House of Commons
Thursday 11 March 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
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)
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.
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—
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.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
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—
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.
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.”
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.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
English Heritage (Church Repairs)
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
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.
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—
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
Serious Fraud Office
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?
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
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
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.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
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—
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—
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
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.
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.
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
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
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—
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?
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?
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 15 March—General debate on defence in the world.
Tuesday 16 March—Opposition Day (6th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled “The Government’s Handling of Equitable Life”, followed by a debate on access to higher education. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 17 March—Second Reading of the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Bill [Lords].
Thursday 18 March—General debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee (annual report).
Friday 19 March—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 22 March will include:
Monday 22 March—A motion to approve three statutory instruments relating to Northern Ireland devolution, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Child and Poverty Bill.
Tuesday 23 March—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 24 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
Thursday 25 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 26 March—The House will not be sitting.
The House is grateful for next week’s business.
May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on his assertion at Question Time yesterday? He said that under this Government
“the defence budget has been rising every year.”—[Official Report, 10 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 291.]
That is a claim the Prime Minister made repeatedly at the Chilcot inquiry last Friday, but as he should know, spending on the Ministry of Defence was in fact cut in real terms between 2003-04 and 2004-05. The Leader of the House will know that the ministerial code requires Ministers to correct
“any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
Given that the Prime Minister is at risk of inadvertently misleading Parliament, when will he put the record straight?
May we have a debate on the failures of the system of serious case reviews into child abuse? We all assumed when we read of the Fritzl case in Austria that it could never happen in Britain, but it has, despite the involvement of 100 social workers from more than 28 different agencies. It was a particularly horrifying situation and it is right that we do everything we can to protect the privacy of the victim and their families. However, as Professor Cantrill poignantly noted yesterday, every time a horrific case of child abuse leads to a serious case review the authorities pledge to learn from their mistakes, but we never seem to. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that we need to debate the wider implications of publishing serious case reviews and, indeed, learning the lessons from them?
May I again press the Leader of the House on the mystery surrounding the debate on overseas aid? I have raised it several times but never had an adequate answer. We were supposed to have had that annual debate in November, but it was cancelled. It was rescheduled for February but pulled at the last minute, and now it looks as though we may not get it before Dissolution. It is an important debate, particularly given our involvement in Haiti, and I would not want anyone to get the impression that the Secretary of State for International Development is too busy strategising the election to fulfil his ministerial duties to the House.
Turning to the Wright Committee, may I welcome the enormous progress that the House made last Thursday, particularly in persuading the Government to get the Back-Bench business committee up and running by the beginning of the next Parliament as I had originally hoped? Swift work has been done on turning the resolutions into draft Standing Orders, but, as we heard in relation to Question 21, there is now some issue as to whether the resolutions on the Order Paper will have the support of the Government. Will the right hon. and learned Lady give a commitment that this issue will be debated and resolved before we rise for the Easter recess?
When will we complete the truncated debate on the Procedure Committee’s report into the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers? The right hon. and learned Lady will recognise the sense of dissatisfaction felt across the House about the way in which this matter has been handled. She tabled all the relevant resolutions and remaining orders, but although some were debated, others seem to have got stuck on the Order Paper. The Procedure Committee has asked for a decision to be made, but the Government are standing in the way. Is that not symptomatic of the old way of doing business that the House rejected last Thursday?
Now that we know the date of the Budget, will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that we will have the usual four days of debate thereafter? Finally, given that it was the Prime Minister who chose to announce the date of the Budget, can I now assume that it will be the Prime Minister who will give us the date of the Easter recess? That is a bit of information that I have been seeking in vain from the right hon. and learned Lady since last October.
The Prime Minister gave evidence to the Chilcot inquiry last Friday, he answered questions about defence spending in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and there will be a defence debate on Monday. I strongly refute any suggestion or implication from the shadow Leader of the House that the Prime Minister has in any way misled the House or, indeed, anyone else. He has been absolutely forthright about the defence budget and about this Government’s long-standing and strong commitment to ensuring that our defence forces have the resources they need. They have the full backing of the Government and, indeed, the British people.
As far as serious case reviews are concerned, we publish the findings of such reviews so that lessons can be learned. The serious case review process was itself reviewed in 2006, and I do not remember the Opposition coming forward at that time with any suggestion that background information to such reviews and their conclusions should be published. The important thing is that the findings are published, which indeed they are in what is described as the executive summary, as well as the lessons that have to be learned. I think that we all share the absolute horror about the recent case. The lessons have been published and the Government have accepted the need to act on, and they are acting on, the issues that have arisen out of that case.
