House of Commons
Tuesday 20 July 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Prisoner Release (Risk Assessment)
Police forces are notified of all prisoner releases. Procedures are in place in each prison under the national security policies to ensure that security information about offenders is analysed and shared with the police and other agencies if it is considered that it will help the police to protect the public from serious harm.
I referred to the mental health care and status of prisoners. The recent tragic events in Newcastle, on Tyneside and in Rothbury have highlighted how important the provision of good mental health care in prisons is. Will responsibility for that provision be given to local GPs in the reorganisation of the national health service, or will it be under the control of the prison?
First, I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that we ensure adequate mental health care for prisoners, a very large number of whom suffer from mental health conditions. She will appreciate that I cannot comment specifically on the case to which she referred, which is the subject of an Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation and a police investigation. We are now considering carefully how the Government’s health reforms should fit in with how we want to provide health services in prisons.
I thank the Minister for being careful not to speculate about matters that are the subject of inquiries and possible criminal proceedings. Is he aware that the people of Rothbury were extremely supportive of the police in the difficult task that they carried out, and that the police were very appreciative of that support at a time when the whole community felt seriously threatened?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s comments will have been noted. As he knows, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), visited Rothbury yesterday and met local police and residents to discuss those issues. However, my right hon. Friend will understand that the Government cannot comment further, given that two people have been charged with conspiracy to murder and that there is an IPCC investigation.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the importance of multi-agency risk assessment conferences in communicating between prisons, the police and others on any ongoing threats posed by specific perpetrators of domestic violence, and therefore in stopping that ongoing violent criminality in particular cases? Given that domestic violence accounts for 14% of all violent incidents, that almost 80% of victims are women, and that increasing focus on taking that crime seriously led to a 64% fall in its prevalence between 1995 and 2008, will he guarantee that MARACs will continue and even that they will be placed on to a statutory footing?
I am afraid that I cannot offer guarantees to the hon. Lady, but we can say in relation to that specific case that it is very important that all the lessons are learned about appropriate information sharing. The Government understand the significance of the domestic violence issues that she raises.
The Government are undertaking a full assessment of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective in deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and reducing reoffending. We are considering our approach to out-of-court penalties as part of this work.
I thank the Minister for that answer. By 2007, fewer than half the offenders brought to justice—on the previous Government’s measure—had ever seen or been passed through the dock of a court. A man who glassed a pub landlady recently was cautioned, and a serial thief was issued with a dozen on-the-spot fines. What plans does he have to reverse Labour’s pay-as-you-go crime policy, and does he agree that magistrates courts have a vital role to play?
The number of out-of-court disposals administered each year has risen by 135% since 2003. Such disposals now account for 40% of all offences brought to justice. However, during the same period, the number of convictions at court has remained broadly stable, suggesting that out-of-court penalties are expanding the number of offenders who are dealt with rather than being used as an alternative to prosecution.
Community Service Sentences
Our plans are to ensure that community sentences are tough, effective and rigorously enforced, and that they punish offenders, but steer them off drugs and alcohol and into employment. We are conducting a full assessment of sentencing policy, including asking judges and magistrates for their views on which community sentences are the most effective.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Many of my constituents hold to the old-fashioned notion that justice should not just be done, but be seen to be done, and they do not have much faith that community service sentences will deliver on that. How can he reassure my constituents that community service sentences will be robust and not a soft option?
We believe that making community sentences tougher in delivering punishment—especially looking at the operation of community payback—and more effective in delivering rehabilitation, restoration and the protection of the public, will help to show that people can have increasing confidence in such sentences. Achieving those objectives will be an important element of our assessment of sentencing policy.
If the Minister is to increase the number of community sentences as the Justice Secretary wishes to do, can he give the House an indication of how much money he intends to transfer to the probation budget, given that it has an in-year cut this year of £20 million? Can he also tell us which sentences of under six-months he thinks are inappropriate, given that at present they are available for offences such as assault on a police officer, domestic violence, child abuse and firearms offences? Indeed, three quarters of people sentenced to under six months have committed seven or more offences.
