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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 507: debated on Thursday 11 March 2010

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Registration (Young People)

1. What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of people under 25 years old who are not registered to vote. (321505)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it published its most recent national estimate for under-registration in England and Wales in 2005. This found that 16 per cent. of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds were not registered. However, recent research published by the commission found that in a small number of case study areas approximately 56 per cent. of those under 25 years old were missing from the registers. The commission plans further research on that issue.

Does my hon. Friend share my serious concern and alarm, given that the implication of those shocking statistics is that hundreds of young people in Kettering, thousands of young people throughout Northamptonshire and tens of thousands of young people throughout our country will not be able to take part in voting for a change of Government at the next general election because they are not on the electoral register?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and the Electoral Commission informs me that it is planning a campaign, which will take place before the next general election, with a range of activities targeted at young people. The campaign will include online advertising on sites that the group uses, such as Facebook, along with advertising on television and radio and in magazines. Registration is an urgent matter, and my hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to it.

I welcome the measures that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned, but does he agree that registering people to vote is far too important to be done on the cheap, and that there is no substitute in many parts of the country and with many target groups for knocking on doors, finding out who lives there and making sure that they are registered to vote?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is the responsibility of electoral returning officers throughout the country. The Electoral Commission is introducing better and clearer guidelines for them on the activity that it expects. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we must find those young people and make sure that they are put on the electoral register so that they are at least given the opportunity to vote come polling day.

One very worrying thing about young people not voting is that they are the people on whom the decisions will have the longest-term effect. When I go into schools I find that enthusiasm for politics is great among the younger age group, so will the Electoral Commission consider conducting research on whether a reduction in the voting age to 16 might engage people in the political system while they are at school and before they get lost?

It is an interesting point, but I am afraid that at the most recent general election only 37 per cent. of those aged 18 to 25 could be bothered to vote, and until that percentage increases the case for 16-year-olds being given the right to vote has not been made.

Voter Participation

2. What steps the Electoral Commission plans to take to maximise voter participation at the forthcoming general election. (321506)

The commission informs me that, to encourage voter registration ahead of the general election, it will run a multi-media campaign using television, radio, press and online advertising. That activity will be targeted at the groups that are less likely to be registered, including young people, students, certain ethnic minority communities, service personnel and UK citizens living overseas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer, but does he agree that although it is not illegal not to vote, it is illegal not to give the registration officer the necessary information? Have we not have reached the point at which we should marry up the two?

The House would have to consider that issue, and it would involve a change in the law. The Electoral Commission is always in the marketplace for interesting ideas, and I shall make sure it is aware of the hon. Gentleman’s representations, but in the end it will be a matter for this House.

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to column 288 at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, when it was pointed out that the Army Families Federation has carried out trials showing that the majority of troops serving overseas will be unable to vote. In order to maximise voter participation, will my hon. Friend speak again to the Electoral Commission and take on board the point that I have made before, which is that there should be one registration when people join the armed forces and an encouragement to cast proxy votes, so that when they serve their country abroad, which involves the possibility of dying for their country, they have the opportunity to vote?

That is a very important matter, and the Electoral Commission is extremely alive to it. The commission is working closely with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence, Royal Mail, the British Forces Post Office and electoral administrators to ensure that everything is done to improve the situation. Given the tight time scales involved in exercising a postal vote once a general election is called, my hon. Friend makes an extremely important point that proxy voting may be the right answer. The commission is certainly aware of that.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

DFID Audit

3. How many days National Audit Office staff spent in developing countries when auditing the expenditure of the Department for International Development in 2009. (321508)

I have been asked to reply.

During 2009, National Audit Office staff spent a total of 183 days in developing countries as part of the NAO’s financial and value for money audit work relating to DFID. That total includes days spent in developing countries both by NAO employees and by employees of audit firms that the NAO engaged to assist it with its audit of DFID’s annual resource accounts.

That amounts to barely two days per country in which DFID has programmes—programmes that involve billions of pounds. Today the International Development Committee published its annual report on DFID’s performance and said that although it welcomes the continued rise in DFID’s budget, it is concerned that DFID’s staff is being reduced, making it harder to ensure that money is well spent in the field. Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Public Accounts Commission to get the Comptroller and Auditor General to look at the problem, write a report and consider whether additional audit staff are needed to ensure that DFID money is well spent in the field?

Constitutionally, the Comptroller and Auditor General is, quite rightly, completely independent in what he determines to study for the Public Accounts Commission and the Public Accounts Committee. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I shall relay to the Comptroller and Auditor General. To be completely clear, the NAO has worked recently—this year—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya and India, so it takes very seriously the work of DFID and will continue its work.