On overseas aid, the Government feel very committed to and proud of our record. Before we came into government, there was no Department for International Development. We now have DFID and we have doubled our aid budget, so we are strongly committed to overseas aid, to keeping the House informed of the Government’s work on international development and to listening to Members’ concerns. There is obviously an opportunity to raise questions with the Secretary of State and Ministers in DFID questions, and there have been numerous statements. I have not been able to announce a debate on overseas aid within the next two weeks, but the shadow Leader of the House will see that there is a general debate on defence. However, there will be the usual opportunity to raise issues of international development in the debate following the Budget statement.
As far as the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, the Wright Committee, is concerned, as my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House said in answer to an earlier question, we should all be gratified with the progress that was made last week. We have agreed a major programme of reforms—the election of Select Committees Chairs by secret ballot, the election of Deputy Speakers by secret ballot, the election of Select Committee members, the ability of private Members to table motions that can be debated and voted on, and a new way of deciding the business of the House, whereby it will not be done by the Leader of the House at the Dispatch Box after a process of private discussions among the usual channels, but by a Committee of the whole House.
As my hon. Friend said, it is gratifying that there were very big majorities in the House last week to resolve this matter and move forward. We have the resolutions of the House. My task now is to make sure that the House is given an opportunity to endorse the Standing Orders that will give effect to them. My mandate is the will of the House as expressed in the resolutions. We need Standing Orders to give effect to them—nothing less. There is no suggestion that we should try to do anything less than what the House agreed to in the resolutions, because that would not be right.
It is helpful that a resolution has been tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and others. We have that as a basis, and we will see whether the advice to us is that it is in exact compliance and that it does no less—but probably no more—than the resolutions of the House. Whether or not that is the case, I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election.
The problem of course is that there are not many days left now to do these things. I am waiting in particular for the motion to dissolve Parliament. I have asked for it for the last two weeks and got no reply. I hope that the motion will be tabled very soon now.
I do not think that the right hon. and learned Lady answered the point raised by the shadow Leader of the House about whether there would be four days for the Budget debate. I hope that we will have four full days, because no one would want to suggest that the Government are attempting to cut and run after the Budget. Let us have four days, therefore, with one devoted to the position of manufacturing industry. This week’s trade figures were absolutely disastrous, especially given the weakness of sterling. That ought to be a boost to exports and manufacturing industry, but in fact we are seeing the reverse, so may we have a debate on that?
A fund-raising appeal was launched this morning at Clarence house for veterans suffering from combat stress. This is a very important issue, and I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House feel very strongly about it. May we have a statement from the Ministry of Defence about the arrangements for mental health facilities for those who have fought in wars on our behalf? Their symptoms often express themselves a long time after the episodes in which they were involved. We must make sure that we make proper provision for our veterans.
Will the Leader of the House tell us when she expects to have the Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill? That very controversial Bill was introduced into another place in November last year. It has had three months of detailed scrutiny and it completes its proceedings there next week. We must surely give that Bill at least a Second Reading here before dissolution. Will the right hon. and learned Lady tell us when?
May we have a brief debate on nuclear power? Planning permissions are being forced through by the new procedures, on the assumption that nuclear is the right answer for our energy needs. Many people feel that it is not, and we should establish a commission to look at these matters in depth.
My last point would warm the heart of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), if he were in the Chamber. May we have a debate on jargon? I notice that the Local Government Association this week issued a book on banned jargon, saying that the public sector
“should not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases”.
One of the key exhibits in the book is the word “wellderly”, which I believe was coined by the right hon. and learned Lady. It is now banned from use in local government, so may we have a debate on the use of jargon?
Further to the assurance that I gave to the shadow Leader of the House that the House will be given an opportunity to make a decision on the Standing Orders giving effect to the resolutions following the House’s decisions on the Wright Committee recommendations, because we will simply be giving effect to decisions that the House has made already, it should be possible to deal with those Standing Orders as part of the remaining orders of the day. Pursuant to what was raised earlier, however, I will obviously have to make sure that everybody agrees that the Standing Orders give effect as the House intended; I shall send drafts to everybody who has shown interest in the issue so that people can look at the Standing Orders, which will run to a number of pages. We simply want to get the science right. The House’s position is clear. I am committed to getting the Standing Orders that give effect to the House’s decision, and it ought to be possible for that to be done as part of remaining orders of the day.
