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Commons Chamber

Volume 508: debated on Monday 22 March 2010

House of Commons

Monday 22 March 2010

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Counter-terrorism

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s efforts to counter Islamic extremism. (322938)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. (322952)

Contest is a world-leading counter-terrorism strategy that endeavours to meet the serious threat this country faces from international terrorism. I have today published the first annual report setting out progress against the objectives in the strategy. Since 11 September 2001, 230 people have been convicted of a terrorism-related offence and more than a dozen terrorist plots have been disrupted. The Prevent strand of Contest is aimed at addressing the causes of terrorism by challenging the ideology of violent extremists, supporting vulnerable individuals and building community resilience.

Does the Secretary of State accept that Islamism is a threat because of its refusal to accept the separation of religion and the state, its social intolerance, particularly as regards the status of women, and its attempted subversion of moderate Islam? If he does, will he undertake not to allow the introduction of sharia law into this country in any form?

First I should say that the threat comes from violent extremism. There are people with all kinds of views with which we may disagree, but it is when those views turn into violent extremism that counter-terrorism kicks in and those views become unacceptable. On sharia law, I should say that the law of this country is absolutely paramount. Where sharia law has been introduced in some small experiments in local communities it does not, in any way, subvert or detract from the law of this country.

Does the Home Secretary agree that we have to work with the Muslim community? In Banbury, the Thames Valley police force consciously seeks to recruit Muslim men and women as special constables, because when the Muslim community has people that it knows working with the police force, it is more likely to talk to them about things that are causing it concern. We therefore need to work with the Muslim community, as well as being suspicious of it on occasion.

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. Not only in Banbury but elsewhere, the police and the local communities are working to break down these barriers, and part of that involves working with the Muslim community—indeed, the Prevent strand of our counter-terrorism strategy has about 1,000 projects, where work is being undertaken with 40,000 people in various communities. This is something that politicians and chief constables cannot do from on high; it must be tackled in the community and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, in part by recruiting people from the Muslim community into the police and other authorities.

Does the Home Secretary agree that if by “Islamism” one means people who support the religion of Islam, that is not, in itself, a threat? However, subversive and criminal activity is to be found among some members of the Muslim community. The danger of trying to tar the entire Muslim community with the same brush is that that undermines our efforts to engage with the community, and to fight terrorism and crime.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The only way in which we will succeed in this area is by demonstrating that the vast majority of Muslims just do not buy into the rhetoric of the ideologues and those promoting violence and division. That is the measure of success. It is essential that we in no way give the impression that our counter-terrorism policy is anti-Muslim, because it is not; it is very much pro-Muslim and pro the vast majority of the Muslim community, who believe in peace, justice and freedom.

Is it not absolutely essential, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, to make the greatest distinction between the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who, like ourselves, totally oppose and detest terrorism, and the very few religious fanatics who distort their religion and glory in death? There is absolutely no link between those two groups, and we should never try to pretend, as some do, that Muslims are any more in favour of terrorism than adherents of any other religion.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend, who has made an important contribution to these issues while serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The only point that I should make here—this reinforces the one that he has made—is that giving people in Muslim communities, particularly younger Muslims, the arguments and empowering them so that they can try to argue back against what are sometimes very forceful arguments coming from much older people in their community must be an important part of our counter-terrorism strategy. That is why Prevent is the crucial strand that it is.

In the light of the Home Secretary’s efforts to separate Islamic issues from terrorism, I wonder whether he has noted the following written evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government’s inquiry into the Prevent arm of the counter-terrorism strategy:

“Inconsistent and generalised language or loose terms weaken public confidence and hamper the debate around Prevent. In addition and more specifically, they also provide opportunities for Muslim Rejectionists at the grassroots.”

Given that countering Islamic extremism is linked to, but is not the same as, a counter-terrorism strategy, does grouping these issues today not illustrate the point being made to the Select Committee?

The hon. Gentleman talks about grouping these issues, and I think it would be strange if we had a counter-terrorism strategy that did not seek to prevent people from getting involved in terrorism in the first place, just as it would be strange to have a policy on drugs that did not try to prevent youngsters from getting involved in drugs, or to have a policy on knives, guns and gangs that did not have a strand that aimed to prevent people from getting involved in the first place. We have to be very careful about the terminology—that is the hon. Gentleman’s point—but we also have to be careful to realise that there are those who are opposed to Prevent because they are opposed to any voice of reason and to our trying to help vulnerable youngsters, in particular, to argue back against those who seek to persuade them down the route of violence. We must recognise that those people are against our strategy—not our Prevent strategy but against our whole Contest counter-terrorism strategy. We have to be aware of the devices they will use to try to suggest, for instance, that Prevent is about spying when it patently is not.

Dogs (Crime)

The data are not collected centrally but we are aware of the growing concerns about the use of dangerous dogs to harass and intimidate people. This has prompted the Government to introduce the new gang injunction power under the Policing and Crime Act 2009 and to launch a public consultation on managing and controlling dangerous dogs.

Let me get this right: the Home Secretary announces, for a headline in the pre-election period, that he will force all dog owners to take out insurance on their chihuahuas, or whatever their dog might be, but then the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that is absolutely ludicrous because it will penalise all responsible dog owners and it will have no effect on those who already have dogs that are used as weapons. Does the Minister agree with her colleague, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that this was a lunatic idea and take some responsibility on behalf of the Home Office for this ridiculous electioneering?

Let me make it clear that the proposal and consultation are a joint effort between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office. It is right that we consider extending dangerous dog laws to cover places such as private property and give more powers to police and councils, including for dog control orders where necessary. The issue of insurance was raised with the Government because of the horrific injuries caused and so it was included in the consultation, although it has now been ruled out. I have not spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs personally about this but we are still interested, certainly from a Home Office perspective, in views on third-party insurance, particularly if a dog control order is in force.

My hon. Friend will realise that dog owners such as myself get very upset when we hear the term “dangerous dogs”. It is not the dog that is the problem but the ownership and control of the dog. When are we going to start tackling this in the correct manner in this country by considering it a privilege to own a dog rather than thinking that there is an automatic right for irresponsible people to own or train a dog?

I look forward to responses from my hon. Friend and his constituents to the consultation. Responsible ownership is at the heart of what we need to consider. It is the deed not the breed that we are primarily considering but some breeds are bred to be violent. Unfortunately, that is one reason why we have to reconsider this issue. We must consider the full range of options.

In my constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham, this has been an ongoing problem in many of our local parks, including the local park at the end of my road, Normand park. Just today, I have had an e-mail from a constituent of mine, Robert Hardman, who talks about an appalling incident in Normand park next to the playground where his children were playing last Thursday. There was a savage attack on a puppy by a free-range pit bull—we appreciate that it might not actually have been a pit bull—and the owner of the said pit bull hurled abuse and threats at witnesses, the children were distraught and the victim’s owner is now faced with a £3,000 vet’s bill. Is not one of the solutions to all this for the police to be able to deal with the dogs in situ rather than necessarily having to take them off to kennels?

There are a number of issues exactly like that that the consultation seeks to iron out. I can echo the hon. Gentleman’s words from Hammersmith to Hackney: much the same problems are raised with me by my constituents on estates, by gangs and in parks. It is clearly an issue that we need to tackle. There are real problems and that is why I hope the House will back the consultation. I look forward to hearing and seeing the responses.

Some time ago, one of my constituents was savagely attacked by what was clearly a weapon dog. Finally, on appeal, she was granted criminal injuries compensation of £5,000. Only then did she learn that the dog had made two previous attacks, and we still do not know whether it has been destroyed. Whatever my hon. Friend does, will she make absolutely sure that such dogs are taken out of circulation permanently?

Obviously I do not know about that individual case, but I agree that when horrific incidents happen, proper action needs to be taken. If necessary, that sometimes includes destroying the animal.

It has taken the Government a very long time to address this extremely serious issue, only for them to get it badly wrong. Will the Home Secretary or the Minister tell us why a flagship policy of introducing compulsory dog insurance was announced two weeks ago, but then overruled and killed off by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Surely the Home Secretary should admit that he has been muzzled on this issue.

Clearly the hon. Gentleman does not know the Home Secretary as well as I do, because he is a very difficult man to overrule. Indeed, he is not someone who is overruled. We need to be clear that we all want a solution to this problem, which was looked at in a consultation—let me correct any misapprehension that it was a Government policy. It is important that we should still consider insurance, particularly when dog control orders are in force, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). We need to consider that, and I hope we can all agree that this vital issue needs to be tackled. It is interesting that the Opposition choose to concentrate more on the process than on the outcome, in which we all have a shared interest.

Offences

Since 1997, the Home Office has brought forward legislation as necessary, to address the needs and challenges of the day. When legislation has included criminal offences, these have been proposed only after careful consideration and with the support of Parliament.

That is a cop-out of an answer. The Minister knows that there have been 4,200 new offences over 13 years of Labour Government. Looking back, at the end of that time, does he think we would have done far better to pass far fewer laws and to take far longer to make sure that we got them right? Would not the best legacy that he could leave be a penal code so that people could find all the laws in the same place?

I do not accept that there are too many laws. We have put in place a range of legislation that is designed to protect the public, cut crime and increase confidence. I can name three pieces of legislation that the hon. Gentleman has voted against—measures on DNA retention, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, and measures on tackling disorderly drinking in the streets. I know that those things matter to people in Southwark and throughout the country, so I am sorry that he voted against them.

Bearing in mind the careful consideration that my right hon. Friend has just mentioned, will he tell the House how many of the new criminal offences that were created by the Labour Government never came into force before then being repealed by the Labour Government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as ever, for his helpful question. He will know that there are occasions when the situation changes, people look at the legislation and Ministers take decisions accordingly. He will also know that, as a result of legislation that we have introduced, crime has fallen by 36 per cent., violent crime is down, burglaries are down and confidence in policing is up to a record 50 per cent.—all things that never happened before we considered that legislation.

May I suggest that when criminal offences are introduced, great care should be taken not to attach prison sentences to them unless absolutely necessary? We are creating an atmosphere in which prison becomes approved by Government, but we should not do that. We should be sentencing people to imprisonment only when absolutely necessary, and we need to be careful about the penalties that we attach to criminal offences.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for those comments. He will know that the Ministry of Justice, where I spent two years before coming to this post, is concerned to ensure that we encourage community-based sentences where possible, and to ensure that they will, on some occasions, have a better chance of preventing reoffending than does a short-term prison sentence. We need to consider those issues in the round. Happily, the separation of the judiciary and the legislature is part of the UK’s constitution, so the judiciary will ultimately decide the appropriate sentences for offences.

