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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2010

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Alternative Vote System

1. When he expects to publish the timetable for a referendum on the alternative vote system for general elections. (3357)

The Government have made clear their intention to introduce legislation providing for a national referendum on the alternative vote for future elections to the House of Commons. The appropriate timetable for that legislation and the subsequent referendum is currently being considered within Government. Further details will be announced to the House in due course.

Given that answer, why has the Deputy Prime Minister prioritised boundary changes, as opposed to a date for a referendum on the electoral system? Can he answer that question, or has the Prime Minister leaned on him?

The coalition agreement is clear. We want to proceed with the preparations for a referendum, giving people the choice to choose a new electoral system—the alternative vote system—and, in parallel, to proceed with a review of boundaries. Reviewing boundaries in this country is not a new thing. If the hon. Gentleman would care to look back at the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which establishes the provisions for reviews of boundaries, he will see that the legislation imposes a requirement on us to keep the size of the House of Commons lower than it currently is, and to have greater equality between the sizes of constituencies. I do not think that anybody will quibble with the principle that people’s votes should count equally, wherever they so happen to live.

Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that there will be no move to hold a referendum on voting reform on the same day as any other elections, after the ruling given by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, which said:

“we recommend there should be a presumption against holding referendums on the same day as elections”?

As I have said, we will shortly come forward—I hope to do so well before the summer recess—to set out our plans for a referendum to give people in this country the choice to choose, if they so wish, to change the electoral system to an alternative vote system.

May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position and give thanks to him for implementing a Labour party manifesto commitment that was not in the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos? Will he reflect on the fact that in February the Liberal Democrats in this House proposed that an additional question—on the single transferable vote—should be asked in any referendum? If that was proposed again by his colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, would he vote for or against it?

This from a party that back in 1997 had a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on a change to the electoral system. The previous Government had 13 years to do that, and they did absolutely nothing. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, having sat on his hands for 13 years, is finally displaying some urgency about getting on with the political reforms that his Government failed to deliver. Our coalition agreement is absolutely clear: we are going to hold a referendum on whether people want to have a new electoral system—the alternative vote system.

Fixed-term Parliaments

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have been working with colleagues across Government to develop our proposals, and we will announce them to the House shortly.

I am grateful for that response, but does the Minister agree that it is vital to bring forward legislation as quickly as possible, if this new Parliament is indeed serious about restoring public trust and confidence in the House?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wants to bring forward those proposals—he will be the first Prime Minister who has given away the power to seek a Dissolution of this House at his choosing—and to give that power to this House, which is a promise that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) made but never delivered on.

Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

3. What recent representations he has received from hon. Members on Government policy on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. (3361)

A number of hon. Members have submitted a number of written questions, which I have answered, and I was also pleased to listen to their representations in the very full Westminster Hall debate last Wednesday.

Is the Minister aware that, as a result of the policy created by IPSA, many loyal and dedicated members of staff face the prospect of redundancy or, at the very least, of savage cuts in their wages, terms and conditions. Will the Minister tell us what plans he has to ensure that hon. Members’ staff are protected and not unfairly punished as a result of the expenses scandal?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will know that Ministers have policy responsibility for IPSA, but are not responsible for its internal workings. He will also know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been making sure that, where the IPSA rules make it difficult for Members of Parliament to carry out their duties, information on those rules is made available. He will also know that, next week, the Speaker’s Committee on IPSA will have its first meeting. A motion on today’s Order Paper provides for the appointment of five Members to that Committee. At that meeting, they will consider how there can be accountability to this House.

Since last Wednesday’s Westminster Hall debate, in which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) made it clear that IPSA was in breach of parliamentary privilege, what action has the Minister taken to ensure that IPSA is not in breach of parliamentary privilege?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling asked me whether I would advise the Standards and Privileges Committee, but that is not a matter for members of the Government. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) himself will be appointed, if the House so desires it, to the Speaker’s Committee on IPSA, and I know he will use his undoubted skills to make sure that IPSA is given correct advice so that Members of this House can do their jobs to the standards our constituents require.

Parliament (Dissolution)

4. What criteria were used to decide on a 55% majority for a vote in the House to trigger a dissolution of Parliament. (3362)

6. What criteria were used to decide on a 55% majority for a vote in the House to trigger a dissolution of Parliament. (3364)

Order. I recognise the extreme disapproval on one side of the House, but we must conduct proceedings in an orderly manner.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. Labour Members clearly do not want to listen to answers to their questions. The answer is that we want to make sure that no single party in this House is able to seek a Dissolution for its own party political advantage. That is why the coalition agreement makes the provision that it does.

