House of Commons
Thursday 4 March 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
business Before Questions
London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Thursday 18 March (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Innovation and Skills
The Minister of State was asked—
On 2 July 2009, the Government published the consumer White Paper, which details plans for more effective enforcement against those who deliberately set out to defraud consumers. I recently announced funding of £4.3 million for the Office of Fair Trading and trading standards to tackle those who use the internet to con consumers.
The majority of victims of cyber scams are people aged between 35 and 44, but those aged 55 and over lose most money and are more likely to succumb to scams on more than one occasion. What specifically are the Government planning to do to assist those people to understand the dangers that they are face?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that it is very important to consider the impact on vulnerable people, including the elderly, of the sorts of scams that we have seen operated on the internet. That is why we are investing in the scambusters team and trying to raise awareness of the problem among older people. She might be interested to learn that my predecessor and former First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, has just taken up the internet; when he was recently in the office he received an e-mail, which he showed to me, from a woman who said that he was exactly the kind of man she was looking for. I did point out that it was not from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan)—his wife.
Will the Minister examine the OFT’s powers to tackle this issue? The electronic version of these scams is new, whereas the paper version is not, but, like the paper one, it is becoming much more sophisticated and much more believable. I am not sure that the OFT has sufficient powers to tackle those scams, particularly when they originate from another country.
My hon. Friend raises a good point. The OFT and trading standards have powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, but we are examining enforcers’ powers to tackle online consumer problems to see whether they need to be strengthened, and we are discussing that possibility with the relevant key players.
I last met the director general of the Russell group on 23 February, when we discussed higher education funding, among other subjects.
The Minister will be aware of my association with the university of Glasgow, which is a member of the Russell group. The Beatson institute for cancer research remains at the cutting edge and international forefront of cancer research generally. Given the squeeze on higher education funding, can he assure us that internationally leading research of the type at Glasgow will continue to receive the support that it both needs and, as I am sure he will agree, deserves?
I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s position as rector of that university and his continuing championing of it in this House. I also recognise that that cancer facility is world renowned. He will appreciate that the Scottish Funding Council and the research council are rightly responsible for science funding more broadly, and that any funding decisions are rightly their responsibility under the Haldane principle.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when the research money is allocated there is no further concentration of funding, for example, on the Russell group? Will he confirm that all centres of excellence in research, wherever they may be found across the university system, including in the superb materials science group in the university of Bolton—my own university—are considered equally for funding with the top-level research universities?
Drawing on his tremendous experience, my hon. Friend continues to champion science and research issues in this House. He is absolutely right to say that we should fund excellence wherever it is found, and that is the Government’s policy.
Can the Minister give an undertaking that when the Browne committee reports after the election and imposes greater debt on students in order to fund universities, that funding will not be removed from universities in terms of their central Government funding? Can he assure us that universities will at least be better off if students have to pay higher fees through increased debt?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is an educated man, but I did not realise that he was a fortune teller. I am not going to anticipate the Browne review.
Will the Minister consider reducing funding to universities that fail to take action to stop the propagation of Jew hate and anti-Semitism on campus?
I recognise that this is a very serious issue. I was pleased to meet the all-party group against anti-Semitism and to meet Jewish students recently to discuss these matters. My right hon. Friend will know that I have regularly brought together universities, students and others in the sector to discuss these matters. I do not believe that this is a widespread problem across British universities, but I recognise that examples of it are patchy. We must remain vigilant and we must not allow anti-Semitism anywhere on campuses in this country.
Will the Minister confirm that the Government have set a target of 50 per cent. of young people going to university, and that this year—the very year to which the target applies—they are fining universities to the tune of £10 million simply because they have recruited more students? Is it not the final absurdity of Labour’s target culture that it can set a target and then punish institutions for taking the measures needed to hit it? Why does he not instead match our pledge to offer 10,000 more university places this year?
Because the hon. Gentleman’s pledge is bogus and ridiculous. It would involve the Government borrowing more money to help which students pay off their loans quickly? The richest students. That is where his heart lies. The 50 per cent. participation rate is an aspiration that his party has continually opposed. We have got the figure up to 43 per cent., so there are more young people than ever before going to university, including more young people from poorer socio-economic groups than ever in our history, but his party has opposed the measure at every opportunity. This is the most opportunistic volte-face I have seen in the House for a long time.
Excellence should always be invested in. In the north-east, both Sunderland and Teesside universities offer such excellence, so is it not about time that they received research moneys equivalent to those received by the Russell group universities and the greater amounts received by universities in the golden triangle?
My hon. Friend continues to make the case for the north-east and for excellent universities such as Teesside and Sunderland, which do fantastic work, particularly in applied research. She is right that funding must follow excellence wherever it is found. I cannot anticipate decisions that are appropriately the domain of peer review, but she is absolutely right and the Government support that approach.
In January, fewer than one in 18 supplier invoices to the Department took longer than 10 days to pay. Data are not kept separately for small businesses, but data regarding the invoices of all suppliers are published on the Department’s website every month.
About 4,000 business failures were caused by late payment last year. How will the Government protect failing businesses as a result of late payment and what sanctions have they promised to impose on businesses that contribute to the problem by delaying payment?
The hon. Gentleman will know about the legislation that we have introduced, but, in reality, companies are reluctant to take sanctions against their customers. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this issue and to draw attention to those 4,000 businesses. That is why we launched the prompt payment code for government at the start of the downturn. We have committed to a central Government target of 10-day payment of invoices, on which we have a very good record of adherence. In addition, we have taken very successful action to support small businesses through the Revenue and Customs’ time to pay initiative. The measures that we have taken have made a big contribution to the relatively low record of business failures during the recession that we have just come through, compared with past recessions.
The Government are committed to maintaining the one-price-goes-anywhere universal postal service. In the UK, the universal service provides a six-day-a-week letter service and a five-day-a-week parcel service. This goes beyond the minimum requirement in the relevant EU Directive and we have no plans to change the universal service obligation.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Is he aware that Postcomm has issued no fewer than 46 licences entitling companies to deliver to the door? Does he accept that that raises a real danger of cherry-picking in urban areas? That would leave Royal Mail having to deliver the universal service to the rural areas, and raise long-term concerns about the sustainability of that service. Are the Government looking at the future in that context?
As I said, we are determined to keep the universal service. It is an important part of the social glue of the nation, and it is particularly valued in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s, which is one of the most beautiful and remote parts of the UK. He referred to competition, but most of the competition developed in mail so far has been in upstream access and not door-to-door delivery. The vast majority of letters—I think around 98 or 99 per cent.—are still delivered every day by the Royal Mail. We express our gratitude to the hard-working postmen and postwomen who do it.
Of course my right hon. Friend is right to show his commitment to the USO, and we are pleased to hear it. Does he accept, however, that the USO ought to be backed up with a very strong post office network with a community bank? The two go hand in hand: will he please show the same commitment on that?
I agree that banking and financial services are already a very important source of revenue for the Post Office, which has some 2 million financial services customers. We recently issued a consultation document asking the public about the extra services that they would like, and also about things such as current accounts, weekly budgeting accounts, children’s savings accounts, and so on. Like my hon. Friend, I think that such services offer huge potential for Post Office revenues. Traditionally, people went along to the post office every week to claim their pensions or benefits, but those claimant patterns have been in decline in recent years. That decline is probably likely to continue.
The Government have ignored the sensible recommendations of the Hooper report and abandoned their own Postal Services Bill, so does the Secretary of State have any policy that is designed to save the universal service—or, for that matter, the future of the Royal Mail?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for my premature and—at the moment—fictional promotion, but I will stick to the job that I have. The most important thing for the future of Royal Mail is a comprehensive modernisation package that covers the introduction of new technology into the network as well as the number of mail centres, delivery offices and so on. The package should also cover the working practices that will need to alter to accommodate those changes.
For the past couple of months, these very matters have been the subject of intense negotiations chaired by Mr. Roger Poole, the former deputy general secretary of Unison. I am hopeful that a comprehensive modernisation agreement will be reached. If it is, that will be in the interests of Royal Mail, its staff, and the public.
Three major banks still do not let customers use banking facilities at post offices, even though two of them are partly owned by the Government. What progress is being made towards allowing customers of those banks to use post offices? That would provide extra business for post offices, and extra facilities for their customers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a very good point. We have been talking to the banks about this, particularly in the light of consultation on post office banking. Members of the public may not be aware that some 20 million high street bank accounts are currently accessible through the post office, but I agree that we want that number to rise. We want more banks to allow people to access their accounts through the post office network.
Sector Skills Councils
Sector skills councils help raise demand for skills, provide authoritative labour market intelligence and ensure that qualifications meet employer needs. Their annual skills assessment sets out how the skills needs of their sectors are being met, and all SSCs have recently undergone a robust and rigorous relicensing process.
The Minister will be aware of the recent Baker Tilly report, which indicated the positive impact that sector skills councils are having on the UK economy. But is he also aware of the memorandum of understanding that is being signed next week by the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils and the Federation of Small Businesses to ensure that qualifications being offered in the future by the SSCs are more relevant to micro and small businesses?
Yes, I am aware of that, and later today I will meet John McNamara, who is in charge of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, when I can discuss the points that my hon. Friend raises. He is absolutely right; qualifications should be those that employers find useful, and the involvement of sector skills councils in developing qualifications is one of the features of the skills system that the Government have developed that makes them more relevant to employers and, therefore, to employees and learners.
This week a delegation from the print industry in the Yorkshire and Humber region told us clearly that sector skills councils are not hitting the mark. Please will the Minister make them more responsive to the needs of employers, particularly to train the up and coming leaders of local businesses?
Yesterday, in the Department, we held a summit at the behest of the sector skills council employers and trade unions in the print industry to consider its future and its needs. If the representatives from the hon. Lady’s constituency were not invited to that, perhaps she will let me know. We would certainly like to involve them in those discussions because the print industry has a great future. It is not the old-fashioned industry that it sometimes has a reputation for being. It has lots of small and medium-sized enterprises, and great and exciting technological developments are going on that we need to take advantage of.
Is the Minister aware that the largest single employer of apprentices in Scotland is those firms that are currently engaged in building the aircraft carriers? Does he agree that all those apprenticeships, both for adults and for youngsters, would be lost if the Conservatives carried forward their proposal to examine the break clauses of the contract on day one of any future Conservative Government?
Order. I know that the Minister will relate his remarks exclusively to the effect of the work of the sector skills councils.
Of course, Mr. Speaker. Sector skills councils have a UK-wide responsibility in the defence industry and with regard to apprenticeships. I am proud of the fact that under this Government apprenticeship numbers have risen from 60,000 in 1997 to nearly 250,000 now. It would be a great danger if a Government committed to cutting public investment were to come in because that would impact on the number of apprentices.
The important work of sector skills councils is inhibited by the Government’s emphasis on unelected regional authorities, and Ministers’ preoccupation with the Train to Gain programme, which spends taxpayers’ money funding training that people would fund themselves anyway. In confirming that the dead-weight costs of Train to Gain may be more than 80 per cent., will the Minister concede that he has finally listened to my complaints about this waste and so cut Train to Gain funding in the Budget and spend the money on apprenticeships instead?
No, we will not do that. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of regional development agencies, because his party’s policy of abolishing those was described recently by the Engineering Employers Federation as a disaster. I do not know about other hon. Members, but when engineers warn me of impending disaster, I listen, and people should listen carefully to that advice.
National Investment Corporation
We are working to set up a national investment corporation, alongside working with the banks to establish a growth capital fund. We will announce further details of both shortly.
Do the Government understand that what firms want is lower taxes, fewer regulations, less red tape and the ability to borrow from their usual bank, many of which the Government control, anyway, so it should not be too difficult to ensure? What is the point, therefore, of this new lumbering state corporation, of the type that we thought we had buried in the 1970s? And how many banks have signed up to it, anyway?
In terms of the venture capital funds that the Government have been supporting, we have been getting help to small and medium-sized enterprises in order to ensure that they can take advantage of the recovery, when it comes, and develop new technologies and enterprises. Owing to the investment that we have put in, something like £1.5 billion has been given to 600 small and medium-sized enterprises to undertake such work. I know that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) says that
“the words ‘industrial strategy’ send a slight shudder down my spine,”
but, if that type of help were not available in his constituency, it would be very bad news for small and medium-sized enterprises.
That type of help is not available. I think that the expression is “all talk and no trousers,” because nothing has happened. Being a bit of an internet wizard, I googled “national investment corporation” just before I came into the Chamber, and interestingly the last reference to it was a press report on 9 December, so that shows how much activity has been going on. Will the Minister now say that it was a scheme dreamt up by Peter and Gordon, over a brew, to a whiff of sulphur, and will they concentrate on helping businesses, not on announcing great, grandiose schemes that go nowhere?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understands at all the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises at the moment. He does not acknowledge that in his region 627 loans have been offered to companies, totalling £67 million. His party would reduce—indeed, take away—all the assistance that we are giving to small and medium-sized enterprises, and it is very sad that he does not understand the importance of our strategy.
Would not more money be available if everybody paid their taxes? A fella is getting away with £127 million, without paying his taxes, and he is running the Tory party. They talk about being the party of change. They are the party of money-changers, and we ought to—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has expressed himself, but unfortunately the relationship with the national investment corporation is not merely tangential, it is non-existent. [Interruption.] We will leave it at that.
The most worrying threat to the future growth of the economy is the appalling decline in business investment. All we get from the Government is a series of grandiloquent announcements or press releases from the Prime Minister and the Industry Secretary. Does the right hon. Lady recall replying to a question in December last year by telling us:
“Further details of the National Investment Corporation will be announced by the time of the pre-Budget report.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2009; Vol. 501, c. 987W.]?
She will recall that nothing appeared in the pre-Budget report. Will she admit that it was just another public relations announcement, and that nothing substantial has been done to encourage the banks to return to providing normal lending, normal credit facilities and normal commercial services to small and medium-sized businesses, in particular?
It is astonishing that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not accept that providing something like £1.5 billion of assistance in venture capital funds to small and medium-sized enterprises is important. We know that he wants to abolish regional development agencies; and we know that he does not believe in intervening, because he said that “industrial strategy” sends a shudder down his spine. But I should like to know how withdrawing investment allowances from small and medium-sized businesses would help whatever. Again, the Engineering Employers Federation said:
“Reducing the level of capital allowances would be a big problem for manufacturers”.
The Opposition do not care about small and medium-sized enterprises, but we do.
Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
Planning for Her Majesty’s jubilee is still in its early stages. I made a statement to the House on that matter on 5 January. We are working closely with Buckingham palace, which is developing a programme of events. However, it is too early to provide further details.
Does the Minister agree that we would do well to follow the lead of the Secretary of State’s grandfather by having a festival of Britain in 2012, when so many people will be coming to the UK for the Olympics? We could celebrate business talents, perhaps a recovering economy and what we have to offer outside the financial sector in terms of manufacturing and technology.
The great 1945 Labour Government made a very wise decision in instigating the festival of Britain, and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is offering positive suggestions about Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. We are willing to listen to such suggestions from those in all parts of the House, because it is of course an occasion that we must all celebrate.
Apprenticeships (West Midlands)
We are taking a number of measures to encourage businesses to offer apprenticeships. The National Apprenticeship Service promotes and expands apprenticeships. Spending has gone up from £832 million in 2007-08 to a planned £1.2 billion next year. In December, we announced an apprenticeship grant for employers that offer £2,500 to employers who offer apprenticeship places to unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds. In the west midlands, the area which my hon. Friend represents, 790 employers have committed to recruiting young people, including 31 employers in Coventry.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. What discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to promote apprenticeships in schools?
