months more for those sanctions to be agreed. Does he need to modify in any way what Ministers have said about that, and should we not now be galvanised, for some of the reasons that the Minister has set out, into urgently adopting new sanctions? The latest IAEA report says that Iran has amassed a dangerous stockpile of enriched uranium, and that it may be working on a nuclear warhead and have secret nuclear sites.

Modifying statements made by the Foreign Secretary is not a good career move from my point of view—[Interruption.] Not everyone agrees, necessarily. I genuinely think that the right hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement on these issues. Of course speed is important, and it is urgent that we send the strongest possible message to the Iranians, but he would agree that unity matters too. If the Iranians spot any sense of division in the international community, that could undermine the power of our message. It is worth waiting those few extra weeks if it means that we can achieve the maximum international support that we need if we are to take the further economic sanctions that are so crucial.

It is of course vital to have that unity, but there must also be a necessary sense of urgency. Will the Minister set out what the British Government are doing diplomatically to ensure that other nations in Europe and around the world are ready to co-ordinate tighter sanctions, if necessary on top of and in addition to what is agreed eventually at the UN Security Council? That could include action against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as tough financial sanctions and targeted action against the Iranian leadership. Is it not time to step up our diplomatic efforts on this matter, if Iran is to take our resolve seriously?

We are leading the argument at the UN and in the EU. We are using our bilateral relations to encourage countries with influence over less supportive countries to move immediately to sanctions; we are using all those diplomatic channels, from the Prime Minister downwards. As I said, speed matters and the urgency of the message to the Iranian Government is important, but so is maximum international unity if they are to take that message seriously.

The regime is despicable, but why is it so troubling to the United Kingdom that Iran is going nuclear when so many other countries have already done so—for example, India, Pakistan and, of course, Israel? Does that not smack of double standards?

I have a massive amount of respect for my hon. Friend, but he does himself a disservice by sending that kind of message from the House to the Iranian Government. Let me make the position clear. Of course, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons is a threat to stability in the middle east, but it would also trigger an arms race the likes of which we have never seen before among Iran’s neighbours. In a year in which the world is seeking to make progress on non-proliferation in the review of the non-proliferation treaty, this is about the threat that Iran would pose to our national security and that of countries in the region, but it is also about the arms race that it would inevitably trigger.

Piracy (Somalia)

12. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on piracy around the coast of Somalia. (319394)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary regularly discusses piracy off the coast of Somalia in both bilateral and multilateral meetings. Recent discussions took place during the Yemen conference in January and the EU Foreign Ministers meeting in November 2009.

Does the Minister agree that the root cause of that piracy is instability in Somalia and the surrounding countries, so what progress has been made to stabilise them?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that this is a broader question of stability. We have decided, quite rightly, as part of the international community, to support the transitional Government. This issue requires an approach that is about security as well as more inclusive and effective government, and getting the economy and social provision moving in Somalia. Through the Department for International Development, we are applying an integrated approach, bringing together security, improved governance and development, and the international community needs to adopt that approach if we are to bring stability to Somalia.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) is absolutely right. Although I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments, the reality is that the world has been very slow to recognise both the seriousness of the vacuum of power in Somalia and the serious threat that that represents to individuals through piracy and to the wider community in east Africa and globally. Is it not time that we said to Washington and to others who are involved that we need to apply proper pressure to build an effective infrastructure in Somalia?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is okay to discuss a joined-up UK approach on security, governance and development, but we need members of the international community to come together in a co-ordinated way. We are working closely with our EU partners and the United Nations, including the special representative of the Secretary-General. This is an issue that is increasingly discussed in the context of our bilateral relationship with the United States.

Falkland Islands

13. What assessment he has made of the implications of the Argentine Government’s position on oil drilling in the waters around the Falkland Islands; and if he will make a statement. (319395)

Argentina’s reaction to the resumption of hydrocarbons exploration in Falklands waters has not changed the British Government’s position one iota. We have no doubt about Britain’s sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, nor about the islanders’ full right to develop a hydrocarbons industry.

I am very glad to hear that response. In 2003, we gave unequivocal support to the United States of America on Iraq, and we are now fighting shoulder to shoulder, and our soldiers are dying together, in Afghanistan, yet the US Government are equivocating on the subject. Will the Minister tell me what Hillary Clinton might facilitate when she offers to act as a facilitator?

The US Government’s position, which they have held since 1947, has not changed at all in any recent discussions, and we have made it absolutely clear that we do not believe there is any need for negotiation or discussion, because there is nothing to discuss in terms of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, which should be a self-determined issue and solely a self-determined issue. The one point on which we would be prepared to continue negotiations is a return to the 1995 joint declaration on hydrocarbons co-operation from which the Argentines themselves withdrew unilaterally in 1997.

On the question of Afghanistan, the issue surely must be—[Interruption.] I am sorry, we have taken the questions too quickly. My apologies. I was getting up for the question on Afghanistan. I got the wrong question.

The Falkland Islands, in the south Atlantic, are very important to Britain’s interests. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that without Ascension Island the Falklands could not be sustained, and that without the people of St. Helena living on the Falklands and Ascension Island the Falklands could not be sustained? Is it not time that Britain looked at the whole south Atlantic as a single strategically important part of the world?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. and I have had many conversations with the Ministry of Defence about ensuring that it recognises the financial requirements on Ascension. We also have a duty to stand by St. Helena.

UK-Argentina Relations

14. What recent assessment he has made of the state of relations between the UK and Argentina; and if he will make a statement. (319396)

We have a productive relationship on a range of issues, including in the G20, such as climate change, sustainable development and counter-proliferation. We hope that current tensions over the Falklands will not escalate and undermine our co-operation on other issues.

Argentina today is very different from the Argentina of the early ’80s. It is a wonderful place full of many people who share our values. Does the Minister agree that the Government should reach over the head of Argentina’s rather dysfunctional Government in Buenos Aires to the people of Argentina in order to communicate the fact that this is not a simple, tired, post-colonial issue but is about the islanders’ right of self-determination?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that this is a matter of self-determination for the people of the Falklands. When some people—Argentines—suggest that there are not any indigenous people to the Falklands, I point out that many people from Argentina are of Italian, British, Scottish and German stock, going back fewer generations than the presence on the Falklands Islands. [Hon. Members: “And Welsh.”] For that matter, as several hon. Members are pointing out, many people of Welsh stock live in Patagonia.

I know that the relationships between our two countries are very strong, and there are many areas in which Argentina has been extremely courageous, not least in relation to counter-proliferation. We stand ready to work with it on all those issues, as I pointed out to the chargé d’affaires the other day. It would be good if it had an ambassador back in London.

Topical Questions

On Saturday, Chile was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 on the Richter scale. My thoughts and, I am sure, those of every Member are with the families of those killed and injured. Currently, there are no confirmed British casualties. We have located more than 270 British nationals and confirmed that they are safe. The Government have made an initial donation of £250,000 to facilitate the work of the Red Cross in Chile, and the European Union has provided an immediate €3 million for the relief effort. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to President Bachelet yesterday to offer further support and condolences on behalf of the whole country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that update on the situation in Chile.

My right hon. Friend travels the world vigorously promoting the UK’s foreign policy interests. In any of those multilateral and bilateral discussions, which he has had over some years, has it ever been suggested to him that it is unpatriotic of a British Foreign Minister to work for the return of a Labour Government at home?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. I, like many people, was shocked by the Leader of the Opposition’s suggestion that it was somehow unpatriotic to work for the re-election of a Labour Government—or, for that matter, for any other party. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was showing his inexperience, and I think that he should apologise to all Labour voters in this country.

Ignoring the last remark, may I associate the Opposition fully with what the Foreign Secretary said about the situation in Chile and the action that the Government have taken and endorsed?

On the separate matter of the killing of Mr. al-Mabhouh in Dubai, the Foreign Secretary said to me in a letter last week that

“if the Israelis had been responsible for this, the UK would have the strongest expectations that this would not happen again.”