Is it not an outrage that the Deputy Prime Minister makes such a transparent attempt to rig the way in which this House of Commons holds the Government to account? What an outrage that he sold his soul to the Conservatives to ensure that he is in office, even when his own colleagues try to undo the mess.

I was having trouble detecting a question in that rather intemperate rant, Mr Speaker. I have already made it clear that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who chose to walk in at exactly that moment, was the first Prime Minister to give away the power to seek a Dissolution of this House. He has given away his own power and given it back to this House. The hon. Gentleman should be grateful for that move forward.

If this proposal passes with the support of fewer than 55% of Members, will the Minister still attempt to impose it?

The hon. Gentleman should know that our proposal is about improving the powers of this House; it does not change the rules for the confidence procedures—[Hon. Members: “Answer.”] If Opposition Members listen, I will. This will be taken through on the Floor of the House and the hon. Gentleman, along with all his hon. Friends, will have the opportunity to debate it in detail then.

Parliamentary Constituencies

It is nice to get a welcome from time to time from the Opposition Benches.

The Government have announced that legislation will be introduced to provide for the creation of fewer and more equal-sized constituencies. Further details will be announced in due course, and Parliament will have the opportunity to debate the provisions in full.

In 1981, the Boundary Commission for Scotland said that amalgamating the Western Isles with Skye was “unworkable or intolerably difficult”, and it repeated that in its more recent review of 2005. What is the Deputy Prime Minister’s view now?

Clearly, in line with existing legislation dating back to 1986, it is right for us to continue to provide for more equal constituencies in this country. [Interruption.] Here in London, for instance, Hackney South and Shoreditch has an electorate of just 57,204, while a few miles down the road, on the other side of London, Croydon North has 22,615 more voters. Its electorate is more than a third larger. That cannot be right.

Order. I recognise that there are people who are angry, but before we continue, let me appeal to the House to have some regard to the way in which we are viewed by the public whose support we were so recently seeking.

On 7 June, the right hon. Gentleman told the House that he accepted the case for smaller island and heavily rural constituencies in the north of Scotland, which happened to be Liberal Democrat. Does he also accept that in urban areas there is a very heavy case load of constituents, that it is growing, and that in every urban area there are tens of thousands of citizens who are not on the electoral register and who ought to be taken into account in these calculations?

I have a simple question. Why is the right hon. Gentleman so frightened of equal-sized seats? It is extraordinary. Why does he not go back to first principles? Why is it that all he wants to do is indulge in special pleading?

There are issues of principle at stake. It is right, as the 1986 Act sets out, that we should have more equal constituencies. It is right that we should bring the size of the House of Commons down. We have a more oversized lower Chamber than any other bicameral system in the developed world. It is right, of course, that the boundary review should be conducted independently, as it will be. I do not understand for the life of me what is wrong with that.

Let me make it clear that on this side of the House there is no issue about ensuring that constituencies, as far as possible, are of equal size, and there never has been. The issue is about ensuring that that process is conducted in a fair way, and that full account is taken of the 3.5 million citizens who, according to what the Electoral Commission said in March, are not currently registered to vote. It is surely fair to ensure that those individuals are taken into account in the electoral calculations.

I am as concerned as the right hon. Gentleman about the fact that there are 3.5 million people—[Interruption.] Well, what did you do about it for 13 years? You created the problem in the first place, and now, within a few weeks, you are complaining about it.

Let me repeat that I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I understand the strength of feeling. Of course the review should be conducted independently, and of course it should be conducted fairly. I think that it is fair to have constituencies in which people’s votes are equal regardless of where they live in the country. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to work co-operatively—[Interruption.] I know that it is extremely unpopular for any Labour Member, as was recently shown in the case of the former Secretary of State for Defence, to reach out a hand to work in co-operation with this coalition Government. Lord Prescott gets his ermine in a twist, and says that it is collaboration. What kind of new politics is that?

Order. We will now move on to topical questions, in which, I remind the House, we have always expected faster progress. That means short questions and short answers.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister in the oversight of the full range of Government policy and initiatives. I have taken particular responsibilities for co-ordinating the Government’s domestic policies through my chairmanship of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on home affairs. Within the Government, I am responsible for our ambitious programme of political and constitutional reform, supported in this House by my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).

In view of the Deputy Prime Minister’s reference to a supporting role, may I quote him directly? He has said:

“We need to invest in the kind of things… which create jobs for our young people”


“help manufacturing”.

Do not last week’s cuts in support for young people and for Sheffield Forgemasters demonstrate that the Deputy Prime Minister is powerless within Government?