As far as the days for Budget debate are concerned, I have announced the business for next week and the provisional business for the week after. Of course, there is no attempt to curtail any debate on the economic situation, on our determination to secure the recovery rather than putting it at risk, on making sure that we protect front-line services rather than cut them, as the Conservatives would, and on making sure that we have a fair tax system rather than an unfair one that would help a few people at the top, which is the Tories’ proposal.
We look forward to having good debates that focus on all those issues, as well as the important issue of manufacturing in this country. Obviously, it is important that we support that, including through tax relief for business investment, which we want to keep going. We want to work to support not only manufacturing in this country but the expansion of the global economy. We are a trading nation and need to make sure that we work internationally, particularly with our partners in Europe, with whom most of our trade is, to ensure that there is growth across Europe. That will help our trade position.
As far as veterans are concerned, I completely agree with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said about combat stress. We have already given priority in primary care to veterans, but there is a whole range of other things that need to be addressed. We shall have an opportunity to revisit those important issues in the defence debate next Monday.
As far as nuclear power is concerned, the hon. Gentleman will have been involved in and seen the statements about our wanting energy independence and a balanced energy policy. He will be familiar with the proceedings on the Energy Bill, which has been through the House recently. He will also know about the framework laid out by the Planning Act 2008. It allows for national policy statements and then for the issues to be looked at locally. We now have a much better framework for making sure that we have energy independence while reducing our carbon emissions.
As far as jargon is concerned, the hon. Gentleman brings me extremely bad news: the word “wellderly” had hardly got off the ground before being banned. I thought I was supposed to be the person who bans things all the time, but now I discover that I am the victim of an unfair banning order. The point about the wellderly is that we rightly spend a lot of time in the House talking about frail elderly people and our national care service that is needed to support people in their own homes and to ensure that people can have residential care if they need it. However, we need to recognise that most elderly people are fit, well and active. They contribute to their families, often go out to work and play a big part in the community. They are the well elderly—the wellderly. That is one banning order that I am not submitting to.
Order. At least 24 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I remind the House that there is a statement to follow, as well as a topical debate and an important Second Reading debate, of interest notably, but not exclusively, to Northern Irish Members. There is much business to accomplish, so short questions and answers are required.
May we have a debate about the role and independence of the excellent researchers in the House of Commons Library? This week, the shadow Home Secretary, who is a serial reoffender when it comes to dodgy crime statistics, embroiled the Library in controversy by quoting selectively from research. Would it not be better if, when using research from the House of Commons Library, all of us undertook to publish all that research, rather than selectively quoting for political advantage?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who played a very big part in getting crime down in this country. As she says, the British crime survey, which is the best survey because it does not depend on reporting vagaries, shows that all crime—particularly violent crime—has gone down over the past 10 years.
May I repeat to the Leader of the House the question about when we can expect the Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill? Does she accept that it is a substantial, complex and controversial piece of legislation, and that it would be deeply unsatisfactory if the House were not able to give it proper scrutiny?
As some form of peace process starts again in the middle east, my right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that 1.5 million Palestinians remain trapped, blockaded and increasingly destitute in Gaza. Will she find time in the course of the next two weeks or before Dissolution for the House to debate that continuing atrocity?
Earlier this week, on Tuesday, the Opposition held a debate about the deeply unpopular plans for unitary councils in Norwich and Exeter, and literally the next day, on Wednesday, the statutory instruments to bring the plans into force were withdrawn. That is a complete shambles, and residents in those communities need to know where they stand, so may we have a statement about what on earth is going on with the Government’s plans?
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider holding a general debate on the Floor of the House about the training opportunities that have been presented to young people? Under this Administration we have seen a fantastic rise in the number of apprenticeship programmes, in stark contrast to the Opposition’s days in government, so I really would like the opportunity for a general debate to ensure that the benefits associated with those programmes are fully understood by all.
I hope that my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members will find an opportunity in the Budget debate to raise the issues of protecting young people from the scarring effects that people suffered in previous recessions and of ensuring that they have a good part to play in a prosperous future. The guarantee that no person under 24 years old will have to go any longer than six months before they obtain a job and training is very important, as is the future jobs fund. I know that my hon. Friend is strongly committed to that measure, which is important in her constituency and her region, and I hope that it will be raised in the Budget debate.
May we have a debate about community health services and the undue haste with which the Government are attempting to force through changes before the general election? Milton Keynes council has been given just 12 days to decide whether it wishes to be a provider. Given the impact of the changes on vulnerable people in my constituency, why are we forcing them through so quickly? They are complex issues, so can we not have more time?