“Cutting Crime”

6. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the recommendations in the first report from the Justice Committee, “Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment”, HC 94-I; and if he will make a statement. (322943)

The Government are grateful to the Justice Committee for its contribution to the debate on how to cut crime, reduce reoffending and manage some of the most difficult individuals in our society. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice published our response on Tuesday 16 March.

I am delighted that the response is so positive. The strength of the Committee’s report is that it looks across the whole criminal justice system instead of being trapped in one part of it. What victims want—other than not becoming victims in the first place—is not to become victims again. Given that, is it not essential that all parts of the criminal justice system, whatever Department they come under, are clear that they are required to focus on reducing offending and reoffending?

It is absolutely vital that we tackle reoffending. That is key to preventing further offending because, sadly, a number of people still go through the prison and justice systems but then ultimately reoffend. Reoffending rates for both adults and youths have fallen by 20 per cent. since 2000, but we need to do more. I know that there is a consensus on that in the House, and it means we must look at employment opportunities, housing and reintegration, and at ensuring that people leave prison in a better place than when they went in.

I welcome the Government’s positive response, but does the Minister accept that the Home Office has an opportunity to develop strategies that will save people from ever becoming victims of crime in the first place—especially if he is able to get his hands on some of the money that might otherwise be committed to further prison expansion?

One of the key things that I have tried to encourage, both as a Justice Minister and now as a Home Office Minister, is integrated offender management. That means that we look at managing offenders through the system, from prison through release and back into the community, where police and probation services work together with important local authority services to make sure that everyone has an opportunity not to reoffend in the future. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s report. I think that it has some merit, and the Government have responded in what I hope is a positive way.

Administrative Burden (Police)

7. What steps his Department has taken to reduce the administrative burden on police forces in the last 12 months. (322944)

We are committed to reducing police bureaucracy, including the time spent on unnecessary administrative tasks. This is why I have taken steps to reduce the amount of data that we collect from police forces, scrapped the lengthy stop-and-account form and invested in mobile phone technology to allow officers to work in a much more efficient and smarter way.

The Minister will know that, whenever the police are criticised for how they do their job, they invariably say they are hampered by the number of forms that they have to fill in. The Home Secretary said that he would deal with the matter in a radical way. How exactly has he addressed form filling and bureaucracy in a radical fashion?

I take it that the hon. Gentleman has not looked at clause 1 of the Crime and Security Bill currently going through the House of Commons. Has he? I suspect that he has not. If he had, he would have seen that it contains radical proposals, approved by this House, to reduce the stop-and-search form—a measure that by itself will ensure that around 700,000 hours of police time are saved.

In addition, we have accepted 13 recommendations from Jan Berry, the independent adviser on police bureaucracy. We will implement them over the next six to nine months, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep up to speed on these matters.

When the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Tim Godwin, gave evidence to the Select Committee last Tuesday, he said that only 30 per cent. of his officers had hand-held devices. The Minister will know that we recommended in our report last year that every front-line officer should have a personal digital assistant, as that would help to cut bureaucracy significantly and ensure that police officers are more visible outside police stations. What are the Government going to do to ensure that every officer has such a device?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who will know, I hope, that we have invested £80 million in securing support for mobile data services. They will save an average of 30 minutes per shift for officers who will not have to go back to the station to complete paperwork that the House does not wish them to do. We want to extend that. I was in Manchester this morning, visiting the Stockport police. They are due to receive their hand-held devices in the next week or so, and that positive approach is being rolled out across the country to ensure that we reduce bureaucracy and improve efficiency.

Will the Minister tell us what actions, in addition to those that he has set out, have been taken to introduce voice recognition technology? In his answer, he mentioned the Government’s approach to hand-held computers for police on the streets, but what steps are being taken with regard to hiring civilian staff to help to complete forms over the telephone? What progress has been made in pilot schemes to cut the proportion of officers’ time spent on paperwork?

There are a number of measures. In the Bill currently before Parliament, we have reduced stop-and-search forms, which will save time, and we have invested £80 million in hand-held devices. I am looking at how we can develop still further the use of modern technology to reduce paperwork and, as I mentioned, through Jan Berry’s work in her second year, we will look at implementing the recommendations that we have already accepted to reduce paperwork. There is more that we can do, we have an appetite to do it, and I am confident that that will help support police officers to be more efficient and to reduce the unnecessary paperwork that is being undertaken.

We can all agree on the need to cut red tape, even if we disagree on the speed at which the Government have moved. Despite the latest initiatives, the figures show that England and Wales are under-policed by international standards. We had 264 police officers per 100,000 population, compared with a European average of 357. Does the Minister agree that that is the main reason why our offences per head of population are so much higher than in other countries, and that a real increase in police numbers, such as that proposed by my party, is what is needed to cut crime?

There are 24,000 more police officers than when the Government were elected in 1997—147,000 police officers now. There are 17,000 police community support officers, whereas there were zero when the Government were first elected. Crime is down by 36 per cent., burglary is down, robbery is down and violent crime is down. That is a record worth defending. We can do more, we should do more, and we are committed to support the funding. The hon. Gentleman can always outbid us because he knows he will never be in a position to have to implement any of those decisions.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the role of the on-the-spot fines in reducing bureaucracy and in effective policing?

My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary are undertaking a review. We hope shortly to be able to publish further details on that.

In a speech earlier this month, the Prime Minister said that the Government’s

“commitment to protecting the record numbers of police officers . . . is clear.”

Can the Minister guarantee to the House that if the Government are re-elected in May, over the course of the next Parliament there will be no reduction in the total number of police officers currently serving in England and Wales?

The hon. Gentleman will know that for 2010-11 we have given a 2.5 per cent. minimum increase, and that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have said that there is no reason whatsoever why police forces should reduce the number of warranted officers or police community support officers because the resources will be available. That commitment contrasts with the position of the hon. Gentleman.

I notice, interestingly, that the Minister did not answer my question. The reason is straightforward. Last week the Home Office published details of progress on its plans to modernise the police work force. Its document specifically refers to it being difficult for forces to use work force modernisation

“as one of their levers to meet the cost pressures ahead if they are not able to reduce officer numbers.”

Why is the Prime Minister promising to protect record numbers of police officers, if the Home Office is quietly working on plans to cut officer numbers?

Let us be clear about this. The Home Office is not planning to cut police officer numbers. The Home Office will support sufficient resources to ensure that the number of police officers and policy community support officers that we currently have can be kept in place, should police chiefs wish to do so operationally. The challenge is for the hon. Gentleman to match that commitment on resources when we go in to the election. Last year the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) would not commit to the funding for next year’s police funding. That is the challenge, and the electorate will see it.

I will be delighted to answer questions from the right hon. Gentleman if we swap sides in the House after the election in May.

The document to which I am referring clearly states “Home Office” on the front of it. Last time I looked, he and his colleagues were Ministers for the Home Office. The document concludes that

“there will need to be constructive engagement”

with politicians and staff associations

“regarding the impact on officer numbers.”

The Government are quietly planning cuts in police officer numbers. Why can they not tell the truth for a change?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a commitment from the Government to maintain the level of numbers if police chiefs wish to have those numbers. We will maintain the resources to do that. We have a record of 24,000 more officers and 16,500 to 17,000 police community support officers. I do not believe that that record would have been maintained if an alternative Government had been in place. I commend that to the House in due course.

Drugs (Young People)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s steps to tackle drug-taking by young people. (322947)

We are committed to preventing and reducing drug use by young people. Drug use among young people has continued to fall over the last decade—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Under-Secretary, but I think that she is seeking to group this question with Question 11.

Fifteen per cent. of young people aged 11 to 15 used drugs in 2008, compared with 20 per cent. in 2001.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Mephedrone, the substance that contributed to the deaths of two young men last week, is a legal high that can allegedly be bought for as little as £4. Should the Government not take more seriously the threat that legal highs pose? What steps is the Minister taking to get across to young people the consequences of taking such substances?

The hon. Gentleman makes very important points about a very worrying issue. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is reviewing mephedrone and other legal highs as a priority, after a schedule of work that the Home Secretary set last summer. The report on mephedrone is due on 29 March, and if we need to lay an order before Parliament in order to get a measure through, we will do so.

The Minister will know that legal highs are killing young people. She will know also that many headmasters and headmistresses throughout the country believe that consideration should be given to banning these drugs. When will the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report on that matter and, I hope, say that those drugs will be banned, so that young people are not tempted to take them to get a temporary high—and do not kill themselves in the process?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous answer: 29 March. However, we seek to continue to educate young people and their parents about the matter, mainly through the Frank website, which has reported on mephedrone issues in particular since September and has regular updated guidance.

Does my hon. Friend believe that the Government invest enough money in early intervention programmes, which result in less criminalisation of so many of our young people later in their lives?

We always keep an eye on that issue, but we already invest more than £55 million each year in tackling young people’s substance misuse, and that includes funding treatment, area-based grant work for under-18s’ misuse, Positive Futures and the Frank website.

At the last Home Office questions in February, when the use among young people of legal highs such as mephedrone was discussed, the Home Secretary said that the consideration of the issue was now an absolute priority for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Government. Yet it is reported today that the Home Office was advised five years ago of the problem of those synthetic drugs being bought online. Why did the Government fail to act sooner?

The Government have acted, and I shall explain a little of the background to the report to which I believe the hon. Gentleman refers. It was a report on the internet discussing the availability of psychoactive medications only, and our drug laws apply a criminal sanction whatever the route of availability. That report was looking at, and horizon-scanning on, drug futures up to 2025. It set out possibilities rather than realities and made no recommendations to the Government. However, as a result of a number of issues, the Government commissioned more work, and that led last year to the Home Secretary asking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look at this, which it is doing to its normal time scales.

Human Trafficking (Lap-dancing Clubs)

13. What recent representations he has received on allegations of exploitation of victims of trafficking in lap-dancing clubs. (322953)

I have not received any specific representations on the exploitation of victims of trafficking in lap-dancing clubs. Human trafficking is a serious offence and the police will of course investigate allegations of trafficking wherever they occur.

I wonder whether the Minister has any plans to ensure that local authorities, which from 1 April have powers under the Policing and Crime Act 2009, will be able to do anything in the 350 relevant lap-dancing clubs that have been identified, bearing in mind the fact that local authorities have no experience of identifying human trafficking victims. Is she thinking of involving the police, or just relying on local authority officials?

The police go into lap-dancing clubs, as necessary, and as the House would expect them to do, in order to catch traffickers. It is important that they work closely with local authorities, such as my own in Hackney, which is getting a real grip on the issue now that local authorities have much more say about the licensing of such premises. It is crucial that in something as important as trafficking the right expertise is deployed, but I do not believe that there are any problems in that direction.