On the latter point, the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the sentencing review when we will bring forward our detailed proposals, which—I am sure—will hang together in a properly co-ordinated manner. He must also appreciate that the economic inheritance that this Government received—[Interruption.] There is no point hon. Members groaning. It is a fact of life that an increase in budgets in the environment that we inherited is simply not going to happen.
Human Rights Act 1998
In the coalition agreement, the Government committed to establishing a commission to investigate the creation of a Bill of Rights. The scope of the commission and its terms of reference will be announced in due course, but it is my expectation that in the course of its work the commission will consider the experience of the Human Rights Act 1998.
I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for that response. Does he agree that, on the 10th anniversary of the implementation of the Act, domestically enforceable and universally applicable human rights are one of the best checks on Executive power that we have, and does he agree with the remarks that he made in The Daily Telegraph on 27 June 2006 that to repeal the Human Rights Act would be an act of “xenophobic and legal nonsense”?
We are going to review in due course every aspect of the working of the Human Rights Act in the light of that 10 years of experience. I agree that there are very important protections for human rights, and there is no question of moving away from the European convention on human rights. The coalition agreement does not contemplate that. Actually, the changes that have taken place in British common law, with the huge enlargement of the scope of judicial review—which includes reviews of all ministerial decisions and of legislation current in the House—have also greatly altered the scene. Sometimes that gets confused with the European convention on human rights. I have given a range of views in the past and no doubt we will consider those views carefully in the light of the report that we eventually get from the commission.
Is the Lord Chancellor aware of the book by the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and Peter Oborne entitled “Churchill’s Legacy: The Conservative Case for the Human Rights Act”? Will he encourage his right hon. and hon. Friends to read it and thereby dispel the many myths about the Act? The Human Rights Act exists for all of us: what is not to like?
The European convention on human rights was produced after the second world war, largely at the instigation of Churchill and others, to ensure that the whole continent developed in line with those values for which the British had fought the war. The principal architect and draftsman of the convention was a man called Maxwell Fyfe. I recall that history because it is relevant to this issue, and we have to improve public understanding of the application of human rights in British law as well as reviewing the operation of the Act.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he had had a range of views on whether the Human Rights Act should be repealed, but he has actually had one view, which he has repeated over and over again—he even described the Prime Minister’s proposal as “anti-foreigner”. Given that consistency, which I commend the right hon. and learned Gentlemen on and welcome because it was supporting a Labour policy, and given that, as he well knows—because he is a very bright man—the issue is not the European convention on human rights but the Human Rights Act passed by this Parliament, will he now rule out the abolition of the Act?
I do not mind being quoted from my freelance days on the Back Benches. However, in their enthusiasm to find quotes, people find the odd word and attribute them to things. I never accuse any of my colleagues of being anti-foreigner. Part of the confusion about the European convention tends to be that somehow it is not British, which I just addressed in pointing out that it was drafted by David Maxwell Fyfe and very much supported by the British Government and both main parties at the time. The Human Rights Act has now had 10 years, and it is time to review it. There is a range of views and sometimes concern in this country about exactly how it relates to Parliament and where our constitution now is on these matters. In due course, we will set up a convention to advise us on that.
We are four weeks into a 12-week public consultation process. As such, the responses to each of the 16 consultation papers have not yet been collated and analysed. This will happen once the consultation closes on 15 September. However, I can confirm that, as of 15 June, there had been 20 letters to Ministers in this Department from hon. Members and Welsh Assembly Members regarding the proposals. Two Adjournment debates on the consultations have also been held.