We want to promote apprenticeships in many sectors. We are making a particular effort to promote apprenticeships among unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds; that is why we recently announced the apprenticeship grant for employers, which offers £2,500 to employers who offer an apprenticeship. It is urgent that, in the difficult economic times that we have had, we avoid what happened in previous recessions, when young people were unable to find work and then sometimes spent years, or decades, never having a job. We are determined to ensure that that does not happen this time. That is why we are putting so much effort into ensuring that young people have opportunities, and that if they are out of work, that does not turn into long-term and sustained unemployment.
Can the Minister explain why the apprenticeship grant for employers began at the beginning of the calendar year instead of at the beginning of the academic year, making it impractical for small businesses in my constituency, such as James Holden’s business in Honeybourne, to access the scheme, as to support his apprentice he needs him to be able to access courses at South Worcestershire college alongside his apprenticeship?
We want to work with all parts of the economy to make this work for people, including employers and those parts of the education system that participate. I think that this has worked well for the education system. I simply contrast the numbers: a decade ago, we had about 60,000 apprenticeships; last year, we had some 240,000 apprenticeship starts. The truth is that we have brought back apprenticeships as a mainstream part of the labour market. They were in the intensive care ward when the Conservatives were in power, but they are now alive and well, and we are determined to support them in the future.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is a particular difficulty with skills levels in the west midlands, notwithstanding the welcome increase in the number of apprenticeships. One of the reasons for that is the perception among young people that going into industry is a dirty job that is not worthy of their particular talents. Will he undertake to work with employers and the educational system to try to change that culture to get young people with aspirations to use their talents within their local companies and local industry?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Our constituencies neighbour each other and are very similar: they both have many high-quality engineering companies. He is right that despite the fact that these are good jobs, and often quite well-paid jobs, young people are sometimes not attracted to them. One of the things that we have done is to work with the Engineering Employers Federation to set up Manufacturing Insight, whose important job is to go into schools to ensure that engineering is seen as an attractive occupation. Alongside our policies on apprenticeships, I am sure that we can attract more young people to take up careers in manufacturing, because it is critical to the UK economy and represents significant opportunities for them.
The Department meets regularly both banks and business representatives to discuss the availability of business finance. This has included the quarterly meeting of the Small Business Finance Forum and a recent “Going for Growth” seminar, which brought banks and businesses together to look at current issues affecting business bank credit and how they might evolve as the recovery of the economy progresses.
The Federation of Small Businesses has found that nearly half of small businesses in Scotland are having to use personal savings, personal loans or personal credit cards as a major source of business finance. The Minister will know that the Public Accounts Committee found that Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland fell well short of their promises to lend £39 billion last year. Can the Minister tell the House what he will do this year to get the banks lending and, at the very least, ensure that the part-nationalised banks meet their lending targets for small businesses?
The Department has a help for business unit and, if the hon. Lady has individual examples with which she needs assistance, we are happy to take those up and discuss individual cases directly with banks. We are very conscious of the availability of lending and how important it is in taking forward the recovery. There have been signs of progress in the last quarter, but we will continue to engage with both banks and small businesses to ensure that that recovery builds.
Is the Minister aware that the Bank of England’s report last month showed that the fall in bank lending in 2009 was the worst since records began, and that lending to business crashed by a whopping £4.3 billion in December alone? Does he not remember the Chancellor’s words about the Government’s bank rescue plans 18 months ago—as far back as October 2008—when he said:
“The purpose of these proposals is to get lending started again”. —[Official Report, 8 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 280.]
Given the latest figures, does the Minister not feel even the faintest shred of embarrassment about the yawning gulf between the rhetoric and the reality?
What I do remember is that when I was running a small business in 1992, interest rates increased in a morning from 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. We do not wish to see those days of instability return. We understand small businesses and engage with them, and we are continuing to work to restore credit and investment in industry. There are signs of positive steps forward and we will continue with those as time passes.
One of the problems that small businesses in my constituency have with the banks is the operation of the enterprise guarantee scheme. Despite businesses meeting all the published criteria, the banks simply will not lend, often saying that businesses are unviable because they have had a drop in profitability over the last year—hardly surprising in the midst of a recession. Will the Minister look at the operation of the scheme and put pressure on the banks to deal with small businesses more equitably?
To date, more than £1.2 billion of eligible applications have been pursued through the enterprise finance guarantee from 10,738 companies, and £857 million has been offered to 8,378 businesses. That has meant real help to those individual businesses. As I indicated to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), if hon. Members—on either side of the House—have individual examples, I will work with them to help small business.
As the economy starts to grow, the provision of credit for all business, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, will be vital as working capital. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, the PAC has drawn attention to the fact that the nationalised banks have failed to meet their lending commitments. Last week, the Institute of Directors published a survey that showed that 57 per cent. of those who had applied for credit were denied it. Worst of all, of that 57 per cent., 83 per cent. were not even offered information about the enterprise finance guarantee scheme. So the banks are failing to lend, United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd is failing to do anything about it, and the enterprise finance guarantee scheme is also failing. What will the Minister do about that catalogue of failure?
I have already recounted the figures on the extent of the success of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme—the money invested in businesses and the numbers of businesses that have benefited. We always wish to do more, and as the recovery gathers pace, we will continue to engage with business and banks to ensure that the banks provide assistance to the economy as it grows.
We reaffirmed our commitment to wider and fairer access to higher education in “Higher Ambitions”, published last November. The number of students going to university from lower socio-economic groups is rising, and almost 10,000 more young people entered higher education in 2007-08 than five years earlier.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but with graduates facing debts of more than £20,000 and with the debate about whether to raise the cap on tuition fees to £7,000, I was pleased to sign the Leeds university union pledge against any such rises. Is it not time that the Government were clear about their policy going into the election, and will he now be clear whether he will oppose increasing the fee cap to £7,000—yes or no?
That is a little rich coming from the Liberal Democrats, given that they have had five positions on tuition fees since Christmas last year. Recently, there was a policy change indicating that they would not phase out tuition fees in the next Parliament. The Government have been clear that we will not pre-empt an independent review. We have asked Lord Browne to look at access, and the position of students, parents and employers. I will take no lessons on tuition fees from the flip-flop Lib Dems.
Bank Lending (Businesses)
The majority of small and medium-sized enterprises applying for finance continue to receive the finance that they require. For businesses with a turnover of less than £1 million, the proportion of applications that banks approved increased in the second half of 2009, and the average monthly approval rates for those businesses in the fourth quarter of 2009 were about 67 per cent. for loans and 72 per cent. for overdrafts.
In the real world, many small and medium-sized businesses in Southend, West are still suffering in the current economic climate, and their situation is not being helped by the negative attitude of banks towards lending. A survey by the Federation of Small Businesses showed that only 1 per cent. of moneys is being got from Government finance, so will they now accept my party’s proposal for a national guarantee scheme?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I live in the real world too—in Wrexham—and I have small businesses in my constituency as well. We all know that we have had an extremely difficult 18 months and the most substantial global recession in living memory, but we are improving access to credit for businesses. We do not want a return to the up-and-down approach—and the instability that came with it—taken by the Conservative party when I ran a small business.
The Government have no plans to alter the ring fence around the science and research budget.
I thank the Minister for that reassuring reply. The only problem with it is that, because the Government have put off the comprehensive spending review, no one has any idea what sort of sum is being ring-fenced. If it is not to be all show and no substance, will he indicate what sum is being ring-fenced, otherwise is it not nonsense to say that the ring fence will be maintained?
It is axiomatic that every area of Government is subject to a spending review, which will be determined after the Budget; that is obvious and applies to every Department. I think that the question is asked and answered.
Access to Credit
We have a number of targeted interventions working to ensure access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses. I have already given the House figures concerning the enterprise finance guarantee, which is one example of those interventions.
The statements from the Dispatch Box are quite at variance with the experience of small businesses on the ground. Is it not clear that the second banking bail-out failed in its attempt to extend bank lending to business?
The experience on the ground is that we are seeing signs of increasing investment in business and of businesses beginning to recover as consumer demand develops. Consumer demand is extremely important. That is why it is vital that we do not reach the levels of unemployment in this country that we saw on two occasions under the last Tory Government.
Euro (UK Membership)
The Department has received no such representations recently.
I am amazed at that response from the Minister. Is it not a fact that the floating of the pound and the depreciation of sterling have been enormously useful to small businesses and manufacturers in this country, making their goods cheaper abroad and making imports more expensive? Is it not great news that we still have the pound, and will the Government now give up their policy of taking us into the euro?
The Government’s policy remains as it was when it was set out by the previous Chancellor in a statement to the House in October 1997, and when the last assessment against the five tests was made in June 2003, when we said that
“we cannot at this point in time conclude that there is sustainable and durable convergence or sufficient flexibility to cope with any potential difficulties within the euro area.”
The whole House will see exactly what we meant.
Order. Just as I called the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) to ask Question 19, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) came into the Chamber. I want to err on the side of generosity; therefore I call the hon. Gentleman.
I meet regularly with the chief executive of the Insolvency Service to discuss the agency’s performance and measures to improve it. I also agree the targets for the agency’s performance, which are set after discussions with an external steering board of industry experts. I ensure that the service is set goals that, although achievable, are challenging.
You are very generous, Mr. Speaker.
Will my hon. Friend take on board the fact that for many small businesses the system for individual bankruptcies is cruel and punitive? Big consultancy firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers charge £200 an hour; indeed, a constituent was charged £800 for a letter to be answered. What is going wrong when these big companies can leech money from small people?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. An important part of the Government’s approach is to develop alternatives to formal bankruptcy procedures, through debt management plans and debt relief orders. We intend to offer a range of help to individuals and businesses, to enable them to avoid the formal procedures for insolvency, if at all possible.
Our Department’s key task is to work with business to help secure recovery from the global recession. To do that we have put in place a strategic investment fund designed to support key areas such as low-carbon industries, the digital economy and advanced manufacturing; strong regional development agencies, working with business in the regions; and tax support for industry in the form of capital allowances to support investment. We are not about to withdraw £3.5 billion of support for industry through reforms to capital allowances, as advanced by the Conservative party.
I know that the Government are also committed to more apprenticeships. There are still tens of thousands of young people who are not in education, employment or training. Will Ministers look at the idea of posting the apprenticeships that are available, either by local authority area or by postcode, both to make them easier to access and to hold employers in the public and private sectors to account?
We have an online service to match employers with young people seeking apprenticeships, and as I said a few minutes ago, in December we announced a programme of grants of £2,500 for employers to take on unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds. I agree with the hon. Gentleman: we do not want young people to become completely distant from the labour market because of the economic troubles that we have been going through in the past couple of years. That is why apprenticeships are important, why the numbers have increased and why we have put in place the new grant specifically for unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds.
The negotiations have been taking place on an intense level since the turn of the year. They are chaired by Mr. Roger Poole, the former deputy general secretary of the Unison union, and I believe that he has the trust of both sides. The aim of the negotiations is to reach a comprehensive agreement governing all the modernisation and change that needs to take place to put Royal Mail on to a healthier footing. We are not yet at the point of agreement, but I hope that we will be, and I very much hope that the talks will be successful, because that will be in the interests of Royal Mail, its staff and, most importantly, the public who depend on the postal service.
Have Ministers noticed the report in this morning’s Financial Times that the chemicals company Ineos, the largest private firm in this country by sales, has joined the queue of companies intending to move their headquarters out of the United Kingdom, citing levels of corporate and personal tax? Are Ministers also aware that, in the Davos World Economic Forum league of competitors, the United Kingdom has now slipped to 81st in the world in terms of its tax levels? Will the Minister make representations to the Chancellor that he should follow the Conservatives’ recommendations on lowering levels of corporation tax? Will he also tell the Chancellor that the choice of national insurance as a source of revenue in 2011 is particularly disastrous when we are supposed to be trying to come out of a recession?
I regret the Ineos decision, but I must point out that our corporation taxes are lower now than when we came into office; they are the lowest in the G7. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me whether I would approach the Chancellor and ask him to support the policy that his party has advocated. Just a few days ago, his colleague, the shadow Chancellor, said that that policy would involve the withdrawal of £3.5 billion of support for investment allowances for manufacturing industry. That is absolutely not what our industry needs at the moment, and, combined with the Conservatives’ policy to abolish the regional development agencies and to attack the strategic investment fund, it would represent a real threat to British industry. That is not what we want at the moment; we should support industry through the investment allowances and through strong RDAs working with—
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that matter. I am announcing today the formation of Broadband Delivery UK, and the appointment of its chief executive, Adrian Kamellard, to drive forward the universal service commitment to deliver 2 megabits per second broadband to every UK household by 2012, and to manage the £1 billion next generation fund, which will result from the proceeds of the 50p a month phone line levy, to deliver next generation broadband to 90 per cent. of the country by 2017. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of this service in rural areas. Virgin Media recently made the welcome announcement of 100 megabit per second services across its whole network by the end of the year, which will be available to almost half of UK homes. That reflects current demand, and we need to get a move on in delivering such services in rural areas as well.
We have outlined the support that we have put in place. Some 160,000 businesses have been helped by the time to pay initiative, which has allowed businesses large and small to delay payment of a total of £5 billion in tax, to help them through the recession. Some 8,000 businesses have been helped through the enterprise finance guarantee scheme. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that small businesses in his constituency would not be helped by his shadow Chancellor’s policy to abolish the £50,000 investment allowance that exists under this Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that prompt payment is important. The Government should be a good customer and the Prime Minister has placed a great emphasis on that. As the Under-Secretary, my right hon. Friend for East Ham (Mr. Timms) said in response to an earlier question, the vast majority—more than 90 per cent., I think—of the bills in my Department are paid within the target date. That is important because small businesses rely on prompt payment. That is why we have taken it seriously during the recession.
It is simply not the case that the Government are failing to take action to support small business. It is very important to increase the levels of consumer demand within the economy to increase the demand for small business. That is why we must focus on unemployment levels and also support business by extending assistance through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs by delaying payment. If we had followed the policy of the Conservatives, none of that assistance would have been available because the money would not have been there to assist businesses in their time of need.
What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of the investment in science on the recovery and also on the transfer into small business in the community?
Some years ago, there was a campaign called Save British Science. It is no longer necessary because we have invested so much extra in science. We value the contribution that science can make. We are a world leader: we have 1 per cent. of the world’s population, but 12 per cent. of the world’s scientific citations. That is a testament to the success of British science, which the Government have strongly supported. My hon. Friend is absolutely right not only that pure science is good in itself, but that the potential for spin-offs between the scientific research councils, higher education and companies is now enormous. We are seeing increasing success in this.
The assurance I give the hon. Gentleman is that I will make sure that his point is relayed to the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Treasury. It would probably be wise for me not to comment in any more detail on his question at this point.
Some of my constituents work for the engineering company, Firth Rixson, in Darley Dale, one of only three plants in the world making rings for aeroplane jet engines. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to help resolve its dispute with Tory-controlled Derbyshire Dales council? It has put in place a noise abatement order that could close down the company, which has been there for 70 years and employs 160 people.