On the human trafficking of youngsters, will the Minister have a word in her Department about the cases where young teenage women who have been transported from other parts of the globe are rescued or identified by the local authority and brought into care, but when they reach the ages of 19, 20 and 21 cannot get any papers regularised in the United Kingdom and are falling between two stools? Will that be addressed with some urgency and dispatch?

We do, on occasion, grant people leave to stay in those situations. Clearly, every case is individual, and I will happily talk to my hon. Friend if he has any particular cases that he wishes to raise.

Yarl’s Wood

14. If he will request Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons to undertake an immediate inquiry into the recent protests at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. (322954)

The UK Border Agency has commissioned a management review of the incident which will report shortly. The investigators have not raised any concerns thus far, so it is not expected that the matter will require further investigation. However, if overriding concerns are identified, we will of course review that decision.

I appreciate the Minister’s answer. I also appreciate the involvement at a personal level of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), which is very helpful. Will the Minister reconsider the involvement of Dame Anne Owers? He will be aware that there is increasing concern about the condition of some of those who have been refusing food, that there were reports that some were taken to hospital last week, and that there have been allegations of suicide attempts. There is a continuing difference between the views of those health issues taken by Serco and the UK Border Agency and by those outside who look after detainees, and that will not be ended unless there is an independent review by Anne Owers rather than a management review.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. This is an issue in his constituency. He wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on 18 March, and a reply is being drafted for him. I take the point that he is making. Thus far, we have found no substance whatsoever in the allegations; indeed, the opposite is the case. If you will indulge me, Mr. Speaker, let me point out that the resident who claimed that she was not a criminal has in fact served time for drug supplying and has attacked two of our officers. CCTV footage is available, and the independent monitoring board, which has written to me and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, was witness to the alleged incidents, but I have an open mind on the hon. Gentleman’s point, because it may be needed to give status—let me put it that way—to these concerns.

Photography Restrictions (Public Places)

16. Whether he has issued guidance to police forces on restrictions on members of the public taking photographs in public places. (322956)

The National Policing Improvement Agency and I have issued guidance and circulars to the police that make it clear that counter-terrorism powers should not be used to stop innocent people taking photographs. I have also written to all chief constables who have section 44 authorisations to reiterate the point.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but I have to tell him that the system is not working. Only last week, a journalist from Meridian Television, Phil Hornby, was threatened with arrest and confiscation and deletion of his tape merely for filming an exterior shot of Worthing station. Other individuals have been stopped for taking sunset photographs of St. Paul’s and photographs of the Christmas lights in Brighton. Clearly, the guidance that the Minister has issued does not seem to be getting through. What further steps will he take to ensure that we do not slide towards east Germany in this country?

I think that the guidance is helpful. However, last week I met my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and a delegation of a range of individuals involved in photography issues. We agreed with Craig Mackey, the chief constable of Cumbria, who deals with these matters on behalf of chief police officers, that we would consider police training issues. I make this offer to the hon. Gentleman: if there are individual cases where there are concerns, we will look at them to see whether the guidance has been followed. If he wishes to send me further details, I will certainly look into them with Craig Mackey.

Student Visas (Language Schools)

17. What assessment he has made of the effects of tier 4 student visa changes on language schools following the review of November 2009 and the further measures announced in February 2010. (322957)

The changes came into force on 3 March, and we continually monitor tier 4 to ensure its effectiveness. Our policy is designed to protect the integrity of our immigration system and the reputation of the UK’s education providers.

The English language industry is worth £1.5 billion a year to the UK economy, which is money we cannot afford to lose. Will the Minister visit with me the many genuine English language schools in my constituency to see the effects that the changes are having on those businesses, many of which are small and family-run?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest. I know he shares my desire to protect the robustness of the immigration system and at the same time enhance the reputation of genuine providers. I do not believe that the changes that we have made to achieve the former are damaging the latter. We continuously review the system—that is part of the strength of tier 4 and the points-based system overall—and although it is probably too early to tell, I have yet to see evidence of a detrimental effect. We have to protect the genuine student, who has sometimes been exploited by unscrupulous colleges.

Would my hon. Friend be a little more precise about the level of English that prospective students on English language courses must attain? Language schools throughout Europe classify their courses as pre-intermediate, intermediate, advanced intermediate and advanced. Can English language schools still teach advanced intermediate courses?

Yes. Some urban myths have been perpetuated in this campaign, so let me be clear that English language courses of six months and below, which are subject to a different visa regime, will be protected. Members of Parliament representing Scotland, which has different terminology, will be pleased to hear that foundation courses are maintained. The problem was with level 5 and below, where there was abuse of the system. As a result of the points-based system, we have significantly cut down the abuse of immigration law and protected the genuine college and, importantly, the genuine student.

The Minister is right to hit the phoney colleges, but we need a rigorous regime that does not hit established colleges and schools as well. As he is wandering around the country over the next five weeks, will he pop up to Ribble Valley with me and come to Stonyhurst college to speak to the headmaster? It is clearly not a phoney establishment, and the headmaster believes that the current visa regime is hitting established businesses.

I will not be wandering around anywhere; I will be purposeful and focused in my travels—wherever the Secretary of State sends me. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about genuine colleges, and I have been very careful not to say that the private sector is bad and the public sector is necessarily good. There is good and bad on both sides of the divide. We have had support from the sector, because its reputation will benefit. I have established a unit in the points-based system tier 4 to deal with such cases, and it is best to do so quickly. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman wants to invite me up to his beautiful constituency, I would be more than happy to go again.

Special Constables

19. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the number of special constables recruited from businesses. (322959)

In August 2008, a three-year funding programme was announced for the National Policing Improvement Agency to increase the number of special constables in England and Wales through the establishment of nine regional co-ordinator posts. As part of that we have an employer-supported policing programme, which was launched in October 2009, which will ensure further development.

May I urge the Minister to continue the programme for the foreseeable future? I often think that the role of the special constabulary is underplayed. It plays a vital role in the policing of our communities, and the business community getting involved and releasing staff for training provides a vital pool of additional special constables. I encourage the Government to extend that programme.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. We are aiming to get about 20,000 special constables in place in the near future and we are raising our game to ensure that we recruit more. We need the support of the business community to do so. I visited specials in Flint, in my constituency, only three or four weeks ago and saw the wide range of activities and specialist work that they undertake on a voluntary basis in support of the full-time service.

Has the Minister engaged with the devolved Administration in Edinburgh at any point about the successes or otherwise that they have had in recruiting specials?

To be honest, I have not spoken directly to the Minister in Edinburgh, but my hon. Friend makes a good suggestion. We need to co-ordinate, particularly in constituencies such as his, where there are cross-border issues, and the Cumbrian force could equally support those in the south of Scotland.

Front-line Policing

20. What assessment his Department has made of the relationship between the number of police officers in police forces and their effectiveness in carrying out front-line policing. (322960)

The Government’s investment in the police is at record levels. There are record numbers of police officers and police community support officers on the streets. Crime is down by 36 per cent. and confidence in police is increasing. Fifty per cent. of the public agree that antisocial behaviour and crimes that matter to them are being dealt with effectively. I think that that demonstrates the relationship between the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

There are wide discrepancies in efficiency or effectiveness between one force and another. For example, the detection rate for violent crime in the Met is just 37 per cent., compared with more than half in other urban forces. What is the Home Secretary doing specifically to improve lagging forces so that they meet the standards of the best?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that we have encouraged inspections of police forces and police authorities to ensure that we examine discrepancies and value-for-money issues when they arise. There has been a recent police report card from Denis O’Connor, Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, and there has been the same—and will be again—for police authorities. We want to encourage openness about performance so that we can improve it and understand where forces are failing.

Sentencing (Publicity)

22. If he will provide support to Northamptonshire police’s project to publicise sentencing outcomes from Crown courts and magistrates courts. (322962)

The Government recognise the importance of providing communities with information about those brought to justice. Through the policing pledge, forces have committed to publicising local outcomes regularly. Her Majesty’s Courts Service continues to support that work, including developing a website, which will enable magistrates court outcomes to be accessible to the public online.

If we are to improve the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system, do we not need much less sympathising with and understanding of why criminals commit crime, and much more naming and shaming?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, while not naming and shaming as such, we support visibility of outcomes in the criminal justice system. That is why the Ministry of Justice introduced orange jackets for community offenders 18 months ago, why we are trying to get individuals involved in picking projects for community work, and why we are trying to ensure that the community knows what happens to people—the outcomes of criminality. Those matters are important, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports them.

Topical Questions

In October, I asked every community safety partnership in England and Wales to commit publicly to minimum standards for dealing with antisocial behaviour. I am pleased to report that 99.7 per cent. of local authority areas have confirmed that such standards are either in place or will be in place by the end of March, making clear to the public the response that they are entitled to expect when they report antisocial behaviour.

Does the Home Secretary agree that it is important for local councils to co-operate with the police to fight yobs and antisocial behaviour, particularly in providing fencing and gating, lighting and CCTV in areas where antisocial behaviour is prevalent, such as Richmond car park in Benfleet or King George V’s playing fields on Canvey Island?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Although the police have a responsibility for antisocial behaviour, they share it with other agencies. Indeed, in all the areas where antisocial behaviour has been tackled effectively, the police work in partnership with local authorities, social services and often with local communities that have decided to fight back against those who are plaguing their lives. I therefore agree that such co-operation is an important part of tackling antisocial behaviour—we went through the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships to get that sort of response.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mr. Ryan Hilton, an events manager with the pub crawl firm, Carnage UK, was convicted in court in Llandudno last week of assaulting my constituent, Mr. Mark Aelwyn Roberts, causing him actual bodily harm? He will be sentenced at Crown court. Will my right hon. Friend please note that North Wales police had objected to that event in Bangor? Does he agree that that vicious assault sends a message to all licensing authorities that Carnage UK is a disreputable organisation, which causes havoc in our university towns?

I was not aware of the individual circumstances that my hon. Friend just outlined. I agree that those disreputable organisations need to be tackled. Indeed, in most places throughout the country, there is a realistic and meaningful partnership between local police and licensees to ensure that licensees do not have their reputations undermined by organisations such as the one that she mentioned.

T2. Pursuant to my recent written question on the number of ID card applications made by residents of Crewe and Nantwich in Cheshire, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who I can see is bursting to answer this question, replied:“The Identity and Passport Service is not able to provide information relating to particular constituency or county for identity card applications.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 123W.]Why cannot a scheme that is designed to assist in identifying individuals provide even basic information such as the uptake in my constituency? (322964)

I forgive the hon. Gentleman for not appreciating that an Act of Parliament passed by this House in 2005—before he was elected—states that it is illegal to interrogate the database to gather such information.