I think the whole House will back him up in that. However, may I repeat a question that I have now asked Ministers twice? Did he specifically ask his Israeli counterpart for an assurance that Israel will never sanction the misuse of British passports in any future intelligence operation? Will he seek such an assurance, and does he have any expectation of receiving such an assurance?

Of course I make it clear, not just to Israel but to any country, that we have every expectation that no country, especially a friendly one, would interfere with British passports or promote their fraudulent use. I made that clear to the Israeli Foreign Minister, and I do so to anyone else who is considering such a course. The Israeli Foreign Minister insisted to me that he had no information that corroborated allegations of Israeli involvement, but I none the less made clear to him our very strong view that Israel should co-operate with the investigation that has been launched by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and that, as I said clearly in my letter, we had every expectation that if there had been an occurrence such as this, it would never happen again.

T3. My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the situation in Nigeria, where President Yar’Adua had been out of the country for health reasons and then came back without being seen, and the Vice-President had no access to him. Meanwhile, the post-amnesty problem in the Niger delta is getting worse. Will he have a word with the Nigerians to ensure that British citizens working in Nigeria will be protected? (319409)

My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in Nigeria and always tries to be constructive on the issue. Of course, the situation is very difficult. The President has returned to the country and the acting President continues to govern. What is important is that the Government of that country behave in accordance with its constitution and rule of law. We welcome the fact that the acting President has committed to make progress on the Niger delta amnesty programme, electoral reform and addressing corruption. It is obviously important that, at this very delicate time, we try to contribute to securing maximum stability, which will in turn protect British citizens in Nigeria.

What pressure is being brought to bear on the Sri Lankan Government to release, as soon as possible, an estimated 100,000 Tamils who are still being held in internally displaced persons camps 10 months after the fighting ended?

In every conversation that I have with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, I make the precise point that for the future of Sri Lanka, after the end of a bloody civil war that lasted 26 years and claimed the lives of some 70,000 people, the process of political reconciliation, including constitutional reform, needs to start immediately, but also that there is a short-term, immediate humanitarian issue in respect of the 100,000 or 80,000 IDPs. It is obviously a good step forward that instead of 280,000 or 300,000 IDPs there are 100,000 or 80,000, but the number needs to get down to zero as fast as possible. That is certainly the case that we make publicly and privately in all forums.

T4. Has the Secretary of State visited Cuba recently, and if he has not, does he have any plans to do so? [Interruption.] (319410)

I would be delighted to visit Cuba—and delighted, of course, to go with Mrs. Clinton. My hon. Friend raises an important point, and if I were to go to Cuba, I would insist on meeting the Opposition as well as the Government. That is a common EU position. I am very disappointed that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) went to Cuba without meeting the Opposition. If I went, I certainly would not go on a free flight on Ashcroft airways, and if I ever met Lord Ashcroft, I would want to know what his tax status was. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will explain that when he—

T2. In June last year, I asked the Foreign Secretary about the provision by Britain of military training to the vile Sudanese regime. At the time, he said that he would review the matter and come back to me. Some eight months later, he has not yet done so, so will he kindly give me an update now? (319408)

I am happy to give an update by letter, and I will send the hon. Gentleman a letter as soon as I can.

T8. The Foreign Secretary has told us what the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr. Liberman, insisted to him. Does he believe Mr. Liberman, and does he expect the House to do so? (319414)

I certainly would not tell the rest of the House what to believe. However, I would say, very seriously, that an investigation is going on. It is right that while allegations fly around, we should wait until the conclusion of our investigation before coming to any conclusions.

T5. Those who visited the excellent exhibition on human trafficking in the Upper Committee corridor last week would have been impressed by the stories of domestics working for embassies, many of whom were treated as domestic slaves. Will the Foreign Office now support the Home Office decision to amend the diplomatic domestic visa, so that those maltreated domestic workers no longer face deportation if they run away from the embassy in which they have been maltreated? (319411)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I know that he has devoted a considerable part of his political career to addressing that issue, for which I pay tribute to him. One terrible problem faced by people—normally young women, but sometimes young men—in that situation is that they are in a complex double bind: if they try to break free, they will be sent back to the country of origin. We are looking very closely at that situation with the Home Office, and I hope we can provide a satisfactory answer fairly soon.

T9. Will my hon. Friend tell me what steps his Department is taking to promote free and fair elections in Burma later this year? (319415)

Recent events in Burma do not encourage us to believe that the elections will be free and fair. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi faced trumped up charges, a bogus trial, and a sentence that was an offence to any notion of justice, and now her appeal has been thrown out. Of course, we continue to hope that the Burmese authorities will miraculously change their position in the weeks and months ahead, so that the elections will be free and fair, but that will require not only the release of Aung San Suu Kyi but the changing of the constitution and the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners. We continue to hope, but I must say that we are very sceptical about the prospect of those elections being free and fair.

T6. Despite the potentially significant costs to US-China relations, President Obama was none the less happy to meet the Dalai Lama. Why did the Prime Minister refuse to do so? (319412)

T10. Co-operation between NATO and the European Union continues to be undermined by the absence of agreement between Turkey and Greece on the long-term future of Cyprus. What are the Government doing to try to resolve that situation? (319416)

We are very keen to use the current opportunity—Governments in Ankara and Athens, and leaders in the north and south of Cyprus, who are committed to a successful, whole settlement in Cyprus—and determined to do everything we can to ensure that there is a further intensification of those talks. The current situation on the island is a tragedy of significant proportions, and it will never be resolved unless there is a comprehensive settlement.

T7. To return to the vexed situation in Iran, I am sure we agree that the best solution would be a more moderate and democratic Government in that country, yet the oppressive Ahmadinejad regime is now blocking all international broadcasts, including BBC Persian TV. Could the Government put pressure on satellite broadcasters that are used by Iran via the International Telecommunications Union, and consider including telecommunications in any proposed sanctions? That would at least allow the people of Iran to see a different view to that which their Government want to show them. (319413)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Not just the BBC but Deutsche Welle and other international broadcasting organisations are being blocked from Iran. That is doubly significant given the popularity of those international stations. He makes the very good point that we should be working hard to get those airwaves free again. We are certainly doing so bilaterally, but I can assure him that we are also doing so on the multilateral scene.

Checkpoints in west bank cities have been reduced from 41 to 14. How far is this responsible for economic progress on the west bank?

Obviously, the reduction in checkpoints is welcome. I have the latest figures for 2008 and 2009 for economic development in the west bank and I have discussed them with Prime Minister Fayyad recently. It is fair to say that although the reduction in checkpoints is welcome, the economic growth was secured before that reduction. We hope that the reduction in checkpoints will contribute to further economic growth in the years ahead.

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us what practical measures of co-operation are being offered by the Israeli Government to those conducting the investigation into the abuse of British passports? How would he characterise that co-operation?

I would say that it is premature to characterise the co-operation on a scale of one to 10, or nought to 10, but it is important that we send a clear message that we expect that full co-operation. The Serious Organised Crime Agency investigation is getting going, and is now spending some time in the middle east. For obvious reasons, I shall not give a running commentary on that investigation, but I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point seriously—I am sure that the House agrees—and we expect full co-operation with SOCA’s work.

The Government are correct to work for the toughest possible inspection regime of the Iranian ambition to promote enriched nuclear material, whether for domestic or other purposes. However, the Foreign Secretary has a duty to tell us in what circumstances he believes the Iranians might launch an attack on any other country in that region, especially Israel.

The Iranians do not have a nuclear weapon yet, thank God, and that is important. The whole thrust of our policy is reducing tension in the area. From my discussions with Gulf neighbours, I can tell my hon. Friend that they are extremely worried about Iranian destabilisation activities in the Gulf. The support that is given to Hezbollah and Hamas is also destabilising for the middle east. The offer that has been made clearly to Iran is that it will be treated as a normal country, on nuclear and other matters, when it starts behaving as a normal country. That is not victimisation; Iran is the author of its own misfortunes, massively against the interests of its people. That is why our strategy of reaching out to the Iranian people—not victimising them—while putting pressure on the regime must be the right one. After all, we may be dissatisfied with the Iranian regime, but it is only half the dissatisfaction felt by the Iranian people.