Through the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), I request that the National Audit Office look particularly—[Hon. Members: “Wrong one!”] I am terribly sorry—I mean the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee; forgive me. Will the hon. Gentleman look specifically at how DFID money in Sierra Leone is spent? An hon. Member and other friends have just come back from there with the most alarming stories of diversion of DFID aid into the pockets of Ministers down there, and we really need to get Sierra Leone under full transparent audit.

That is an extremely good point. I shall of course relay the right hon. Gentleman’s point of view to the Comptroller and Auditor General, and I am sure he would be very happy to undertake a study in Sierra Leone if that were indeed appropriate.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Music

4. What the policy is of the Church Commissioners on encouraging the use of music as part of church and cathedral worship. (321509)

The Church’s Liturgical Commission promotes and develops understanding of liturgy and its use in the Church. The commission sees music as an integral part of the Church’s worship, not an optional extra.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Lichfield cathedral is the only cathedral to boast an entire orchestra, which, three times a year, gives public performances of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and so on, but also, on other occasions, performs for worship? Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I invite the entire House here today to come to one of these concerts in Lichfield cathedral, although Members will have to pay for their own tickets?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that kind invitation. He may be aware that the Lichfield cathedral choir heads off to America after Easter, but the cathedral frequently welcomes impressive visiting choirs. If his invitation is to hear the cathedral choir in New York, I am sure that the House would be very happy to accept.

I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) says about our diocesan cathedral. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that cathedral music is one of the great glories of our English heritage? It is terribly important that cathedral choir schools are able to continue, so can he assure us that they are getting all the support that they need?

As we are talking about cathedrals, I echo the views of the hon. Gentleman. He is of course aware that the Liturgical Commission takes a strong interest in these things. We are aware of all the traditions of the Church in relation to church music. We understand the transformative potential of music within Church of England worship; it is part and parcel, if I may say so, of our heritage, our religion, and our beliefs. It gives us all great satisfaction to hear cathedral music.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Investigatory Powers

5. What recent assessment has been made of the adequacy of the Electoral Commission's investigatory powers. (321510)

The hon. Gentleman will know that Parliament recently agreed to strengthen the commission’s existing powers through the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. However, these new powers will not come into effect until secondary legislation is agreed by Parliament. The commission informs me that it welcomes the cross-party support that is to occur early in the new Parliament.

What does that say about today’s Conservative party, which told the Electoral Commission that it would not—[Interruption.]

Order. I cannot have other Members acting as arbiters on the appropriateness or otherwise of what Members are saying. Let us hear Mr. Prentice.

As I was saying, what does it say about today’s Conservative party that officials and staff of the Conservative party refused to co-operate with the Electoral Commission during its investigation into Bearwood Corporate Services? That is all documented in the press releases and supporting reports from the Electoral Commission. Will the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) advise me whether he thinks the powers of the Electoral Commission should be enhanced to compel the attendance of witnesses when matters concerning possible breaches of electoral law are being discussed?

Parliament has already acted on that, as I said in my answer. The hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced Member of the House, will know that the Speaker’s Committee does not go into individual cases, but if he would like to look at what the Electoral Commission’s website says about the particular case he has raised, he will see that after a thorough investigation, the donations in question were deemed permissible. I am sure he will be good enough to welcome that.

Can my hon. Friend say whether the investigatory powers of the Electoral Commission include an ability to prevent political parties in the House from seeking to influence how particular Members vote, particularly on matters relating to their area or their constituency? It seems that the power of the Whips and the political parties is such that it deters people from voting, because they say, “It doesn’t matter which party we vote for; we can’t get somebody who will represent us.”

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I am glad to say that it has absolutely nothing to do with the Electoral Commission.

Given that the Electoral Commission is currently undertaking a review of ward boundaries in Stoke-on-Trent, will the hon. Gentleman assure me that it has sufficient resources to ensure that there is full public participation in deciding on the boundaries of the new local wards?

That is of course a matter for the local government boundary committee, which is about to become a stand-alone agency, but I can reassure the hon. Lady that the matter will be conducted in its usual thorough way, including hearing the views of local people.

Church Commissioners

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

English Heritage (Church Repairs)

6. What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with English Heritage on grant funding for church repairs in 2010-11. (321511)

Church officials meet regularly with English Heritage, which, together with the Heritage Lottery Fund, offers grants for urgent repairs to listed places of worship. The scheme continues to be oversubscribed and is due to end in March 2011, so we expect to have discussions with English Heritage this year about its continuation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply, but it is extremely alarming that from the end of March next year there is no guarantee of funds being available. Will he also confirm that the amount of funding has been severely reduced in recent years, meaning that fewer churches are eligible for it?