While crime in the west midlands has dropped—in some cases quite spectacularly, particularly burglary—there is still a problem with business crime. On Friday, I visited a business improvement district that had reported a substantial drop in crime as a result of the measures it had taken. What steps is the Minister taking to assess the impact of BIDs and what measures might he contemplate to roll out that prototype in other areas?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who identifies an issue that we need to examine in detail. The Government are firmly committed to working with business and trade associations to find effective solutions. Part of that includes the national retail crime steering group, on which the Home Office and the British Retail Consortium are working together to look at how we deal with crime, particular for those in business communities in town centres. I will certainly look at any particular suggestions that my hon. Friend has, but that is an area on which we need to continue to focus.

T3. Research from the university of Groningen demonstrates that the presence of graffiti encourages other crime. An appropriate penalty is to make someone clear up the graffiti that they have created. Why do the Government still oppose fixed penalty notices for community service for graffiti? (322965)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism said earlier, we are looking at the whole question of fixed notice penalties with the Ministry of Justice, and a report will come soon. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of deterring graffiti. Indeed, up and down the country, community payback is ensuring that those who have engaged in such activity are very visibly and publicly—wearing orange jackets—clearing up the mess that they have made.

I heard what the Minister for Borders and Immigration said earlier about the new visa arrangements for English language schools, but may I just point out that last Thursday I met a young man from Taiwan who was studying English in this country preparatory to going to Sheffield Hallam university and who will need four or possibly even five visas to achieve that? Indeed, under the new arrangements he may even have to go back Taiwan to make one of those applications. Will my hon. Friend at least consider all the material that I have sent to him and to the Secretary of State and reconsider the position?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he is doing—the language schools sector and overseas students are very important parts of his constituency and its economy. The answer to his question is that we very much want to protect that. On the other hand, I am sure that the House agrees that we need to prevent visa abuse. What we have tried to do is provide that seamless route for the genuine student at the genuine college.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for not being present earlier. With regard to the specific issue of the use of dogs in crime, will the Minister reassure us that any future bright ideas that the Home Office has will focus on individual owner responsibility and deed not breed, so that responsible dog owners are not punished for the sins of the minority?

I am tempted to say that I refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous answers, which he can read in Hansard. However, as I said earlier and now repeat, we want to look mostly at the deed not the breed, but we recognise that some breeds are inherently violent and we need to take that into account as well. However, responsible ownership is the main line.

Since the beginning of the recession, the number of bogus charity clothes collectors has risen very sharply across the country, taking away much needed revenue from bona fide charity shops, such as Cancer Research UK shops in Barnsley and Doncaster. Unfortunately, many chief constables throughout the country are giving that type of crime a very low level of priority. Will the Secretary of State write to all chief constables in England to ensure that they treat such crimes with a great deal more seriousness in future?

I will talk to chief constables about that. I go on the basis that if my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) says that there is a problem, there is a problem. I am only sorry that he will not be here to raise these important points at Home Office questions after the next general election, and I wish him well.

T4. My constituents, Mr. and Ms Adedoyin, have received a phone call from someone claiming to be a Home Office caseworker wanting cash in return for their documents, which we had previously been told had been lost by the UK Border Agency. The response from the Home Office to my inquiries to date has been very disappointing. Will Ministers look into this issue as a matter of urgency and meet me to discuss the situation? (322966)

Of course we will. The UK Border Agency is, from time to time, subject to mischievousness, but the response must be professional. Of course I will look into this and then meet the hon. Gentleman if that proves necessary after my investigation.

A few years ago, the UK Border Agency shunted a load of old asylum and refugee cases into a pile called legacy cases, which are due to be dealt with by next year. Is the Minister aware that there is a new pile building up of cases that have been overlooked? We will have the same problem all over again with a second pile of legacy cases.

I do not agree with that analysis of the situation. The UK Border Agency will, as my hon. Friend says, deal with the legacy cases by the summer of next year, but as we have explained to the Select Committee we are also in the process of archiving cases that go back—I do not wish to make a partisan point—to 1981. The time to conclusion on asylum is now under six months for 60 per cent. of cases. In 1997—to make a partisan point—the average time to a decision, not a conclusion, was 22 months. The Government and the agency should get some credit for dealing with the legacy problem.

T5. If we are to have a real increase in the visibility of police on the streets of Britain and in the clear-up rate for offences, and a real reduction in police response times and the time that they spend behind closed doors, is not the suggestion this morning by Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, that we should have a full review of policing one that should have the immediate agreement of the Government? (322967)

Sir Hugh Orde was calling for a royal commission. I do not agree with that suggestion, although I am keen to talk to Sir Hugh Orde about this. He is a man of great experience and I respect his views considerably. However, it is not the case that because the last royal commission was in 1962 there has to be another one at intermittent periods. We used to have royal commissions that went on for a long time during which everything was preserved in aspic because nobody knew what would happen next. We should consistently review our methods of policing to ensure that they keep pace with advances in technology and changes around the world, for instance in counter-terrorism, and we are doing that. Ronnie Flanagan’s report, the Green Paper and the White Paper, and many other changes over the last few years have revolutionised the way in which the police do their work. We need to continue to change to meet the challenges of our times.

Several times in the past few weeks, including today, I have heard the claim that mephedrone is killing young people. The cases that I have looked at suggest that the young people concerned were taking more than one drug, including alcohol. Should we not be getting across to young people the fact that if they choose to take a cocktail of drugs, they are putting their lives at risk? Mixing cocaine and alcohol, for example, produces the very toxic cocaethylene.

My hon. Friend, with his usual scientific analysis, is making the case for why we have to wait for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to report on wide-ranging and close analysis of the problem before saying whether mephedrone is a dangerous drug. We might all have views on that, but they should be driven by the scientific evidence. Once that report is made to me—I hope that that will happen as soon as possible after 29 March, when the council’s next meeting is scheduled—then we can make an informed decision.

T6. To return to the issue of dangerous dogs, the Minister will know that the London Mayor, his deputy Kit Malthouse and various local authorities, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, are working extremely hard on the problem. As a follow-up to my earlier question about the incident in Normand park last Thursday, the resident concerned was clear in praising his local councillor, Councillor Sarah Gore, along with Greg Smith and his team. Will the Minister agree to meet Councillor Greg Smith and Kit Malthouse to see how local authorities can do something serious about the problem, rather than using the Government’s failed insurance scheme? (322968)

We are always keen to work with anyone, and I will certainly pass on the request for an invitation to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who deals with the issue on a day-to-day basis.

Why did it take over two years to set up the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, and, bearing in mind that it is a mass meeting of 22 members who were appointed in February, what opportunity does it have to report back during this Parliament? What is its current programme and what are the Minister’s expectations?

My answer is that I am rushing off after this Question Time to appear before that very body; it is the first time that it has called Ministers to appear before it. My hon. Friend raises an important point about the role of the Committee. The only thing that I am absolutely convinced about is the need for such a Committee. However, as it is new, and as it deals with such wide-ranging issues, to a great degree it has a major say in how it shapes the way its work will pan out in future.

T7. Does not the recent concern about legal highs demonstrate the contrast between the speed at which new dangerous drugs can come on to the market and kill people, and the slow process of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Government in taking real action to tackle the issue? Is it not the case that serious questions are now being asked about whether the ACMD and the classification system are fit for purpose? (322969)

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair to the ACMD. For a start, it has led the world on legal highs such as Spice and GBL, and it was there before anyone else. Secondly, the ACMD could have been a lot quicker in bringing its report forward if—

One of the newspapers said that Professor Nutt’s sacking had delayed the report by six months, but as I sacked him only five months ago, that seems a bit difficult. To return to the important point, however, the report could have been done more quickly had the ACMD looked just at mephedrone. However, it decided—this had the support of the House when we discussed the matter—to look at that generic group of drugs, so that when it makes a decision, and if that decision is carried into law, we do not allow the manufacturers of such drugs to make small chemical changes and continue to make them available. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) is doing a disservice to the ACMD, whose vision has enabled us to deal with that whole family of drugs, rather than just one.

Order. I am sorry not to be able to accommodate the remaining colleagues, but time is against us, although, as I am kindly exhorted from a sedentary position, I will not worry.

Lobbying and Paid Advocacy

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about paid advocacy and lobbying. These issues are, rightly, of great concern to this House and to the public. The highest standards are expected of Ministers, former Ministers and Members of this House. The public are entitled to be completely confident that, when Ministers make a decision, it is made in the public interest and that there is no impropriety whatever.

Allegations have been made in respect of ministerial decisions in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in respect of food labelling, ministerial decisions in the Department for Transport in respect of National Express and the east coast main line, and a decision in the Department of Health in respect of that Department’s advisory group for a programme board for people with mental health problems and learning difficulties in the criminal justice system.

I can tell the House that Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and in the Department for Transport are clear that those decisions were made properly in the public interest. Civil servants in the Department of Health who took the decisions on the advisory group are satisfied that they made the correct decision in the public interest and were not responding to any inappropriate or undue influence. In each of the cases raised, the Departments concerned have looked into the allegations and confirmed that they are satisfied that the decisions have been made without the impropriety alleged.

The Prime Minister today sought the Cabinet Secretary’s assurance that the Departments had looked into those claims. The permanent secretaries made inquiries, as they would into any such serious allegations, and they have assured the Cabinet Secretary that they were satisfied that there had been no improper influence on Government policy or ministerial decisions. They are setting this out in public statements today.

I want to reassure hon. Members and the public that Ministers act in the public interest. They make decisions in the public interest. That is a fundamental part of the duties of their office. Ministers are bound by the ministerial code, which is based on an acceptance that ministerial office brings with it serious responsibility and a duty to the nation. The code was strengthened and updated in July 2007. Allegations of a breach of the ministerial code are investigated by Sir Philip Mawer, the independent adviser on ministerial standards. Ministers have to act within the ministerial code, and, if they do not, they cannot continue as Ministers. That requires them to act in the public interest and not in any private interest. From 1 October last year, the Government now publish, for the first time, on a quarterly basis, details of Ministers’ meetings with outside interest groups. It is therefore fully transparent which organisations a Minister has met and what the meeting was about.

The position on former Ministers is that they must not take any proposed employment of any kind unless it has been approved by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. That has been the position since 2007, when we strengthened the process by making it a requirement for two years after leaving ministerial office instead of one year, and making it a requirement to get approval rather than just to notify, as was previously the case. Former Ministers are also governed by the rules that apply to all Members of this House or, if they are in the House of Lords, the rules that apply to all peers.