As a Sheffield MP, I suspect that I know Sheffield Forgemasters a lot better than the right hon. Gentleman does, and I will be meeting the chairman and chief executive again this Friday in Sheffield. [Interruption.] Let us be clear: this is an outstanding company—it is a great company. [Interruption.] No, the new owners have been quite open about why they sought a Government loan—because, as they have publicly stated, they felt the terms they were receiving from banks were not good enough and because they did not want to dilute their own shareholdings in the company. Do I think it is the role of Government to help out owners of companies who do not want to dilute their own shareholdings? No, I do not. Every Member of this House could identify companies that are struggling more than Sheffield Forgemasters and that would also like to receive a Government loan. To support manufacturing, we must support skills, we must invest in infrastructure and we must get the banks lending. That is what we will do; that is what Labour failed to do.

T2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that as part of his broader constitutional package, there is an opportunity to codify and formalise the relationship between central and local government in order to promote and solidify the coalition Government’s localist agenda? (3368)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The push for greater decentralisation, after years and years of grotesque centralisation under a Labour Government, is one of the most important changes that this coalition Government will usher in in the years ahead.

Four days before the general election the right hon. Gentleman asked in an interview in The Independent newspaper:

“What is this big society?”,

and then said it is

“a well-oiled PR machine, but basically it’s disguising fake change. It’s hollow. There’s nothing in it.”

Does he still hold that view about a fundamental philosophy of the Conservative party?

I hold that view that it is important to give people back their liberty where it has been taken away from them, that it is important to give them back privacy where that has been taken away from them, and that it is important to give back power to communities where that has been taken away from them. That is the kind of liberal society I believe in.

T3. The Liberal Democrat election manifesto, “Change that works for you”, says:“The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum.”I do not know whether that works for you, Mr Speaker, but it certainly works for me. Is that what we are going to do? (3369)

Unlikely alliances abound, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As he knows, the coalition agreement sets out very clearly that we will not agree to any further transfer of powers from this Parliament, and from London and Whitehall to Brussels and Strasbourg, and if there were any proposal to do so, we will introduce legislation this autumn—a referendum lock—that will guarantee that the British people finally have their say.

What message does the Deputy Prime Minister think it sends out about a new politics to redraw the electoral map on the basis of a register that excludes a third of all black people and half of all young people?

As I said, we are all concerned, on both sides of this House, that 3.5 million people are not on the electoral register. I say again, however, that if the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned now, why did he not voice his concerns when he was in government? His Government legislated to introduce individual electoral registration, but they did it at a very leisurely pace that will not actually lead to compulsory electoral registration during this Parliament. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] I am. That is why we are looking at whether we can accelerate individual electoral registration.

T4. My right hon. Friend rightly wants new steps to ensure that lobbying is legitimate advocacy, not undue influencing. Will he please extend the scope of his review to deal with the revolving door between top officials in Whitehall and big corporations? Will he consider restrictions beyond those already in place to ensure that public procurement rip-offs cannot be brought through the revolving door? (3370)

We will bring forward proposals on lobbying. Lobbying is a legitimate activity as long as it is out in the open, and we will ensure that there is a statutory register of all lobbyists so that that is completely above board and entirely transparent. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has introduced a new code for Ministers and for special advisers which will make sure that the period of time between special advisers in particular leaving Government and then seeking employment in lobbying companies is significantly lengthened.

Is the 55% Dissolution trigger for this Parliament or for every Parliament? If it is for every Parliament, how does the Deputy Prime Minister intend to make it stick given that he cannot bind successor Parliaments?

It is an important constitutional change—I recognise that. We believe that it is right to separate the power to pass a motion of no confidence in a Government from the power to pass a motion of Dissolution. Let us be clear about why we are doing this. We are doing it because we want to introduce fixed-term Parliaments. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is the first Prime Minister to give up his power to dissolve Parliament. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House would welcome that change. However, we all understand that the proposed 55% figure is controversial. It is up for discussion and scrutiny, and if the case is made that another figure might be better, of course we are open to those arguments.

T5. Does the Deputy Prime Minister not find it astonishing that some Members of this House do not believe that every vote should have equal value? People in Harlow and the villages hope that their say at the ballot box will one day have as much weight as everyone else’s, with fairer and more equal-sized constituencies. (3371)

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have a general problem. The Labour party has leapt from being in government, where it created endless problems, to coming into opposition and airbrushing those problems from the record altogether. Labour Members used to talk about fairness, reform and constitutional change. They now talk about manufacturing, but manufacturing declined three times faster under Labour than it did under previous Conservative Administrations.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what the average size of a public sector pension in the civil service is as we speak, so that we can understand what he means by “gold-plated”?