Will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity this week to speak to the South African President and Foreign Minister and discuss the situation in Zimbabwe? Will he try to persuade them that we really would appreciate it enormously if they put a little more pressure on Mr. Mugabe, because he is the impediment to progress in that country?

I am happy to report to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that I met the South African Foreign Minister this morning in advance of the state visit. There is a high degree of interest in, and excitement about, the state visit in South Africa, as there is here, and we welcome President Zuma and his 12-strong ministerial team and 200-strong business team very warmly. We discussed the Zimbabwe situation this morning. I very much take the content of the hon. Gentleman’s question in the spirit in which it is intended, recognising South Africa’s central role, and I assure him that I conveyed both at the meeting today.

Will the Minister take a look at Amnesty International’s January report “Giving Life, Risking Death”, which reports 200,000 unnecessary deaths among pregnant women in Burkina Faso because of discrimination and other factors? Will he authorise a diplomatic effort to try to help that country to bring down that figure?

I am grateful for the point that my hon. Friend makes. He is right to say that there are significant issues that we need to address, and that is one that will be referred to in the Foreign Office’s own human rights report, which we will publish in the next couple of weeks.

To return to the horn of Africa and piracy, is the Secretary of State aware that some people in international shipping are turning off their automatic transponders, which is making it very difficult for ships, including those from the Royal Navy and other navies from across the world, to protect international shipping? It might also be a breach of chapter 5 of SOLAS—the international convention for the safety of life at sea—and disqualify any future insurance claims.

No, I was not aware of that important point, but I am happy to forward it to Operation Atalanta headquarters—the centre of the EU naval mission off Somalia—at Northwood here in the UK. He raises an important point. International shipping has a responsibility to work with international security forces, both on the lanes and the identification of their ships to promote safety on the high seas.

On 11 February, at least 17 children were arrested from the Al Jalazun refugee camp by Israeli forces in the middle of the night and allegedly suffered ill treatment, then and during interrogation. What representations has the Secretary of State made to the Israeli Government about the large number of Palestinian children held in custody and facing trial, if at all, by a military tribunal?

My hon. Friend, who I know follows these issues carefully, has raised related or similar issues with me before. As I said to him on those occasions, we raise very clearly with the Israelis and, I have to say, with the Palestinians, a range of human rights issues, including not only social and economic rights but security and the treatment of detainees. I do not know of the individual case that he raises, but I shall certainly look into it. It is important that the message goes out very clearly that we expect all sides to live up to their international, as well as domestic, obligations under international law.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At Communities and Local Government topical questions on 26 January, and again last month during the local government finance report debate on 3 February, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government used Treasury costings to claim in the House that our policy of working with local authorities to help them to freeze council tax for two years was using

“dodgy, unrealistic and out-of-date figures”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 672.]

It now turns out that the Treasury figures on which he based those comments were themselves wrong. In fact, we have seen them updated, in a response to a freedom of information request, and the figures have now been updated on the Treasury website.

Mr. Speaker, will you give me some guidance on whether, given that the Secretary of State was quick to come back and comment on the original Treasury costings, we can get him to return to the House to comment on the fact that those figures, and therefore his comments, were wrong?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order, and I am happy indeed to offer her some guidance. The point that she has just raised is regrettably not a point of order, but a point of debate. On reflection, I think that she herself will almost certainly be conscious of that fact. My particular guidance to her would be that she should table further questions precisely to elicit the information that she thinks that she should get. I am sure that it will not be beyond her ingenuity to find a variety of ways to press her case.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Some months ago, when I raised in a question my concerns about Lord Ashcroft, I was, in a kindly and friendly way, warned by a Back-Bench Conservative Member that I should keep quiet because Lord Ashcroft had a way of exacting retribution from his critics. Indeed, he expressed the view that he personally would not cross Lord Ashcroft. Given this morning’s revelations about Lord Ashcroft’s true status, will there be an opportunity for the House to discuss him and the process by which he became a Member of the House of Lords?

If memory serves me, the hon. Gentleman entered the House in 1979, and therefore he is not far short of 31 years in the House. He will be well familiar with the institution of business questions on a Thursday morning, and I have a hunch—something tells me—that on Thursday he might be tempted to raise this matter and to seek the debate after which he obviously hankers.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice and help. During Question Time today, the matter of the state visit by the President of South Africa was raised. This is a major event involving 12 Ministers, and it is important both to this country and for the influence that can be brought to bear in Zimbabwe. Is it possible, through you, Mr. Speaker, to request that a statement be made by the Foreign Secretary as soon as he is in a position to do so?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman, who is in his 39th year as a Member of this House, has been invited to any of the events attendant on President Zuma’s visit. Of course, that is not a matter for me. He has, however, placed his views clearly on record. I think that we will have to leave the matter there for today, but I suspect that many will study his remarks.

Major Capital Contracts (Skills Training Requirements)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require public authorities letting contracts for major capital works to require contractors to provide apprenticeships and skills training; and for connected purposes.

My reason for introducing this Bill, which I am sure will have widespread support across the House, is that we have seen some major disputes in recent times—notably at the Lindsey oil refinery and the Staythorpe power station in Nottinghamshire—and a new dispute is emerging only this week at Milford Haven. In these disputes, local workers and their unions have repeatedly made the case that they have been excluded from the ability to apply for jobs on major construction works.

I spoke at the Staythorpe workers’ demonstration in Newark last year. I spoke again last month when the Staythorpe workers came to London to lobby Ministers. Those workers and their unions have been clear about their basic demands. I have had the opportunity to speak to them and to listen to them in great detail. Their view is that it is wholly unfair that such contracts can be let without giving their workers, who have the necessary skills, an opportunity to apply for the jobs.

The Prime Minister once talked about “British jobs for British workers”, and the workers at Lindsey and Staythorpe took up that theme. They defined it, although in some of the reporting their clear definitions have been lost. I pay tribute to the way in which they conducted themselves, not least in ensuring that the bigots who attempted to attach themselves to those disputes were sent packing by the work force and by the unions, as was appropriate.

The Bill provides the detail that will enable us to spell out what the Prime Minister’s slogan should actually mean, and it does so in three ways. The first relates to major public contracts, of which there are many. They have included the Crossrail contract that has recently been let, and the Olympic park, which also involves a major capital contract. There are also major contracts involving schools and hospital programmes. Perhaps the biggest of all will be the contracts for the new nuclear power stations. They will be huge contracts under which tens of thousands of workers will be employed, directly and indirectly, on constructing the power stations that this country so urgently needs.

Under the Bill, there would be a legal requirement that all jobs relating to a contract for major public works worth more than £50 million must be advertised in local jobcentres. That is a rather modest provision, but it was precisely the demand of the workers in my area, and elsewhere in Nottinghamshire and the midlands, who were denied the opportunity to apply for jobs at Staythorpe power station.

I want to say a few words about the scandal of Staythorpe, which was comparable to the scandal of the Lindsey oil refinery. At Staythorpe, the employers cut the wages and conditions of British workers and flew in 300 workers from Italy. They put them up in cheap dormitories and underpaid them in comparison with the locally and nationally negotiated pay rates. There were also major questions about health and safety. The Bill would make it much harder for that to happen, and it would make it illegal not to allow such jobs to be advertised in the local jobcentres.

Other provisions would do something far more powerful on contract compliance. The first would put a requirement on all public contracts of a certain size—the figure in the Bill is more than £50 million—that 2 per cent. of the entire work force, including subcontractors, sub-subcontractors and agency workers, should be new apprentices. Where there is a major power station, such as at West Burton in my constituency where a new gas power station is being built, and particularly when the public purse is paying for those contracts, 2 per cent. would mean 20 apprentices for every 1,000 workers, which seems a modest but reasonable input into developing skills when letting all major public contracts.