Members of this House are required to abide by the code of conduct for Members of Parliament, which was reissued, updated and strengthened in June last year. Fundamental to the code of conduct is the requirement for hon. Members to abide by the seven principles of public life. The rules that embody those principles are stringent and extensive, and breach of the rules is dealt with, following a complaint or a self-referral, by an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, if necessary, by action by the Standards and Privileges Committee. Any allegation that a Member of this House has broken the code of conduct will be thoroughly investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards so that the House can, if necessary, impose the appropriate sanction. We have high standards, clear rules and a clear remedy for breach, and that is how it should be.

Members of Parliament are paid a salary. If an hon. Member takes on any other work for which they are paid, they are, since June 2009, required to register every payment made to them, including the amount and what they were paid for. That ensures that, if any hon. Member is getting paid over and above their MP’s salary, the public know who is paying them and for what. Failure to register a payment is a breach of the code of conduct.

The rules relating to civil servants state that they are required to abide by the civil service code, which has now being put on a statutory footing in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Breach of the code is dealt with by the Cabinet Secretary and the civil service commissioners.

I turn now to those who seek to be MPs. Following the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Government have issued guidance to all candidates standing at the next general election about the voluntary disclosure of their financial interests, including their tax status.

Following the report of the Public Administration Committee in January last year, the Government have been working with the lobbying industry to establish a register of lobbyists. Building on that work, and in the light of the latest allegations, we think that that should be put on a statutory footing. There should be a legal register of lobbyists, which would require people to register as lobbyists and to register the identity of the clients on whose behalf they were acting. This is necessary to give the public confidence that that is the law and that it will be complied with. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for an advance copy of her statement. However, it leaves a number of unresolved issues. The fact that the Leader of the House has had to come to the House to explain the situation is a clear indication of the seriousness of these allegations, which threaten to become, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) warned, the next big scandal in Westminster. Does she agree that the sight of former Cabinet Ministers offering to lobby Government on behalf of corporate interests for private gain, in one case as a kind of “cab for hire” for up to £5,000 per day, will have deeply appalled the public and further undermined trust in politics at a moment when we all hoped that we were turning the corner.

The public will now expect the Government to treat these revelations with the seriousness they deserve, but rather than clarifying the facts, Downing street appears to be doing the opposite. Does the Leader of the House not recognise that the Prime Minister’s decision to rule out a proper inquiry before the television programme has even gone out was simply the wrong response, particularly as the Secretary of State for Transport has just confirmed in another place that he spoke to the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) about the east coast franchise? Does she not agree with me that the allegation that public policy was in some way altered by ex-Ministers lobbying for corporate clients to the possible disadvantage of the taxpayer and the consumer needs to be fully and impartially investigated and that the Cabinet Secretary should carry out an appropriate review, as requested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude)?

The House will have heard what the Leader of the House said about the internal departmental review, but does she not agree with her colleague, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who said on the radio at 1 o’clock that

“the Cabinet Secretary will want to assure himself that nothing has gone wrong at the Departmental end”.

Should not the results of this review be put in the public domain? In ruling out an inquiry, has the Prime Minister followed due process? Who exactly has he consulted in the course of the last 24 hours to satisfy himself so quickly as to the veracity or otherwise of these claims?

Does the Leader of the House recall that I asked her for a debate on the Public Administration Committee’s report into lobbying back in October at my first business questions? With the benefit of hindsight, does she regret never finding time for that debate? Why did the Government drag their feet on this report for months? The Committee published its original report in December 2008, but the Government did not respond for almost a year, instead of the recommended six weeks. The original PAC report clearly stated that

“with the rules as loosely and as variously interpreted as they currently are, former Ministers in particular appear to be able to use with impunity contacts they built up as public servants to further a private interest.”

In reply, the Government did not agree with

“the general assertion that former Ministers in particular are able to use improperly and with impunity contacts they have built up while in office”.

Does she now regret that response and, in paragraph 31, rejecting statutory regulation, which she accepted a few moments ago?

Moving forward, does the right hon. and learned Lady agree with me that the advisory committee on public appointments should be placed on a statutory basis? If she does, what explanation does she have for the Government not supporting the amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill tabled on 2 March in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), which would have done exactly that? Does she agree that we need to review the two-year time limit for ex-ministerial appointments, giving a longer horizon than is currently the case?

The country will expect the Government to deal with these issues thoroughly and promptly. If they are not finalised before Dissolution, does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that it will be the first responsibility of an incoming Government to instruct the Prime Minister’s adviser on the ministerial code to undertake a full review of this episode so that Government can learn the lessons of what has gone wrong and then change the rules to prevent a recurrence of this scandal in the future?

The shadow Leader of the House referred to the “cab for hire” quote. I think I can say on behalf of all hon. Members that that is not what anyone in this House of Commons wants to see, and it is certainly not what the public want to see. The matter is to be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

The right hon. Gentleman said that public policy had been altered in respect of transport. I refer him to what I said in my statement, and to today’s statement by the Secretary of State for Transport in the House of Lords. Public policy was not altered in any way. It is absolutely refuted and strongly denied that there was any alteration of public policy. The Secretary of State for Transport said that

“there is no truth whatsoever in the suggestion that Stephen Byers came to any arrangement with me on any matter relating to National Express.”

He went on to say:

“I told Mr. Byers that such a move would undermine the rail franchise system and would not be in the best interests of taxpayers.”

Further to that, the permanent secretary to the Department for Transport has said:

“I have looked into the allegations made over the weekend about improper influence by former ministers on departmental policy making and decision making in relation to National Express rail franchise business. Having made inquiries, I am satisfied that there was no impropriety on the part of ministers or officials in the Department. The Secretary of State for Transport has also made a statement in the House of Lords which rejected any allegation of impropriety.”

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why we had not found time for a debate on the register. We found time to debate a motion that I had tabled and to which the House agreed, although it was not without controversy. We found time to ensure that information about every penny earned by Members of Parliament over and above their pay as Members would be available, so that the public would be fully in the picture in regard to who was paying Members of Parliament over and above their salaries, and for what.

We found time to amend the code for Ministers to ensure that, without waiting for Freedom of Information Act requests—incidentally, it was this Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act—Ministers must publish quarterly information about all organisations that they have met, and specify the subject of those meetings. That will now be in the public domain. We also found time to amend and tighten the rules relating to former Ministers, extending the one year that had obtained previously to two years, and introducing a requirement for not just notification but approval before any job is undertaken by a former Minister.

I understand that there was no proposal for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—if that is the committee that the right hon. Gentleman meant—to be put on a statutory footing by any Member in any part of the House during the passage of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. However, it is worth looking into. The current arrangement appears to be working well at present, but if hon. Members want that—[Interruption.] Well, we will consider it.

I thank the Leader of the House for advance sight of her statement. However, I think it very unlikely that it would have been made today had it not been for the revelations in the press.

The depressing fact is that the House of Commons always has to react to what happens, rather than taking the necessary action in advance. We did the same in the case of the expenses system. We did not react in time, and we have seen the consequences. We have done the same in relation to party political funding: we have not taken the appropriate steps, and we see what is happening as a result. Now there is the issue of lobbying, which we all knew would eventually hit the newspapers.

What will our constituents think when they read that right hon. and hon. Members of this House think that they should be paid, on top of their parliamentary salary, more for two days’ work than a pensioner gets in a whole year? That is the reality of the situation. And what is that for? It is for asking a few cosy questions of their chums in government or, in the case of the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), of what she describes as the “girls’ club”—I am not sure what that comprises. We are talking about questions being put not on behalf of constituents or the national public interest, but for the partisan commercial interest of whoever is prepared to pay the cab fare, and that cannot be right.

On the individual decisions, I note, as the right hon. and learned Lady has done, that the Transport Secretary has just answered an urgent question in another place. That was done in another place because the Transport Secretary cannot come here to answer elected Members on a key matter of public interest, and neither can the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills—neither of them are Members who have been elected to their current office. In order to dispel any lingering doubts, will the Leader of the House arrange for every record of meetings on this matter, as well as letters, e-mails or any other contacts, to be made openly available so that we can judge whether there has been any influence on policy?

The Leader of the House referred to the ministerial code and the work of Sir Philip Mawer, who was asked to investigate. We must remember that he can investigate only at the request of the Prime Minister; the Prime Minister is the only one who governs the ministerial code. I have very little confidence in the Prime Minister in this respect, because I happen to know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has sent three letters to him with complaints about a former Minister who may have breached the ministerial code and he has not yet received a reply. So what confidence can we have in that code? Should the code be adapted so that Ministers and civil servants are required not even to entertain approaches from Members of this House if they are made on behalf of commercial interests—if they are made on behalf of paid advocacy? There is no reason why Members should have access to Ministers on that basis; they are not working on behalf of their constituents, so why should they have that privileged position?

The Leader of the House has said that she is interested now—suddenly—in what the Public Administration Committee said about the statutory register for lobbyists, but she has had that report for some time and parliamentary vehicles were available for that to have been enacted. Why was it not? We have had plenty of time to debate lots of other things, so why did we not have a debate and an amendment—a Government proposal—on this subject? Why did she not accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) to the Companies Act 2006, which would have required companies to register when they decide to hire a Member of this place in order to do their business? Why did the Government resist that amendment and not let it through?

The fact is that we are tougher on the lowliest parish council member than we are on Members of this House. It seems to me that paid advocacy in Parliament for commercial or partial interests is not compatible with the duties of a Member of this House.

The hon. Gentleman says that we are taking action after the event. I have set out the action that we have already taken to make sure that details of meetings with Ministers, which previously were completely secret and not known to the public, are all routinely put in the public domain. I have explained to him that we have taken action to extend the period of time in which former Ministers must seek permission for a job they do. I have also set out to the House that whereas previously Members could be paid by companies or any organisation and it was shrouded in secrecy, we brought a motion before this House that now requires Members to register all the income they receive for work done in addition to their work as Members of this House. I ask him to recognise that we are not taking action after the event; we have taken action before the event. The allegation about my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) will be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

As far as the civil service code is concerned, we have put that on a statutory footing. As for people being paid on top of their salary, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the step that we have taken is to ensure that instead of its being shrouded in secrecy, it is known to the public. He should recognise that the House took that decision. Previously, that information was shrouded in secrecy and now all members of the public can see it.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to put in the public domain information about meetings held by the Transport Secretary prior to the National Express decision. Because since 2007 we have decided automatically to make public the meetings that Ministers have, that information should already be in the public domain for decisions that were made in July and November last year. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to put information in the public domain—not only the fact of the meeting but what the meeting was about must be put in the public domain.