That is a matter for the Budget. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already announced, a former Secretary of State for Defence will be providing a review of public sector pensions. I think it is right to look at the fundamental balance between pension entitlements in the private sector, which have been cut back and have changed very dramatically—many people in the private sector, too, have been working shorter hours and taking, in effect, pay cuts—and the pension entitlements due to those in the public sector. It is the fair thing to do to look at pensions in the round. That is what this Government will do and what the hon. Lady’s Government failed to do for more than a decade.

T6. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that every time we change the voting system, such as the introduction of proportional representation to European Parliament elections, the turnout goes down. That is probably one of the biggest challenges he faces. What solution can we find to ensure that turnout remains high when we introduce new electoral systems? (3372)

I am not sure whether there is such an intimate link between electoral systems and turnout. Turnout seems to me to be dependent on whether the contest is close and whether there are issues being debated in the election contest that engage people. That is something that those on both sides of the House should always strive to do at election time.

T7. I have heard the Deputy Prime Minister say that he is concerned that 3.5 million people are missing from the register, including groups such as those with learning disabilities, but I have not heard what he is going to do about it, apart from individual registration, which might make the problem worse. What is he going to do to ensure that those numbers go up on the electoral register? (3373)

It is clearly a complex problem or, I assume, the hon. Lady and her Government would have done something about it in the past 13 years. I think that individual electoral registration is the absolute key, but as we said in the debate here on another occasion, it is crucial to make sure that individual electoral registration is properly resourced and is conducted with care. If it is done too quickly and is not resourced properly, she is right that there is a risk of making the problem worse. That is something that we must avoid at all costs.

T8. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s review of the workings of the upper House. Does he agree that perhaps the time has come to consider the fact that the hereditary principle is wrong on principle? (3374)

T9. May I draw the Deputy Prime Minister’s attention to the “Crimewatch” most wanted list? Second on the list is one Michael Brown, wanted for defrauding £8 million from former Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards. He also donated £2 million in cash to the Lib Dems in 2005. Does the Deputy Prime Minister have any information about his whereabouts and if so will he call the City of London police or Crimestoppers in confidence on 0800 555 111? (3375)

No, interestingly enough I do not have any information on his whereabouts. If I did, I should of course be sure to pass it on. It is clear—[Interruption.]

Order. This is very discourteous to the Deputy Prime Minister and I do not think that the public like it. Above all, I want to hear the answer from the Deputy Prime Minister.

Talk about the great disappeared—where is the former Prime Minister and where are all the leadership candidates? The contest for the Labour party leadership increasingly resembles a political version of “Big Brother”. They are just talking to themselves. The rest of the country lost interest ages ago and just wants it to finish.

T10. Once claiming to be the political arm of the British people, now Labour are the defenders of rotten boroughs and pocket boroughs under trade union sponsorship. Will the Deputy Prime Minister bring forward a great reform Bill so that we can have a people’s Parliament fit for the new millennium? (3376)

I certainly agree with the zeal with which my hon. Friend wishes us to pursue political and constitutional reform. It remains extraordinary that a party that used to call itself progressive and a party of reform failed to do anything fundamentally to reform our politics. We will now do it because the Labour Government failed to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman made reference to the leisurely time scale for the introduction of individual registration, but it was a long time scale to ensure that the missing 3.5 million people were back on the register before the introduction of individual registration. If he is to speed up one—the introduction of individual registration—will he speed up the other and get those 3.5 million people back on the register?

As I said, we need to proceed with care and make sure that the system is properly resourced. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the present timetable is for voluntary individual registration to continue until, I think, 2015 before a compulsory phase is introduced. We are actively looking at whether that is feasible and justifiable and whether we can resource an acceleration of the timetable. We have not yet decided on that.

The unfinished business of devolution is the situation England finds itself in. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what plans the coalition Government have to address that?

We will be establishing a commission—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Does the jeer indicate impatience for action? Is that right—we want a bit of action? Well, that’s what we saw over the last decade and a bit.

We will be establishing a commission to examine the West Lothian question.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service (South-west)

2. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in the south-west. (3378)

May I first pay tribute to my predecessors Baroness Scotland and Vera Baird QC? The Solicitor-General and I both hope that we will be able to follow their tradition in our dealings with Parliament.