I am grateful for that detailed response. I have the great pleasure and honour to represent the good people of Dwyfor Meirionnydd, which is 100 miles from north to south and 90 miles from east to west. It currently has two magistrates courts. Under the Government’s plans, however, that will be down to one, making a complete and utter mockery of any idea of local justice. May I ask the Minister to think again and consider carefully—and I mean carefully—all the consultations and replies he gets? In the meantime, will he ask his right hon. and learned colleague, the Secretary of State for Justice, to extend the consultation period, because in my 20 years in this place I have never known a serious consultation to take place during August?
The hon. Gentleman says we should think again, but we are thinking—we are in a consultation process, to which he is entitled and welcome to make comments. There is one court in his constituency on whose closure we are consulting. It is envisaged that work from this court will be transferred to Caernarfon magistrates court, which is approximately 20 miles away. The court in question has a very low utilisation rate, at just 28.9%. It sits two days per week in one courtroom and its facilities are generally considered to be inadequate.
Will the Minister take into account, when making a decision on the closure of the magistrates courts, the facilities and the wider social implications of individual court closures? Barry magistrates court has separate entrances for witnesses and defendants, which is an important consideration in a range of cases, particularly those of domestic violence. Will that sort of issue be a factor?
We remain committed to supporting local justice being administered in magistrates courts, but my hon. Friend would be wrong to confuse community justice, access to justice, efficient justice, speedy summary justice or timely administration with bricks and mortar.
6. What recent representations he has received on his Department’s responsibilities in relation to the Crown dependencies. (9418)
I am unsure quite what kind of representations the hon. Gentleman has in mind. As he would expect, however, the Ministry of Justice constantly receives a wide range of communications in relation to its responsibilities for the Crown dependencies.
The representations that I had in mind were from Crown dependencies such as the Isle of Man. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure me that he and his ministerial colleagues in the other place, who I gather have responsibility for Crown dependencies in his Department, will consult with the Crown dependencies if there is any suggestion that responsibility for them be moved to another Department, so that the important distinction between Crown dependencies and overseas territories is recognised throughout the civil service?
As the hon. Gentleman says, it is my right hon. Friend Lord McNally who takes a lead in our Department on the Crown dependencies. I will certainly take note of what the hon. Gentleman says about any question of changing ministerial responsibility, but I should point out that this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary. However, I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s views and will ensure that they are disseminated among those responsible.
Complaint Systems (Victims of Crime)
7. What steps he is taking to ensure the effectiveness of complaints systems for victims of crime and others within the criminal justice system. (9419)
Policies are in place in individual criminal justice agencies to respond to complaints from victims and others. Improving the ability of victims to hold services to account and gain redress when things go wrong will be considered as part of a full review of victim and witness policy and services.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. If somebody has a complaint that their situation is being dealt with badly by the system, it is often difficult to know whether that is the fault of the police—in which case there is the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is an effective system—or the Crown Prosecution Service, which does not have an adequate complaints system, and that means that people fall through the gaps. Will the Government take that into account as part of the review?
We will. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s long-standing interest in such issues and some of the proposals that he has made in relation to them. We aim to improve the accountability of service providers and redress for complainants through the criminal justice system. It is important that we should address the fact that there can be confusion on the part of victims about whom they should complain to.
Last week an Enfield magistrate complained to me about the waste of court time. That magistrate spends one day a week dealing with prosecutions for dropping cigarette butts. If such cases are to be prosecuted, surely it would be in the best interests of the taxpayer and justice for them to be heard in a town hall, rather than in a courthouse.
It is important for us to look at the opportunities for the administration of justice that lie outside buildings. There has been the development of what became known as the “summary justice agenda”, which is actually administrative justice, with things such as penalty notices for disorder. However, I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about whether the case that he has raised has been dealt with in an appropriate manner.
The Minister of State will recall that at Justice questions on 15 June, he said in answer to me:
“We are aware of the important work that the National Victims’ Service is planning to do.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 733.]
Given that, I am surprised that there is no reference whatever to the National Victims’ Service in the just-published draft structural plan for his Ministry. I wonder whether he could explain the omission of any reference to that service.