My hon. Friend draws attention to the UK’s strength in aerospace—not only in her constituency, but in many others, too. Aerospace is one sector that has been strongly supported by the strategic investment fund that we have set up. Sadly, that support has been described as disgraceful by Conservative Members, but we believe that it is valuable and important.
Traditional English market towns are very important for the economy. A couple of years ago, when the west midlands suffered floods, the regional development agency’s marketing of the area was important in saying that we were open for business. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s party’s policy of abolishing RDAs would be so damaging to the market towns that he supports.
My hon. Friend raises a similar point to that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) a few minutes ago. He is right that accessibility for account holders of other banks is important to the future of the Post Office. Some banks have stepped up to the plate and ensured that, and some 20 million accounts are available in that way. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) that more should do the same, and I assure him that we are working on that with other banks.
We have introduced to our insolvency system several different alternatives to formal insolvency and bankruptcy proceedings, such as debt management plans and debt relief orders. The range of options now being put forward by the Government are an effective way to deal with problems for individuals and businesses that enter financial difficulties.
The Minister will be aware that the motor sport industry in the UK is a world leader. However, it is 10 years since the Government commissioned any research on the industry. Will he consider an up-to-date survey to ensure that the UK keeps its lead in the motor sport industry?
Yesterday, I returned from the Geneva motor show, where I met superb British companies such as Lotus that are making excellent, innovative, world-beating progress in their part of the industry. The world renowned UK Automotive Council is leading our approach to investment and research in the automotive sector, of which the automotive sport sector is an important part.
Does the Department accept that manufacturing industry is the only source of non-inflationary, sustainable economic growth, and that, in bank lending, priority should be given in all cases to manufacturing industry?
I share entirely the hon. Gentleman’s support for manufacturing. With my constituency being Wolverhampton, South-East, I see the value of manufacturing day in, day out. It is therefore important to support investment in manufacturing through the tax system. I hope that he will make representations to those on his Front Bench that they should desist from their policy of withdrawing £3.5 billion of tax support for investment in manufacturing—
Order. We have had that point before.
But on that point, has the Minister seen the front page of today’s Libération, which refers to the sickness of French industry under a Conservative Government and contrasts that with the more robust health of British manufacturing industry? Does it help our firms to have the shadow Chancellor and shadow Business Secretary touring meetings and studios talking down the British economy?
In Geneva, I met a French manufacturing company that is considering investment in the UK because it recognises the UK Government’s commitment to innovation, manufacturing and industry—a commitment sadly lacking from the Conservative party.
Is the Minister aware of the excellent work of the staff at Telford college of arts and technology, who do a great job providing skills and training for the long-term unemployed? Is he aware that the Skills Funding Agency is seeking to reduce next year’s budget, despite unemployment in the west midlands being at record levels? Will he intervene to ensure that funding is forthcoming to help those who are on the dole?
Overall funding for the sector will increase by about 3 per cent. next year. I shall be happy to look into the individual case of the college to which the hon. Gentleman has referred if there is anything untoward, but I should point out that we have invested in further education, and it would not help if we had to make an extra £1 billion of cuts this year.
As the Minister will know, the science learning centres at York university and in nine university towns in the regions are the result of a magnificent effort by the Government, with the Wellcome Trust. However, they will not work unless teachers are able and willing to go to them for their courses in CPD—continuing professional development—and they need funds if they are to do so.
I recognise the need for teachers to be able to gain access to those courses. I shall be happy to discuss any problems with my colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Next week the board of the Payments Council, which represents all the major high street banks, will meet to rubber-stamp its decision to phase out the use of the cheque, despite the opposition of the Federation of Small Businesses and many other groups. Will the Minister, even at this late stage, make representations to the board and ask for a rethink?
I have made this confession before: I am a cheque user. I do not know whether that makes me a luddite, but I believe that cheques still provide people with a valuable payment mechanism, and I hope that the banks will think long and hard before abolishing them.
Business of the House
May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?
The business for next week will be as follows.
Monday 8 March—Remaining stages of the Crime and Security Bill.
Tuesday 9 March—Opposition Day (5th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on NHS London, followed by a debate on access to higher education. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 10 March—Estimates Day (2nd Allotted Day). There will be a debate on alcohol, followed by a debate on taxes—
Taxes or taxis?
Taxes—and charges on road users. Details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows:
Department of Health in so far as it relates to alcohol: 1st Report from the Health Committee, HC 151.]
At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Thursday 11 March—A topical debate on International Women’s Day—Women’s Representation, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords].
Friday 12 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 15 March will include:
Monday 15 March—General debate on defence in the world.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady.
May I begin by adding my own voice to the many tributes that have been paid to Michael Foot? He was a former Leader of the House, and one of our greatest parliamentarians. I remember him as the man whose brief it was, during my second Parliament, to hold together a legislative programme in a Government with no majority, which he handled with tact and ingenuity—although one day he had to introduce five guillotine motions. As an orator, he was one of the few who could fill the Chamber. He was a brilliant and at times unpredictable force, instilling terror in his civil servants by speaking on industrial relations legislation without notes for 30 minutes, and, equally memorably, winding up the motion of no confidence in the Labour Government in 1979. On that occasion, even his flights of rhetoric were not enough to save them from defeat by one vote. He was a man of great courage, courtesy and integrity, and from these Benches we salute him.
I note that although the Leader of the House said that later we would debate motions relating to the Procedure Committee’s report on the election of the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers, only one of those motions appears on today’s Order Paper. What has happened to the others, and when will they be debated?
May we have a statement from the Justice Secretary on the decision to return one of the killers of Jamie Bulger to jail? Does the Leader of the House agree with me—and, apparently, the Home Secretary—that unless there are very good reasons for keeping the information secret, it is in the public interest to know why Jon Venables has been sent back to prison?
Last week I was rebuffed by the right hon. and learned Lady when I asked for two days on Report for the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. As I predicted, the Bill has now been sent to the other place with many groups of amendments not debated. Given that the Bill will not receive its Second Reading in the Lords until 24 March, what hope does she have that the Government’s flagship constitutional Bill will make it on to the statute book before the election?
Can we have a debate on the devastating report from the Public Accounts Committee today on the establishment of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission? Given that the right hon. and learned Lady was responsible for this, I hope she will find the time to explain the situation to the House.
Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady gave what she called a “strong hint” that next week’s topical debate would be on international women’s day. Does not she think it somewhat illogical to announce a topical debate two weeks in advance, and is she not in fact using a topical debate to escape from the Government’s commitment to give the House one set-piece debate on this subject?
On timings, can the right hon. and learned Lady explain why the business in the Lords up until 26 March has been announced and published on the internet, but today she has given us the business only until 15 March? It would be unfortunate if the business question were added to that long list of questions the Government are unable to answer.
On the date of the Budget, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said on Tuesday that it would be announced
“if there is to be a Budget.”
Will the right hon. and learned Lady clarify whether there will be a Budget, or have relations between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor now rendered that impossible?
Finally, can the right hon. and learned Lady give us the dates of the Easter recess? Last week the Leader of the House of Lords said that there were four and a half weeks before the Easter recess. If the Leader of the Lords can announce it in another place, why cannot MPs be told—or are we second-class citizens?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his tribute to Michael Foot, who was, as he said, a great parliamentarian, orator and Leader of the House between 1976 and 1979. He was a passionate socialist. Everyone has commented that he was not only incredibly clever, but highly principled. I have very warm personal memories of him joining me in my by-election campaign in 1982. He went down a storm on the Walworth road, where he is fondly remembered to this day. We all miss him. His intelligence and commitment remained sharp right up until his death.
On the motions relating to the Deputy Speaker and Speaker, I have made it clear that Mr. Speaker has asked that we look into having elections for Deputy Speakers. I have made that undertaking and we can debate the motions on that subject this afternoon.
On the killers of Jamie Bulger, the court order requires anonymity and the processes have to be in compliance with that order.
If the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill goes into the wash-up and does not complete its stages in the House of Lords, it will be for the Opposition parties to negotiate with the Government so that we can get through a great deal of what was in the Bill, much of which arose out of the Kelly proposals and pertain to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. There are many things in the Bill that the House wants to see get through. If the Bill cannot find its way through the Lords, we will make sure at the wash-up that the provisions that the public want get through.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Equality and Human Rights Commission. That subject could be raised during the debate next week on international women’s day. As it turns out, I was correct in anticipating that that would be a topical debate; it is going to be topical.
On the business of the House, I announce the business for the following week each Thursday; that is all I do. [Interruption.] No, anything after that is provisional. The business for next week is firm, so hon. Members can be clear and know what they are doing next week, but after that it is only provisional.
The Leader of the House—[Interruption.] Oh dear, I am going to have to get this right: the shadow Leader of the House made a point about the relations between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I would like to raise a point about the relations between the shadow Leader of the House and his party leader, however, because how on earth is he still prepared to serve under a leader of his party who, when he spoke the truth about Lord Ashcroft’s tax status—
Order. I must ask the Leader of the House to focus her remarks exclusively on the business for next week. [Interruption.] As she is indicating that she has finished her answer, I call the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).
The entire Government are sounding a little provisional at the moment.
May I join in the tributes to Michael Foot? He was a member of a west-country radical family of some note, and came from a political age when it was felt important that Members of Parliament might have read a few books, as well as be able to grin inanely at a camera. He will be remembered with great affection.
We get used to people being appointed tsar of this and champion of that, but we actually have a rather important post of that kind: the Rural Advocate. The current Rural Advocate is Dr. Stuart Burgess, and his post is important because each year he can send a report about what is happening in our rural areas directly to the Prime Minister. He has done so today, and he has pointed out that, as a consequence of rural areas having no services, phones, internet or transport, they are losing young people, who are finding that they have to move away in order to have any hope of getting jobs. In rural areas, 40 per cent. of those aged between 16 and 24 are unemployed. I want to know what happens to these reports once they have gone to the Prime Minister, because I do not hear him talking about rural issues. I would like this House to do so, however, so may we have a debate on rural issues in the near future?
I have just listened to Business, Innovation and Skills questions, and there is clearly great concern about the difficulties facing small businesses and the opportunities open to them, so may we have a debate on small businesses? We might include in it a discussion of the future of the cheque book—a subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter)—because that issue also means a great deal to small businesses.
I note that there will be a debate on alcohol on 10 March, and hon. Members rightly feel very strongly about alcohol abuse. Some would argue that there is a case for hugely increasing the duty payable on alcohol, but may I ask—this is special pleading on behalf of my constituency—that artisan cider-makers are not forgotten in any such discussion, because they will be put out of business if there is a substantial increase in alcohol duty? Perhaps we could address that issue in our debate.
Yesterday during Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Leader of the House managed to cause a great deal of excitement in the House every time she mentioned a certain Member of another place, which she did with great frequency. May I suggest today—in a rather quieter, more sensible and less hyperbolic way—that the issues to do with that have been conflated? There are, in fact, two issues, one of which is the quite extraordinary sums of money being given to political parties and then being spent in marginal constituencies. We have yet to grapple effectively with that issue, so may we have a debate on it?
The second issue is to do with appointments to this Parliament: commitments that are given, the way in which people are appointed to the House of Lords, and the proper principle that people should not make laws for this country if they do not pay taxes in this country. Can we have a separate debate on that? Perhaps we could tighten things up so that we do not have, as The Daily Telegraph put it today, the shadow Foreign Secretary being
“kept in the dark…for 10 years”.
That is not the right way to manage a commitment given.
The shadow Leader of the House said that he had been “rebuffed” on an issue. I was not rebuffed but ignored by the Leader of the House last week when I raised what I thought was a perfectly proper matter. I am referring to one of the Prime Minister’s ideas, which he set out in the “Governance of Britain” Green Paper as follows:
“The Government believes that the convention should be changed so that the Prime Minister is required to seek the approval of the House of Commons before asking the Monarch for a dissolution.”
I am sure the Prime Minister would not say that if he did not mean it, and he would not mean it and then not do anything to bring it into effect, so when are we going to have the debate? When is the Leader of the House going to table the motion? When are we going to have the vote for the dissolution of this pretty awful Parliament?
The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the Rural Advocate. Department for Communities and Local Government questions will take place next week, at which he will have the opportunity, if he so wishes, to raise the question of housing. It is very important to have affordable housing in rural areas, and it is important that planning authorities—not just Tory councils, but Lib Dem councils—ensure that they allow the planning of housing only if it includes affordable housing. Everybody should look closely at their own party’s policies on that.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have pressed forward on good health provision in, and on improving education in, rural areas, and that one of the reasons why we brought forward our “Digital Britain” paper was precisely to ensure that enterprise and economic initiative can go into rural areas, with high-speed broadband covering all areas. So there are further opportunities to debate that issue.
On small businesses, we have, as the hon. Gentleman said, just had Department for Business, Innovation and Skills questions. He will have an opportunity to raise the issue of artisan cider-makers again in next week’s debate about alcohol.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to be less hyperbolic about the question of Ashcroft—[Hon. Members: “Lord.”] He asked me to be less hyperbolic about Lord Ashcroft and his breach of his assurances on tax. May I say, Mr. Speaker, that I welcome the decision announced this morning by the Public Administration Committee that it will carry out an inquiry into this matter? I am afraid that I cannot offer to tone down my views on this, because the truth is that this is sleaze on a multi-million pound scale and the—
Order. I absolutely understand that the right hon. and learned Lady does not want, in any way, to qualify or compromise her views, but I should make two points. First, we are making references to a Member of another place and that has to be done with considerable care. Secondly, from now on—the right hon. and learned Lady has said what she has said—we must focus our remarks on the business of the House.
Well, Mr. Speaker, it is the business of the House when a Select Committee—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it an acceptable—
Order. We take points of order after statements. I call the Leader of the House.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw it.”] No, I am not going to withdraw it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked me a question about this. I am entitled to answer that question and I am entitled to put forward my views. I hope that when the Select Committee holds its investigation it will call the shadow Foreign Secretary, and I hope he will be more honest and forthcoming with the Committee than he has been over the past eight years.
Order. A particularly large number of Members—more than 40—are seeking to catch my eye today. The record shows over a period of many months that ordinarily I have sought to accommodate and been successful in accommodating everybody. I would like to be so again, but I think that it is extremely unlikely when more than 40 Members wish to contribute. The requirement for short questions and short answers is greater than ever. I call Celia Barlow.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My Tory opponent in Hove and Portslade has boasted in Brighton’s The Argus that:
“We are on the target list. Lord Ashcroft is a supporter of target seats”.
In addition to the Select Committee investigation, will the Government carry out an investigation and report, so that Members with marginal seats can work out exactly how much of the £15 million of central American money has been spent in each seat?
I did not hear a request for a debate or a statement, but I assume that the hon. Lady is asking for one. I call the Leader of the House.
I think that what my hon. Friend has shown is that there is deep disquiet about this—about the fact that the Conservative party has completely sacrificed its integrity for money and is trying to buy seats with the Belize dollar. I think we are entitled to feel that that is not acceptable.
Whatever the strength of views of the Leader of the House on any particular issue, does she not accept that, as the Leader of the House, she has a particular duty to observe the long-standing conventions of the House, and that one does not accuse another Member—either of this House or of another House—of an offence where, if the accusation were made outside this House, it would undoubtedly lead to an action for slander? Will she take this opportunity to withdraw the allegation that she made against the noble Lord?