The last area performance inspection of the CPS Devon and Cornwall by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate was in July 2007. Performance was rated as good, an improvement on the previous assessment in 2005, which rated the area as poor. There is a structure for monitoring area performance, including regular performance meetings between the chief operating officer of the CPS and the area chief Crown prosecutor. The performance of CPS Devon and Cornwall for 2009-10 was assessed as poor in one indicator—proceeds of crime—good in four of 11 indicators and excellent in another four of 11 indicators.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his comprehensive response. Will he encourage the Crown Prosecution Service to leave behind its tick-box obsession with conviction rates, become more robust in prosecuting the perpetrators of low-level crime and antisocial behaviour and help to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system?

I am very much aware that my hon. Friend has taken a close personal interest in this issue in his area. He will understand that each case must be scrutinised by a prosecutor under the tests set out in the code for Crown prosecutors. There is a duty in each case to keep that under review, in accordance with the evidence available. In some cases, if the police provide more information, that can result in a charge having to be reduced and, in some cases, lesser pleas accepted. But I agree with my hon. Friend that errors can happen, and if a case is brought to his attention that troubles him in this respect, he should, of course, contact me or the Solicitor-General and we will ensure that it is inquired into.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the success of the CPS cannot always be judged by prosecution and, indeed, conviction rates? May I urge him to look at what has been done in Bristol to tackle the problem of on-street sex work? We are using conditional cautions, and the CPS is working with projects such as One25 to try to tackle the root cause of the problem, rather than just taking it through the courts over and again.

Yes, I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. Good work is being done by the CPS, in conjunction with the police, to try to ensure that crime of that nature is reduced without necessarily going through the courts. Equally, it is right to say—the CPS understands this very well—that the use of conditional cautions must not serve as a device to avoid proper convictions being recorded in court against people who ought to be brought before the courts.

Domestic Violence

May I begin by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his election?

The Government take domestic violence very seriously. The Law Officers support the work that the Crown Prosecution Service is undertaking to increase the rate of prosecution in such cases. The increase in the provision of specialist domestic violence courts, the training of all CPS prosecutors in domestic violence cases and improvements in support and safety for victims have all led to an increase in the rate of prosecutions leading to a conviction. The CPS works with other agencies to ensure that, where possible, the evidence is available to prosecute such cases effectively.

Has any additional consideration been given to making special provisions for children where cases of domestic violence occur in settings where children are present or where children are victims or witnesses to acts of violence in their own homes?

It is estimated that about 750,000 children witness domestic violence during any given year. Clearly, a great deal needs to be done to ensure not only that those children are protected, but that, if appropriate, they can give evidence in courts in such a way that does not frighten them and that leads to proper convictions being arrived at. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that will certainly be considered further.

It depends on what my hon. Friend means by the phrase “recourse to public funds”. A number of victims will be protected or assisted by independent domestic violence advisers. We now have 141 specialist domestic violence courts. As she will know from her private practice as a family lawyer, people can be assisted in a number of ways. The main thing is to ensure that they know what is available and that they can be assisted before, during and after the court hearing.

Rape Allegations

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on policy on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of rape. (3380)

I have had discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of criminal matters and will continue to do so as and when issues arise. Rape is one of the most serious and damaging of all crimes, and I support the current work that the Crown Prosecution Service is undertaking with other agencies to improve the way in which prosecutions are conducted and victims are treated in such cases. If there are to be any changes to the law or procedure in respect of rape trials—for example, the introduction of anonymity for defendants in such cases—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made clear last week, they will take place only after the issues involved have been fully researched and debated. The views of all those with relevant knowledge and expertise, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, will be fully taken into account.

Victims of rape need to feel confident that those accused of rape will be treated as serious offenders. Does the Attorney-General agree that extending anonymity to those defendants will stop victims coming forward and send a signal that it will be difficult to accuse people?

I do not think that it will in any way lessen the seriousness of the matter; on the contrary, it will emphasise the seriousness. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that anonymity for defendants in rape cases existed between 1976 and 1988. Indeed, I defended rape cases over that period and saw that trials were conducted without difficulty and with no lessening of the gravity of the offence. However, such matters can and will be debated, and if they are debated with a proper emphasis on detail, I believe that we will reach the right solutions.

If we go down the road of balancing victim anonymity with anonymity for the person accused, is not the important consideration that if the prosecution has good reason to believe that evidence will be brought to light if the identity is known, it should be possible to waive anonymity?

Yes; my right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have no doubt that that issue is one of those that can be examined. It is worth bearing in mind that the existing anonymity for complainants has the consequence, for example, that there are occasions when a history of false complaints made to someone other than the police does not come to light before a trial takes place. However, that has not been put forward as an argument for removing anonymity for complainant victims. He is correct, however, that such matters can all be looked at properly when we examine this area of the law.