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman should read anything into that omission. I said then—and I say now—that we are reviewing in full the arrangements to ensure that victims are treated properly by the criminal justice system. Perhaps he will have already seen the strong speech that is to be made by the victims commissioner on such issues this evening. We take those issues immensely seriously, as we do to ensuring that justice is done for victims.
National Offender Management Service
The original objective of the National Offender Management Service was more effectively to deliver prison and probation services in a co-ordinated way. The current structure has not worked as well as predicted and will not best serve the objectives of coalition policy towards the rehabilitation of offenders and the involvement of social investors, and the private and voluntary sectors in this work. Therefore, the structure of the National Offender Management Service is being considered not only as part of the Department’s overall contribution to the spending review, but to ensure the effective delivery of prison and probation services in the light of this autumn’s Green Paper on the new approaches to rehabilitation and the review of sentencing policy. That work will also reflect the three strands of the big society agenda, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced yesterday: social action, public service and community empowerment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. Today’s probation trusts possess the nation’s professional expertise on offender management. We want to release all our capacity—public, private and voluntary—to effect a revolution in how we provide for rehabilitation of offenders. No organisations are better placed to deliver that than today’s probation trusts. I hope that they seize this chance, which is why I have asked the Probation Association and the Probation Chiefs Association to work urgently with my officials to help shape our Green Paper proposals. I am confident about what probation trusts will be able to achieve.
I recommend the Minister deal with the point that I believe the hon. Lady was raising. In Nottinghamshire, there is certainly a strong case for a probation trust, but irrespective of whether we have a particular type of structure on offender management, do not the cuts to the prison budget—and, indeed, as we have heard today, the cuts to the probation service—show that the big society to which he referred is actually a euphemism for allowing prisoners to roam free within the community at large?
No, it is not. The hon. Gentleman and all his right hon. and hon. Friends are going to have to get used to the fact that we are going to do things rather differently. We are going to pay for outputs, not direct inputs or have targets or over-control our public services by instructing them precisely how to achieve their objectives. One way in which we are going to increase our capacity for offender management is, I hope, to enable probation trusts to be able to affect the involvement of the whole community—including the private, the voluntary and charitable sectors—to increase our nation’s capacity to deal with offenders and to rehabilitate them effectively.
Defendant Anonymity (Rape Cases)
As I told the House in the full-day debate of 8 July, the Government are minded to strengthen anonymity before charge. We want to hear the views of those who may have any new evidence to assist our deliberations, and we will bring our conclusions to Parliament in the autumn. However, since the principal points of judgment around the issue are clear and very narrow—not least in the light of our excellent debate 12 days ago—the Government do not propose to manage a full, formal public consultation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Has he considered the fact that, under his current proposals for anonymity up until charge, somebody arrested on suspicion of rape but then charged with sexual assault would enjoy anonymity, whereas somebody arrested on suspicion of sexual assault but then charged with rape would not enjoy anonymity under the coalition’s proposals?
We are now dealing with quite a narrow point because it was agreed in 2003—[Interruption.] It is quite a narrow point; it was agreed on both sides of the House when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 went through Parliament that all people charged with offences ought to have their identity protected until the point of charge. That is the guidance that the Press Complaints Commission put into effect in 2004. There is an issue around the strength of that guidance and, as I said in the debate 12 days ago, we are not satisfied that it is strong enough. We want in the first instance to try to find a non-statutory solution, and given that we had 21 Criminal Justice Acts passed over the 13 years of the last Administration, I am sure that Labour Members will understand why we are loth to find even more statutes to put on the statute book.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) is one reason why this idea—it was tried before between 1976 and 1988—was abolished by a previous Conservative Government? It did not work. Given that this idea was in neither the hon. Gentleman’s manifesto nor that of the Liberal Democrats, what possible reason can he have for failing to provide a proper consultation before changing the law in the ridiculous way he proposes to do?