Dover Harbour Board’s plans to sell off the port of Dover to the highest bidder have been thrown into chaos and confusion this morning, following the announcement by P&O and the other major port operators that the board may have been misappropriating revenue funds, and that T2, the new terminal, might not go ahead. Will the Leader of the House consider an urgent debate about the issue so that we can look at the most inappropriate and improper present and past actions of the port of Dover, which only last year laid off 200 workers and privatised their jobs?
I know that my hon. Friend, as a real champion of his constituents and, particularly, the Dover port and all the people who work there and whose jobs depend on it, has close contact with the relevant Ministers, but I shall ensure that I, too, draw the issue to their attention. Perhaps they could have a meeting with him at this particularly important point.
The Leader of the House missed an excellent 30-minute debate in Westminster Hall yesterday, which was called by her hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood), about the Royal Bank of Scotland’s lending practices. Attendance was good for a short debate, and that is clear evidence of the need for a bigger debate in this Chamber, so that Members can question Treasury Ministers about how those banks, for which we have paid, can be made to work for our communities and constituents.
One reason why we ensured that we had lending agreements with banks was that it was very important for banks to lend out into the economy, to individuals for mortgages and to businesses. More money is being lent. The reason why the overall lending figures appear to be lower is that more money is being paid back, so the net lending figure is smaller than the gross lending figure. That is a good sign, and it has come about because interest rates are still low. However, we keep a hawk eye on the lending practices of the banks. They are there not to pay bonuses to the fat cats at the top, but to lend out to businesses and the housing market, which need finance.
When the debate takes place next Thursday about the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, will my right hon. and learned Friend try to persuade whoever is the Minister to give us information arising from the speech of the former director-general of MI5? When was any protest made to the United States about the torture carried out by that country? When did MI5 officers know? Although I may be the only Member interested in the subject, I believe it crucial that Members of Parliament know precisely what went on, bearing in mind the speech made by the former director-general of that organisation.
The sentiments that my hon. Friend raises are shared by many hon. Members. All of us are concerned and, rightly, the Government’s position is that we totally abhor the use of torture. We would never condone or support its use by our security services, and we would never condone or support its use by anybody else. The very points that my hon. Friend makes were raised at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, and the Prime Minister answered them.
May we have an early debate about the role, performance and policies of the Driving Standards Agency? It has already closed more than 60 local test centres, and another 45 closures are in the pipeline. May I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1002 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main)?
[That this House notes that, following the introduction of a new motorcycle test on 27 April 2009, Driving Standards Agency figures show that 50,000 fewer people took the motorcycle test in the period to 31 January 2010 than in the same period in 2008; further notes that 45 learners crashed attempting the new test during its first nine weeks, resulting in 12 hospitalisations; further notes that the majority of crashes occurred during the new swerve and stop exercise, which has been combined into one exercise in Module One of the new test; further notes that this is not obligatory under the European directive which prompted the introduction of the new test; further notes that the new test has resulted in a reduction in test centres, requiring longer journeys for inexperienced riders to access test facilities; is concerned that inaction to tackle this lack of test centres and combined swerve and stop exercise could lead to a decline in the overall number of motorcyclists and the motorcycle industry as a whole; congratulates Motorcycle News and the Motorcycle Action Group on their campaign to have these issues addressed; and calls on the Government to consider separating the two elements of the swerve and stop exercise and to investigate how the availability of test centres could be addressed.]
The policy of closing local test centres is putting hundreds of thousands of extra car miles on the road, and the new centres that are down for motorcycle testing are costing a fortune.
All hon. Members will hope for the very speedy return of the young lad of five who has been abducted in Pakistan. My hon. Friend has long campaigned for the safety of children in her constituency who were born abroad, and I shall consider the relevant Minister with whom to raise that issue.
Representatives of the care home industry have told me of the regulatory difficulties that they face, which get in the way of prioritising care for those people who, in the words of the Leader of the House, are not wellderly. Those representatives criticise the Government and say that they could do more to help. In the light of that, and because of the debate about the future care of those non-wellderly people, will the Leader of the House, as a priority, bring the matter forward for a debate before the general election?
It is very important that we have really tough regulation for private residential care homes. I can remember when there was almost no regulation at all, and we had to bring it in to protect people. There were protests from Conservatives, saying that it was red tape, but protecting vulnerable people in residential care is an absolute priority and we want to ensure that the regulations do that proportionately and effectively.
May I reinforce the concerns of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), about the Digital Economy Bill? It contains fiendishly complex copyright infringement measures that will have lasting repercussions, and I cannot be the only hon. Member who is concerned that to deal with it in a wash-up would be bad form at best.