The hon. Gentleman says that we are suddenly interested in the report of the Public Administration Committee. That is not the case—

No, what has happened is that there have been ongoing discussions about establishing a register of lobbyists so that there can be more transparency about who is acting on whose behalf. Because of the public concern that has arisen out of the most recent allegations, we think that it is right to move that forward on to a statutory footing to reassure the public that there is a statutory register. The law will require those who are lobbyists to register the fact that they are lobbyists as well as who their clients are.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked why companies should not have to register when they hire an MP. I would answer that it is the responsibility of the MP to register that they have been hired. That is certainly an important first step, which did not exist before last June, when it came into effect. We have just started to register that information.

I would share with the hon. Gentleman—I think all hon. Members would do so, too—a sense that we do not want anybody in this House to bring the House into disrepute. We do not want anybody to bring Government into disrepute or to throw a cloud of suspicion over a Government who are acting in the public interest. That is why it is important for me to be so emphatic, so that we reassure the public that whatever actions have been taken by individual Members of this House, they will be investigated. I can assure hon. Members that when it comes to decision making by Ministers, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills or the Secretary of State for Transport, they have taken those decisions as Ministers of the Crown in the public interest.

Order. No fewer than 21 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Accommodating all of them will require short questions and short answers.

Although I recognise the steps that have already been taken and what my right hon. and learned Friend has set out, may I ask her this question? Why should any hon. Member be involved in lobbying for commercial interests? No one has been elected to do that and it is understandable that if we are to continue to clean up Parliament, such lobbying should be totally outlawed. There is no justification for it and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend recognises the strength of public opinion on this issue.

I certainly do. I think that I have made my views on this known to the House on a number of occasions. I know that my hon. Friend will be aware of them. It was a very important step for the public—who, after all, are the people who vote for us to be in this House of Commons—to know whether a Member of Parliament whom they have been sending to the House of Commons is doing work that is different from or over and above the work that they were elected to do. Their constituents should know that. Before we took that step, it was not possible for the public to know that. The fact that it has made a difference has been attested to by the fact that a number of Opposition Members, including possibly some shadow Cabinet members, have decided to relinquish outside interests rather than fully registering them. It shows that it has made an important difference.

Despite the seriousness of the allegations levelled against the Privy Counsellors, does the Leader of the House agree that they pale into insignificance when compared with assertions that Mr. Blair has been seeking to make money for himself through ventures in Iraq of all places?

Mr. Blair is a private citizen who is entitled to do whatever is within the law. That is not a responsibility of this House, or a responsibility of mine as the Leader of the House.

The Member in question is not the first man to indulge in boastful fantasies while talking to a young woman, but should not this shameful episode convince the House of the need to follow the fine example of the Public Administration Committee, which united to make an all-party, tough recommendation to make sure that MPs could never again be for hire?

I agree with the sentiments of my hon. Friend, and I think that important steps forward were taken by having full transparency. The register of lobbyists will also take things forward on a statutory basis.

Why does it always take a crisis before the Government ever take any action on preserving the integrity of the House? With an election just weeks away, why will the Leader of the House not finally agree to have a fair, impartial and independent inquiry into all this?

I would respond to the hon. Lady’s question in two ways. First, I do not want to have to reiterate to her all the action that we have already taken to toughen up the system and to make sure that it is transparent, that there are clear rules and that those rules are enforced. I have explained to the House that, in respect of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside, there is going to be an investigation into his conduct by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If my right hon. Friend’s conduct is found to have fallen short of the principles of public life, set out in the code of practice for Members of Parliament, further action will be taken. That investigation is under way.

As far as the question now is concerned, in respect of the decisions taken by the Government, as I said in my statement, the Prime Minister has sought the Cabinet Secretary’s assurance that Departments have looked into the claims. One would not expect them to wait after allegations of such seriousness had been made. They looked into these matters right away and, as impartial civil servants, they have given their view that there was

“no improper influence on Government policy and decisions.”

I hope that the hon. Lady and the public will be reassured about this.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the revulsion that is felt by many Labour MPs about the attitude of so-called Labour colleagues? Surely, the answer to all this is to cut the Gordian knot and make sure that all MPs, especially Labour MPs, have no outside work at all when they are MPs. On a lighter note, will she at least say that this could mark the final nail in the coffin of the new Labour project?

If my hon. Friend looks at the previous Register of Members’ Interests, he will find that by far the most registered interests for people earning outside Parliament were not from those on our side of the House. I did not make that point in my statement, but he has provoked me to explain what the reality was. That is why we have argued for greater transparency.

Are we not seeing a tired, worn-out Government who are mired in sleaze? We cannot go on like this; it must be time for change.

I strongly refute the allegation that there has been any impropriety on behalf of Ministers. I have already referred the House to what has been said by the Department for Transport, and I can refer the House to what was said by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The permanent secretary has said:

“I have looked into the allegations made over the weekend about former ministerial influence on policy-making. I am satisfied in the light of these investigations that there has been no improper influence on officials in my Department.”

In addition, I can report to the House that the Business Secretary has said that he has not spoken to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside about food labelling regulations, and that he would not expect to.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, on many occasions over the past many years, I have raised the question of Members of Parliament serving two masters and taking money from outside? There is only one solution to the matter, and it is that all Members of Parliament, on all sides of the House, must have one job and one job only—serving their constituents. Is it not high time that we put that in the manifesto and presented it to the people? Opposition Members would treat such a pledge in the manner that we expect, because they have so many lobbyists. No one starves on £60,000 a year, so let’s get on with it.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s sentiments, and he and I have discussed this on many occasions. I think that the public ought to be absolutely confident that their Member of Parliament is acting in their interests. They need to know who Members are taking money from, and for what.

The Leader of the House has sought many times today to reassure the House that the individuals involved did not, and could not, influence Government policy. Should they not be investigated for attempting to obtain pecuniary advantage by deception?

If there is any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, that is something that the police will decide independently to investigate. It is not for me as Leader of the House, or indeed for Ministers, to direct police investigations. It is for the police to work out what they want to investigate, and to take that forward with operational independence.

We on this side of the House are all scandalised by the behaviour of the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers). It was a disgrace, and absolutely shaming. I want to congratulate my Friend on saying at the Dispatch Box that the Government—hopefully the next Government—will bring forward a mandatory register of lobbyists. However, I did not hear the Gentleman who speaks for the Opposition commit his party to bringing in a mandatory register.

We will put the mandatory register proposal in our manifesto, and we hope that all parties support it. A reading of the previous Registers of Members’ Interests shows that large sums of money have been taken, overwhelmingly by Opposition Members. They held something like 70 per cent. of directorships, whereas something like 30 per cent. were held by Members on this side. We should recognise that the rules that we have brought in are important for all Members of this House.

But on what terms are briefings given to former Secretaries of State about future Government policy? An example would be briefings given by the Ministry of Defence to the former Secretary of State for Defence. It cannot be within the terms of such briefings that they are available for use for commercial gain by private companies, as the former Defence Secretary himself has alleged.

Briefings are not given to former Ministers unless they have a particular responsibility to carry out on behalf of the Department or of the Government. If they have such a responsibility, they carry it out in the public interest, and not for any private interests.

The noble Lord Whitty recently attacked the influence of lobbying companies representing producer interests in securing important amendments to the Digital Economy Bill. Given that, would it not be an affront to our democracy if that Bill, which has been so heavily influenced by lobbyists, were to be rushed through its Second Reading on Easter Tuesday—possibly as the Prime Minister is on his way to the Palace to seek the Dissolution of Parliament—and then rushed through its final stages in the wash-up?

The Digital Economy Bill is of great concern not just to lobbyists, but to consumers and providers of digital services. We will look for an opportunity to bring it back to the House for debate. There is no intention to rush it through, and certainly no intention to serve the interests of lobbyists. The intention is to serve the interests of this country.

Can the Leader of the House say whether the Prime Minister spoke to the Cabinet Secretary or even the Business Secretary before ruling out a Government investigation?

The Prime Minister today sought the Cabinet Secretary’s assurance that Departments had looked into the claims. Inquiries had already been made, as they would following any such serious allegations. As soon as such an issue is raised, the relevant Departments will immediately look into them. The relevant permanent secretaries at the Department of Health, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Transport have assured the Cabinet Secretary that they are satisfied that there has been no improper influence on Government policy or decisions. That is their assurance, which they are setting out in public statements later today. That is the information that the Prime Minister sought.

Given that the apparent defence of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) to these very serious allegations is that he is a liar, does the right hon. and learned Lady regard him as a fit and proper person for elevation to the House of Lords, which presumably is what he is looking for, come the next election?

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards will be investigating the conduct of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside. It is not for me to pronounce on that. It is a matter for the commissioner, as far as the House is concerned.

Did Lord Adonis inform the permanent secretary as soon as he had been approached by the right hon. Member for North Tyneside, who was representing the interests of National Express? Is not the real problem that we are relying entirely on a Minister’s word that the ministerial code has been complied with? Who enforces the ministerial code? Is it not Ministers themselves and the Prime Minister? Is there not a case for putting the ministerial code for Ministers and former Ministers on to a statutory footing?

The Secretary of State for Transport has answered questions on precisely that issue in the House of Lords today. The hon. Gentleman will know that the foremost responsibility of a Minister is to Parliament. Ministers are bound not to mislead Parliament. The Secretary of State for Transport has answered questions at the Dispatch Box. He told the House of Lords that he has acted with total propriety at all times. He has given that absolute assurance to the House of Lords, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will accept that.

In her statement the Leader of the House said that partially to avoid “any inappropriate or undue influence . . . details of Ministers’ meetings with outside interest groups and individuals” are published. Given that we are told, and we see on the television, that Charlie Whelan has regular access to 10 Downing street and is alleged to have a desk in 10 Downing street, can the Leader of the House assure us that any meeting between the Prime Minister and Charlie Whelan is published?

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the situation in relation to the Prime Minister’s diary. I know that if Ministers meet representatives of organisations, those meetings are reportable on a quarterly basis.

The right hon. and learned Lady will know that I am a practising barrister. I have always declared that and, as such, I have always defended the right of hon. Members to have declared external interests. I make no comment about the three Members referred to in The Sunday Times article because I have no special knowledge at all, but what surely would be wrong and very difficult to justify would be for an hon. Member to use their position as a Member of Parliament to perform parliamentary functions in return for a specific payment. What would be quite impossible to justify would be doing that without declaring the fact. Is that not where the evil lies?