May I begin by welcoming the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Solicitor-General to their posts—it must be like going back to chambers? I also thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the kind words about his predecessors that he set out at the beginning of Question Time, which were gratefully received by Labour Members.

There has been a lot of confusion about this area of policy. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has, like several of his colleagues, spoken about the matter as if we were conducting a debate, but I remind him that the coalition agreement states that anonymity will be extended to defendants in rape cases. Will he lead the Government from the front by admitting that they have got this wrong, accepting that they have made a mistake and dropping this disastrous and retrograde policy?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s welcome; indeed, I welcome her to her role of shadowing the Law Officers in the House. She will be aware that my role is to provide legal advice about policy decisions made by the Government, and she can be reassured that I will ensure that exactly that happens.

As for this policy, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made it clear when answering questions last week that he wished to engage in a debate to examine this procedure and area of the law, which have caused concern. That is exactly what I invite the House to do, in the spirit in which such debate should be conducted.

Crown Prosecution Service

5. How long on average it took for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to prosecute in cases referred to it in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England in the latest period for which figures are available. (3381)

During the year ending May 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service took an average of 13.6 days to complete a pre-charge decision in Northamptonshire, and 8.1 days in England as a whole.

What encouragement and advice can my hon. and learned Friend offer to Northamptonshire CPS so that it improves its performance and gets up to the national average?

I have absolutely no doubt that my hon. Friend, who is my parliamentary neighbour, will give his own encouragement to his local CPS. A lot has been done, although a great deal more can be done, and I am sure that, between us, we will keep Northamptonshire CPS up to the mark.

I welcome the Solicitor-General, who is my near neighbour, to his new post.

When Members of Parliament write to the CPS to make representations on behalf of constituents about cases that it is considering, are there any guidelines on how long it should take the chief Crown prosecutor to write back to them?

All letters from Members of Parliament, whether to the headquarters of the Crown Prosecution Service, or to the chief Crown prosecutor for a particular area should be answered speedily. Occasionally, work has to be done to provide a full answer, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his kind remarks, will understand that it is better to receive a thorough answer a few days late than a half answer on time.

In-house Advocates

6. If he will estimate the cost to the public purse of the use by the Crown Prosecution Service of in-house advocates in the Crown court in the latest period for which figures are available. (3382)

In 2009-10, the full cost incurred by the Crown Prosecution Service of in-house advocate deployment in the Crown court was £18,552,313. The CPS estimates that it would have cost £27,833,588, excluding VAT and fees, to use self-employed advocates for that work, representing a saving of £9,281,275, excluding VAT. I acknowledge that the methodology for calculating the cost of Crown advocate deployment has been disputed by the Bar Council. I understand that discussions are taking place between the CPS and the Bar Council to try to resolve the matter and to look more generally at sustaining the role of self-employed advocates in the Crown court.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend go further and accept that the best guarantee of cost-effectiveness and quality in the Crown court is the independent bar?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is widespread recognition, including by the CPS itself, that the referral bar has an important role to play in the prosecution of offences, and that that must be sustained. It is my intention, working with the head of the CPS, to ensure that that happens.

Rape Allegations

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of rape. (3383)

Does the Attorney-General agree with the Lord Chancellor that there should be a free vote on this?

It will be for Government members who are introducing the policy to decide whether that matter should be subject to a free vote or not.

Domestic Violence

8. What recent representations the Crown Prosecution Service has received on steps to increase the rate of prosecution in cases of domestic violence. (3384)

Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the House. Records of representations received by local CPS offices are not kept centrally. I can tell him, however, that the Director of Public Prosecutions has not received any recent representations on steps to increase the rate of prosecutions in cases of domestic violence.

May I ask the Solicitor-General what he proposes to do to build on the success of the Labour Government in tackling domestic violence?

That is a wide question that I do not have time to answer, except in an Adjournment debate. As I said in my answers to the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends at the beginning of Question Time, the Government take domestic violence every bit as seriously as the previous Government. It is worth noting, however, that the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 included a power to introduce restraining orders. Until I reminded the then Government during the course of debates on the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 of those powers, they did nothing about introducing restraining orders for four or five years. Their record was therefore rather patchy.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Boundary Review (Constituencies)

1. What discussions the Electoral Commission has had with Ministers on timing of the next parliamentary boundary review. (3387)

The Electoral Commission has no statutory responsibilities in relation to parliamentary constituency boundaries, which are the responsibility of the four boundary commissions for the United Kingdom. The Electoral Commission has therefore had no discussions with Ministers about the timing of the next parliamentary boundary review.