The Church itself has spent £110 million on current repairs, due in no small measure to the listed places of worship grant scheme, which saw VAT reduced to 5 per cent. The Church can be grateful that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now the Prime Minister, pushed that through. We are looking to continue discussions with the European Commission and others to ensure that it is continued. As to the fact that grant money has been reduced, that is regrettably the case.

Dean of Derby

7. How many applications the diocese of Derby has received for the vacant post of dean of Derby. (321512)

The panel tasked with appointing the new dean of Derby was pleased to receive a very healthy number of inquiries and many good-quality applications following its advertisement. Some 30 applications were considered at the long-listing stage.

Given that the Church of England ordains about 400 priests a year, of whom half are women, was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was that not one of the applicants was a woman priest? Does he think that reflects badly on the recruitment process, and that there is some perceived institutional barrier to women making progress in the Church of England?

I might in the narrow context of female deans, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the number of women archdeacons is steadily increasing. There are currently 15 of them—14 per cent. of the posts filled. We have two excellent female deans, at the hon. Gentleman’s own cathedral in Salisbury and at Leicester cathedral. I agree with him, however, that we ought to do more and that there ought not to be a glass ceiling.

Minster Status

8. Whether the Church Commissioners allocate funding to the Church of England for the purpose of assisting the consideration of applications for minster status. (321513)

Minster status in and of itself has no legal meaning, so the Church Commissioners do not allocate funds for it. That is an example of God moving in mysterious ways.

Would it be possible, when God oversees this process, to put aside the issues of mammon? The business community in Croydon is pushing the idea of minster status, but is it more a matter for the religious ministry of the Church and its Christian care and compassion within the diocese?

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, who wants a minster in Croydon. Coming from the north-east, I have one in York, another in Beverley and one in Sunderland. I would be happy to speak to the bishop on the issue, and the hon. Gentleman might also wish to drop him a line.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Rape Cases

10. What recent discussions she has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of rape. (321514)

I have frequent discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions about the prosecution of rape cases. He is at the start of a national programme of visits across the entire service, a primary focus of which will be discussing with front-line staff cases involving violence against women and rape. The notion now is that we know what good practice is, but it needs to be spread consistently across the country.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that excellent response. In January, I addressed an excellent south Wales CPS seminar on the investigation and prosecution of rape, and saw first hand the improvement in the way in which the criminal justice system responds to rape and that the number of prosecutions is increasing. However, how are we going to support CPS staff when they are faced with defence lawyers in court who claim that a woman’s behaviour—the amount of alcohol she has consumed, how she dresses and whether she was flirtatious—was an invitation to rape? After all, we do not say that leaving a window open is an invitation to burglary. How can a woman be responsible for a man’s action purely because of how she dresses and so on? I would welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s comments on that.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. May I tell her how much positive feedback there was from the CPS on her address earlier this year?

The CPS now takes very seriously the way in which myths and stereotypes can affect its own decision making—it tries to train that out—and how they can be highly relevant in court. Whether the CPS or barristers are doing the advocacy, the CPS makes a point of ensuring that the use of those myths and stereotypes is challenged. Judges—obviously totally independently of the Government or the CPS—now have comprehensive training from the Judicial Studies Board, which includes discussion of how to deal with the kind of assumptions that juries can make or be persuaded to make. There are some new directions in the new bench book, in which the judges are exploring what they can properly say to juries to ensure that a balanced approach is taken, so that the evidence is evaluated in a fair and informed way without that kind of prejudice taking a role.

Order. I just make the point that there are nine questions in this section, and I would like to get through as many of them as possible, so we need to keep it tight.

How prevalent is the practice of plea bargaining across the United Kingdom in relation to rape or serious sexual attacks?

I would have to write to the hon. Gentleman with precise figures, but I am sure that sometimes plea negotiations take place. Sometimes a complainant is not very keen to carry on with a prosecution, and some lesser verdict might none the less put the man on the sex offenders register and fire a shot across his bows, as it were. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants detailed figures, I will write to him with them.

Serious Fraud Office

11. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office in deterring and prosecuting economic crime. (321515)

I am reasonably pleased with the significant progress that the SFO has made over the past two years. It has reduced the time taken to deal with referrals from the public to 20 working days on average, and reduced the time by an average of nine months to investigate and prosecute crime. It has a 91 per cent. conviction rate, achieved its first ever serious crime prevention order this year, and recovered assets valued at more than £8 million—progress in the right direction.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer, but when Jessica de Grazia looked at the SFO and produced her report back in June 2008, she identified a number of serious failings and deficiencies. What steps has the Solicitor-General taken to deal with those failings and deficiencies?