The Bill also provides for a specific legal requirement that all contracts involve a precise one hour’s training a week, carried out in conjunction with local colleges, for the existing work force. That would mean—it is crucial for new nuclear build—that we would upgrade the skills at all levels of our work force, although, of course, that would be determined by the companies because it would be reasonable for them to decide which skills were required. When companies win these major contracts, with the help of local training providers, they can upgrade skills for the future for building and managing big power stations or other major public works.

That combination would provide an economic advantage or a competitive advantage in all contracts to companies that have an employment base in this country, while it would disadvantage others, such as the US company Bechtel, that come in and hoover up employees from elsewhere, including from competitors in this country, every time they win a contract here. Such companies contribute nothing to our skills base, as they just do the work and get out.

I think that this provides a realistic definition for the slogan “British jobs for British workers”. As we all know, British workers, including those on the demonstrations, are of all colours and creeds. Indeed, a number have been born in many different lands, but those living and paying taxes in this country should have the ability to do this work.

Finally, let me reiterate a point about apprentices. We have huge new nuclear build ahead that will provide employment for vast numbers of workers. That work should go to companies based in this country, such as Laing O’Rourke, which employs 350 people in a world-leading, pre-cast cement works in Worksop in my constituency. It is those companies that should be winning these contracts, not companies from afar that poach the work force and contribute nothing to the skills base. For our young people, the thought of building these big power stations without large numbers of new apprentices learning building skills and power station management skills is not just outrageous, as that would be, but economically self-defeating.

I am certain that wise counsel on both sides of the House will enthusiastically support the Bill. It has the support of the workers I have met from Lindsey and Staythorpe, and of their unions as a way forward out of the disputes. Morally and economically, they are in the right and their employers are in the wrong.

Question put and agreed to.


That John Mann, Mr. Jamie Reed, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Mr. Frank Field, Bob Spink and Mr. Robert Flello present the Bill.

John Mann accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March, and to be printed (Bill 80).

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Money) (No. 4)

Queen’s recommendation signified.

I call the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms).

The right hon. Gentleman looks distinctly quizzical. For his enlightenment, let me explain that I was referring to the money motion relating to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. I was advised by those in the know that the right hon. Gentleman would be moving it, but if the Secretary of State for Justice wishes to do so, we look forward to that with interest.

Even Homer nodded, Mr. Speaker.

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, it is expedient to authorise—

(1) the payment out of the Consolidated Fund of sums required by the Electoral Commission to meet—

(a) the charges payable to Regional Counting Officers in connection with a referendum held on the voting system for parliamentary elections, and

(b) sums payable in respect of increases in superannuation contributions required to be paid by local authorities in consequence of fees paid as part of those charges, and

(2) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred by virtue of the Act by the National Archives or any other government department.

The motion, which adds to previous money resolutions, relates to two matters: the establishment of regional counting officers, which will be necessary for the proper administration of the referendum on voting systems to which the House has already agreed; and the provision of funds for the implementation of the Dacre report. Some extra costs will be involved in connection with that as the period within which official records must generally be released will be compressed from 30 years to 20.

I am sorry to disappoint the Secretary of State. If he had moved a money motion merely to deal with the Dacre proposals, I would have had no difficulty accepting it. However, the motion is also intended to facilitate the referendum on the alternative vote system, which we believe will prove both costly and utterly unnecessary, so we intend to oppose it.

I feel a little sorry for the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), who, despite being in the Chamber and despite having put his name to a motion, was clearly entirely unprepared to speak to the motion that he had apparently tabled.

Having heard from the Lord Chancellor, I am a little at a loss to understand why this motion is needed in addition to the money resolution that was agreed before our last discussion on the Bill with regard to the referendum, although not in respect of the National Archives, which is being raised for the first time today. Perhaps the Lord Chancellor will explain why the previous money resolution was incomplete or improper in some way, and why we need this motion to deal with a matter that I thought the House had already determined, by means of a Division, when we last discussed the Bill.

When a Government are as deeply in debt as this Government—when they are building up so much taxpayer debt—it behoves a senior Cabinet Minister at least to extend to the House the courtesy of explaining how much additional money is in question, why the expenditure represents value for money, and what action the Government have taken to try to ensure that the sums spent would be the minimum necessary for their purposes so that they may allay the fears of some Members that they are committing huge sums for any purpose, on any whim or in respect of any press release that takes their fancy during this pre-election period, without proper and due consideration of the state of the public finances.

Of course there is political disagreement across the House about the main purpose: the setting up of a referendum on how voting systems should operate. We think that that is a totally unnecessary device, and most unwelcome. However, leaving aside the issue of principle—which is not the substance of a money motion—I think that we should at least be treated to some reassurance from the Cabinet Minister responsible that he has chosen the least costly way of proceeding, and that should be put in the context of the huge borrowing and huge financial commitments that the Government are building up. I cannot understand how any sensible Member of Parliament could possibly grant the Government their wish when such a low-priority item is uncosted, when there are no sums of money in the motion on the Order Paper, and when no sums of money were mentioned in the Secretary of State’s opening remarks.

I am pleased to respond to this brief debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked why the first limb of the money resolution is required, given the fact that a previous one covers the proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote. The answer is that this money resolution provides for regional counting officers. I know that that gives rise to a question of why that was not in the previous money resolution. All I have to say is that it was not, and I think that it is appropriate to ensure that there is modest provision for the regional counting officers to be appointed and paid.

With his characteristic skill, the Secretary of State has failed to enlighten the House as to why that item was omitted from the earlier money resolution.

Because it was a later entry into the consideration—that is the truth of it. The measure is none the less very good and to be recommended.

The regional counting officers would normally be the chief executives of local authorities, so they are already in receipt of very high salaries.

This is about establishing regional counting officers better to co-ordinate the administration of the referendum and the counting of votes.

May I answer directly the questions asked by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)? In the debate on the previous money resolution, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and many other Members referred, properly, to the estimates of the cost of the referendum, which had already been given by me and my ministerial colleagues in answer to parliamentary questions and in other ways. We estimate the cost to be similar to that in a general election, which would be between £80 million and £100 million—we cannot be absolutely certain. In part, the cost will depend on whether the referendum coincides with local elections in 2011, for example, or is a bespoke referendum. The first limb of the proposals would not add very much to the cost overall. Our hope is that, by having regional counting officers in place, we can reduce the totality of the administrative costs by better co-ordination. On any basis, that is a considerable sum of money, but I happen to think that its purpose is very important.

I do not share the view of Conservative Members that there is no purpose in spending this money. It is important to give the British people a clear choice through a referendum about the kind of voting system that they want, without in any way undermining the principle, which is generally agreed across the Chamber and the country, of single-member representation of constituencies. The argument on the merits—I will not go down that route—was made cogently by Labour Members and Liberal Democrat Members in a previous debate. However, we are considering a one-off cost. It is different from continuing expenditure, which we would get, for example, if services in an area were expanded.

I would like to press my simple factual request. How much extra will the money resolution add? Presumably it will mean extra money, because otherwise one would not need additional permission. The House should be told how much extra will be added to the cost.

I will be very happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman about that. The amount is relatively modest, but authority is still required to pay it.

I apologise to the House with regard to the second item because I should have given information about the cost. We estimate that the cost of implementing the Dacre report, as proposed in measures to be considered on Report, from the start date—that will be subject to an order in both Houses beforehand, so it could be 2011, 2012 or later—will be £28 million over five years, or in other words about £5.5 million a year. With that, I hope that the money resolution will be widely endorsed by the House.

Question put.

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Programme) (No. 6)

I beg to move,

That the Order of 20 October 2009 in the last Session of Parliament (Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

1. Paragraphs 6 and 7 of the Order shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.

3. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.



Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to public records or freedom of information.

One and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration.

New Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 4.

Two and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration or 9.00 pm, whichever is the earlier

New Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 7; remaining new Clauses, new Schedules and amendments; remaining proceedings on consideration.

9.00 pm.

4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10.00 pm.

This programme motion is intended to ensure that there is sufficient time to debate the Government amendments on Dacre and Kelly as well as part 7, which concerns protests in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster.