Will the hon. Gentleman make sure that the Electoral Commission makes representations to boundary commissioners and, indeed, to Ministers to ensure that before any boundary review takes place, registration in constituencies rises and that activity is under way to increase it so that the 3.5 million people who are missing are put back on the register, and that any future boundaries truly reflect those who live within constituency boundaries?

I will obviously pass on the right hon. Gentleman’s comments to the Electoral Commission but, as I said, it has no responsibility for the boundary review. It is, however, concerned about low voter registration, and it estimates that between 8% and 9% of the eligible population in England and Wales is not registered. It is working with electoral registration officers and others to try to improve the position.

Church Commissioners

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

Women Bishops

Before I answer that question, may I pay tribute to my predecessor, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell)? He has been the longest serving Second Church Estates Commissioner ever, and he did an excellent job. The legislation to enable women to become bishops reaches the General Synod’s equivalent of Report early next month in York. Depending on what is decided there, the legislation will then go to the 44 diocesan synods, and I understand that the earliest date that the General Synod can take a final decision, and when the matter can eventually come before the House, is 2012.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role. Does he not agree that the intervention of the two archbishops, with their proposal on the legislation to enable women to become bishops, will create a two-tier system of bishops? Women will no doubt be on the lower tier, and does that not send out completely the wrong message from the established Church of this country about the role of women bishops?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words at the beginning of her question. There are clear majorities in the General Synod in favour of women becoming bishops, but, as the proposals by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York yesterday demonstrated, there are still efforts to try to find ways to reconcile those who have deep-held opposition to the measure. Under legislation, it is important that the Church decides the way forward, and we should give it the space to do so. However, it is also very important that the Church hears the voices of this House about how we see those matters, because ultimately the issue will have to come back to this House.

Church Repairs (VAT)

3. What recent representations the Church Commissioners have received on the rates of value added tax applicable to church repairs. (3389)

The General Synod at its February meeting made it clear how important it feels the listed places of worship scheme is. The scheme has managed to rebate some £12 million back to listed churches each year, and that is particularly important when a system has not yet been found for the European Union to remove VAT on repairs to listed places of worship.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and pay tribute to his predecessor? Will my hon. Friend look at removing the anomaly between the high rate of VAT on church repairs and the zero rate of VAT on new buildings? Will he, indeed, campaign for a lower rate of VAT throughout the European Union—[Interruption.]

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I must say that there is still quite a hubbub from Government Back Benchers, and it is being contributed to by members of the Government. Surely they want to hear the answers from the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

I remind any colleagues interrupting that it was Gladstone who observed that the most important business of the House was Prayers at the start of the day.

My hon. Friend has been an assiduous campaigner in supporting repairs for church buildings, and the simple fact is that each year the Church of England spends £110 million on repairing and renovating listed churches. The vast majority of that money comes from church congregations and local communities, and, even in these straitened times, we have to come to a collective view on whether we are going to maintain that very important part of our national fabric and heritage.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Unregistered Voters

4. What discussions the Electoral Commission plans to hold with electoral registration officers in Scotland on the conclusions of its recent report on unregistered voters. (3390)

The Electoral Commission is concerned about the levels of voter registration in the United Kingdom, including Scotland, and it has met the electoral registration officers who took part in its recent research. It has met also all electoral registration officers in Scotland to discuss the recent findings and to seek improvements in Scotland’s registration levels.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reply. He will be aware that the report revealed that more than 100,000 of Glasgow’s citizens were not registered. That is three times the entire electorate of Orkney and Shetland. Will the Electoral Commission request an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland to ensure that proper resources are now provided as a matter of urgency in order to resolve that disgraceful position?

I shall certainly pass on the hon. Lady’s comments to the Electoral Commission, but it is already working with electoral registration officers in Glasgow. She is right to point out that the recent research demonstrated worrying levels of voter registration, and it seems that that has been going on for some time. Everyone is working hard to try to put that matter right, but the primary focus is on the electoral registration officers in Glasgow. However, I shall pass her comments on to the Electoral Commission.

Close of Polls (Voting)

5. What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on whether ballot papers may be issued to those within the precincts of polling stations at 10 pm on polling day who signify their intention to vote. (3391)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has received representations from voters, candidates, political parties, returning officers, Members of Parliament and professional bodies regarding queues at some polling stations on 6 May. In its urgent report, published two weeks after the general election, the commission identified a total of 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies where it was able to confirm that there were problems with queues at the close of poll. At least 1,200 people were affected. The commission has recommended that the law should be changed to make it clear that any elector who is entitled to vote and who is in the queue to enter the polling station at the close of poll will be allowed to vote. This will require primary legislation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. He is also aware that the Electoral Commission has indicated that legislation to ensure that voters within the precinct receive a ballot paper could take the form of a one-clause piece of legislation—an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 2000. Will he press the Government to ensure that time is made available for this urgent piece of legislation early in this Session to ensure that those who present themselves for voting at a polling station do indeed get their ballot papers?