There was, of course, a whole transformation programme flowing from the de Grazia report, and there was a new director in the form of Richard Alderman and a good deal of change in the higher management echelons of the SFO. The progress made was independently evaluated by the Cabinet Office capability review team in December 2009, and it regarded the SFO as having made very significant strides and improvements since that transformation programme came into play.

I am sure the Solicitor-General will agree that it is important that the SFO has sufficient resources to carry out its functions on economic crime, but can she confirm that the SFO has not received any specific funding for its anti-corruption work for at least 12 months?

Yes, that is right, as I understand it, but none the less a good deal of work is going on in that direction. I think that there is a question later on this, but probably about 9 per cent. of the funding has, I think, gone into that area, and two specific sections of its work force are dealing with it. Clearly, any specific funding comes through a different kind of funding stream for particular cases. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the SFO has always been funded in that way, and clearly any such demands will be treated sympathetically.

Fraud is now costing the United Kingdom about £30 billion a year compared with an estimated £13 billion only three years ago. It seems that the SFO is increasingly using plea bargaining as a tactic to move its cases along. Does the Solicitor-General accept that our current statutory framework is in need of reform to accommodate that?

I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman thinks that the statutory framework needs to be amended to cope with plea bargaining. A new framework set up by the Law Officers has been accepted and taken forward by the SFO, and is currently very much in play. I do not think that he should take the view that fraud increased from £13 billion to £30 billion between the two assessments, because they were done on wholly different bases—the second one postdated the setting up of the National Fraud Authority, which has done a far more thorough job because it has had the resources to do so.

Fraud is a real problem in this country today. Plea bargaining has a role to play in the quick dispatch of cases, but it always has to be made clear that people who commit fraud will be punished severely by the courts and will not be able to buy their way out of trouble.

We are actually receiving independent reports that the framework is not fit for purpose. What assurances can the Solicitor-General provide that the SFO is developing its flexible case criteria to minimise growing concern about overlap with other counter-fraud organisations, and has she considered a unified agency?

I am not sure what input the hon. Gentleman is getting, but I would be pleased if he could forward to me the comments that he says back up his question. It does not seem to me that the plea bargaining structures, which is the point he started with, impinge very strongly on any statutory framework, but, as I said, I would be pleased to hear. The various agencies tackling fraud—the SFO, the CPS fraud section and the NFA—work together very closely, and where there is evidence of potential or historical overlap, they work consistently and as quickly as they can to remove it and ensure a streamlined approach.

Action Fraud Helpline

Action Fraud is a helpline and website offering a central point for individuals and small to medium-sized businesses that have been the subject of fraud. It offers the option of being referred to Victim Support and gives fraud prevention advice, and although it has only been in place since October, it has certainly increased the amount of fraud reported, and assisted in intelligence gathering.

Can the Solicitor-General tell me whether the Action Fraud helpline is up and running in my area, and say precisely how it will help my constituents who have been the victims of fraud?

Yes, it is now. The Acton Fraud helpline started in October 2009, and it is functioning nationally, but the question is how to promote it. We need to promote it region by region, so that instead of it being inundated with complaints straight away, they come in at a rate such that it can expand to meet them. Although the helpline started in the midlands, it is now in the north-west, where my hon. Friend’s constituency is, as well as the north-east, where mine is. The helpline will offer information to prosecutions, if that is practical, as well as victim support, and it will absolutely ensure that evidence of fraud brought by individuals goes into the intelligence that we use to try to wipe out fraud more broadly.

Retail Crime

13. How many prosecutions the Crown Prosecution Service has brought for offences related to retail crime in the last 12 months; and if she will make a statement. (321517)

The records maintained by the CPS do not identify retail crime separately, but the Office for Criminal Justice Reform says that 72,609 defendants were proceeded against for stealing from shops and stores in 2008. That is the latest figure, which exceeded the figure for the preceding year, which was 67,644.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that reply, but does she share my concern and that of retailers, particularly small shopkeepers and newsagents, about the rising tide of retail crime, including burglaries and shop theft, when a degree of violence is used? What measures does she expect her Department to be able to take to prosecute such cases successfully and to send out a strong message that her Department and the Government generally are dealing seriously with the increase in such crime?

We do take crime very seriously. It is an established principle of sentencing that when a theft or other retail crime is visited upon a small business, the degree of violence is an aggravating factor to take into account, because it can obviously cause more damage. That is a principle that we support entirely. As I said, convictions have increased, and we intend to be vigilant to ensure that they continue to do so.

Will my hon. and learned Friend satisfy herself that the Crown Prosecution Service has not successfully prosecuted cases on the basis of police files that were compiled using evidence illegally obtained by News of the World phone hacking?