Order. The hon. Gentleman entered the House first in 1959 and has served without interruption in his present constituency since 1966, so he will know that business questions is the occasion to ask a question requesting either a statement or a debate the following week. That did not quite happen, but if the Leader of the House wants—[Interruption.] Order. I require no help from Back-Bench Members. If the Leader of the House wants briefly to respond to what has been asked, that is fine but thereafter I would ask that we move on and, in particular, that questions and answers relate to the business of the House next week.
Questions on the business of the House is also an occasion to discuss what is going on in the House of Lords and in Select Committees—I am sure you would acknowledge that, Mr. Speaker. This morning, the Public Administration Committee announced that it is going to look into this issue. I have not said anything in this House that I can say only in this House under cover of parliamentary privilege—what I have said is fact. It is actually a fact that Lord Ashcroft was only allowed to be in the House of Lords because he gave an assurance—that is, is it not, a fact? Is it not also a fact that it is now clear that he broke that assurance? That is a fact, and—
Order. Let me just say to the Leader of the House and to all Members of the House that criticism of Members of the other place should be on a substantive motion. The points that have been made have been made extremely clearly, but I think it is reasonable and proper for me now—[Interruption.] Order. It is reasonable and proper for me now to ask hon., right hon. and right hon. and learned Members to focus on the business of the House next week. The Leader of the House has responded and I am grateful to her.
In a busy week, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for the Prime Minister to come to the House to make a statement on the principles of universal jurisdiction and, in particular, to explain the serious and, indeed, colossal error contained in the article that he wrote in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph, where he maintains that arrest warrants for crimes against humanity and for war crimes may be obtained on the “slightest of evidence”? Nobody knows better than my right hon. and learned Friend that a district judge must find a good prima facie case for such crimes, as indeed happened in the case of Tzipi Livni. This is an important issue, so will she find time for such a statement?
No one should be in any doubt about the fact that we remain strongly committed to the universal jurisdiction for the enforcement of international war crimes. The only question at issue is what the gateway to enforcement of those issues is and whether they should be able to be enforced by a member of the public, or whether enforcement should be carried out on the basis of a motion brought to the court by the public prosecution service. Let no one be in any doubt about the fact that we strongly support the universal jurisdiction—the question is just about the gateway to its enforcement.
Why has the Leader of the House not tabled for debate the motion on the election of the Speaker?
Because we are taking forward, in this afternoon’s business of the House, issues that were raised by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, which was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). If we can agree by the end of the day on the election of the Chairs and members of Select Committees and on a new Committee of the whole House to agree not only Back-Bench business but Government business, and if we can, in addition, improve the procedure for getting Deputy Speakers, we will have taken great steps forward. We changed the rules when we elected our Speaker, which was the first election by secret ballot, so we have recently addressed that issue by introducing a new procedure for electing the Speaker.
The teaching of English as a foreign language is a vital business activity in my constituency, but it is under threat because of proposed changes to visa rules, which mean that students who want to upgrade their language skills before going to university would have to return home and apply for another visa to come back again. Can we debate this matter? Failing that, will my right hon. and learned Friend nudge her colleagues in the Home Office and ask them to rethink those proposals?
I will ask my colleagues in the Home Office to write to my hon. Friend about this matter. Obviously, foreign students are very important not only for the revenue that they bring into this country but because they increase and foster our global connections, which are important for our trade in a globalised economy. However, we have to make sure that the visa system, particularly the student visa system, is not abused and that people do not come here intending not to study but to work and to be students only as a secondary activity. That has to be cleared up, and that is what the Home Office is doing.
Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the scandalous amount of money being paid in medical negligence claims across our country? I have requested such a debate before, but it is vital, at this time, that we look into the scandalous amounts of money being paid, which have totalled £250 million in London in the past three years.
If the hon. Gentleman, a member of his family or one of his constituents were the victim of medical negligence and suffered as a result, they would expect to be compensated for their pain, suffering and loss of earnings. The important thing is to improve patient safety. Certainly, if there is negligence, the NHS should settle to avoid paying high lawyers’ fees. I do not think that we can say that people should put up with medical negligence, which can cause terrible pain and suffering, and that it should not be compensated. The answer is to improve patient safety, not to clamp down on litigation.
Having spent a great deal of time trying to clean up Parliament—I am in favour of the reforms and changes that have taken place—is it not important to have a statement early next week on the position regarding Lord Ashcroft, how he got his peerage, what promises were made on his behalf and what promises he made about paying UK tax in full? Could all the documentation on his peerage—correspondence and the rest of it—be placed in the Library as quickly as possible?
I think that everybody would like to see the documentation relating to this matter. It is the responsibility of those who assert that Lord Ashcroft was given approval to go back on his assurance to put evidence in the public domain that that was the case. I will think about whether there is some way of making a statement that will allow this issue to be aired in the House, but the problem is that this is not actually a matter for government. The Government do not dictate who goes into the House of Lords: that was done through an independent process, but it involved assurances given by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is now the shadow Foreign Secretary. As I have said, a statement in the House is not needed for those who have the documentation to put it in the public domain, which they have signally failed to do.
May we have a debate on the effectiveness of youth intervention programmes such as the one in Teignmouth, which saw a 40 per cent. reduction in antisocial behaviour? Perhaps we could then get an explanation as to why the new Tory county council has cut the funding for that programme.
That is a warning to people about what would happen if the Tories ever got back into government—we would see very important projects that are important to local communities being cut. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of antisocial behaviour in business questions. No doubt, he can raise it in questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government next week. However, I note that antisocial behaviour orders, which I am afraid that his party voted against, are also important in this area.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider scheduling a debate on the effects of public service cuts on local communities? As well as cutting meals on wheels, Tory-controlled Dudley council voted on Monday night to cut children’s services, including those for children with disabilities, and drug rehabilitation services. The Conservative party is always asking us to judge it on how it treats the most vulnerable and how it runs its councils, and such a debate would allow us to make that judgment.
My hon. Friend raises important issues for people in her constituency and in Dudley—meals on wheels, children’s services and drug rehabilitation services. The evidence coming forth from Conservative councils is that the Conservatives just cannot be trusted with vital public services. Indeed, they seek to use the undeniable need to pay back the public deficit as an excuse to cut services. We would make sure that we paid back the deficit by halving it over four years, but while protecting front-line services.
Many people feel that the Government’s slavish obedience to the United States has corroded and undermined the special relationship. Can the Foreign Secretary make a statement to the House next week on the special relationship, given the unwelcome intervention of Secretary of State Clinton, with whom he wishes to have a special relationship, in the affairs of the United Kingdom regarding Argentina and the Falkland Islands?
I do not think that the Foreign Secretary needs to return to the House on this issue. He made the position absolutely clear only this week regarding the Falklands and the right to self-determination. There is no question about their remaining part of the United Kingdom. I made that clear yesterday, and he has made it clear this week that they will remain in charge of their self-determination. There is no need to clarify the issue because it is absolutely clear.
As my right hon. and learned Friend has mentioned, it is international women’s day on Monday 8 March. Will she take that opportunity to make a statement about the tremendous support that Labour Governments have given since 1997 to women and hard-working families?
I will accept that suggestion. I know that my hon. Friend is a champion of women in her constituency and this country. We should all remember that it is international women’s day, and we currently have a very big opportunity to press forward the establishment of the new UN women’s agency that will bring together the four parts of the UN that deal with women’s issues so that we will have a single UN women’s agency. That would be a great step forward this year.
The Leader of the House still has not satisfactorily explained why she has cherry-picked from the recommendations of the Procedure Committee on the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers. Why are we being allowed to debate today only part of those recommendations, all of which appear on the Order Paper, with the remaining matters in the remaining orders? Why did she table all the recommendations, but move only half of them above the line cutting off matters for debate today? It seems to me that, by her actions, she has made an unanswerable case for a House business committee, so that never again can this sort of gerrymandering take place.
I actually agree that there is an unanswerable case for a House business committee. That is why we have tabled a motion that will lead to the establishment of such a committee, and that is why I will vote for the amendment that would extend its remit to Government business. We have had the process for electing the Speaker, and I hope that we will move forward to agree a similar process for the election of Deputy Speakers.
The Leader of the House has referred to next week’s debate on the Transport Committee’s report “Taxes and charges on road users”. It is very important that a Treasury Minister as well as a Transport Minister is present to answer questions on that report, yet the Treasury has refused that request. Does she share my concern, and will she investigate this important matter?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s leadership of the Transport Committee, and to the very important work that it has undertaken. As far “Taxes and charges on road users” is concerned, I am sure that the Transport Minister will be fully co-ordinated with the Treasury when he or she comes to answer the debate next Wednesday and that they will be able to respond on behalf of the Government as a whole.
The right hon. and learned Lady will understand the importance of certainty for the operation of financial markets but, in not responding to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about the Budget date, she has created more uncertainty about how the Government will deal with our record deficit. With effectively only three weeks to the end of March, will she explain why she cannot tell us today when the Budget will take place?
It is my responsibility to announce the business for next week, and the right hon. Gentleman will see that that does not include the Budget. He will just have to wait and see when it is announced in the usual way. Meanwhile, the important thing is that we get on with ensuring that we do not pull the plug on the economy, as would happen if his party were in government. We must continue to support the economy through public investment and active intervention, and by making sure that we do everything that we can to protect people, and particularly the younger generation, from unemployment.
May we have a debate about companies that are deliberately and specifically set up as non-trading and loss-making, such as Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd? The debate could perhaps explore whether our tax regime allows such company losses to be used to offset other tax liabilities that might be due to the Exchequer.
I will ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, or perhaps it should be the Business Secretary, to look into this. Obviously, we all want the maximum transparency, but that is clearly not the case with the issue that my hon. Friend raises.
Labour and the Tories have thrown allegations about peerages at each other, and the police have conducted their cash-for-peerages investigation in Parliament. Given all that, may we have a debate about when we will have the fully elected second Chamber that this House has voted for? At a stroke, it would end the allegations about both Lords Paul and Ashcroft, and allow fully democratic parties such as the Scottish Nationalist party to take part—if, of course, Scotland is not independent before then.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have taken forward proposals to ensure that we have an elected House of Lords. Indeed, this House has voted to change our constitutional arrangements and have an elected House of Lords. I agree with him on that.
May we have an urgent debate on matters that are before the Electoral Commission? There is concern that some issues of significant public interest—the activities of people such as Lord Ashcroft in trying to influence the general election, and the illegal use of foreign money to finance political parties—might not be reported on until after the general election. A debate would give us an opportunity to stress to the Electoral Commission that these matters are in the public interest and should be reported on before the general election.
There will be an opportunity to put questions about the Electoral Commission at oral questions on Thursday 11 March.
When will the Leader of the House allow the House to vote on the Procedure Committee’s recommendation that the House must decide whether the Speaker is re-elected by secret ballot?
The arrangements for the Speaker were changed recently, and I have brought forward motions to improve in a similar way the arrangements for getting the new Deputy Speakers. Those motions can be debated and voted on in the House this afternoon.
Can we have an early debate on the findings of Sir Roger Singleton when he finalises his report on the treatment of children in madrassahs and other religious, part-time schools?
My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask those questions at next week’s Department for Children, Schools and Families Question Time. I pay tribute to her for the concern that she has shown for all the children in her constituency, including those who go to madrassahs.
May I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have an early debate on the processes for re-electing Mr. Speaker? She will know that there are two motions, 69 and 74, in her name on today’s Order Paper. One is in favour of the status quo, and the other is in favour of the secret ballot used for electing the Chairmen and members of Select Committees, and the Deputy Speakers. Why have we got two motions in the right hon. and learned Lady’s name, and when will we be given the opportunity to speak and vote, and to determine the matter one way or another?
The substantive motion on the Order Paper for debate and voting on this afternoon is about the election of Deputy Speakers. It will bring the arrangements into line with those that we have agreed for the election of the Speaker. We have already changed that process: indeed, our current Speaker was elected by a ballot of all hon. Members.
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to make time available urgently next week to debate the Ashcroftgate affair? We are moving towards a general election, and allegations have been made that really need to be cleared up, as they go to the heart of our democracy. They also go to the heart of a political party that wants to become the Government after the election. It is an important matter, as I am now getting correspondence from constituents asking how a person can spend £120 million and still not pay taxes in this country.
Once again, I will give consideration to the point that my right hon. Friend makes. There is clearly a desire in the House to understand what has gone on, and he is right to say that the affair affects both our democracy and public trust in it. On Sunday, the Leader of the Opposition said that he was in favour of transparency, but we discovered on Monday that we have had nine years of smokescreen and secrecy. On Sunday, he said that he was in favour of new politics, but on Monday we discovered that this was the same old sleaze from the Tories.
The Leader of the House will share my concern at reports from service charities and in the press about the plight of ex-Gurkhas. Apparently, they are being offered spurious money advice by unscrupulous organisations in Kathmandu, even though the same service is available free from the Gurkha Settlement Office. Can we have an urgent debate on the matter, and will she raise it urgently with her colleague the Defence Secretary?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I will raise it with the Defence Secretary and with Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make sure that information is given to people so that they are not exploited.
In the last Session, I introduced a private Member’s Bill on financial disclosure. It demands that anyone standing for election or placement in another place must provide full financial disclosure, including tax returns. Is that a Bill that the Government might like to introduce, as a matter of urgency, so that we can clean up the mess that we are in?
Again, my hon. Friend raises a very important point, and the Government will have to reflect on it. The assumption has always been that people would play fair and by the rules, with everyone working to shore up confidence and trust in our democracy. I agree that we need to restore confidence: the background to the matter is our deep concern about the money—the tens of millions of pounds—that should have gone to pay taxes, but which has gone to the Conservative party instead.
May we have a debate on the desirability or otherwise of positive discrimination in the workplace? During that debate perhaps the Leader of the House will explain why she is so in favour of all-women shortlists in every single constituency around the country, apart from when her husband is seeking selection, and whether she considers that to be sleaze.
Even I am not in favour of 100 per cent. all-women shortlists, although when I see the hon. Gentleman it tempts me to think that I might be mistaken. Unlike the Conservative party, more than half our shortlists are all-women—more than half. With regard to the fewer than half of shortlists that are open shortlists, anyone can apply, both women and men. Indeed, women have been chosen from some of the open shortlists that we have had.
Order. I was probably over-generous in allowing the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to ask that question, which did not obviously relate to the business of the House next week. There have been accusations and counter-accusations of sleaze. I really think that it would be for the benefit of the House and our reputation with the electorate if we were to move on from those matters.
May we have an urgent debate next week on parliamentary language? The Clerks, one of whom I think was present, will confirm to you, Mr. Speaker, that 10 years ago, your predecessor but one accepted as parliamentary language my adumbration to Lord Sleaze of Belize. I will not use that again, but it is clear that we now have a serious problem, because what I raised 10 years ago has turned out to be true, but now the real question is the dissembling and cover-up of leaders of the Conservative party, which deeply shame our democratic parliamentary proceedings.
Order. The Leader of the House, I know, will relate her reply to whether there is a forthcoming statement or debate, or a parliamentary reference of some sort.
Once again, there is evident concern. There are questions to be answered that pertain to our democracy. They are not to be answered by the Government. The Select Committee investigation will be important, but I will think whether there is any way in which we can assist light being shed, because there are genuine concerns and fears.
Is the Leader of the House ashamed of herself for the dissembling way in which she has answered questions about the election of the Speaker following the return of Parliament? She has tabled motion 69 in her name, which is not yet available to be debated in the House. Can she assure the House that she will not withdraw—
Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the word “dissembling”. I have a matter of seconds ago indicated to the House that we should have seemly exchanges. That word in this context is not seemly. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it and to complete his question in parliamentary language. [Interruption.] Order. That is the request, and I expect it to be honoured.