I think that that would count as paid advocacy. No one can be paid for taking a particular action in this House, whether it is making a speech or tabling a question. We outlawed paid advocacy, but I agree that, notwithstanding what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, the public distinguish between people who pursue what was their profession before they entered the House, perhaps as a doctor or even as a lawyer, and people who take on commercial interests once they have entered the House. That is the big dividing line about which the public are concerned. Notwithstanding that, it is important that all payments are revealed, including payments to those who sit as judges on the bench and those who act as lawyers.

May I reiterate to my right hon. and learned Friend that the overwhelming majority of constituents and, I think, Members here believe that being a Member is a seven-day-a-week job, 52 weeks a year? There is simply no room for other employment, and it should be outlawed. Will she look at the attendance of some of our colleagues who are subject to criticism? They do not turn up to vote—some of them, I forget what they look like. I believe that we should work right up until the final whistle blows on 9 August, or whenever it is, and until we reach that stage everyone should be here every day.

For those hon. Members who are standing for re-election, it is their constituents who will decide what is appropriate based on what they have done; it is their constituents who will judge their record of attendance and what they have said while they have been here; and it is their constituents, too, who will judge the work that they have done in their constituencies, because hon. Members work not only in this House, but in their constituencies. Ultimately, the electors will have the final say, and rightly so.

A few years ago a lobbyist offered me a sum of money to make a speech in support of redundancies at the National Blood Service, which I found very strange, but because the speech would have taken place outside, not inside, the House, I could not get the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to intervene. In reviewing the rules, could we ensure that MPs are able to report lobbyists who ask for improper actions outside, as well as inside, the House?

I think that any money that is paid to Members for what they do inside or, indeed, outside the House—every single pound that is paid in that respect—has got to be registered so that the public can see and the voters can make their judgment.

Can the Leader of the House inform hon. Members whether the Prime Minister spoke to the Transport Secretary before ruling out an inquiry into all those shady dealings?

The Prime Minister sought assurances and received those assurances, but, obviously, permanent secretaries and the Cabinet Secretary would keep all those things under consideration. However, the Prime Minister sought the assurances and received them.

This is another low ebb for the House—as bad as cash for questions and 1997. Does the Leader of the House think that it is perhaps time for more Independents in this House?

No, but I do think that it is time for the tough rules that we have to be swiftly and effectively enforced.

The Leader of the House has been very precise in her choice of words. She said that the civil servants advised that there had been no improper influence. By inference, there was influence, therefore, and it was proper, so will she tell the House the extent of that influence?

It is an unusual accusation—that I have been precise in the imprecision of my words. I have simply tried to assure hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman. People would be rightly very troubled if they thought, and were right in their fear, that massive and important decisions such as those on food labelling and the distribution of franchises for rail operators were made because a Minister listened to a former colleague who was being paid. The public would be rightly horrified—we all would be—and I want to assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that that was not the basis on which those decisions were taken. If there is a question of wrongdoing by those other than Ministers, such as those who are being investigated, that is not a matter for me. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no impropriety or undue influence when those very big and important decisions were taken.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance and advice? My understanding is that when a Department seeks to group questions together at Question Time, it is a common practice and courtesy that hon. Members whose questions are going to be grouped together are notified in advance by the Department that that is going to happen. I have spoken to a number of my colleagues who had their questions grouped at today’s Home Office questions, and they all tell me that none of them had been notified in advance. I certainly know that a few weeks ago I had a question grouped and the first time I knew about it was when I saw it on the monitor rather than from any notification to my office. Can you confirm that Departments should still be continuing the practice whereby they notify hon. Members, and could you use your offices to ensure that they return to the courtesy that we always expected from them?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. His understanding of the custom and practice is entirely correct, and that custom and practice should continue. It most certainly should have applied on today’s occasion and, indeed, on all others. It is helpful that the Leader of the House is present when I am answering the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, and she may wish to respond. She is not obliged to do so, but she may wish to do so. I can say only that I regard it as a fundamental courtesy that when a grouping is proposed the ministerial team should notify Members affected in advance and without fail. Does the Leader of the House wish to comment?

Okay. However, I have made the position very clear and those on the Treasury Bench have heard it.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to seek your guidance having already given you prior notice in writing. On 15 March, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), issued an answer to this written parliamentary question from me:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government whether the regional fire control rooms in London will be operational and live by September 2011.”

The Minister’s reply was as follows:

“Under current planning assumptions the regional fire control centre for London is due to become operational during September 2011. Planning assumptions are currently under review.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 666W.]

That gave a clear impression that the London fire control centre was still on course to be operational by September 2011. As we know, Mr. Speaker, the Olympics run from July to September 2011. [Interruption.] In 2012—I beg your pardon. However, I have subsequently discovered that on 9 March the Minister wrote to the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority to say:

“I have asked the FiReControl team to begin discussions with your project team about how we can move to a planning assumption that London would only join the FiReControl network after the Olympic Games.”

The ministerial code states that

“it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity”

and that Ministers should

“be as open as possible with Parliament and the public”.

In this context, the Minister’s reply represents a significant and inadvertent misleading omission in failing to indicate that he was preparing to delay the project. I therefore ask what guidance you can give so that we can bring the Minister to the Dispatch Box to make a full statement to the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his point of order and for giving me advance notice of it. It is not, of course, for me to adjudicate on the accuracy of answers. It is open to the Minister to issue a correction if his answer was erroneous. Otherwise, the hon. Gentleman may seek advice from the Table Office about ways of pursuing this matter.

Justice and Northern Ireland

Order. Before I call the Secretary of State to move the first motion, I understand that it may be for the convenience of the House if the three instruments are debated together.

I beg to move,

That the draft Northern Ireland Court Service (Abolition and Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2010, which was laid before this House on 10 March, be approved.

With this we shall discuss the following motions on Northern Ireland:

That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Devolution of Policing and Justice Functions) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 10 March, be approved.

That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 3) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 10 March, be approved.

Today’s business will enable the completion of devolution in Northern Ireland through the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont. The three orders before the House will give effect to the historic vote at Stormont on 9 March. The vast majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to request the transfer of those powers, which was hoped for from the time of the Belfast agreement and envisaged in the St. Andrews agreement. An agreement on a timetable was reached at Hillsborough castle earlier this year.

The completion of devolution will see the arrangements for sharing power fully realised on 12 April. It will ensure that local politicians in Northern Ireland can take responsibility for decisions that should and can be taken in Northern Ireland. Today we complete our responsibilities for the peace process and complete the political process for which we have responsibility, and we enable the Assembly at Stormont to complete its arrangements for full devolution.

I am grateful to all those who have enabled us to reach this crucial moment in the history of Northern Ireland. I thank the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all the Assembly party leaders in Northern Ireland, even if agreement was not quite unanimous last week. That Northern Ireland can today live with its disagreements and ensure that division is contained within democratic institutions sends a signal of how the political process and the peace process have transformed Northern Ireland. Today in Northern Ireland we can disagree, but we can be certain that politics will be the only way forward to reconcile disagreements. Today’s Northern Ireland has demonstrated that politics has come of age, and when the will of a cross-community majority is respected, we know that we have succeeded.

We could not have made such progress without the political will of right hon. and hon. Members of all parties and the Members of another place. Cross-party support has been essential, and that has been true for many years. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Irish and American Governments for their respective roles in helping to reach political agreement. I am sure the House will want to place on record its thanks especially to Secretary of State Clinton and the United States economic envoy for all that they have done, and continue to do, to bring the dividends of political agreement to people in every community in Northern Ireland.

The three orders before us give effect to the devolution of policing and justice matters in Northern Ireland, in line with the framework set out in Acts of Parliament since the Good Friday agreement. They reflect the Hillsborough castle agreement and the request of the Assembly for the devolution of policing and justice responsibilities approved in its cross-community vote of 9 March.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 3) Order 2010 is the key document. It provides for policing and justice matters, which until now have been reserved, to be transferred so that the Assembly can legislate on them without having to seek consent. The matters being transferred reflect the Assembly’s request of 9 March. Some matters, such as national security, will remain excepted; some will remain reserved, one of which is parading. The Hillsborough castle agreement, however, envisages that responsibility for parading will transfer after a cross-community vote, once the proposed new and improved framework has been agreed and finalised.

Also reserved is the special provision for 50:50 recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We are confident that we shall reach our target of 30 per cent. Catholic composition by March of next year, and we are committed to returning to Parliament and ending the provision at whatever point in the year it becomes clear that we will reach that target. National security remains excepted under the order. It remains just that—national security—and it will remain the responsibility of UK Ministers, accountable to this House.

The second order, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Devolution of Policing and Justice Functions) Order 2010, makes a large number of amendments consequential on the changes in legislative competence. They largely involve the transfer to Northern Ireland authorities of executive functions, reflecting the transfer in legislative responsibility. The main recipient of those functions is the new Northern Ireland Department of Justice, which the Assembly has already legislated to establish.

In the case of some functions that will transfer, there is potentially an interface with national security matters. That will remain the Secretary of State’s responsibility. In those cases, the order makes clear the respective roles and responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Justice Minister and the Secretary of State. The order provides, in line with the Hillsborough castle agreement, that quasi-judicial decisions may be made by the Justice Minister, and need not go to the Northern Ireland Executive.

The order also gives effect to various transfers of property and of most of the staff in the current Northern Ireland Office. Those staff will move to the Northern Ireland Department of Justice, leaving a small number who will continue to work to me as Secretary of State on my remaining responsibilities.

Finally, the Northern Ireland Court Service (Abolition and Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2010 transfers functions of the Court Service in Northern Ireland, which are currently the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, to the Northern Ireland authorities, generally the Department of Justice. The staff of the Court Service will also be assimilated into that Department.

The orders will come into effect on 12 April, in line with the Hillsborough castle agreement. The Justice Department will be well provided for financially as part of the £800 million of additional money that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister promised for the new Justice Department. All but £26 million—2 per cent. of the Northern Ireland Office’s current baseline budget—will transfer to the Northern Ireland Executive as will the entire Northern Ireland Court Service baseline budget. The Department will be well provided for in finance, people and ideas to carry forward its work.

I readily acknowledge that not everyone was entirely satisfied by the outcome of the Hillsborough castle agreement. I believe that much of that dissatisfaction is unfounded, as the arrangements for the talks were designed to bring all the parties together in a process, which was designed from its inception to be inclusive. Even if, after 10 days, the talks were somewhat exhausting, I believe that, at the end of them, the agreement that we reached has allowed the peace process and the political process to be completed.