Yes—I am not sure that any connection has been made, but I am very well aware of the issue, and it is an issue well raised.

Serious Fraud Office

14. How much the Serious Fraud Office spent on investigating offences of trans-national bribery in 2009. (321519)

The SFO very much recognises the importance of that work. It has an anti-corruption and an international assistance unit working successfully with foreign Governments, and around 15 large-scale anti-corruption cases are currently under investigation. So far this financial year, the SFO has spent about 9 per cent. of its funding on such work.

The SFO needs more money to investigate and prosecute bribery cases. The Solicitor-General will have seen that BAE Systems was required to pay $400 million to the US Department of Justice in relation to the al-Yamamah case. Will she consider how financial penalties paid in such cases in the UK could be used to fund the cost of enforcing the law against bribery?

Yes, there is a relationship already between asset recovery, in a broad and not technical sense, and a premium on that, as it were, for the organisation that has recovered the assets. The issue is one that we are looking at, in order to ensure that, in the criminal sense as it were, the polluter pays.

In the context of asset recovery, will the hon. and learned Lady warmly commend the co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana, which are working increasingly closely together to combat all forms of crime, in all parts of the island of Ireland?

Yes, I am sure that is something that should be thoroughly commended, as part of a pattern of co-operative behaviour that is reflected across the UK these days.

Rape Cases

15. What recent steps she has taken to reduce the time taken between charges being brought and court proceedings in rape cases. The Crown Prosecution Service tries to ensure that at the time of charge, cases are as trial-ready as possible, so that subsequent delays in the court process can be avoided. Ensuring that whenever possible one specialist rape prosecutor takes on a case from start to finish contributes to better case management and better timeliness. (321520)

The conviction rate from charge to conviction is 58 per cent., which represents a significant increase on what the rate has been historically. By analogy, 65 per cent. is the conviction rate for robbery. There is obviously still room for improvement, but things are going in the right direction. It is imperative that we send out a message that rapists are now being convicted at that rate, so that women—and, indeed, men—have the confidence to report, and do not feel that they will be put through the mill again. There is still a large drop-out rate between complaint and getting to court, but we are trying to tackle that in a range of ways. We now have 30 sexual assault referral centres, and a whole phalanx of independent sexual violence advisers who befriend and support a complainant from the minute they come to the police until the end of the case. This gives the complainant better sustenance than they would have had before.

Serious Fraud Office

16. What the policy of the Serious Fraud Office is on assistance for those who have lost substantial savings to fraudsters. (321521)

The Serious Fraud Office puts victims at the heart of its work. In this financial year it has recovered about £9 million from fraudsters, and £4 million of that has been paid back to victims.

My hon. and learned Friend and I both served on all 39 sittings of the Standing Committee on the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. It was never stated in those deliberations that the money had to go back to the victims. Why has only £4 million of that £9 million gone back to the victims? Does that meet their needs and reflect how much they lost in the first place?

The SFO puts a premium on ensuring that money is repaid to victims whenever possible. Sometimes, however, it is not practical to identify where money has come from. On some occasions it has come from organisations, and is returned to them; on others, it comes into the public purse. When dealing with assets recovery, the SFO’s intention is, first and foremost, to ensure repayment to identifiable victims.

Insider trading is one of the most awful kinds of fraud. Is the Serious Fraud Office able to cope with looking after the victims of this specialist fraud, especially in the light of the fact that if the opposition got into power, they would abolish the SFO?

Like a large number of the things that the Opposition would do if they got in, that would be seriously unwise. The SFO very much has its eye on the whole insider trading agenda. It has specialists to look into it, and they can help to support the victims of that particularly heinous form of fraud.

Joint Venture Property Investments

18. What recent guidance the Law Officers’ Departments have issued to Government Departments on the legal rights of local authorities undertaking joint venture property investments. (321523)

By long-standing convention observed by successive Administrations and embodied in the ministerial code, the fact that the Law Officers have or have not advised on a particular issue and the content of any advice are not disclosed outside Government.

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for that answer, because it gives me the opportunity to highlight what might be appropriate practice for supporting local authorities that get involved in joint ventures on the basis of property speculation, as Croydon is doing. I appreciate that the economics might be a matter for another Department, but would she think it appropriate to give local authorities good guidance on their legal exposure when they get involved with special purpose vehicles and joint ventures with property companies and the private equity business?

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to inform me of the nature of his concern the other night. His council has not sought Government funding, or any approval or consents, for the special purpose vehicle that is the cause of his concern. The Government do not therefore have any relationship or involvement with the council in that regard. He is right, however, to suggest that if the council sought funding, consent or associated approval in the future, the Government would consider the nature of the venture with great care.