I am saying to you, Mr. Speaker, that, obviously, if you say that the word “dissembling” is non-parliamentary, I will withdraw it, but it does not alter the substance of my question to the Leader of the House. She has put down motion 69 calling for the re-election of the Speaker at the beginning of the Parliament to be with a secret ballot. She is now saying that she has no proposals to debate that or to allow a vote on it. Is she now proposing to withdraw motion 69 from the Order Paper so that we are deprived of the opportunity of voting on the first report of the Procedure Committee? If not, what will she do about it.
The motions on the Order Paper and the amendments to those motions that are for debate and decision this afternoon arise from the Wright report. If we can get on with agreeing not only the election of Deputy Speakers, but with the election of Chairs of Select Committees, the election of members of Select Committees and a new House Committee to decide Back-Bench and non-Government business, we will have done a good days’ work.
Talking about unparliamentary language, I could hear somebody behind me—I think that it might have been my Parliamentary Private Secretary—saying “He’s Chopeless.” I wonder whether that is unparliamentary.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept from me that I would like a debate on Lord Paul? I have been a friend of his and an admirer of what he has done for British business and manufacturing for many years. He has never sought control of the Labour party or influence in marginal seats. I would be happy to see a debate on a motion comparing Lord Paul with Lord Ashcroft, because I think that he would come out damned well.
There is, of course, absolutely no comparison. As I understand it, Lord Ashcroft was a British citizen, who—I will be corrected if I am wrong—left the country for tax purposes, whereas Lord Paul is an industrialist from India who has genuinely global financial interests, who has never made any dissemblance about his tax status and who never gave any assurances. The point about Lord Ashcroft is that he gave assurances in order to get into the House of Lords and then breached those assurances.
Order. We must not go further on these matters. There has been a request for a debate or a statement. That request has been answered. We move on now. I know that the House will want to hear Jo Swinson.
The Leader of the House may have seen today’s distressing reports on the BBC about the increased rate of birth defects in Falluja, which are now 13 times higher than what we see in Europe, and there is a concern that that is as a result of weapons used by the United States during the Iraq war. May we have a debate about this issue, so that we can hear from the Foreign Secretary what representations he is making to his US counterpart about this appalling legacy of the Iraq war?
There will be a debate on Monday week on defence in the world, which might be an opportunity to air those concerns.
In a further request to my right hon. and learned Friend about the need for a debate next week on the Ashcroft affair, may I suggest that if someone is not paying taxes and is giving money to the Tory party all over Britain, in essence the British taxpayer is bankrolling the Conservative party? Secondly, will she ensure that the Leader of the Tory party and the shadow Foreign Secretary are asked the appropriate questions: what did they know and when did they know it?
Order. I must ask the Leader of the House not to respond to that question. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has put his thoughts clearly on the record, but I am afraid that it is not a business question.
My Macclesfield constituency has a substantial rural area, including hill country. May I support the request made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for a debate on the rural economy and the report of the Rural Advocate? Rural areas are suffering tremendously from the closure of shops and schools, very little public transport and the withdrawal of post office facilities, and this is critical to large areas of the country. May we have a debate on it, please?
I know that the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is wider than just housing—he has mentioned schools, transport, health services and the economy—but there will be an opportunity to raise the question of housing at Communities and Local Government questions next week. One thing that has been important for the rural economy is the minimum wage, which his party opposed, and one thing that is important for the rural economy is the opportunity for people to have affordable housing, and it is often Conservative councils that oppose planning applications for affordable housing by housing associations.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend look again at the request for an early debate on the role of the Electoral Commission? If the public are to retain faith in the probity of our electoral system, we need the Electoral Commission to come under pressure to answer the questions about whether filtering central American money into political parties in this country is legitimate, both legally and morally.
It is urgent that all these points are answered, and there will be an opportunity to raise the matter in questions on the Electoral Commission next Thursday.
Before asking my question, I must point out that the Electoral Commission has just stated that Lord Ashcroft’s donations were legal and permissible.
May we have a debate on the subject of the strategic importance of oil refineries to the United Kingdom? I have just raised that matter at Business, Innovation and Skills questions without having a substantive answer. The renewable heat incentive could destroy the narrow profit margins of all oil refineries in this country. This is a non-partisan request. We all support the principle of the incentive, but we do not wish to see oil refining in this country destroyed.
Well, we have just had an Energy Bill, and that looks across a wide range of those issues. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman sought to introduce amendments or to make that point during the Bill’s proceedings, but he could look out for the next opportunity to do so in Energy and Climate Change questions.
May we have a debate on the rights of people to work after the age of retirement, at 65 years old, if they are fit and wish to do so? My right hon. and learned Friend will agree that it is wrong for employers, including the House authorities, to force people to retire. Supervisors have been telling employees in this House that they cannot work beyond 65, but who has the authority to give the supervisors the right to tell people that they cannot work beyond that age?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and no employer needs to fire people aged 60 or 65; employers can, if they want, employ people after those ages if they are fit and able to do their work. A number of private sector companies do exactly that, and he will know that we are looking into whether we should change the default retirement age, so that people are protected from unfair dismissal beyond the ages of 60 and 65. There will be questions to the House of Commons Commission next Thursday, but in the meantime I shall inquire into the matter with the House authorities. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to my attention.
On Monday this week, 170 families in the London borough of Sutton learned that their children will not be obtaining a high school place in the borough. At the same time they learned that 986 children from outside the borough will be taking up places in high schools in the borough. May we have a debate about early-day motion 686, on the Greenwich judgment and school admission policies?
[That this House notes that successive Government’s have rejected calls for a change in the law to reverse the effect of the Greenwich judgment on the operation of local school admission policy; is concerned that as a result of the court judgment admission authorities are not allowed to take into account administrative boundaries when allocating school places; believes that parents and children living in a local authority area should be able to expect to obtain a place at a local school in that area; and calls on the Government either to bring forward its own legislation to grant local admission authorities the discretion to give priority to the school preferences of parents resident within the local authority area or to support provisions of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam's Fair Access to School (Admissions) Bill.]
Then we can finally ensure that the matter is sorted out. It is unfair to children in my constituency, who cannot go to schools just down the road from where they live.
There are Children, Schools and Families questions next Monday, when I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to obtain a specific answer on that.
My right hon. and learned Friend will know that the steel industry faces very difficult times. On Teesside, it is believed that the owner of Corus, Tata, has threatened to close our slab steel mill, which is currently mothballed. Is not it time that the House discussed the steel industry, acknowledging that it is an essential industry that has been the backbone of our manufacturing sector for more than 200 years?
I acknowledge all the points that my hon. Friend makes. She is absolutely right in how she characterises the importance of the steel industry, and I shall look for a further opportunity to debate those issues.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At Business, Innovation and Skills questions earlier this morning, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) asked a question that was rather wide of the question on the Order Paper, and Mr. Speaker ruled that the Minister should not answer it. It was about the future of our aircraft carriers. Is there any way in which I can point out, within the rules of order, that the suggestion that there was a difference between the Conservative party’s position and that of the Government on the future of the aircraft carriers was, in fact, unsound, and that both parties believe that the project should go forward, subject to the findings of the strategic defence review? I should be grateful if there were a way of correcting the record.
The hon. Member will not be surprised if I say to him that his point was not a point of order for the Chair, but his comments will have been heard and will be on the record.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Speaker is rightly committed to openness and transparency, so will you confirm that no one in the Speaker’s Office was in discussions with the Leader of the House about ensuring that we do not have an opportunity to vote on the re-election by secret ballot of the Speaker? Will you use your good offices to persuade the Leader of the House to hold that vote, which so many people want?
That is not, strictly speaking, a point of order for the Chair. It is for the Government to decide what will happen on that matter, and the hon. Gentleman’s comments will have been heard. The Leader of the House is still in the Chamber.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, Mr. Speaker said that any substantive criticisms of a Member of the other place should be made by way of a substantive motion, rather than by oral references. Yet you will know that throughout Prime Minister’s questions yesterday and, again, today, smears and innuendos have been levelled against a noble Lord—a Member of the other place. Surely there should be some consistency, and if that is a rule it should apply from the outset, instead of rather late in the day.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I remind him that Mr. Speaker has certainly made the position quite clear and quite plain from the Chair today.
We now come to announce the results of the Divisions deferred from a previous day. On the question relating to social security, the Ayes were 404 and the Noes were 53, so the Ayes have it. On the question relating to licences and licensing, the Ayes were 245 and the Noes were 162, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]
Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism
I beg to move,
That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 1 March, be approved.
First, I thank the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which he chairs, for agreeing to consider the order today.
The terrorist threat to the United Kingdom and its interests abroad remains severe and sustained. This week we have already debated the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in Force of Sections 1 to 9) Order 2010, and I know that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) shares my assessment of the situation. We as a Government are determined to do all that we can to minimise that threat, and the proscription of terrorist organisations is an important part of the Government’s strategy to tackle terrorist activities at home and abroad.
With this order we would therefore like to add the group, al-Shabaab, to the 45 international terrorist organisations that are listed under schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000. This is the eighth proscription under the 2000 Act. Section 3 of the Act provides a power for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to proscribe an organisation if he believes that it is concerned with terrorism. The Act specifies that an organisation is concerned with terrorism if it commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promotes or encourages terrorism—including the unlawful glorification of terrorism—or is otherwise concerned with terrorist activity.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for setting out those criteria. Have the Government received evidence that that particular organisation, al-Shabaab, has been involved in any of those activities? Has he seen that evidence? Is that, therefore, why he has come before the House with this order?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I was going to come to this point later in my speech, but I shall happily cover it now. He will know that the organisation, al-Shabaab, is currently and actively concerned with terrorist activity. I cannot go into the details of every aspect, because we are aware of matters that we cannot disclose to the House for a range of reasons, but the group has waged a violent campaign against the Somali Transitional Federal Government, and against the African Union peacekeeping troops in Somalia since the beginning of 2007. It has undertaken a range of terrorist tactics, such as suicide operations and roadside bombings, and mounted a range of operations since 2007, including in June 2009 in Beledweyne, one of the largest cities in Somalia, a suicide car bomb attack that killed the transitional Government’s Security Minister and, as a random act of terrorism, about 30 other people in the process.
The organisation has launched terrorist attacks outside areas under its control, most notably in October 2008, when five co-ordinated suicide attacks were mounted against targets in Somaliland and Puntland, including the Ethiopian embassy, the presidential palace and the United Nations Development Programme compound. In September last year, al-Shabaab released a video statement in which it pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden. As recently as 2 February 2010, it announced its intention to combine the jihad in the horn of Africa with the global jihad led by al-Qaeda. I hope that that helps to give my right hon. Friend a flavour of some of our concerns in relation to the international operation of al-Shabaab.
It certainly does. However, Ministers came to the Dispatch Box and said very similar things to the House about the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, and the Government lost that case under the proscribed organisation legislation. We have to be very careful about this. Clearly, al-Shabaab has been involved in these activities abroad, but does the Minister have any evidence that it is operating in the United Kingdom—where he is a Minister and we are the Parliament—and engaged in any of the activities that he has described? I have not seen that evidence, and other Members of this House have not seen it—has he seen it?
I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept that, as I said, we are aware of a range of issues in relation to that evidence about which we are unable to give details to the House. I can say, however, that we remain concerned that the activities of the organisation and its potential influence on individuals in the United Kingdom meet the legal test that we have to meet to ensure that proscription takes place. Proscription is a tough and necessary power, but it involves specific tests that need to be met. At the beginning of my speech, I outlined the details of the particular activities that we need to consider.
I say to my right hon. Friend, and to the House as a whole, that in the event of the organisation or its agents wishing to make representations about the proscription order, they can do so following the consideration of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. If he upholds the order, the applicant can appeal to the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, which is a special tribunal that will review whether my right hon. Friend has properly exercised his powers in refusing to de-proscribe the organisation. The commission is able to consider the sensitive material to which we have had access, which underpins proscription decisions, and a special advocate can be appointed to represent the interests of the applicant in closed sessions of the commission. We believe that the international evidence shows that there is a real need to take action against al-Shabaab. We are convinced, having looked at the evidence internally, that there is evidence which would be upheld by that legal test and which we, as a nation, could defend if the appeal came forward in due course.
I would also say to my right hon. Friend that, having considered all the evidence, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary firmly believes that al-Shabaab is currently concerned with terrorism and is involved in the activities that I have described to the House. Indeed, there is not only a concern in the United Kingdom but an international consensus of condemnation of the organisation’s activities. For example—I hope that this further reassures my right hon. Friend—the organisation is already proscribed in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Our actions today, if approved by this House and in another place later on, will help to protect the United Kingdom against terrorist activity.
We are actively examining the situation. As my right hon. Friend will know, we cannot comment directly on intelligence matters, but I have made an assessment, with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that there is a small but genuine risk that British nationals and British interests may be harmed as a result of al-Shabaab’s activities in Somalia and, indeed, in the wider region.
The Minister prayed in aid the fact—I am sure that he is correct—that the United States of America and Australia have proscribed this organisation. May I respectfully remind him that the United States Congress and the federal Parliament of Australia both have a security and intelligence committee that is a committee of the Parliament, but we do not? Unless and until the Prime Minister and this Minister understand that there is a serious flaw—a deficiency—in our procedures here, in that there is no parliamentary oversight, there will always be some doubt as to the efficacy of some of these decisions. It is a serious, fundamental flaw.
I respect my hon. Friend, who always takes a keen interest in these matters. He will know that there is an Intelligence and Security and Committee comprising senior Members of Parliament—of this place and another place—who can call to account my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, and the head of the security services, to consider these issues. As I explained to the House, there is a procedure whereby organisations that are, under the legal test of proscription, brought before the Home Secretary for proscription purposes, can ask the Home Secretary to reconsider that decision. There is an independent process for looking at the evidence and assessing whether he has acted accordingly and in an appropriate manner.
I do not know why this Prime Minister, like the previous one, and Ministers are so cussed about this. As sure as night turns into day, one day a Prime Minister will create a parliamentary Committee. The committee to which the Minister refers is not a parliamentary Committee—it is clerked by a spook. That is the reality of the situation. In the Congress of the United States, which he prayed in aid, and in Australia, these are parliamentary committees. They meet in private, because these matters are secret, and everyone has confidence in them. Why cannot the Minister get his head around the issue that there should be such a committee here? It does not matter how distinguished our colleagues are: they are hand-picked by the Prime Minister with the rubber stamp of Mr. Evans and his people—spooks.
My hon. Friend has made his point in his usual forceful manner. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will pay attention to this debate and note the comments that he has made. I simply say to the House that there is a procedure and that it is tested. There is a genuine legal test for proscription, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has to ensure that that test is met. It is open to challenge and open to defence.
We are bringing this order forward not only in response to the litany of issues that I have mentioned in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) but because it is important that proscription will allow the police in the United Kingdom more effectively to carry out disruptive action against supporters of this organisation in the United Kingdom. It also sends a very strong message from the United Kingdom that we are not willing to tolerate terrorism here or anywhere else in the world.
It is essential that the Government keep the list of proscribed organisations under review. The Minister knows, because I have raised it with him before, the situation regarding the proscription of the LTTE—Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam. As far as everyone is concerned, the LTTE is finished. The war is over and the leader of the LTTE is dead, and the Sri Lankan Government are confident about all that. Why does that organisation remain on the list when it no longer exists?