I know that my hon. Friend has put a lot of effort into, and is extremely knowledgeable about, all these issues. We want to ensure that we have fast-speed broadband in all parts of the country that can be accessed by business and individuals, and that we have a modernised copyright system. I will report his views to the Ministers responsible.
Can the Leader of the House ensure that the Prime Minister opens Monday’s defence debate from the Dispatch Box? It is now quite plain that the Government committed British forces to two wars without adequate funding. As a result, necessary equipment was lacking, particularly helicopters, armed vehicles, bomb detection kits and body armour. As a consequence of that lack, service personnel have died. The Prime Minister has a responsibility for that and needs to be brought to book in that debate.
The Prime Minister gave evidence to Chilcot last week. He answers questions every week in the House of Commons. He is strongly committed to supporting the armed forces, and always has been. There will be a defence debate on Monday, and it will be opened by the Minister who is assigned by the Government to do that.
You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, as will my right hon. and learned Friend, of the excellent event that took place a few months ago when we invited youths from all over the country to come and sit in this place. Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore accommodate some of our elderly folk to enable them to come here and organise a similar event in this House, so that we can get the views of some of our “wellderly” people on the issues that matter to them?
We could take further the very good precedent that was set by the UK Youth Parliament when, at a time when this House was not sitting, we allowed it to be here. All the Benches were absolutely packed, with half young men and half young women, and a great many wheelchair users; it was ethnically diverse and it was a fantastic debate. I think that we could do more of that. Perhaps the next thing that we could do would be to have the National Pensioners Convention here, with pensioners and retired people from all over the country coming to sit and debate and have their voices heard in this Parliament. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this; it is an exceptionally good idea, and I sense a great deal of support for it.
May we have an early debate on the inadequacies of the UK Border Agency? Last week, one of my constituents complained to the agency; he was effectively doing a whistleblowing job on some illegal immigrants—people who had overstayed and were working illegally. He had an appointment with the agency that was then cancelled, and it said that it was indifferent to his concerns. Surely this is thoroughly unsatisfactory. People should be encouraged to blow the whistle on illegal immigrants, rather than not.
Yes, I think that people should be encouraged to give information if they think that illegal activity is going on. I ask the hon. Gentleman to write to the relevant Minister. I will draw his comments to the attention of the Minister so that we can ensure that they are looked into. If he will provide the information, it is not too late for the matter to be taken up. Nobody wants information that is given by people in good faith not to be acted on.
Hypocrisy—the “do as I say, not as I do” approach—annoys the electorate. Covered bicycle racks in the courtyard outside the Members’ Cloakroom have been removed and replaced with parking for Ministers’ cars. All winter, Ministers’ lovely hybrid cars have frequently been parked in the courtyard outside your house, Mr. Speaker, with their petrol engines running, presumably to keep the chauffeurs warm. May I make my annual plea to the Leader of the House for the provision of a warm room in which chauffeurs can wait, to avoid these unnecessary CO2 emissions?
Does the Leader of the House accept that it makes complete nonsense of the role and responsibilities of this House for large tranches of important public Bills to go through to the other House without being adequately debated in this House? Does she further accept that one way to stop this stupid practice is to change Standing Orders to prevent guillotines—programme motions—on the remaining stages of legislation in this House?
The hon. Gentleman is very concerned about this, but his concerns have been addressed. He has been part of the argument that there should be a House business committee that can deal with some of these issues. In the next Parliament, which he will not be in, these matters will be done differently, and I hope that the situation will be improved.
May we have an early debate on the issue of hospital waiting lists, so that we can examine why waiting times have been reduced from more than 18 months in 1997 to less than 18 weeks today? It is particularly important to examine what we could do to bring waiting lists down further.
My hon. Friend looks back at the situation that there used to be in relation to hospital waiting lists. We should always remember that setting a target for bringing down hospital waiting lists has really made a difference. The Opposition decried targets; they may well have felt that if their constituents needed to get an operation, they should simply pay to go private. I can remember my constituents literally weeping in my advice surgeries when they had been told that they would have to wait two years for a hip replacement. This Labour Government’s targets mean that people do not have to borrow money from relatives who cannot afford it in order to go private or else have to wait in pain for months and years. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that massive progress has made. We are going to bring in further guarantees so that, for example, people will have to wait only a week before they get referred to a cancer specialist. These issues, too, can be debated in the Budget debates, because they include questions of resourcing.