As colleagues will readily recall, the Bill has been before the House since July of last year, when it had its Second Reading. It was preceded by a draft Bill and 18 consultations and publications. The Bill and the draft Bill have been scrutinised by several Select Committees, including the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, the Public Administration Committee, the Select Committee on Justice and Committees in the other place. I anticipate that there might be some suggestion made that there has not been sufficient scrutiny of this measure, but I simply remind the House that on most of the provisions—although, it is fair to say, not on the two that are new before the House today—there has been huge prior consideration. When people seek to hark back to an earlier alleged golden age—as I think that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) was about to, judging by the eye that he was giving me—it is worth recalling that in that alleged golden age there was no pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and few Bills were published in draft. This Bill, although it has been the subject of programme motions, has also been the subject of a huge amount of prior consideration and changes have been made to the Bill in the light of that consideration.

It sounds to me that what the Secretary of State is really saying is that, in his judgment, the pre-legislative scrutiny process obviates the need for a significant Report stage. Will he acknowledge, at least, that many of us in this House feel that the strict programming that reduces this important Bill’s Report stage to four and three quarter hours effectively emasculates the Report stage and prevents us from being given the time to analyse all the relevant parts?

There is a long-standing debate about how much time we provide for debate on Bills on the Floor of the House, which has been the subject of consideration in the Wright Committee and of its recommendations. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go down that path in general. I accept that the time provided for the Dacre provisions—an hour and a half—is relatively short, as is the time for the Kelly provisions. However, the Dacre provisions have significant cross-party consensus—there is no question about that—and were subject to lengthy consultation by Paul Dacre and his colleagues on the review and, subsequently, by the Government. The provisions relating to Kelly, which are principally to do with pension provisions, follow on from earlier considerations about Kelly. Time is compressed, but it has been the decision of the whole of the House that we should legislate on Kelly before the general election and the general election will take place on or before 3 June. I am looking forward to that, but even for those who are not looking forward to it there is nothing we can do about that inevitability.

Since the situation has somewhat changed since yesterday, with the admission by Lord Ashcroft—at last telling the truth—that he is not domiciled in Britain for tax purposes, is there not a case for giving more time so that all these matters can be properly considered?

They are certainly being properly considered elsewhere in the House and outside. The questions keep on coming as the Opposition give insufficient answers to previous questions. Had we been able to anticipate the decisions of Lord Ashcroft and the Conservative party, after 10 years of silence and obfuscation, to own up to the fact that, notwithstanding an earlier, clear commitment, Lord Ashcroft is a non-dom, we might well have been able to provide additional time on the Floor of the House, but I regret that the motion that I am moving is the motion that I am moving.

We have before us more than 50 pages to consider in the few hours that the Government wish to allot. Will the Lord Chancellor remind the House how many new clauses and amendments have come from the Government for our consideration today?

I shall count them in due course, although the right hon. Gentleman seems to have done the task for us. The reason for the amendments is to give effect to decisions that have already been taken by the House. A large chunk of the provisions relate to the Kelly proposals, and I thought that it was the wish of the Conservative party, as well as that of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, that the Kelly proposals should be the subject of legislation before the election. That seemed to be the purview of the Leader of the Opposition when he spoke on the Loyal Address.

The Lord Chancellor will know that I have tabled two very important new clauses on ending discrimination against Catholics and women in our constitution. He is on the record as supporting those provisions, but they seem unlikely to be reached. Does he recognise that to avoid the complaints that are made about the Report stage of every Government Bill, there is real merit in the proposals of the Wright Committee, which can be found in amendment (a) to motion 67, in the future business section of the Order Paper, which we will debate on Thursday? Will he indicate whether he can see real merit in supporting such proposals to stop the demonisation of the Government happening on Report?

Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, may I say that although that point is a pertinent one, we are dealing with the programme motion? I do not think that we want to get too much ahead of ourselves in respect of matters to be debated on Thursday. However, I am sure that the Secretary of State will be sufficiently dextrous in his reply.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker for that guidance to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). However we allocate time—and we might be able to achieve a situation in which more time is made available for the consideration of Bills—there would not be sufficient time to consider every proposal for every Bill. There has never been sufficient time for that. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who has sat in the House for as long as I have, will recall the frustration that he, I and others felt when there was no programming. It is a fact of life and, I am afraid, of a ticking clock. With that in mind, I commend this excellent programme motion to the House and hope that we can get on to the business.

This is the sixth programme motion that we have had for this Bill, which is being taken on the Floor of the House because it is a constitutional Bill. When I was first elected to this place, I understood that the reason why such Bills were taken on the Floor of the House was to enable all MPs who wished to participate to do so and to enable the Bill to be exposed to the fullest possible scrutiny. That simply has not happened with this Bill. Anyone who looks at the record of the Committee proceedings will see that on each day of our considerations we were unable to consider some parts of the Bill at all because of the knives that were imposed. In many cases, important proposals that were tabled by hon. Members simply were not reached.

Now the Bill has reached Report, but that is in itself unusual with a Bill that has been taken on the Floor of the House. It is, of course, a reflection of the number of amendments that the Government have tabled. If they had not tabled those amendments, we would not be having a Report stage on the Floor of the House for a constitutional measure. One has only to look at the Order Paper to see that we have not the slightest prospect of getting through the different groupings. Indeed, some of the groupings, particularly those containing Government amendments relating to Ministers and the civil service, undoubtedly will not be considered at all. For those reasons, therefore, it is not surprising that there are hon. Members around the House who object to the programme motion. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) suggested to the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor that we should have two days on Report to reflect both the insufficiency of time that we had had to consider amendments properly in Committee on the Floor of the House, and the fact that we are also now exposing ourselves to a further raft of Government amendments—[Interruption.] I detect that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) wishes to intervene.

The hon. Gentleman is just preparing himself.

For the reasons that I have set out, this timetable is completely unsatisfactory. I think that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor knows that very well in his heart. It may be that there was never a magical moment in the past when matters could be fully considered, but I seem to recall—although it was before my time here—that my late father’s experience in the House was that it was common for the Report stage of a Bill to go through the night if that was necessary to conclude the business and enable amendments to be considered.

We have abandoned that, yet we have also just come back from a 10-day period when the House was not sitting, for which we came in for rather a lot of public criticism. However, if this Bill were really important—and given the imminence of an election and the urgency of implementing Kelly—there is no reason why we could not have forgone some of that break to get an extra day or two for our consideration.

I am very mindful that, in every debate on programme motions, the Government say, “Well, if only you didn’t debate the programme motion, you’d have a bit more time to debate the Bill.” That illustrates the powerlessness of this House in the face of the Executive, which is something that urgently needs reform. I hope and believe that an incoming Conservative Government will make that reform their first priority.

In the meantime, this motion is entirely unsatisfactory. I strongly imagine that it will be objected to, and we will join in that objection.

I do not believe that we need to wait for a mythical incoming Conservative Government to bring in the reform that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) mentioned. We can do the job by approving the motions before us on Thursday, and I hope that we will.

In one of his masterful interventions, the Lord Chancellor said that the purpose of the programme motion was to ensure that there was sufficient time to debate important matters—in the same way that it was King Herod’s purpose to ensure and promote the welfare of children. The purpose of this programme motion, as with all such motions tabled by this Government, is to prevent discussion and debate in this House. These motions do not arise out of discussions between the various parties in the House, let alone those Back-Bench Members with a real interest in debate on Report: they are imposed by the Executive to prevent debate, and that is exactly what we have today.

The Lord Chancellor has talked about all the scrutiny and discussion that the Bill has received, but which Bill does he mean? Surely not the one before us today, which has been massively amended by the Government since its inception. It is a different Bill—in fact, it becomes a different Bill every time we arrive to debate it further, because the Government put in whole new sections and groups of amendments.

The point is not about whether there is an urgency to bringing in the Kelly reforms. Of course there is, but we know that. We have time to bring those reforms in, but they are not what we will be prevented from debating today. What we will be prevented from debating are the later amendments and new clauses, many of which have been tabled properly by hon. Members who, although they may not be on their respective Front Benches, think that they have important matters for the House to debate.