It is not for me to press the Government on any issue, but I am sure that those who are sitting on the Front Bench today will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representations. This is a matter of concern. The Electoral Commission is of the view that primary legislation is required; and certainly, in its discussions with the Government, it will be urging them to respond in an appropriate manner.

Church Commissioners

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

Listed Places of Worship

6. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the operation of the listed places of worship scheme. (3392)

Members of the Archbishops Council’s church buildings division have already had initial, very useful meetings with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government and with Treasury Ministers, and we hope that those constructive meetings will continue.

I have had many representations from local churches whose congregations are struggling to meet the cost of repairs and are dependent on this scheme continuing. In his discussions with the Government, will the hon. Gentleman emphasise that the beauty of the scheme, which was brought in by the previous Government, is that it applies to all listed places of worship, not just those that are eligible for things such as the heritage lottery grant?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. As I said in my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), as a society we have to take a decision about how we maintain what is a very important part of our national built heritage. There are 16,000 parish churches throughout this country. English Heritage estimates that it would cost £800 million a year to maintain them properly; at present, we are spending only about £100 million, most of which comes from local communities and congregations.

7. When the responsibilities of the Second Church Estates Commissioner in respect of this House were last reviewed. (3393)

I am beginning to get to grips with the responsibilities of this post, which was established by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1850. I would say at this stage that I will try to have the same broad approach to answering questions on behalf of the Church as did my predecessor. I hope that I can be a helpful conduit between the Church and this House, and this House and the Church.

My hon. Friend is admirably suited to following the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) in this post. Will he pass back to the Synod the fact that we look forward in this House to having bishops chosen on merit, recognising that sex is not merit and that the Synod can throw out proposals that it does not like?

As I said in response to an earlier question, it is very important that the General Synod and the Church should hear the voices of this House, and I am sure that they will have heard, and will hear, the voice of my hon. Friend.

Electoral ComMission committee

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

Overseas Donations (Political Parties)

8. What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on the adequacy of its powers to investigate donations from overseas to political parties. (3394)

The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 strengthens the commission’s investigatory powers, subject to the necessary secondary legislation, which is currently before Parliament. The commission has recently consulted on its proposed enforcement policy, which sets out how it intends to exercise those powers, and has received a number of representations in response to the consultation.

Michael Ashcroft and his pals spent £250,000 trying to remove me from my seat. [Interruption.] I am pleased to report to the House that Labour increased its majority. Why is the Electoral Commission unable to find out how much of Ashcroft’s money comes from abroad, why does the Tory party refuse to help it, and why does the commission not have the powers to hold the Tory party accountable for its failure to reveal precisely where the Ashcroft money comes from?

In all the hubbub, I could not quite hear whether the hon. Gentleman was saying Lord Ashcroft or Lord Paul.

The hon. Gentleman knows that individual investigatory matters are not brought before the Speaker’s Committee. I am aware, however, that he has made a complaint, and the Electoral Commission will respond to it in due course.

Boundary Review (Constituencies)

9. What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on proposals for the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. (3395)

Sorry for the delay, Mr Speaker; I thought we had moved on to the Budget.

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has received a number of representations from the public, elected representatives and others about proposals for the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. However, as the commission has no statutory responsibilities in relation to those boundaries, any representations that it has received on the proposals have been referred to the relevant parliamentary boundary commission.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Further to the point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), given the fact that there are variations in registration across the country, will the hon. Gentleman make representations to Ministers in view of the impact that those variations will have on future boundaries?

Close of Polls (Voting)

10. What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on issuing ballot papers to voters who arrive at polling stations before the time specified for the close of polls at a general election. (3396)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has received representations from voters, candidates, political parties, returning officers, Members of Parliament and professional bodies regarding queues at some polling stations on 6 May. In its urgent report published two weeks ago after the general election, the commission identified a total of 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies where it was able to confirm that there were problems with queues at the close of the poll.

Will the hon. Gentleman ask his Committee to write urgently to the Ministers responsible, so that we can put right the legislation that currently prevents people who turn up to vote in time from being able to do so? That could and ought to be done this year, and with the Committee’s support it will be.

It is certainly the view of the Electoral Commission that the matter can in part be put right through a change in the law. The commission is encouraging the Government to introduce appropriate primary legislation.