May I refer the Leader of the House to motion 61 on today’s Order Paper and take her back to the Wright Committee debates that we had a few days ago? During those exchanges, she agreed with me that there was a need for the Back-Bench business committee to protect the interests of minority parties as well. May I respectfully ask her to ensure that the Standing Orders that are produced will reflect the need to protect minority party interests, as well as those of everybody else?
I will ensure that I send the hon. Gentleman a draft of the Standing Orders before they are tabled in front of the House. We obviously want to ensure that the main parties in the House have their say, but it is very important not to overlook the smaller parties and the independents.
Keeping children safe in an increasingly complex digital world is an issue that should be high on our agenda in this House. I recently held a meeting with Microsoft and CEOP—Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—ambassadors from South Wales police for parents from across my constituency. Should not this House be debating how we can ensure that Facebook uses the CEOP alert so that children who are afraid or fear that they are being targeted can highlight their concerns directly to CEOP? They are currently unable to do so, and are therefore placed at risk.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I think that this is the view of Ministers as well, not least the Home Secretary, and action is being taken in this respect. The technology is changing all the time. Compared with just a few years ago, communication among young people has been transformed. We cannot have public policy, or the policy of those in the industry, lagging behind if that means that in the meantime children are at risk. We need swift action on this, and we need to keep it closely under review all the time so that as the technology and methods of communication change, we ensure that protection keeps up to date.
For the past seven years, I have been trying to establish how Cheryl James, the daughter of Des and Doreen James, died at Deepcut Army barracks in 1995. So far, my efforts have basically failed. I failed to get disclosure of key facts and reports, and there has been a persistent culture of secrecy and obfuscation. I believe that that is because those facts show that she was murdered. May we have a debate before this Parliament ends to disclose those facts and establish whether I am right or wrong?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks to intervene in the defence debate on that point. In advance of that debate, perhaps he could tell the Minister responsible which issues he would like addressed, so that the Minister has been put on notice and knows that he needs to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s points.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for us to have a debate in the near future on the latest political utterances from Lord Guthrie, particularly the ones in which he has called for the scrapping of the aircraft carrier contracts—views that I understand are shared by the Opposition?
Those are among the many issues that will be debated in Monday’s defence debate, and we recognise that the question of procurement is very important for our industry. We are very proud of the skills base that has been able to be part of that procurement programme.
According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, 48 per cent. of people admit to dropping litter, one third of drivers admit to throwing litter while they are driving along the road and littering has increased by five times across the country in the past 50 years. May we have a debate in Government time about littering and its antisocial effects?
May we have a debate about the bidding war that is currently going on between the Government and the Conservative Front Benchers over who can set the highest standards for secondary school results and tackle the issue of secondary attainment? It would give me an opportunity to point out that in my constituency, I have seen secondary standards transformed in recent years. For the first time on the poorest estates in my constituency, I am meeting kids who talk about becoming doctors, scientists or even, heaven help them, lawyers. The problem that their schools face is that they have to climb a mountain caused by Kent’s selective system of education. If we are going to set thresholds for schools, that problem has to be tackled, and so far neither side is doing so.
There is not a bidding war in relation to educational standards, because we won that war long ago through, as my hon. Friend says, the massive improvement shown not only in secondary school results but in the massive increase in the number of young people going into further and higher education. In my constituency, the number of such young people, most of them from families in which they are the first generation to go into further or higher education, has more than doubled. We will continue our commitment to education both at school level and in HE.
As a member of the Wright Committee, I welcome what the Leader of the House has said about circulating a draft of the appropriate Standing Order and her declared intention to bring it forward. However, given that the historic votes last Thursday were overwhelming on everything that the Wright Committee proposed, and even on some proposals that went further than what the Committee proposed—in the case of the Back-Bench business committee, it went against her advice and that of the shadow Leader of the House—does she agree that she would be well advised to accept the recommendation on a Back-Bench business committee in motion 61, which was agreed nem com in the Committee, unless there are simply drafting problems with it? Does she also recognise that there may still be opposition, and that she therefore cannot rely on remaining orders approval to get the matter through?
People were sceptical about our trying to proceed on the basis of remaining orders on that first Monday, but out of 16 motions in the remaining orders of the day, 11 went through, so that has been tried and tested. The question is not what I supported, what the shadow Leader of the House supported or what we both supported; what matters is what the House decided. The Standing Orders that I will bring forward in draft and consult the hon. Gentleman about will be to bring into effect the will of the House, not to create fresh policy that is either ahead of what the House decided or behind it. They will put into effect what the House has decided, so remaining orders of the day are exactly the way to deal with them.