Those are the amendments that, yet again, will not be reached. They were not reached in Committee either, and I believe that this is a scandalous way to bring a constitutional Bill before the House. That is why I shall certainly oppose this programme motion today, and why I shall invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to do the same.

I wanted to agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice that there was no golden age, but in the age in which we live, this measure has become a Christmas tree Bill of large proportions. We are used to such Bills, but this is a Christmas tree Bill for which there is no Christmas, which makes it even more unusual. My right hon. Friend prayed in aid the Public Administration Committee as a progenitor of the Bill, and in a sense, that is right. However, our Committee introduced a raft of amendments, virtually none of which have been accepted. Some of those amendments reflected years of work by the Committee on these issues, particularly aspects of the civil service. It was not possible to accept them in Committee, and now it is not possible to accept them on Report. What does that say about the relationship of the House to its Committees, if that is what happens when a Bill is introduced? Although I agree that there was certainly no golden age, I think that there could be a better age in which some of these deficiencies could be remedied, and I hope that that age will come quite soon.

I would like to be a little more charitable to the Justice Secretary than the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), as I am prepared to accept that he would like to ensure sufficient time for the Bill. I therefore have a modest proposal: drop the programme motion, and let us make progress on the matters before us. If, by any chance, we have not quite finished at 10 pm, why can we not table an extraordinary resolution of the House to carry on for another two or three hours until the business is completed? That is a very modest proposal, and I think that it will probably enjoy the consent of all free-thinking individuals and Opposition parties in the House. It would create a better debate, and it would show that the Justice Secretary accepts that in constitutional matters in particular, Parliament has a special role to play. If Parliament wishes to discuss, while remaining in order, serious proposals tabled by the Government, time should be made available to do so.

I take that more charitable view, because the Justice Secretary, by the standards of Labour Ministers, shows more courtesy to the House and brings more to it than many of his colleagues, which is to be welcomed and encouraged. If he wishes to show that there is any semblance of understanding in the Government of the need for proper parliamentary scrutiny and debate, and for Ministers to show full courtesy to the House, this is a marvellous opportunity to do so. This is an important constitutional measure, and we have been asked to consider more than 50 pages of detailed amendments, many of them introduced by the Government themselves. In many cases, this is the first opportunity that we have had to discuss the detail and, in some instances, it is the first chance we have had to discuss the principles involved. It is a long-standing tradition, that predates this Government, that constitutional matters are debated on the Floor of the House, and reasonable time is made available so that Members can feel that justice has been done.

Quite a few Members are interested in the Bill in its entirety, but there are not a huge number of them in the House today who are interested in these particular proposals, so I urge the Justice Secretary to do the decent thing, remove the guillotine motion, and allow those who are in the Chamber to have their say. We might finish by 10 pm, if he is right in thinking that he has chosen sufficient time. If, by any chance, he is slightly in error, let us run on and do the job properly.

It is not right to be in this position for three reasons. First, in a parliamentary democracy with one elected House, is it right that Government legislative proposals on any Bill, let alone a constitutional Bill, should proceed all the way through Parliament without being scrutinised and debated by Parliament, or that they should be put to the vote en bloc as Government amendments? That is not appropriate in the single elected House or in a parliamentary democracy. That is not something of which anyone in the House should be proud—it is a complete failure by the House and Members regarding their ability to do their fundamental job, which is to hold the Executive to account and scrutinise legislation.

Secondly, we always have arguments about the time for debate proposed in programme motions, and we wonder why we are in this position. We are in this position for several reasons, but the main one is that the Government decide what we debate. We are therefore in a bizarre position whereby the Government decide, as they have with this Bill, which bits of their programme the elected House gets to debate and vote on. That is not a parliamentary democracy; that is the Executive pushing legislation through the only elected House. It is not a surprise therefore that the unelected House feels that it has to do considerable work. That is not satisfactory, either, but despite all its flaws it is better than nothing.

Surely a better way forward, especially on such Bills as the one before us, would be much more consultation on the time that is needed and the use of time elsewhere in the week, when business collapses early. The Library and the Clerks have identified huge chunks of days on which business collapses early, and that time would be available to extend our debates on Report.

In addition, the Lord Chancellor should understand, in respect of his answer to me, that there is a proposal from the Wright Committee for speech-length restrictions on Report. We could get through the business that is before us much more quickly without the need for knives, or at least by having knives for any proposal that was multi-consenting, as it were, without the need for them late in proceedings in order to get through the Bill.

There is a holistic solution, and it could be made available if we reform, but even if we do not reform there are ways in which we can improve such matters. It is extremely sad that critical matters of parliamentary reform and matters relating to referendums and to discrimination against Catholics and women in our constitution, to which I referred earlier, will not even be debated—especially when they are the subject of Government amendments, which will be voted through.

This is probably the 12th time that I have made such points on Report, and the House should not have to suffer that. The solution is in our hands not just today, but on Thursday, and I hope that we take it. I hope also that on Thursday, as a consequence of hearing such complaints so often, the Lord Chancellor will find himself in the right Lobby when it comes to a full-time permanent cure that involves not a complete shortage of time but more consensual undertakings and the reform of our procedures to ensure that we do our key job properly.

I noticed that the Secretary of State seemed to be having consultations during the speech by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), so I hope that my right hon. Friend will respond positively to the suggestions that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made. I share colleagues’ concerns about the inadequacies of this Report stage and many others in which I have felt forced to vote against the Government on programme motions.

The Government set up the Wright Committee, and I very much hope that on Thursday all parts of the House will agree to the Committee’s significant proposals. I hope also that, having set up that Committee, the Government will accept the spirit of its recommendations and act accordingly this afternoon.

I, like all other contributors to the debate so far, rise to speak against the programme motion. We have before us a constitutional Bill that is far-reaching and of great importance to the House and to our constituents. It is of fundamental importance, and we need to debate it thoroughly and properly, so I am exasperated by this programme motion, which is far too tight. I support the suggestion of an extraordinary resolution of the House to continue beyond 10 pm, if we need to, in order to debate all the clauses that need to be debated. I have two petitions at 10 o’clock tonight, but I would be very happy to present them at 4 o’clock tomorrow morning, if necessary.

In earlier Parliaments, such as the 1992 to 1997 Parliament, we used to stay up all night, if necessary, in order to get better legislation and properly debate the motions before us. Today’s final group of amendments contains about 70 new clauses and amendments to be debated in what will end up being only a few minutes. They are on matters such as the conduct of referendums and elections and public order. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) mentioned new clauses 2 and 3, which he has tabled, regarding royal marriages and succession to the Crown. Those are most important matters, but they will not be debated at all.

The Bill has grown like Topsy since it first came before the House, and it is nothing like the Bill that we first debated. For that reason, too, we need to spend sufficient time examining the new clauses. That is why I oppose the programme motion and hope that we will be able to extend our debate so that we can properly consider the important matters before us.

I have noticed with a sinking heart that everyone has referred to this as a programme motion. That tells us how, by usage and custom, we have come to accept something that is wholly unacceptable. In a more robust age, which the Secretary of State will remember, as we came to the House on the same day, it was cried out that such motions were guillotine motions, and they were shouted against.

The public at large understand the purpose of a guillotine—to cut off debate at a certain point. It is as simple as that. The word “programme”, and the language that surrounds it, suggests that this is a careful form of art, in which all the considerations are weighed up, and that the important issues are discussed for individual Members to balance. But who determines what will be discussed? It is, of course, the Executive—the Crown—who control the business that comes before the House and set down these guillotine motions. There is no serious intent whatever to enable us to debate all the amendments on the paper, should that be our wish.

The concept that everyone in the House could participate in debates on a constitutional Bill was inviolate until, I believe, the Single European Act. There were no guillotine motions. Now we accept a new guillotine motion each day to ensure that the Government control everything and that proceedings will happen to a timetable. For many reasons, which the Secretary of State was quite right to point out, none of us wants to sit here and toil through the night as repetitive speeches are made, but that was not the point in question. He said that this motion will assist us in debating the business of the House, no less. That is like the prosecution in a court saying, “In order to assist the defence, we will deny them anything other than 10 minutes to present their case.”