I am particularly aware of the remaining concern about the arrangements for the Justice Department in May 2012, if there has not been further agreement on the ministerial model for that Department. However, as set out in the Northern Ireland Act 2009, the Department of Justice will dissolve on 1 May 2012 unless the Assembly has resolved on a cross-community basis to continue the current model for appointing the Justice Minister or passed an Act to put in place alternative arrangements.

When Parliament passed the legislation in March 2009, the House was aware that the arrangements reflected agreement between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—specifically that the arrangements set out in their November 2008 statement should be time limited to end in May 2012.

Clearly, further work is needed to agree the post-2012 arrangements. However, we should be optimistic. The parties, both at Hillsborough castle and more recently, have demonstrated their ability to meet far greater challenges and to work through all the obstacles that may be placed in their way.

I am so sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State, but will he just reassure the people at home about the Policing Board in particular? He knows that it has been very successful and that there is unfortunately some disquiet that, when a justice scrutiny committee is set up in the Assembly, it might inadvertently undermine the Policing Board’s confidence, role and status. Will the Secretary of State please address that issue?

The hon. Lady asks an important question. Like many questions that she has asked in the course of the past few months’ work, it is to the point. The arrangements for the Policing Board, those with the Chief Constable and those that envisage the Assembly’s setting up a committee were imagined in the Patten architecture. It was always envisaged that there would be an important relationship between the Policing Board, the Chief Constable, the Department of Justice and the committees that would be set up. I believe that that is properly outlined in the protocols and memorandums that we have supplied on policing architecture. Like Patten, I do not see that there would be a problem for the Chief Constable’s independence, for the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s operational capacity, for the Policing Board’s fully representative functions of the political parties or for the scrutiny work to be carried out by an Assembly justice committee.

It is, of course, for the Assembly to decide the functions of such a justice committee. However, I remind the hon. Lady that, as she knows well, that arrangement was always envisaged by Patten, and it is not a new addition by this Government or a new arrangement. I believe that it is quite possible to see how what is effectively a tripartite organisation will work effectively together in terms of the objectives of policing and scrutiny. Again, that matter will be resolved far more easily when the architecture is put in place in practice, which we will see after 12 April.

As I was saying, we of course regret the decision by the Ulster Unionist party not to vote for the transfer with the rest of the Assembly in the cross-community vote on 9 March. That remains a matter of regret not just for me, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government, but for many, not least the majority of the public and many of those who would have voted, or had intended to vote, for the Ulster Unionist party in future.

If we look at the arrangements, however, we see that they inspire confidence. I congratulate all the Northern Ireland Assembly parties on establishing successful community confidence in the past few weeks. With the vote taken last week, it is time for all parties in Northern Ireland, and all Assembly Members from every party, to again put differences to one side and work together. The majority in the Assembly expressed its view last week, and I very much hope that that majority view will now be allowed to prevail. In that spirit, the task for all the parties in the Assembly and Executive is to ensure that all aspects of the settlement work most effectively for all the people from every community of Northern Ireland.

To that end, one of the most important outcomes of the Hillsborough castle agreement was the decision by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, who listened at Hillsborough castle to the concerns of all the Assembly parties, to improve the functioning of the Executive. It is very much to the credit of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister that as part of the Hillsborough castle agreement, a number of working parties were established precisely because they had listened to the concerns of the other Assembly parties as well as members of their own parties not only at Hillsborough, but in the previous months. That is why we welcome the role of Sir Reg Empey, along with that of the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, Margaret Ritchie, who will chair one of the working groups that has been specifically set up to enhance the effectiveness of the Executive.

At Hillsborough, the parties also agreed to address and find consensus on remaining outstanding issues and existing problems. On parades, for example, the working group has already produced a report for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. It is appropriate to record in this House the support given by the Orange Order to the progress to date on, and the work to find local solutions to, parading issues and contentious parades, which has been established as a result of the work at Hillsborough castle.

In short, I remain convinced that no outstanding issues are incapable of resolution in today’s Stormont and today’s shared-power Executive in Northern Ireland. None the less, a very small number of people in Northern Ireland, who are extremely dangerous, will never accept democracy and are the enemies of democracy. We have never said that the simple fact of completing devolution and taking responsibility will overnight remove the threat that those dangerous criminals continue to pose. However, as the Independent Monitoring Commission rightly said at the end of last year, early devolution will be a potent intervention, because it shows that politics is the only way ahead, and it demonstrates that it is possible to reconcile even the seemingly irreconcilable through dialogue and politics.

The successful cross-community vote last week was the best signal that we could possibly send to those dissidents that however delusional their ambitions, they have no future in Northern Ireland. The PSNI and the Chief Constable will have the support of all Assembly Members, and continue to enjoy the support of all Members of this House and the other place and of the Government, in meeting the challenges ahead. The PSNI will have the resources that it needs, including an extra £28.7 million this year, ring-fenced—and at least £38 million next year—specifically to deal with the challenges posed by that small group of criminals who, I remind hon. Members, have little or no support in any of the communities in Northern Ireland. The policing structures are in place and the politics are in place.

I have spoken of some of those who have played a leading part in the transformation of Northern Ireland. But in truth the real heroes of this remarkable story are the people of Northern Ireland whose indefatigable spirit and courage is exemplified in the words of Kate Carroll, whose husband Stephen was murdered by dissident republicans as he served the community exactly a year to the day before the vote on 9 March. Stephen’s wife said:

“It is time to move on. We are not in the past any more. We want to speak for ourselves. We want to rule ourselves. Just get up and get on with it”.

These orders will help Northern Ireland to do precisely that.

The Secretary of State has today made a written statement on the Saville inquiry. I thank him for that statement and the measured tones in which it is written. We endorse the arrangements that he proposes, but given the sensitive nature of the subject matter and the huge size of the report, it is not appropriate to publish it in the weeks before a general election, when the atmosphere becomes increasingly charged. We understand the frustrations of all those connected with the report about further delays, but we believe emphatically that it needs to be published and considered in a sober manner in the calmer weeks following the election.

Turning to the orders, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for setting out the details today. I begin by paying tribute to the police, the judiciary and all those involved in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland over the past 40 years. They have often worked at great personal risk and many have suffered terribly, with some making the supreme sacrifice. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to everyone who ensured that the integrity of the criminal justice system was upheld.

As the Secretary of State made clear, these orders give effect to the agreement reached between the DUP and Sinn Fein at Hillsborough on 5 February, and the vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 9 March. Once these orders pass through the House and the other place, the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly will take place on 12 April. The last major element of the Belfast agreement, made almost 12 years earlier to the day, will have been completed. For the first time since the powers were taken away from the Northern Ireland Government in March 1972, Stormont will once again exercise powers over policing, criminal justice, the courts and local security issues.

The Conservative party has long supported in principle the devolution of policing and justice powers. We said so as far back as 1998 in our submission to the Patten commission, and our view has not changed. These powers are best exercised in Northern Ireland by politicians accountable to the electorate there, not by Ministers in this House. That is why we supported legislation this time last year, even though we believed that it could have been improved with a little more time. It is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition met the First and Deputy First Ministers in the autumn and rapidly pledged that, should we win the election, we would honour the substantial post-dated financial package agreed by the Prime Minister.

We welcomed the Hillsborough castle agreement, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition expressed his hope at the time that it would lead to the completion of devolution. Indeed, following the vote on 9 March, a spokesman for the US State Department referred to the constructive role played by the Opposition throughout the recent negotiations. At all times our overriding objective has been a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all its people have a shared future. Whether we remain in opposition or return to government in a few weeks, that is the approach that we shall continue to take. We therefore support the orders before the House today.

I commend the hon. Gentleman very much on the approach that he has outlined. The history in recent years is one in which Northern Ireland business has been approached in a non-partisan way, and I am delighted to hear that that will continue. May I therefore invite him to disown the remarks of one Ian Parsley, who I understand is a Conservative candidate in the constituency of North Down? He has commended the Ulster Unionists in a blog post on being alone in standing up for the people of Northern Ireland, saying:

“The wide-ranging attacks on the Ulster Unionist Party for failing to back the devolution of justice prior to improvements in the functioning of the Executive are an example of the complete loss of morals that now typifies the ‘Peace Process’.”

Surely that cannot be acceptable coming from a Conservative candidate.

I am most grateful for that intervention, but if the hon. Gentleman can restrain himself, I will return to the issue of the vote in a few moments.

I will come to that.

Even if any Member of this House had had misgivings about the vote on 9 March, they should remember that it represented the democratically expressed will of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Members of this House should have no business seeking to frustrate that; it is how devolution works across the United Kingdom. Equally, we should be careful in this House about seeking to force parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly into voting in a particular way. Devolution is about locally elected politicians using their judgment to make decisions on devolved issues in the best interests of Northern Ireland and based on their knowledge and experience. It is the role of Parliament to respect those democratic decisions and not to interfere. Of course, we could all use our influence, but ultimately, votes in the Assembly are for the Northern Ireland parties represented there to decide. That is a fundamental principle of how devolution works, and I trust that hon. Members in all parts of the House will continue to respect that.

I am the sole voice of the Ulster Unionist party in this House, and although I am happy to support the legislation this afternoon, I find myself in a minority position, because my party executive, my party leader and my Assembly colleagues have all voted against the devolution of policing and justice. I very much regret that. As policing and justice are currently reserved, can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House what efforts his party leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), made in conversation with Sir Reg Empey, my party leader? Can the hon. Gentleman explain how often the leader of the Conservative party spoke to my party leader, and say how much effort was expended in trying to persuade the Ulster Unionists to support the devolution of policing and justice in the Assembly?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for intervening, but I do not see why she cannot ask her party leader herself. I assure her that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) had several conversations with her party leader. However, as I have explained, we believe in devolution, and a national party in this place is in no position to force a local party to make a decision based on its own experience. Members of the Ulster Unionist party had a number of genuine and legitimate concerns—about education and the work of the Executive as a genuine four-party coalition—and it was the failure to deal with them satisfactorily that prevented the Ulster Unionists from backing the Assembly vote.

The Ulster Unionists are not alone in expressing dismay at the lack of a genuine four-party coalition: the new leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party made the same points in Washington last week. We hope that those outstanding issues can now be resolved in a spirit of genuine partnership and compromise in the working group at Stormont. We cannot go on with two of the coalition partners feeling excluded from key decisions, which runs counter to the inclusive basis on which the power-sharing institutions were established. Our understanding is that the working group established under the Hillsborough castle agreement to look into the issue is currently stalled. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to agree with us that it is vital that we return to a genuine four-party coalition working as envisaged in the Belfast agreement?

Once the devolution of policing and justice takes place next month, that issue will become more important than ever, if the transfer is to take pl