I know that my right hon. Friend knows the procedure, but it is worth outlining it to the House as a whole. We keep the list of proscribed organisations under review. When I was Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, several proscribed organisations in Northern Ireland went in and out of proscription as their status changed to reflect their activities in relation to the peace process. The position of the organisation that my right hon. Friend mentions will be reviewed on a regular basis by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. It can, as can the organisation that we are discussing, apply to my right hon. Friend for de-proscription, and he will consider that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will have noticed that we are in the House of Commons Chamber having a debate about the order. Later on, in another place, my noble Friend Lord West will introduce the same order, and there will be a debate there. Neither House needs to approve the order today. There could be a vote after one and a half hours, and if I, or my noble Friend, have not made the case, the proscription order will not be passed. There is parliamentary oversight of this matter.
While we are on the subject of the LTTE, I notice that the policy background notes say:
“It is also a criminal offence to arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation or to wear clothing or to carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of the proscribed organisation.”
The Minister will recall the great difficulty that Parliament had during the long demonstration that took place in Parliament square. Now that the environment is less heated, can he tell us why no action was taken under that aspect of the law during that demonstration?
The LTTE has been a proscribed organisation since the Terrorism Act 2000 came into force because, since the 1970s, the group had carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka as part of its campaign to secure a Tamil homeland. Although support for the LTTE is unlawful, the Tamil community has the right to support that aim, and to discuss and make their views known on the matter. We have a long and proud tradition of freedom of speech and assembly, and it is important that those who support the Tamil cause can express their views in Parliament square. Clear action can be taken under proscription legislation if individuals support organisations that are proscribed, but I have no problems with individuals demonstrating in Parliament square, provided that they are not demonstrating support for an organisation that is proscribed under these rules.
Ultimately, it is for the police to consider whether to take action on these matters. We provide a framework and the police make the operational decisions and determine whether charges should be brought under the relevant legislation for this and other proscribed organisations.
In that case, is it the Minister’s view that offences did not occur during that demonstration and that is why no action was taken?
One of the great joys of being a Minister is that I do not have to decide whether offences have been committed. That is the job of the police, not the Minister with responsibility for policing, and that is part of the separation of powers. We will provide the framework, the funding, the support and the general policy direction, but ultimately it is for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to determine whether prosecutions should be suggested to the Crown Prosecution Service so that charges may be brought. The right to protest is valid, and I have not seen any evidence that the terms of the 2000 Act were broken nor of charges being brought as a result of that demonstration, so—self-evidently—the police must have taken the same view. The policing of the demonstration was very effective.
I hope that my right hon. Friend realises that Members have concerns about this order. If there is no evidence that this organisation, al-Shabaab, exists or is behaving in a way that is causing serious concern, some in our community—with some justice—will be concerned that the Government are exaggerating the existence of terrorist threat in this country. That is the last thing that we should ever wish to countenance.
The order is being debated and can be voted on. I have already told the House about the five suicide attacks, including one on the Ethiopian embassy; an attack on the United Nations development programme; a double suicide bombing against the African Union mission in Somalia; a suicide vehicle-borne device attack on 18 June 2009 against a hotel, killing the Security Minister and 30 other innocent individuals; and the responsibility for the attack on Mogadishu with 21 deaths. It is my opinion and that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that those incidents are evidence internationally of the intentions of the organisation. As I have said, I cannot comment on security matters in this country in detail, but we have made our assessment, based on that information, of whether the organisation should be proscribed.
I give my hon. Friend the assurance that it is open to the organisation—as it is to Islam4UK, which we proscribed only some four to five weeks ago—to apply to the Home Secretary for de-proscription. Proscribed organisations can test the Home Secretary’s rationale on these matters and, if they are not content, they can appeal to the appropriate committee. The House, and the other place, also have the opportunity to vote on the order today. The safeguards are in place, so I ask the House for its support.
I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have constituents from Somalia or who look to Somalia as their ancestral homeland, and I want to assure them that the Somali community is respected and valued. It plays a positive part in our community and nothing in this order will prevent members of the Somali community from visiting Somalia or sending money to relatives. Nor will it prevent the Somali community from openly discussing issues pertinent to them or the situation in Somalia. Indeed, nothing in the order will stop any individual or organisation having a political view on the situation in Somalia as a whole—
The Minister has been very generous in giving way, but what he has just said simply is not the case as far as other proscriptions are concerned. The hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) and I—and others—have had to make representations in the last few years when Tamil organisations unconnected to the LTTE have sought to book rooms, for example in the ExCeL centre, and have been prevented from doing so because the LTTE was proscribed. Two of the leaders of those Tamil organisations were then subject to interview by the police. That is why we are concerned, despite the Minister’s reassurances. As soon as an order is passed, it has a draconian effect on communities unconnected with the organisation concerned.
The 2008 Act is clear. It says that individuals should not undertake activity that supports acts of terrorism, or prepares, promotes or encourages terrorism. Nothing would stop any organisation booking a room in a building if it were not one of the proscribed organisations and not undertaking one of those activities, and as long as its members were not wearing insignia and supporting or glorifying the proscribed organisation. It is perfectly legitimate to have a view, as many Tamil residents of the UK do, on the situation in Sri Lanka, as it will be for any resident to have a view on the situation in Somalia. What is not allowed under the proscription order is for individuals to support a particular organisation if we have determined that it is involved in the activities described in the legislation.
What action would the Minister be willing to undertake if organisations that are nothing to do with this particular Somali group encounter the sort of problems that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee described?
With due respect, it is not for me to micromanage those sorts of issues. Ultimately, it is for the Home Secretary, having assessed the international situation and considered the information from the UK—about which I cannot go into detail—to determine whether the organisation is involved in activity that allows the proscription order to be brought forward for the House to consider.
It is for the police to make individual charges in relation to breaches of the proscription order, but this is not about a wider curtailment of political debate on issues such as Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Somalia or any other geographical or topical interest in which proscribed organisations happen to be interested. When we had the debate on Islam4UK, we did not prevent people from discussing the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan, and we are not preventing them from protesting against the Government on those issues or from saying that the Government have different views from theirs on any particular issue. As I described to the House earlier, we are trying to provide legal powers, using the legal test, to stop the organisation.
I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends, as well as Opposition Members, will support the order. It has been brought forward with due consideration by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I commend it to the House.
Before turning to the order, I want to reflect on the intervention from the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). I thoroughly agree with her that we should not be exaggerating terrorism, but nor should we exaggerate the measures that we take against terrorism, so I invite her to recall that she was in the Lobby voting for 90 days and 42 days pre-trial detention and for the provisions on the glorification of terrorism, which bring other problems in their wake. I look forward to her position becoming more consistent for as long as she remains in the House.
I have absolutely no problem in saying in this House that I did support 90 days, and were there reasonable cause for legislation to that effect to be laid before the House tomorrow, I would support it again.
Order. Before we go any further, I should say that I have allowed the hon. Lady to respond, but now we must focus on the motion before the House.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I may not be alone in detecting a certain philosophical inconsistency in the hon. Lady’s position.
I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the Government’s reasons for the order, and Her Majesty’s Opposition will support the Government in seeking to add al-Shabaab to the list of proscribed organisations. Decisions to proscribe organisations should not be taken lightly. Free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and the Conservative party is clear that proscription should apply only to organisations whose activities include engagement in terrorism and its active encouragement.
The Minister will remember the arguments made by Conservative Members, most notably my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), during the debate on the Terrorism Act 2006. We sought to distinguish clearly between exhortation to commit acts of terrorism as opposed to the Government’s definitions around glorification. I remind the House that, in seeking to prevent and suppress terrorism, we must do so in a way consistent with our values, and I am satisfied today that we can support the Government. However, I have several questions for the Minister.
Before I ask specific questions in response to the Minister’s introduction of the order, may I make a point about methodology? When the Government proscribed Islam4UK in January, it followed press coverage of a proposed march in Wootton Bassett. The Opposition supported the ban on Islam4UK, and it was widely known that the organisation was a successor to al-Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect. However, the timing of the ban suggested that it was in reaction to the proposals for a demonstration and in response to public pressure. Can the Minister assure the House that the decision to proscribe continues to be based on evidence? In the light of these questions, and those to follow, will he give the House more detail on the internal process that leads to an order such as today’s?
I can give the hon. Gentleman a firm assurance that the decision on Islam4UK was coincidental, not subsequent, to the march in Wootton Bassett.
I am grateful for that clarification, but perhaps when he replies, the Minister will describe as far as he can the processes that lead to a decision, as that may throw further light on the background to that reassurance.
Will the Minister confirm that al-Shabaab is the only name of the organisation that the Government wish to proscribe, or can we expect further proscription orders to cover other names for al-Shabaab? He will be aware that al-Shabaab was proscribed in the United States in February 2008 on the grounds that its leadership was working alongside al-Qaeda, and based on the intelligence that individuals from al-Shabaab had trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Other countries, including Norway and Sweden, also banned al-Shabaab in 2008, and Australia banned it last year. I would be grateful if he could explain what was contained in the statement issued by al-Shabaab on 2 February 2010 that prompted the Government to bring in this order because that appears to have been the cue for today’s instrument.
Will the Minister explain what the Government’s position on al-Shabaab was before 2 February and why it differed from that of a number of our allies? Could the Government have acted sooner? Al-Shabaab’s campaign has been ongoing since the beginning of 2007, prompting the moves to proscribe it in other countries. Is there not a case for better co-ordination between countries on proscribed organisations, and have Her Majesty’s Government received representations on the proscription of al-Shabaab from any other countries?
The explanatory memorandum refers to an explicit threat from al-Shabaab to attack targets in Kenya. Can the Minister tell us any more about the nature of this threat, and is there a specific threat to British interests in Kenya? Are the Government receiving the necessary co-operation from the Kenyan authorities to tackle the potential threat in Kenya?
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman referred to paragraph 2.2 in the explanatory memorandum with reference to Kenya. He has just asked whether we are getting full co-operation. With respect, I think it is the other way around: we owe Kenya an immeasurable debt for trying to police and control the northern border with Somalia against terrorism. The question that needs to be asked is whether the United Kingdom and other western Governments are doing enough to help and bolster the great burden being borne by Kenya on behalf of us all.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation, but the order does refer to a specific threat to British interests in Kenya, and it is only proper to assume that, given that it is their country, they should be the first port of call for any practical assistance that might be needed. So co-operation would be required, and it is that co-operation that I am seeking to probe.
On the issue of al-Shabaab’s presence in the UK, is the Minister in a position to say anything more about the numbers of people involved? I appreciate that there are growing concerns about potential terrorist links between Somali organisations and the Somali diaspora in the UK. Can he give any further details about the assessment of al-Shabaab’s presence in the UK and any evidence of organised travel from the UK to Somalia for the specific purpose of terrorist training?
As everyone in the House is aware, British and other allied servicemen and women are paying a very heavy price in Afghanistan to prevent the resurgence there of a regime that might play host to al-Qaeda. I expect that the House will share my concern that as we, and in particular the Pakistani armed forces, close off options for terrorist training in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist organisations may simply relocate? The current campaign of the Pakistani armed forces gives every indication of being of profound importance in this regard, and their apparent success should receive greater attention than it has done so far in the UK. Their success is very important to us. In the light of the consequences of that campaign in particular, will the Minister confirm that just as we now accept the need for more concerted efforts in Yemen, we cannot ignore the growing dimension of terrorist activity in the horn of Africa?
Finally, on the Somali diaspora, let me join the Minister in reassuring those in the Somali population in the United Kingdom, whether they are British citizens or not. As he will be aware, a significant number of Somalis living in Britain are here because they fled from the very people we are seeking to proscribe today. Does the Minister agree that when we proscribe organisations, we must be emphatic in saying that we are not labelling entire communities or nationalities?
If the right hon. Gentleman will restrain himself, I am coming to the point that he made earlier. We should heed his concerns about the challenge of distinguishing, in the case of the Tamils, between the LTTE—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—and other Tamil organisations, which is difficult for people who are not expert in that area, and about the consequences of such a proscription and what it means in the wider public mind. However, we must not lose sight of that proscription or the necessary measures against the organisation concerned. Such proscriptions, where a significant number of British citizens are affected—or, in this case, large numbers of the Somali population in our country—pose a particular challenge in that regard.
Having made what I imagine was the point that the right hon. Gentleman sought to intervene on me to make, let me conclude by saying that we support the order before the House. I look forward to the Minister addressing the issues that I have raised when he replies to this debate.
We all heard the Minister’s opening remarks and his sobering assessment of the terrorism threat that we face, which is clearly at a high level. It is therefore entirely appropriate that we as a nation should have a high level of preparedness and seek to introduce measures to disrupt that potential risk. We shall thus support the order today, because it is clear from the evidence, so far as we can assess it, that al-Shabaab is committed to violence and the use of terror attacks to achieve its aims. Interestingly, as the Conservative spokesman pointed out, the problem is one that other nations have been aware of for a number of years. I, too, will therefore listen with great interest to what the Minister says in response to the question about what, as far as he can tell us, has triggered the Government’s action now, when other nations took action a couple of years ago.
I accept the Minister’s point that he should not be responsible for micro-managing things, and I would not expect him to be making hall bookings for organisations that fail to do so. However, it is perhaps incumbent on him to consider the unintended consequences of the legislation he is asking us to pass, and at least to think about who, if anyone, will be responsible for ensuring that the activities of legitimate organisations are not restricted. I am sure the Minister accepts that there is a natural tendency for people to err on the side of caution, which could have consequences for perfectly legitimate organisations.
Would the hon. Gentleman consider as legitimate the sort of activities that we saw on a Channel 4 programme shown only a few days ago? It appeared to indicate that some organisations masquerade as having political objectives, but in fact have fundamentalist objectives, including, so I understand, the Islamic federation of Europe.
I am afraid I do not know enough about that particular organisation to say whether we might in future debate proscribing it in this House, but clearly the Minister and the Government will be keeping a close eye on such organisations and whether they have transformed themselves into other organisations, describing themselves in a slightly different way.
At the risk of being criticised by the Government for asking some questions, let me say that it is legitimate for us to use this opportunity to examine the effectiveness of such bans. I would like the Minister to confirm whether there has been any analysis of the effectiveness of bans. We know that organisations such as Islam4UK have had a number of name changes and may have sought to get round bans in that way. It would be interesting to know how often that has happened, how many organisations, having been banned, have simply changed their names to escape that ban, and how many people have been prosecuted and found guilty of belonging to a proscribed organisation that has been banned in that way. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the legislation we pass is as effective as possible in tackling terrorism, but there is still a fundamental question about banning and whether it is productive in any shape or form.
Finally, on Somalia, the Government have identified al-Shabaab as an organisation against which we need to take action. Although the Minister is a Home Office Minister, it might have been useful—perhaps he can do this when he responds—to set out what we are doing as a nation to support the Somali Government and the legitimate political players there, so that we can see not only that we are taking action here against organisations that might want to pursue a terrorist agenda, but that as a country we are supporting legitimate Somali authorities.
As I stated at the beginning of my speech, we shall support the order today. However, it is legitimate to ask questions about the unintended consequences of the ban and whether the general principle of applying bans to such organisations is particularly effective in tackling terrorism.