If we think about the balance of the argument, what is the purpose of the House? It is to test the propositions that the Executive put in front of us, but there are now knives, as well, a new construction that does not even allow the role of a debate to determine itself naturally. As a new departure or refinement, they have been imposed alongside the concept of guillotining. It is a most unsatisfactory process, but we wish it upon ourselves every time a huge Government majority marches through the Lobby to impose the will of the Executive. Yet the division between Back-Bench Members in all parts of the House and the Executive grows.

When do we have the opportunity to tease out the Government’s argument, and see them win an argument through debate? That is the other consequence—the Government themselves are often cut out. That is a matter of no consequence to them, because their objective is merely to have the vote. That is why the House is now scorned.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) talked about his amendments, and many Members have been frustrated in the same way. In saying that, I notice too that people look forward to Thursday, as if it will change that situation, but none of it will change, and we need not think that a new Government will necessarily change things either. The convenience to the Executive is so great and the damage to the House of Commons is even greater, yet this is the only democratic institution in this country that determines what the law should be.

I shall therefore gladly vote against this guillotine motion, and I hope we all remember that our subservience—on both sides of the House—has brought this Parliament low to the ethos of executive government.

I, too, shall vote against the programme motion. There is simply not enough time for us properly to consider all the proposed new clauses and amendments, including the proposals from the Select Committee on Public Administration, which is chaired so ably by my friend from Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Those proposals are in the fifth group, which includes my proposal—new clause 7—on the Ashcroft scandal, which is supported by 84 Members of Parliament. I have made it clear that there are Members of Parliament down the other place who are here under false pretences, and it is not acceptable for me to vote for a programme motion that extinguishes any possibility of considering new clause 7, so I shall be voting against it.

I urge the programme motion on the House. I understand the House’s frustration about the time, but I repeat the point that however we cut the time, it will always be limited.

I look forward to the votes on Thursday, but if we are to move to more open-ended debates on Report, in Committee and on the Floor of the House, we will have to have restrictions on the time that individual Members speak. Otherwise, we will have the kind of filibustering in which I participated very happily—but not to any great effect—in opposition. That was not particularly productive, and it led to more severe guillotines than anything we have faced under programming.

If the right hon. Gentleman will excuse me, I will not give way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) is back. I am perfectly happy, as a loyal member of the Government, to be here till 11 o’clock, midnight or 1 o’clock in the morning to vote for the Government. I look forward to her—in a new incarnation—voting for the Government in the small hours with the same enthusiasm that I have showed and continue to show.

I must tell my right hon. Friend that most of the time, I vote for the Government, and I will do so, if it is appropriate, whatever time the vote is called.

Methinks my hon. Friend doth protest too much, because I was not saying anything different.

Lastly, reference was made to the number of pages of amendments. The Government’s proposals on a wholly new subject—the Dacre review—run to three pages. The other Government proposals have been tabled in response to the concern expressed in earlier debates in the House, for example on Kelly and protests around Parliament, which has certainly been the subject of huge and extensive debate. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put.

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Committee

[Relevant documents: Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, Session 2007-08, HC 551-I and -II, and the Government response, Cm 7690. Tenth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2007-08, on Constitutional Renewal: Draft Bill and White Paper, HC 499, and the Government response, Cm 7688. Fourth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2009-10, on Legislative Scrutiny: Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; Video Recordings Bill, HC 249. The Scottish Parliament has passed a Legislative Consent Resolution in respect of this Bill. Copies of the Resolution are available in the Vote Office.]

New Clause 22

Transfer of records to Public Record Office

‘(1) In section 3 of the Public Records Act 1958 (selection and preservation of public records)—

(a) in subsection (4) (transfer to Public Record Office or to other appointed place of deposit of public records selected for permanent preservation), for “thirty years” substitute “20 years”, and

(b) after that subsection insert—

“(4A) Until the end of the period of 10 years beginning with the commencement of section [Transfer of records to Public Record Office] of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, subsection (4) has effect subject to any order made under subsection (2) of that section.”

(2) The Lord Chancellor may by order make transitional, transitory or saving provision in connection with the coming into force of subsection (1)(a).

(3) An order under subsection (2) may in particular—

(a) provide for the time within which any records are to be transferred to the Public Record Office or other place of deposit referred to in section 3(4) of the Public Records Act 1958, and

(b) make different provision in relation to records of different descriptions.

(4) An order under this section is to be made by statutory instrument.

(5) A statutory instrument containing an order under this section is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.’.—(Mr. Straw.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 23—Freedom of information.

Government new schedule 1—Amendments of Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Government amendment 47.

These provisions give effect to the Government’s response to the Dacre review of the 30-year rule. The House will recall that, in October 2007, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced an independent review of the 30-year rule, which generally requires that all national records be released into the public domain after a 30-year period, save where there are special exemptions. The review was chaired by Paul Dacre, a distinguished journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail group of newspapers, who worked with Professor Sir David Cannadine, a distinguished historian, and Sir Joseph Pilling, a distinguished public servant. I am grateful for the care and interest that they took in conducting their review. I dare say that it is to be expected of a review written by a senior journalist and an eminent historian, but, in addition to containing good recommendations, it is a very interesting and informative read. I commend it to the House, which I would not for every review conducted on behalf of the Government. This one is deeply informative.

We have considered the review’s recommendations carefully. On 10 June, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced to the House the Government’s intention to move to a 20-year rule. The Dacre review debated whether we should move to a 20-year rule or a 15-year rule and, on balance, it came down in favour of a 15-year rule. We considered the matter in some detail and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced our intention to move to a 20-year rule. There was a subsequent period for further consultation, and last week, we published our response to the review in full. That is now before the House.

The key proposals are to reduce the 30-year rule to 20 years, to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and to reduce the time frame within which certain exemptions can apply to the 20-year period. New clause 22 will implement those proposals and it will amend the Public Records Act 1958. Those proposals will thus provide earlier access by 10 years to a wide range of material, and it is the next step towards greater transparency—a process that began under this Government with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Such a move involves careful preparation. It is often assumed that officials simply put the records on the shelves and open them. As I know, not least from my time in the Foreign Office, a huge effort is put in by historians and archivists to go through all the records carefully to ensure that all that can be made publicly available are made publicly available, while also ensuring that some are held back in conformity with public records legislation. The same is true of every other Government Department.

Because the proposal involves a big change, the Dacre review recommended a transitional period and essentially proposed that until we reach the target time of 20 years, in the intervening period two years’ records should be released every year to get down from the 30-year limit to the 20-year limit. The new clause makes provision for the transitional period to be brought in by order, because exactly when that new time limit is introduced will need to be considered by Government in the next Parliament.

Dacre also recognised—as does everyone else and as did the House when we discussed the freedom of information legislation—that there must be a balance between increased transparency and protecting sensitive and personal information. That is a fact of life. The introduction of the Data Protection Act 1998 preceded the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by a couple of years, and one thing I believe I got right about the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was requiring a single commissioner for both data protection, which is about protecting information, and for freedom of information, which is about its release. Some other Administrations have two commissioners for those two purposes, which can cause immense problems. This represents one area where a balance must be drawn. In circumstances going beyond the protection of personal information, everyone accepts that there may be arguments for protecting the information for longer than the minimum period. Bearing that in mind, schedule 1 maintains the time limit for certain exemptions at 30 years.

The first exemption relates to the protection of commercial interests. Some contracts, particularly those relating to large-scale infrastructure projects and procurement, can run for more than 20 years and may contain commercially sensitive information beyond that point.

I appreciate that this is a sensitive area and I welcome the acceptance of 20 years as a general proposition. It is difficult, however, to see why commercial enterprises should have the retained 30-year holdback, in particular in the case of local authorities. What possible contract could a local authority enter into that would need protection for 30 years? If the right hon. Gentleman could build on what he started to say about commercial interests, particularly as affecting local authorities, it would be helpful. Is this intended to protect defence establishments or the nuclear industry; what is the purpose behind this 30-year retention of information?