I do not think I put it in those terms. I think I said that Ministers, from the Prime Minister to the Defence Secretary, the International Development Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, were concerned to ensure that the House is kept fully up to date with Government action and is able to hold the Government to account, and that we have regular debates so that Members can air their views. Indeed, there will be a further opportunity to raise these issues on Monday in the defence debate.
May we have a debate on today’s report published by the chief inspector of constabulary, Denis O’Connor, which highlights the fact that very low-level crime has an impact on people’s attitudes to their local police force? My experience is that our safer neighbourhood teams want to tackle that sort of crime, but quite often response teams are not aware of the history and do not prioritise such crime. Sometimes they do not even turn up. That debate would also offer us the opportunity to highlight the fact that our safer neighbourhood teams in London face being cut by the Mayor.
The safer neighbourhood teams in London are massively valued by my hon. Friend’s constituents and those of all London Members. We are strongly committed to them and are very concerned indeed that the Mayor does not understand how important they are to local communities.
The Conservative Mayor, as my hon. Friend rightly points out.
On antisocial behaviour, it was this Government who identified that it was something that should concern the police and local councils, working together with local communities. We have taken forward the whole antisocial behaviour order regime and we need to improve it so that it really responds to people’s concerns, most recently about dogs. I look forward to the fact that the ASBO can be joined by the DOGBO.
I returned with a delegation from Gaza earlier this week. If you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, I should like to inform the House that while waiting to be called, I have learned that the British journalist Paul Martin, who has been held in custody for several weeks, has today been released following a meeting with the Justice Minister by the delegation last Sunday. I think we would all welcome that move.
In Gaza, I observed the effect of four years of the blockade by the Israeli occupation forces. It is clear that the occupiers’ tactic is working, in that isolating the Palestinian population is hiding their collective punishment from the outside world. May I echo what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said and welcome the Leader of the House’s saying that there would be a debate on the situation in Gaza before Dissolution?
High Speed Rail
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall repeat a statement that my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made a few minutes ago about high speed rail between London and the major cities of the midlands, the north and Scotland.
Travel and trade between Britain’s major population and economic centres are the lifeblood of our economy and society. They require transport networks that are high-capacity, efficient and sustainable. As we grow wealthier as a nation, so we travel more and move more freight. Nineteenth-century Britain led the world in the development of railways. Serious planning for a national motorway network was begun by the War Cabinet in 1943, and the major motorways were all opened over a 32-year period between 1959 and the completion of the M40 in 1991.
Since the 1990s, increases in demand have been accommodated largely by improving existing roads and rail networks, including through motorway widening and the £9 billion upgrade of the west coast main line. The £6 billion roads programme includes investment for the five years to 2014 in widening a large part of the M25 and the extension of hard-shoulder running across the most heavily used stretches of motorway. We are also progressing with plans to electrify the Great Western main line from London to Bristol and south Wales, and with a £250 million investment in the strategic freight network.
Our preliminary assessment, published last January, was that substantial additional transport capacity would be needed from the 2020s between our major cities, starting with London to the west midlands, Britain’s two largest conurbations. By then, the west coast main line will be full. By 2033, the average long-distance west coast main line train is projected to be 80 per cent. full, with routine very severe overcrowding for much of the time; and there will also be a significant increase in traffic and congestion on the motorways between and around London, Birmingham and Manchester.
The Government’s view is that high speed rail could be the most efficient and sustainable way to provide more capacity between those conurbations, so last January we set up a company, High Speed Two Ltd, to analyse the business case for a high speed rail line, initially between London and the west midlands; to make detailed route proposals for that first stretch of line should the Government decide to proceed; and to outline options for extensions to cities further north and to Scotland.
HS2 Ltd reported to me in December, and I am grateful for the immense amount of expert work done by its staff. HS2 Ltd has shared much of its work and analysis with the local authorities that could be affected, Transport for London, the Scottish Executive and statutory environmental bodies. I am grateful to them all for their constructive engagement.
I am today publishing HS2 Ltd’s report together with the Government’s proposed high speed rail strategy, which is based on HS2 Ltd’s analysis. In summary, the strategy is for the development of an initial core high speed network that would link London to Birmingham, Manchester, the east midlands, Sheffield and Leeds, with high speed trains running from the outset through to Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh. That Y-shaped network of about 335 miles in total, with branches north of Birmingham running either side of the Pennines, would be capable of carrying trains at up to 250 mph and could be extended to other cities and to Scotland.