I, too, will be relatively brief, but I want to note my concerns to the House.
On these counter-terrorism measures, Ministers come to the Dispatch Box at short notice to present their cases, on which they have had evidence and information; and Members, because they trust the Government, accept everything that Ministers tell them about such organisations. I have no reason to distrust this Minister: I rate him highly, and in all the posts that he has held he has been straight, honourable and transparent with this House. Therefore, when he comes before us today and says, “This is a wicked, nasty organisation that has been involved in gross acts of violence in the horn of Africa and in Somalia. It seeks to destabilise the Somali Government, and it fits the Government’s criteria for proscribed organisations,” we accept what he says, because neither I nor the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) nor any other Member has had the benefit of seeing the information that he has seen. However, there are problems with the scrutiny of such measures and with just accepting absolutely everything that is said without probing and prodding, which is the role of Parliament.
As the Minister knows, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington is a distinguished member, produced a report about the need to bring together the various agencies and organisations that deal with counter-terrorism. We suggested establishing a national security council, with advisers to the Prime Minister who would then be able to come before the House and answer questions on issues such as that which we are debating today. Sadly, the Government were dismissive of our report—that is politics: we are dismissive of certain aspects of what the Government do—but our proposal bears scrutiny, because we were suggesting a more effective way of putting such information before the House.
If the Minister says that al-Shabaab meets the criteria and the Home Secretary has decided to proscribe the group, we will go along with that and there will be no vote in the House today on this matter. I cannot see any Member or political party doubting the sincerity of the Government in this respect.
However, the Minister needs to look very carefully at the effect of the proscription on the wider Somalian community. I accept his statement that he cannot micro- manage the way in which these orders operate, but I can tell him—and call on other Members who are not present today to give him examples—of the effects of proscription of organisations such as the LTTE. As far as I am concerned, that organisation no longer exists. It was defeated in Sri Lanka a few months ago, and its leader has been executed. It does not function in Sri Lanka at all now. I do not believe it ever functioned in the United Kingdom, and I did not therefore see the need to proscribe it here.
The Government need to pay heed to the effect of that proscription on the wider Tamil community, and to the effect that the proscription of al-Shabaab will have on the 45,000 Somalis who live in the United Kingdom. When members of the Somalian community wish to hold meetings to discuss the terrible situation in Somalia, they will face a lot of pressure from the police and from the Government of Somalia. They will be told that their meeting is actually in support of al-Shabaab. They might have absolutely no connections or dealings with al-Shabaab; they might, as the Minister has said, have come to this country to escape its activities, but the fact that they are holding a meeting to discuss the situation in Somalia will result in police activity and almost certainly in the embassy of Somalia writing to the organisations from which the people wish to book accommodation for their meeting, to prevent those meetings from taking place. How do I know this? I know it because that is precisely what happened to the British Tamils Forum and members of the Tamil community over the past few years, since the Government decided to proscribe the LTTE.
The Minister says that there is a simple answer to all this: if people do not like proscription, they can appeal to the independent commission that the Government have set up. That is precisely what the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran has done in respect of its proscription, in relation to its activities in Iran. Did the Government accept the wishes of the independent commission that they set up when the People’s Mujahedeen appealed to it and asked it to raise the proscription? Absolutely not! The Government fought their own commission—their own creation, which was supposed to act independently—tooth and nail, all the way to the Supreme Court, which in those days was in the House of Lords, until they lost and had to give in. Then, a Minister—not this one—had to come before the House and eat humble pie at the Dispatch Box because the Government had to recognise that they could not defy the highest court in the land.
That is why I say to the Minister that, although we will not vote against the motion to proscribe al-Shabaab, I do not think he has given sufficient consideration to the consequences of his action. I know he is a good Minister; he is also a busy Minister, and Home Office Ministers have to accept the advice presented to them by their civil servants. I hope that, as the Minister responsible for counter-terrorism, he will ask the large number of civil servants who have advised him on this issue whether the Government should go back and look at the consequences for communities of the proscription of these organisations. I hope he will also ask whether they have looked at the list to ensure that it is absolutely current and that the organisations still exist. Who looks at the list? When do the submissions come up to Ministers? How many meetings has he had with his civil servants to discuss the number of organisations on that list? Is there a monthly meeting, or does it take place every three or four months? When does he probe and push his civil servants into giving him this information? That is what we expect of the Government when we go along with a motion such as this, because, although we do not have the information that he has, we accept everything that he says and believe the case that he makes.
When I asked the Minister whether the criteria had been met, he reeled off a list of all the terrible atrocities that al-Shabaab had been involved in. I am not sure, however, whether he told the House that those activities had found their way to the UK mainland. I accept his assertion that it might well be involved in terrorist activities in the horn of Africa, but is it involved in these activities in the United Kingdom? Are al-Shabaab cells operating in the UK at the moment? This is not private information that the Minister needs to keep secret; it is the kind of information that the House needs to be made aware of. Can he satisfy the House that he has seen a file on the activities of al-Shabaab in the United Kingdom? It would bolster his case if he could say that he had, and that he has seen the evidence.
As the Minister knows, he had me from the moment he stood up at the Dispatch Box and put this proposal before the House. We give the Government a huge amount of leeway on counter-terrorism matters, as do the Opposition: the hon. Member for Reigate has spoken very eloquently in support of the Government today. In order to continue to give our support, however, we need to know that these processes of scrutiny are ongoing in the Home Office. That would help us to explain to our constituents why this is happening. There is still confusion among the 300,000 members of the British Tamil community, and there has been confusion among those who support the People’s Mujahedeen.
There will now be confusion among the Somalian community in Leicester. I have a thriving British Somalian community in my constituency. There was a time when I wondered why so many Somalis were ending up in Leicester. I was told that they were making their way from the horn of Africa to Holland, where they settled in Rotterdam. Then, having become EU residents, they were deciding to exercise their right to come to the United Kingdom. They were choosing to come here and settle in places such as Leicester, London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester because they felt very safe here. From time immemorial, millions of people have come to settle in those places because Britain is the safest country for them. This is the most tolerant country in the world. It is a mirror of the world, and that is why people choose to come here when they are fleeing persecution.
I ask the Minister please to look at the consequences of what he is doing, in respect of the wider Somalian community. I have no problem with proscribing al-Shabaab, but he must realise that what he does today will have a profound effect on the Somalian community in the United Kingdom. Will he please ensure that that effect is carefully assessed, monitored and reviewed?
The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) has referred to cross-border activity, and I would like to invite the Minister to respond to one point. In the television programme that I saw a couple of days ago—which I can only take at face value—an organisation that I think was called the Islamic federation of Europe appeared to have a number of cells in Tower Hamlets and other parts of the country. It also appeared to be pretty endemic throughout Europe as a whole. In the context of considering whether to proscribe an organisation, and the prevention of terrorism, we need to look at the objectives of any organisation or umbrella organisation that sympathises with—and/or has similar objectives to those of—the organisation being proscribed.
It is not simply a question of proscribing, but of preventing. I simply ask whether the Minister knows of any evidence that this federation, which was given one and a half hours on Channel 4 a couple of days ago, is in fact engaged in activities that are in any way inimical to the stability of the UK. I also ask whether and to what extent it is infiltrating the political system. The Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), was also on the programme. Is there any evidence of infiltration on the basis of what one might describe as a masquerade?
We would all utterly defend freedom of speech and freedom of election, but the question that lies at the heart of the issue is whether there was any attempt to delude the electorate into believing that they were taking part in a political choice, when the people standing or organising actually represented a different objective of a fundamentalist nature.
Order. Before the right hon. Member intervenes, may I remind the House that we are looking closely at a particular order, whose main reference is to al-Shabaab? The general point is accepted, but that is the particular organisation named in the order referred to in the motion on today’s Order Paper.
I will not widen the debate because you have made your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. A number of people who were in the programme deny any involvement in this organisation, however, so to be fair to them—the hon. Gentleman has put one side of the story—it is important to note that a number of elected councillors have categorically denied any involvement at all in this organisation.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has pointed that out. What I am stating here is more in the nature of a question—asking the Minister, in the context of this particular order, whether he is aware of a connection of any description between the kind of activities described in the programme, which I am sure he knows about, and this organisation; and, indeed, whether any general lessons need to be drawn, as it would be completely unacceptable if any proscribed organisation, or anybody working with such an organisation under an umbrella, were engaged in activities that could undermine our electoral system.
Let me commence by answering the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who asked about recent television programmes and activities in Tower Hamlets. I cannot really comment on whether any consideration has been given to proscribing groups that are not on the proscribed list. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, there is a statutory test under the 2000 Act, which indicates whether or not an organisation should be proscribed. In response to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), we continue to keep under review not just organisations on the proscribed list, but organisations about which we have potential concerns, and which we may wish to bring forward at a future date to join the proscribed list. What I can say is that we keep all matters under review and we are active—not just in the borough of Tower Hamlets, but throughout east London and in many other parts of the UK—in helping to prevent terrorism through a range of activities and programmes to ensure that we do not allow radicalisation to occur.
That brings me to the initial point raised by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), echoed somewhat by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), which was about the evidence base. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East also touched on this. The decision to proscribe an organisation is not taken lightly. It entails building a case that meets the legal test under the 2000 Act, and which is examined by officials in the Home Office and other Government Departments. That case is assembled over many weeks and months as the evidence is brought forward and collated. Ultimately, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has to take a decision on that case.
To answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has seen evidence put to him, which we cannot discuss in detail here, indicating not only that suicide attacks, bombings and murders involving explosive devices might have been carried out by this organisation abroad, but general concerns about its operation. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East that British interests are sometimes affected by British interests abroad, and that solidarity with other organisations fighting terrorism abroad sometimes requires that we take particular steps. We have assessed the situation carefully and come to this conclusion, based on the evidence that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has examined.
I am very grateful for that clarification and I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Is he saying that there is al-Shabaab activity in the UK at this moment?
My right hon. Friend will have to accept that I cannot go into detail about the activities we wish to examine or about decisions taken on them. I have indicated to him clear evidence of activity abroad that we are concerned about. I hope that he will accept that, as we bring this measure forward. As I explained earlier, if an organisation does not accept proscription, it can make representations to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and if he upholds his decision, supported by both Houses of Parliament, the organisation can then take its case elsewhere and ask for the evidence to be looked at further. I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East and, indeed, the hon. Member for Reigate will accordingly accept that.
The hon. Members for Reigate and for Carshalton and Wallington effectively asked me, “Why now?” We keep these matters constantly under ongoing review. The hon. Member for Reigate asked about our relationship with Kenya. We have strong relationships with that country; we keep the situation under review and we will take action against any organisation when we believe we can meet the statutory test. I was also asked whether an organisation might morph into another organisation by changing its name. We keep that, too, under constant review. The same charge was made regarding our proscription of Islam4UK some four to five weeks ago. Other organisations have changed their name, and we have had to bring back orders to meet our obligations. As I say, we have to keep such matters under review.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked how many prosecutions we have taken. Between 2001 and 2009, 31 people have been charged with breaches of their proscription, and accordingly there have been 15 convictions in various forms across the UK.
We are very concerned not to label the Somali community as a whole—this issue was raised in the debate—in connection with our concerns about this particular organisation. The Somali community—in Leicester, as in other great cities of the UK—plays a very positive role. As accepted by hon. Members, members of the Somali community are often here because they have escaped from intimidation and terrorist activity elsewhere—concerns that we are trying to tackle. Britain has a great tradition of welcoming the Somali community and other refugees into the country. Concern has been expressed about whether the order will label the Somali community. I hope that it will not, and I believe—if I reflect on these matters carefully, as I have done—that the UK Somali community will welcome this action because it shows that we are concerned to tackle terrorism in their home country and the impact of such terrorism on the interests of citizens in their adopted country. That is why I hope the Somali community will welcome this measure—I am sure they will.
I was asked what else the Government were doing to help to defuse the cauldron that leads to terrorist organisations developing in the first place. The Government are greatly concerned to support the nation of Somalia and to tackle some of the wider issues to date. In 2009, the UK Government contributed £15.7 million to the African Union Mission in Somalia. I remind you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this mission was attacked by the organisation being proscribed today.
For the financial year 2009-10, the Department for International Development’s programme budget for Somalia is £25 million, and the Africa conflict prevention pool allocation to Somalia is £5.7 million. We are also spending a further £1.4 million on counter-terrorism projects, and we spent £750,000 on a three-year migration project that ended in December last year. We are extremely concerned to ensure that we support our European Community colleagues in the humanitarian office and the United Nations central emergency relief fund. Let me remind the House that the United Nations mission was also attacked by five suicide bombers, and by al-Shabaab organisation members, in October 2008. Sometimes, to secure support and improve the situation in Somalia, which is under attack from forces trying to destabilise it, we must invest British Government money.
I hope I have assured the House that the order is valuable, and that we are committed to Somalia as a whole. We will do nothing to label citizens of Somalia who live and make their homes in the United Kingdom as fellow travellers of the organisation concerned—they are not. They support the order, which I commend to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 1 March, be approved.
Business of the House
I beg to move,
That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Ms Harriet Harman not later than two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; the Questions may be put after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.
Today we return to our debates on the report of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, with a further two hours of debate, following more than eight hours of debate on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall, including five and half hours of debate last Monday. I hope that we will agree the motion without further debate; we do not want to debate the process, but to bring our debates on the substance to a conclusion, and to vote on the motions and amendments before the House. I commend the motion to the House.
Briefly, I want to register my objection to the fact that we do not have an opportunity today to debate the proposal on election of the Speaker.
We have an opportunity this afternoon to register the concern of many Members that it was perfectly fair for the Procedure Committee to assume that its whole package of motions would be voted on today, especially as the Leader of the House had put them all down on the Order Paper. At business questions, however, she said that she wanted to facilitate the proposals of the Wright Committee. She seemed to imply that she would allow us to vote on all aspects of the Wright Committee, whose Chairman is in his place now, which had specifically involved itself in the matter of the election of Deputy Speakers. As I understand it, that part of the Committee’s work was passed to the Procedure Committee, which was a specific decision of the Wright Committee.
For many months, the Procedure Committee deliberated on how we should elect Deputy Speakers, and whether the Speaker should be re-elected in an open or secret ballot. In all good faith, the Procedure Committee, whose Chairman is also in his place this afternoon, brought the motions before us. The Leader of the House was therefore wrong to say at business questions that we should vote only on the measures arising from the Wright Committee, because the proposals on election of Deputy Speakers came from the Procedure Committee. Deliberately and, we believe, for cynical reasons—I hate to say that, but I think that she fears she may not win the vote—she has cherry-picked only those motions relating to a secret ballot for the election of a Deputy Speaker.
My understanding was that the Leader of the House—she can deny this—had tabled all the motions, and was intending to speak against her own motion. Until last night, she was acting in an entirely appropriate way. She was doing what she promised the House: that she would give it a choice. Therefore, she put down one motion that the Speaker should be re-elected on an open ballot, and one motion that it should be on a secret ballot. She is of the view that we should elect the Speaker on a secret ballot only once—at the beginning, as we did last June. It is not for me to speak for her, but as I will not have a vote, I have no choice—this procedure debate is the only opportunity. She, along with many in the House, believes that the Speaker should be elected on an open ballot after that. Others take a different view, because we believe in consistency.