Order. We now come to questions to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), representing the House of Commons Commission, and to the Leader of the House. Unfortunately, I note that the hon. Member for North Devon is not here. [Interruption.] Ah, the hon. Gentleman has arrived—and his arrival is most welcome. I call Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is getting a little ahead of himself, and a bit confused. “Question 19” will suffice at this stage.

House of Commons Commission

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

Day Nursery

My apologies, Mr. Speaker, as I think I may have caused the confusion.

Following the Commission’s decision to establish a nursery, a project board has been established and good progress is being made on drawing up the specifications.

Apologies for that slight slip, Mr. Speaker.

This important issue has not suddenly arisen before the House. I believe that the process so far has been unacceptable and undemocratic. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that £400,000 has recently been spent on refurbishing Bellamy’s bar, and that this proposal will cost an additional £400,000? Will he confirm whether that has been included in the House budget estimates for this financial year? Will he confirm whether the Finance and Services Committee—

Order. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. At Question Time, a Member asks one question, with a modest preamble, which the hon. Gentleman has already had. He has asked his question; he must now listen to the answer.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The recent refurbishment in Bellamy’s involves a significant amount of work and furnishing that can be reused—certainly about a third of the cost can be used directly. The hon. Gentleman says that this has come about swiftly, but I would point out that there have been constant surveys of the need for child care provision here, and the decision has been taken to move swiftly with this project so that the option is available to new Members as early as possible in the new Parliament to take up this facility if they need it.

It is often said that when we come into this place we do things for our grandchildren rather than for our children, because it takes so long to get anything done. The important thing, I say to the hon. Gentleman, is that we treat the House of Commons as the workplace of parliamentary democracy. Workplace nurseries are important. Will the hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that, after my 22 years in this place, there might be at least some prospect now of having a workplace nursery for my grandchildren, and those of other Members.

I hope that it will be available a great deal sooner than that. The project is making good progress. The detailed specification is being worked through at the moment. There are some difficulties, because of the nature of the building, but much work has gone into looking at the feasibility, and we intend the project to continue to make progress and to be ready by the end of August.

I entirely share the perception of the need for such a day nursery, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the House of Commons should establish any such facility on an exemplary basis. Given that, as on this particular occasion, a nursery cannot comply with statutory guidance to providers, I hope he will search urgently for an alternative site—one that would comply with that guidance.

There will be no question whatever of progressing with any project that does not meet all the statutory norms. We are progressing the project in consultation with experts and providers, and there is no question whatever of cutting corners and not meeting proper standards.

May I urge the hon. Gentleman not to be swayed by the anachronistic and vociferous views of a minority of MPs? There are plenty of places to get a beer in this place, but there is nowhere for our hard-working staff to drop off their kids.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observation that this project fulfils a very real and serious need. Colleagues who have had to find facilities for their children at short notice will be better served by knowing that there is such a facility on site, and being run professionally.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

20. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues to ensure the completeness and timeliness of answers to parliamentary questions for written answer. (321525)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter in the House on previous occasions—for instance, in points of order on 9 and 23 February—and that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised it in a point of order on Tuesday. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I take any concerns felt by Members about this very seriously, and we have held meetings and written to Ministers about their performance in answering parliamentary questions.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for taking the matter seriously, but I am afraid that her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions apparently do not. However, she will be pleased to learn—as, I am sure, will you, Mr. Speaker—that some progress has been made since I raised my point of order: only 19 of my questions are now outstanding, although eight have been outstanding for more than a month. At least the Department has answered my question about how many named day written questions it does answer on time—and I am sorry to say that for the last three years it has been the pitifully low proportion of 30 per cent. The position has not got worse, which is something, but it has not got any better either. In the few remaining weeks of the current Parliament, what efforts will the Deputy Leader of the House—and, indeed, the Leader of the House—make to persuade the Department to take its responsibilities to the House seriously?

As the hon. Gentleman says, we have taken specific action in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions. The previous Deputy Leader of the House wrote to the Department and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I met a Minister and officials to discuss their performance. My office recently spoke to officials again. The Leader of the House has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and both she and I spoke to the Secretary of State yesterday.

I can tell my hon. Friend that many of us are given a very good service by most Departments, but I have one caveat: when the Cabinet Minister representing a Department is in another place, I find that I receive much slower service from the Department concerned.

We have accepted recommendations from the Procedure Committee, and new procedures will operate in the new Parliament. There will be regular monitoring of late answering of questions, and further work will be done on challenging unsatisfactory answers. Better guidance on answering questions has already been provided for Ministers and officials, and the Prime Minister recently wrote to Cabinet colleagues reminding them of the need to answer questions both fully and in a timely manner.