I have cited large-scale infrastructure projects and procurement. I cannot immediately think of any local authority projects of such a scale or duration, but that is only because no such projects are within my experience. I am sure that some exist, and it may well be the case—although I am afraid I am not informed on the matter—that some of the contracts entered into by local authorities of all political persuasions for the longer-term provision of, for example, back-office services last for more than 20 years. I do not feel that whether commercially sensitive information should be protected while the contract lasts should be simply a matter of chance, but that does not prevent proper scrutiny of the arrangements by, for instance, auditors—perhaps by the Audit Service.

I have just been provided with further and better particulars. I am happy to say that I knew this bit already and was going to mention it, but I am deeply grateful none the less.

My constituency contains a large new hospital which is under a PFI contract which will run for more than 20 years, and I believe that the same applies to some of the new prison contracts. [Interruption.] An hon. Member asks, from a sedentary position, “Why should we not know about them?” This is a qualified exemption. That is what it says here, and what I was going to say in any event.

A balancing test will still be required. We are not talking about an absolute exemption from day one until the end of the period. What we are discussing is whether there should come a moment when the information is automatically released. I think it reasonable for parties to such contracts, if they are still in force, to be able to argue that their commercial interests—the interests of the public authority on one side and those of the commercial organisation on the other—may be adversely affected if the information is released into the public domain. It would be a matter for the Information Commissioner, and then the Information Tribunal, to make the final judgment. I think that that is a reasonable balance.

What I do not follow is why the argument finished with 30 years. If it is purely about commercial interests, we should bear in mind that it is perfectly possible for contracts to last for longer than that.

Whether or not that is the case—and I accept that there are some areas involving defence, for instance, in which exemptions may continue—there has not been a problem so far, and the Government have not sought in any way to use the Dacre review to restrict access via freedom of information requests rather than to make it easier.

Given the extension of freedom of information opportunities, does the Secretary of State believe that there is any special merit in parliamentary questions any more? Might some information be made available to Parliament that is not made available in response to an FOI request, or is this part of a process whereby Members of Parliament will become just like members of the public, and submit FOI requests instead of parliamentary questions?

That is a very important point. I have to deal with both parliamentary questions and requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act, and my answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that there is every purpose in parliamentary questions. They have to be answered by a Minister, and they have to be answered very quickly. Occasionally there are delays, but—the right hon. Gentleman will remember this from his time as a Minister—a large part of my box and those of my ministerial colleagues every night relates to answering parliamentary questions. I have a daily diet of questions from, for instance, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and his colleagues. I do not complain about that in the least—it is his job. I do my best to ensure that the questions are answered. Normally, the reason for the delay is that I do not think that we are providing full information, not the reverse.

Occasionally, hon. Members put in an FOI request if they feel that they are being blocked by a Minister. In my experience—obviously I cannot speak directly for other colleagues—that happens only when there is a really strong case in the public interest for not making the information available. In that case, there is of course an opportunity to appeal to the Information Commissioner.

I would not recommend making routine FOI requests because they take much longer to process. There is no requirement to answer such a request in a couple of days, as there is to answer a question tabled to the Secretary of State under our Rolls-Royce system. Such a FOI request goes to someone, inevitably at a lower level, and there is a maximum time of 20 working days, a month, to provide the requested information. Sometimes that limit is exceeded; it can take a lot longer. I accept, however, that FOI has opened up the ability to question Government. In the old days, which the right hon. Gentleman will remember, when I was working as an adviser, Ministers could simply block questions—they would put a block on any further answers. Nothing could be done about that in that alleged golden age. That time has gone. I have had to say once or twice to officials, “There’s no point trying to block this, otherwise we will get an FOI request.” My approach has just been to answer the question, and life has gone on. I hope that that is helpful.

I need to make some progress because other colleagues wish to speak. Information affecting relations between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations may also be sensitive for a longer period, and it is right that that should remain protected beyond the 20-year point, where it is in the public interest to do so.

A related point is that we want to continue to protect information that would be prejudicial to the work of the Executive Committee of Northern Ireland, or which would otherwise prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs in Northern Ireland. I refer to one of the most extraordinary things that has happened in my 31 years in this House. I came here a month after Airey Neave was murdered on the ramp up from the car park. Like many hon. Members, I remember the terrible terrorist outrages that took place in the 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed I was caught up in one in the 1970s. Then, dramatically, following painstaking work, originally by Sir John Major and his Government, including the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and under Tony Blair, huge progress has been made. Northern Ireland is completely different now. That could not have taken place—I am glad to see the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) in his place—without great statesmanship by both sides of the confessional divide in Northern Ireland and without the possibility of secret, entirely private negotiations. It is important that there should be a record of those. It is also important that they should not be released for a long time.

I note that my right hon. Friend has referred to the provisions in new schedule 1 that refer directly to Northern Ireland. From whom did the Government seek clearance or agreement for those extended exemptions? If it was just the Northern Ireland Executive, whose affairs are already safeguarded from freedom of information and other things anyway, why do the provisions of the new schedule extend to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Northern Ireland Departments and any Northern Ireland public authority?

I did not seek clearance directly from any of the bodies in Northern Ireland. I took the advice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. His advice is and has been very careful on this. I will seek to get more information on the matter that my hon. Friend raises when I come to my winding-up speech, if that is helpful.

Just to clarify, I fully accept what my right hon. Friend has said about the contribution of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) in latter years, but some of us were deeply involved in putting agreements in place that were about ensuring that we had accountable, transparent Government. Transparency is as important as equality and inclusion in ensuring that public confidence is maintained and sustained in future. People will be deeply suspicious about a change such as this. No one in Northern Ireland appears to have been consulted about it. It appears to have been made completely on the whim and the wheeze of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

I will come back to that in more detail in my closing remarks.

I now come to the proposals we have made in respect of the monarchy.

First, may I ask about the records of the honours scrutiny committee? I understand that no records have been destroyed but that civil servants are looking at the criteria for selecting those that will be preserved in the National Archives. In a briefing that I have received from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, I am told that the honours exemption would continue for 60 years. Are the Government telling the House that that is indeed the case; that our successors will have to wait a couple of generations before they can find out what the honours scrutiny committee has said about certain individuals?

When we were discussing freedom of information between 1998 and 2000, it was agreed that records relating to honours should be subject to a clear exemption, for reasons I think everybody understands. I do not recall Paul Dacre making any suggestions to the contrary, so there is nothing in these proposals that changes that either way.

The provisions relating to the monarchy were presaged in the Government’s response, which was published at the end of last week. We are blessed in this country by a constitutional monarchy of the highest standards. Whatever turmoil there might have been in our body politic, above it all, and held in continuing high respect, is the position of the sovereign. There were lacunae—I confess that I am the Minister responsible—not in the intention of the Freedom of Information Act, but in its drafting that have raised some uncertainties about the protection of the monarchy in relation to national records. Everybody acknowledges that there is a profound difference between those who hold public office because they are volunteers and those who are members of the royal family, particularly the senior members—the sovereign and the heirs to the throne—who, by definition, serve for a lifetime. It seems to me entirely reasonable—I say this notwithstanding the fact that I am a Minister who has served for a longer period than many—for us to bring the 30-year rule down to 20. But it is of great importance that we protect the political impartiality of the monarchy, the sovereign’s right and duty to counsel, to encourage and to warn the Government and the right of the heir to the throne to be instructed on the business of government in preparation for the time when they assume the monarchy. These rely on well established and respected conventions of confidentiality.

I am not sure whether it is an enigma or not, but the Secretary of State was correct in saying that the institution is held in great esteem because it is non-controversial and does not enter into the public debate. Some members of the royal family, however, are passionate members of society who lobby for objectives. That is where there is a delicacy in this matter. We must maintain clarity in our constitutional arrangements, and it is an essential key to the stability of the whole institution of the monarchy that the sovereign and their successors do not enter into controversy.