There are six principal reasons why the Government are proposing this strategy, the first of which is transport capacity. The extra capacity provided by a high speed line would more than treble existing rail capacity on the west coast main line corridor. That is not only because of the new track, but because of the far greater length of train that high speed lines and stations make possible, and the segregation of high speed trains from other passenger and freight services.
By contrast, the most ambitious conceivable upgrade of existing rail lines to Birmingham would yield less than half that extra capacity, at greater cost—in terms of both money and disruption—than a high speed line, and without most of the journey-time savings. That analysis is critical to the argument on whether investment in high speed rail unjustifiably diverts investment from the existing railway. The most likely alternative over time is to spend more achieving less. That accords with the experience of the recent £9 billion upgrade of the west coast main line, the benefits of which, although considerable, were essentially incremental and came after years of chronic disruption to passengers and businesses.
Furthermore, by transferring long-distance services to the high speed line, large amounts of capacity would also be released on the existing west coast main line for commuter and freight services, including services to key areas of housing growth around Milton Keynes and Northampton.
Secondly, the journey-time savings from such a line would be significant. The journey time from London to the west midlands would be reduced to between 30 and 50 minutes, depending on the stations used, with Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield all brought to within 75 minutes of London, down from almost 2 hours 10 minutes now. Through services from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London would be down to just three and a half hours.
However, thirdly, the connectivity gains of high speed rail come not only from the faster trains, but from the new route alignments that comprise the proposed Y-shaped network of lines from London to Birmingham, and then north to Manchester, and north-east to the east midlands, Sheffield and Leeds. That new network would provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to overcome the acute connectivity limitations of the Victorian rail network, with its three separate and poorly interconnected main lines from London to the north, each with its own separate London terminus.
By contrast the high speed line, routed via the west midlands, would not only slash the journey time to London from Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, but nearly halve journey times from those cities to Birmingham, so the east midlands, the north-west and the north-east gain dramatically improved connections within the midlands and the north, as well as to London. Those connections would be further enhanced by the northern hub proposals to upgrade the trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds.
Fourthly, the high speed network would enable key local, national and international networks to be better integrated. In particular, by including on the approach of the high speed line to central London an interchange station with the new Crossrail line just west of Paddington, the benefits of both Crossrail and the high speed line are greatly enhanced. Such a Crossrail interchange station would deliver a fast and frequent service to London’s west end, the City and docklands, giving, for example, total journey times from central Birmingham to Canary Wharf of just 70 minutes, and from Leeds to Canary Wharf of just 1 hour 40 minutes. That Crossrail interchange would also provide a fast, one-stop Heathrow Express service to Heathrow, in place of the long and tortuous journey to the airport currently experienced by passengers arriving at Euston, Kings Cross and St. Pancreas. Similarly, an interchange station close to Birmingham airport would provide an efficient link to the M6 and M42, the west coast main line, the wider west midlands and the airport itself.
Fifthly, high speed rail would be a sustainable way forward. High speed trains emit far less carbon than cars or planes per passenger mile, and the local impact of high speed lines is far less than that of entirely new motorway alignments in terms of land take and air quality. For those reasons, the Government take the view that high speed rail is preferable both to new inter-city motorways, and to major expansion of domestic aviation, even if those were able to deliver equivalent inter-city capacity and connectivity benefits.
Finally, HS2 Ltd assesses that all those benefits far outweigh the estimated costs. With the project yielding more than £2 of benefit for every £1 of cost, HS2 Ltd estimates the capital cost of the first 120 miles of the line from London to the west midlands at between £15.8 billion and £17.4 billion. That is broadly similar to the cost of Crossrail, which is being built over the next seven years. The cost per mile beyond Birmingham is then estimated to halve, taking the overall cost of the 335 mile Y-shaped network to about £30 billion. That cost would be phased over more than a decade after the start of construction, which would not begin until after the completion of Crossrail in 2017. Indeed, the high speed line would be the transport infrastructure successor project to Crossrail, deploying its skill base and project management expertise, and with a similar annual rate of spend.
I now turn to the specifics of the recommended route. As with any major infrastructure project, there will need to be extensive and detailed consultation, particularly with the local communities affected. Significant time will be needed to ensure that that consultation is properly conducted and considered before the finalisation of Government policy and the introduction of a hybrid Bill. Subject to that consultation, the London terminus for the high speed line would be Euston; the Birmingham city centre station would be at Curzon Street; and there would be interchange stations with Crossrail west of Paddington and near Birmingham ai