Back-Bench Business Committee

21. What discussions she has had with hon. Members on the means of implementing the House’s decision to establish a Back-Bench business committee in time for the start of the next Parliament. (321526)

The Leader of the House will table a motion to give effect to the resolutions of the House that were agreed following the recent debate on House of Commons reform.

I think the whole House is pleased to hear that, and we should acknowledge that, but it is only half the answer to my question, which involves whether the “Wright” Standing Order will be brought forward. I hope the Deputy Leader of the House accepts that the most appropriate procedure would be to consult the Wright Committee members whose amendment, essentially, was carried last Thursday, to ensure that the detailed Wright Standing Order, and also motion 62 in the Remaining Orders and Notices—and the Standing Order tabled, too—are submitted to the House for decision. Can the hon. Lady tell us when that is likely to happen?

The Leader of the House has to consider the motions that are required to give effect to resolutions of the House. Having looked at the motion tabled by the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, I note that some of it differs both from the recommendations in the Committee’s report and from our debates. Because there are some departures, further consideration will be necessary. However, hon. Members can rest assured that there will be motions giving effect to the resolutions of the House, as the Leader of the House told the hon. Gentleman yesterday. We ought now to be pleased with the progress that we are making.

May I reinforce the importance of this matter, and may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to specify the respects in which the Wright Committee’s proposals do not match what was voted for by the House? If we are to implement what was recommended by the Wright Committee and voted for by the House, a good starting point will surely be the Wright Committee’s own idea of how Standing Orders should be used to give effect to the House’s decision.

The starting point is that some good steps were clearly taken, given that the resolutions were passed overwhelmingly. It is good that we know the will of the House. I can specify one of the details for which the hon. Gentleman has asked. Moving the power that currently resides with the Liaison Committee to the new Back-Bench business committee was not discussed during the debate. There are other differences between the resolutions that we agreed in the House last week and the detail of the motion, but the matter is being considered.

Parliamentary Questions

22. If she will bring forward proposals to provide that hon. Members may only table one question for oral answer to each Government department at each Question Time. (321527)

As I said to the hon. Gentleman in January, the Modernisation Committee concluded that Members should not have to choose between tabling the two types of question. It is for the hon. Gentleman to make representations to the Procedure Committee if he wants to change the way in which topical questions are processed.

Everybody would agree that topical questions are a very good thing, but one of the unintended consequences is that some Members get to ask a Department two questions on one day, while others get no chance at all.

I am in danger of repeating the last answer that I gave on this subject. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but in implementing topical questions, we have not forced a Member to choose between asking a substantive question and asking a topical question. A Member may have a reason for wanting to do both in one sitting. As the hon. Gentleman has said, topical questions are a successful innovation.

It is all very well for questions to be asked and answered, but the Deputy Leader will recall that on 26 November last year during Business questions, she was refreshingly candid in saying that a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions had been rebuked for not answering questions properly—or, rather, was questioned about his accuracy. I note that the Leader of the House has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Questions, but will the Deputy Leader consider publishing a regular list of all offending Ministers with whom there have been meetings, or to whom the Secretary of State has written?

I am not sure that that is necessarily appropriate. We have accepted the Procedure Committee’s recommendations, and in the new Parliament there will be regular monitoring of the number of questions answered later than the conventional answering period of five days. There will also be the possibility that the Procedure Committee can challenge any answers that are considered unsatisfactory. With those two measures, we are feeling our way towards finding improvements. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, are very concerned that we should start to get this right. There has been a great deal of action, and to some extent, we will have to wait and see whether it proves to have been good action.

I am afraid that that simply will not do. The Deputy Leader of the House is on record on numerous occasions as having spoken about openness and transparency, but when she has an opportunity actually to do something about it, she fudges the issue. What is the problem with naming and shaming errant Ministers?

I need to make it clear that I am always happy, as is the Leader of the House, to make representations to any Department on any situation that Members want to raise—and I shall leave it there. I have in the past been clear and candid about where steps have been taken. We are talking about working through issues with one Department, and the matter has been addressed.

Report Stage of Legislation

23. If she will bring forward proposals for the amendment of Standing Orders to prevent programme motions applying to the Report stage of legislation. (321528)

The House has recently agreed to new procedures for managing its own business, including establishing a House business committee in the next Parliament. That Committee would make decisions about scheduling business, including the Report stage of Bills. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not be here to see the new Committee operate, but I am sure that he is pleased, as we are, with our progress on Commons reform.