Why should every other post—every Select Committee Chair and Deputy Speakers—be elected on a secret ballot and then re-elected on a secret ballot? Nobody suggests that if the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, say, is elected on a secret ballot at the beginning of the next Parliament, thereafter there will be no further secret ballot. Once someone became Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, therefore, I presume that they could remain Chairman not just for that Parliament, but for two. I refer deliberately to a Chairman—or Chairlady or Chair—of a Committee in the next Parliament, because in the Parliament after that nobody would want to vote in an open ballot—they would rather have a secret ballot, and we will be granted one.
For clarity, may I make the point—I am sure my hon. Friend did not intend to mislead the House—that the Procedure Committee did not reach a judgment one way or the other on whether the Speaker in a new Parliament should be ratified by a secret ballot? It said that it ought to be a matter for the House to decide, and that is what the Leader of the House is denying us by not putting motions 69 and 72 above the line.
My right hon. Friend is right. I am at a disadvantage because I am not a member of the Procedure Committee; I can only look at its report. However, it seems that the Procedure Committee did a service to the House. It said, “There are two opinions: some people believe that the Speaker should be re-elected in an open ballot, and others believe that he or she should be re-elected in a secret ballot. Let us give the House a chance to vote.” The Leader of the House seemed to be going along with that entirely sensible procedure. What happened yesterday to convince her that she could not trust the House of Commons to vote on that most important measure? Why is it that all the other Chairmen of Select Committees, which are far less important than the office of Speaker, will be re-elected on a secret ballot, but the House will never be given an opportunity to vote on whether the Speaker should be re-elected in a secret ballot?
We simply ask for democracy. How can one talk about making the House more modern and accountable when such back-room gerrymandering still goes on? The Leader of the House—she and she alone, not the House of Commons—has decided that for the next 100 years, once a Speaker is elected on a secret ballot, it will be impossible to have a secret ballot, and virtually impossible to have any decent election.
I am a member of the Procedure Committee, and I am horrified that the Leader of the House is denying us an opportunity to vote on a matter that was the unanimous decision of the Select Committee. It is quite wrong. For consistency, I happen to be in favour of open ballots across the board—I would like none to be secret—but is it not even more bizarre that if the Speaker loses his seat at the next election, his successor will be elected by secret ballot, but if he retains his seat, and there is a vote, which there will be, it will be by open ballot? Where is the consistency?
I think that we can prove, without a shadow of doubt, that there is absolutely no logical consistency in what the Leader of the House has done. This should not be seen in terms of an individual; it should be seen in terms of the rights of the House of Commons. So let us talk about some mythical future Speaker. The whole point of a secret ballot is to allow everyone to make a considered—
Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman some leeway, and it is perfectly in order for him to comment on what is not in the motion, but it is certainly not in order for him to go into such detail about the substance of the issue.
This motion, Madam Deputy Speaker, concerns the way in which we are to conduct our affairs this afternoon. Let me end with a plea to the Leader of the House, who presumably, like me, loves this House of Commons and wants it to act in a democratic way. Why are we voting for a business committee this afternoon? Because we do not want the Government—and it may be a Conservative Government—to decide on the business of the House. We do not want the Government alone to decide what we can vote for.
It is within the power of the Leader of the House to stand up in the next few minutes and say, “I have listened to the House of Commons. Next week I will allow the House of Commons to vote.” I am not making any plea for either a secret or an open ballot; I am merely asking the Leader of the House to facilitate that vote. If people have confidence in her arguments, they will vote for her. That is all she has to do.
Let me, as a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, join my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) in saying how disappointed I am that the whole of our report is not to be debated under this motion. Motion 8, relating to the election of the Deputy Speakers, specifically states:
“The First Report from the Procedure Committee, on Election of the Speaker and of the Deputy Speakers… is relevant.”
The rest of the report and its recommendations, however, are not the subject of a debate, and there is no opportunity for a resolution to be made.
I hope that in responding to what will be quite a short debate, the Leader of the House will repeat in an open forum what she said to me just now behind the Speaker’s Chair. She seems to be under the misapprehension that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House cannot be trusted to make decisions themselves, and that she should somehow second-guess those decisions and prevent us from proceeding with motions when she thinks that that might produce the wrong result. If I may say so, the right hon. and learned Lady is confusing her position as a partisan member of the Government with her position as Leader of the House.
Perhaps the Leader of the House is simply trying to reinforce the case for a business committee, thus encouraging the House to vote for it later.
That is a good point. The same point was made powerfully by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) during business questions earlier today. The rather glib response of the Leader of the House was that of course she was in favour of a business committee; but why do we have to set up a business committee in order to be able to put on the agenda for debate and resolution in the House the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, which have already been presented? Members of the Committee were strongly pressured to produce our report in timely fashion so that there would be an opportunity for the full report, and the recommendations, to be considered by the House before the end of this Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend agree that 2010 will feature in the great and long history of the House of Commons as the year that gave us the opportunity to reform this place as it has never been reformed before? Unfortunately, as a result of today’s antics the reforms will be half-baked, and the public will not like that at all.
My hon. Friend has made an important point, which speaks for itself.
What we have now is a lacuna. Earlier, the Leader of the House was not prepared to tell us when motions 69 and 72—which are on the Order Paper in her name but will not be debated today, and which arise directly from the first report of the Procedure Committee—would be tabled in a way that would allow us to debate and vote on them. Despite repeated questioning, the Leader of the House refused to answer. She even refused to confirm or deny my suggestion that she would be intent on withdrawing those two motions, thereby, having led us up the hill, before taking us down again.
I regard the way in which this procedure is being conducted as intolerable. It obviously reinforces the case for a business committee, but until that committee is up and running, we shall remain in our present position. What has happened today has raised a great many suspicions about whether, as a result of the motions with which we will be dealing, we shall be able to wrest control over the proceedings of the House away from the Executive and the shadow Executive and give it to the legislature. That is certainly what I want to happen.
The motion provides for two hours of debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that we would need no more than two hours in which to debate motions 69 and 72? It cannot be a question of time.
I do agree, but, in fairness to the Leader of the House, she has not put forward that explanation. Indeed, she has not put forward any explanation for not tabling the motions for debate today. When we are considering whether or not we wish to support the business motion, it would be very helpful for us to know the intentions of the Leader of the House in relation to motions 69 and 72. Perhaps because she did not think that there was enough time during business questions, she declined to answer specific questions on the subject, one of which was asked by the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I hope that she will respond to them now.
I may be able to help the hon. Gentleman a little. If the House were to approve the motion on the House business committee, we would no longer be forced to be a supplicant of Government in order to ensure that our own business is discussed. Surely that it is the issue that we need to nail down today.
The hon. Gentleman has made a point that has been made already by both the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, and I agree with him; but what he is talking about is something for the future. What he is not talking about is how to deal with the issue raised by the Procedure Committee, which met on more occasions that it would have normally, specifically in order to be able to present its recommendations to the House in good time before the Dissolution of the present Parliament. Even if all the hon. Gentleman’s recommendations are passed today, that will not enable the House, of its own volition, to deal with motions 69 and 72 before the end of the present Session, thus enabling resolutions to be in place at the beginning of the next Parliament in time for the re-election of the Speaker.
As I said during our last debate on this subject, last week or the week before, the root cause of the problems is the fact that the Executive control the Standing Orders of the House. We must address that as part of the issue to which my hon. Friend is referring, and the issue of the House business committee, because it runs very deep. It has often been said that the moment when Front Benchers are seen to be agreeing with each other is the moment at which to look for the problem that is being generated.
I agree absolutely, which is why I tabled an amendment to a motion that suggests that if x, y or z were done, there will be various consequences, but does not answer the question as to what would happen if the Government did not do what we would normally expect; namely to act quickly after the Queen’s Speech in a new Parliament. I remember being a Member when it took six or nine months to get the Select Committees set up, because the then Conservative Government were reluctant to appoint them. They thought it would suit their own purposes not to have those Committees set up to scrutinise the Government’s activities. The motions should ensure that Select Committees are set up very early.
The behaviour of the Leader of the House in not putting forward motions 69 and 72 means that we would be well advised to look at the small print in the motions before the House. If the Government can give themselves some wriggle room, they certainly will. We have seen the Government wriggling in a most unparliamentary fashion today.
Thank you, Madam Speaker, for calling me one last time to speak on an issue that I feel I have been living and breathing since the end of last summer. I spoke early in the debate last week and I will try not to cover some of the—[Interruption.] I am sorry. I have made a mistake; I thought this was the main debate.
I am very sorry that the Leader of the House has not indicated that she wishes to respond to the points that have been made by my hon. Friends. I speak totally dispassionately and objectively—I shall not be in the next House—but the very first business to be taken by the newly elected House of Commons, be it in April, May or June, is the election of the Speaker. I do not know how the House will vote on these motions; I am not even sure how I would vote myself. But whether it is to vote for an open or a secret ballot, it is not for the Leader of the House to deny the House the opportunity to make that choice.
I am sure that this must be deeply embarrassing to you, Mr. Speaker. You have been such a champion of democracy, making it plain throughout your time here—long before you stood for the Speakership—that you were first, second and last a democrat. You would not wish to be given some extraordinary artificial protection by the Leader of the House from a secret ballot if you were fortunate enough to be returned as a Member of this House at the next election and then seek the Speakership. It is terribly important that the Leader of the House gives the House the opportunity described by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight).
The report from the Procedure Committee is part of the package of papers that we were all given at the Vote Office for today’s debate. The motion on the election of Deputy Speakers has been tabled by the Leader of the House. As my right hon. Friend has also made plain, his Committee did not come to a conclusion on whether the Speaker should be elected by secret or open ballot. He has made plain his own detachment or agnosticism, if I can put it that way, on the issue. That is a position that I share. All that he and his Committee colleagues have asked is that the House be given the opportunity for which the Committee asked. It is as simple as that. The Leader of the House should speak for us all and it is not for her to trust us only selectively. It is terribly important that every one of these substantive recommendations in the Wright report and in the Procedure Committee report be voted on before the end of this Parliament so that the new Parliament begins with new rules and a clean slate and knows what it is doing. If it is that the Speaker should be elected by open ballot, God bless the Speaker and God bless the House. If the House takes a different decision, equally God bless the Speaker and God bless the House.
I urge the Leader of the House to give an undertaking—she cannot do it this afternoon—that in the next two or three weeks there will be a brief opportunity of an hour or an hour and a half for my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire to present his recommendation and for the House to vote upon it.
I agree with everything that has been said, most particularly the point that this underlines the need for a House business committee to take control of these events and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said before leaving the Chamber, the issue of control of Standing Orders needs to be addressed.
I shall be brief, but I wish to ask about the reference in the motion to the suspension of Standing Order No. 41A. How does the Leader of the House decide which Divisions should be taken on the day and which should be deferred? My understanding is that deferred Divisions were introduced to make it easier for large numbers of right hon. and hon. Members to participate in Divisions. To that extent, it has made it easier for the Government to get some of their business through as it means that they do not have to keep people here on Thursdays. In my rather naive way, this seems to me to be a very good example of where we could give all right hon. and hon. Members an opportunity to vote on these extremely important motions.
It is understandable that this sort of House business comes up on a Thursday, but why was Standing Order No. 41A suspended? I would be grateful if the Leader of the House gave her view. I rather look forward to a House business committee being able to decide when there should and should not be deferred Divisions as that would be an improvement on the present situation, in which the responsibility rests on her shoulders.
I am dismayed—I trust that you will be, too, Mr. Speaker—at the manner in which the House is being treated this afternoon. You were kind enough to give evidence to the Procedure Committee, as did the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and a number of experts. The Procedure Committee went to a great deal of time and trouble to produce the report in short order, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, to enable it to be debated and voted on before Dissolution.
The motion indicates a time limit of two hours. By my miserable reckoning, and even allowing for my continuing for a couple of minutes, that takes us up to about 4.15 pm. [Hon. Members: “No.”] Whenever it is, the House could sit until 6 o’clock, so where is the rush? Why is not possible for us to debate properly and thoroughly the recommendations of the Procedure Committee this afternoon? It is not now possible because the motions are not above the line on the Order Paper. But the Leader of the House must stand at the Dispatch Box in a minute and give the House a good and clear reason why the Procedure Committee’s report has been cherry-picked, why matters are not being debated properly, and why she is seeking to deny the House the opportunity to vote on the unanimous recommendation of the Committee.
On the question of deferred Divisions, one of the reasons for introducing them was to enable Members to vote other than very late at night. Deferred Divisions do not apply to motions to which amendments have been tabled. That makes sense. It is simple for hon. Members to vote in a deferred Division on a simple straightforward motion, but it would be difficult to do so on a motion with amendments, or amendments to amendments. I am a strong advocate of deferred Divisions as a means of avoiding late-night voting.
One of the reasons for putting this debate on today, rather than at the end of the debate last Monday, was so that we would not be voting very late at night. Instead, Members can be present at the debate this afternoon and then get on with the voting. I hope that that answers that point.
I feel very uncomfortable indeed that I appear to be crossing swords with the Procedure Committee, because I think it does extremely good work; indeed, I pay tribute to it. Members know that they do not make themselves national figures of great popularity by serving on that Committee, but they do a good job on behalf of the House by taking forward detailed procedural issues. Somebody has got to do that, and they do it extremely well. As has been said, they have taken time and trouble in their work on the matter that we are discussing, and they have produced detailed work not only on the election of the Deputy Speakers but on petitioning and a range of other issues. The House has benefited from all that.
I do not want to get into a detailed debate about a motion that is not before the House—we are currently discussing the business motion—but I would like to respond briefly on the election of the Speaker. Deputy Speakers are elected at general elections under party banners. They stand for election like any other Member of the House, as Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative. The Speaker’s situation is different: the Speaker stands for election as Speaker of the House and, by convention, the other parties do not stand against the Speaker. There is, therefore, a difference between Deputy Speakers and Speakers. I know that that does not address the issue—
Will the Leader of the House give way?
If the right hon. Gentleman will let me continue, I will give way before I conclude if I have not answered the point he wishes to raise.
I know that my comments on Speaker and Deputy Speaker do not address the annoyance that is felt at the fact that I control what is put down for the House to debate. We have already taken steps to deal with that issue, however, because last Monday we agreed that we did not have to wait for a House business committee, because a private Member could table a motion. Indeed, after the election, a private Member could table motions 69 and 72 and have them debated and voted on. This is not just a question of proving why we need a House business committee, therefore, as we have already given Back-Bench Members the opportunity to bring a matter before the House for a debate and a vote.
I will give way in a moment.
We now have now got a lot of substantive business before the House. We have the election of Deputy Speakers and the election of Chairs and members of Select Committees. We have the establishment of a House Committee to deal with Back-Bench business and also an amendment to give that House Committee the opportunity to deal with Government business too, as well as a whole range of other issues. These are very important, substantive matters, and I suggest that we should not take up time debating something that is not before the House, although I accept that Members are questioning why it is not before the House.
I also ask Members to let us agree to this business motion without a Division, because if there is a Division, I am sure that the motion will be passed, and all that will have been achieved is that time will have been taken out of the debate. Therefore, if Members call out against the motion, it will avail them of nothing except taking 15 minutes out of the available time in order to vote.
I shall give way in a moment.
I do not stand back from the fact that I have time-limited the next debate to two hours, because we want to have the debate on the substance of the motions and then we want to vote on them, and there will be quite a number of votes. Afterwards, Members will be able to return to their constituencies.
Before I sit down and commend the motion to the House, I shall give way to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is the Procedure Committee Chair—