Does not the Deputy Leader think it, both constitutionally and democratically, utterly wrong and unacceptable that a Bill should go to the other place with new clauses and Government and Opposition amendments undebated in this place? Members whose constituencies might be affected by the Bill have no opportunity whatever to participate in the debate.

I have answered questions on this matter time and again. Programming does not always work perfectly, but it does serve to provide great certainty in timetabling the different stages of a Bill; it is, for instance, very helpful in timetabling Public Bill Committees. We must see these changes in the context of the other steps forward that we have taken in improving scrutiny, especially pre-legislative scrutiny and the introduction of evidence taking. Therefore, there are now many more opportunities for the scrutiny of Bills than previously.

Conduct in the Chamber

24. What recent representations she has received on the operation of the Standing Orders governing conduct in the Chamber. (321529)

We have not received any representations on either the current operation of Standing Orders or suggestions for amendments. The conduct of Members in the Chamber is a matter for your judgment, Mr. Speaker, not for Standing Orders.

May I draw the Deputy Leader’s attention to early-day motion 1054? In the natural hurly-burly of debate, it is understandable that a Minister may from time to time say something that subsequently turns out not to be correct—and the Minister then, quite properly, writes a letter to say, “I made a mistake in my remarks in the Chamber.” Is it not right, however, that if a mistake is made in the Chamber, that should be corrected in the Chamber, rather than being the subject of a private letter?

As I understand it, a Minister will correct information only if he was asserting that information. In the situation to which I think the hon. Gentleman is referring, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families was challenging some figures that an Opposition Member had given, and that is not a case for correction in the Chamber. When a debate is going backwards and forwards between Members, with comments being made and assertions being made and then challenged, that is not the same as when a Minister has given figures that are then proved to be wrong.

House of Commons Commission

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

Bellamy’s Bar

25. Whether the House of Commons Commission plans to respond to the public petition against the closure of Bellamy’s bar. (321531)

The petition has been noted, but the Commission remains of the view, reached on independent advice and after examining a number of options, that Bellamy’s bar is the most suitable available site, and it is proceeding on that basis.

The previous Speaker summoned me in for a dressing down because the Public Accounts Committee had dared to criticise the House of Commons authorities for overspending on Portcullis House. Will he accept, however, that we must insist on value for money not only in the wider Whitehall apparatus but here, and that we have to consider whether it represents value for money to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on equipping facilities for the staff just in order to strip them out? Is there nowhere else in the House where we can deliver this unit more cost-effectively?

A number of alternative sites for the nursery were considered, including Speaker’s Green, North Curtain corridor, Lower Ground Floor secretaries’ area, Cloister Court and the Oratory, the Shooting Gallery, 2 the Abbey Garden basement, 14 Tothill street and 4 Millbank, but 1 Parliament street offered the most suitable accommodation, principally because of the ease of conversion and the proximity to the Chamber.

Will the hon. Gentleman accept my congratulations on the progress that has been made in this matter? I understand there has been a campaign in this place for at least 40 years for facilities of this nature, and it will not just be staff who benefit, but many hon. Members. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many Members will benefit as a result of these developments, regardless of where they end up being located?

I sincerely hope so. The Commission felt it was important to demonstrate to both new and current Members with small children that the House will help them to combine their parliamentary work with their family responsibilities.

Day Nursery

26. Whether the Finance and Services Committee has advised the House of Commons Commission on the cost of establishing a day nursery. (321532)

The Commission considered it important to have the nursery facility operating early in the new Parliament, before new Members had made other child care arrangements. This is a challenging time scale, and in view of the time constraints the Commission decided it was not feasible to consult the FSC for appraisal in the usual way.

But under Standing Order No. 144, the Finance and Services Committee should have been consulted, and is it not correct that the Chairman of the Commission knows that the project is not a good use of resources, is a reckless waste of taxpayers’ money, and would never have been approved by the FSC? Is that not the reason why it was never referred to that Committee, and will he ensure that it now is?

There would be no question whatever of the Commission proceeding with something that it considered reckless or a waste of public money. Competitive tendering will be undertaken for the contracting of works and for running the nursery, and a significant proportion of the work paid for by the money that has been referred to as having been spent on Bellamy’s bar over the past couple of years will be reused in the new scheme.

May I press the hon. Gentleman on the answer he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope)? Given that the hon. Gentleman attended the meeting of the Commission, can he tell the House which member of the Commission expressly voiced the opinion that the matter would not be put before the Finance and Services Committee—because it was known that Committee was not very happy with the proposal and the cost?

No, the decision not to refer the matter to the Finance and Services Committee was simply one of timing, because we wanted to make the facility available early in the new Parliament.

Now we come to the business question—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) should calm himself—he has the weekend ahead, which he can enjoy—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should calm himself.