First, when it was ended in 1988, it was not because it did not work. The hon. Lady should have paid rather more attention to the points put forward by the noble Lord Ackner in the 2003 debates when he spoke to his amendments on this subject. She should also note that the nature of rape changed, by definition, in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. All that means that the situation has changed since 1988.
I am not aware of any specific recent representations made on this topic. The Government want to ensure that young people do not enter the criminal justice system unless it is necessary. Our policies will be considered in the context of our comprehensive assessment of sentencing and rehabilitation.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the best way of keeping young people out of a life of crime is to intervene early in their lives, so that they have the social and emotional capability to resist criminality? Will he commend the current project in Peterborough, where an early intervention bond has been created by Social Finance Ltd and St Giles Trust to ensure that offenders do not reoffend and that they leave the criminal justice system at the earliest possible moment? Is he willing to extend that experiment, which was introduced by the last Government, and to consider its possible extension throughout the criminal justice system?
I repeat the support that I have given before to the hon. Gentleman’s campaign for early intervention. I entirely agree with what he says.
We are certainly very interested in the project that is about to get under way in Peterborough. It will have to be evaluated in due course, but my ministerial team will be following closely this system of raising capital finance by means of a social bond, and then targeting the need to reduce the rate of reoffending in a particular group. Reducing reoffending will be a key part of our policy, and this is an important way of trying out one method of tackling it. I hope that it succeeds.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that some of those young offenders are in the criminal justice system owing to their lack of a strong, solid education? What plans has he to try to ensure that something is done about that?
The present Government have an extremely important programme of education reform. Anything that can be done to raise standards of education and training in this country will, I believe, have an indirect impact on the number of people who drop out of society in some way and are tempted to start offending.
I agree that we need to look across the broad range of social policy, considering relationships between crime and housing problems, employment problems and education and training problems, if we are to achieve the improvement in our social fabric which, eventually, will continue to reduce criminality. Meanwhile, some young people are serious offenders. We do need a secure estate, and we do need to prosecute those from whom the public must be protected. I think that we would all welcome any measure that will successfully reduce the number of young people who are needlessly criminalised when they could be diverted into a more sensible way of handling their problems.
Is the Justice Secretary aware that the rate of reoffending and entry into the youth justice system by young people fell by 10% during the last years of the Labour Government? That fall was due not least to the fact that we invested heavily in the three-year youth crime action plan, the third year of which ends this year, 2010-11. It involves issues such as prevention, and includes the Peterborough project that the Justice Secretary has just endorsed. Will he give an indication of what plans he has to continue the youth crime action plan after this year?
I agree that there has been a reduction in the number of people entering the criminal justice system. Notwithstanding my usual caveats about all crime statistics, which can be used by Members on either side of the House to prove practically anything over whatever period they choose, I think that one thing on which we agree is the need to divert from needless criminality young people who can properly, in the public interest, be dealt with in some other way.
The youth crime action plan, and a number of other interesting experiments involving diversion out of the court system in which the last Government were engaged, will certainly be investigated and followed up by the new Government. We are not remotely partisan about the issue. We wish to look further for more outside experience of how best to tackle reoffending and the underlying problems of youth delinquency, in order to take more young people out of court and out of criminality.
Of the 125 adult offenders released from a custodial sentence of over 10 years in the first quarter of 2008, 6.4% committed at least one further offence in the one-year follow-up period. In contrast, among those serving custodial sentences of 12 months or less in 2008, the reconviction rate was 61.1%.
Short sentences for men have proved pretty ineffective, and I think that short sentences for women are even more ineffective and deleterious. We support the conclusions of the Corston report, we are conducting an analysis of the effectiveness of different sentences as part of the current sentencing review, we are committed to reducing the number of women in prison, and a network of women-only community provision is being developed to support robust community sentences.
Perhaps at this point I should throw a bouquet to my predecessor, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), in recognition of her work in this regard. We propose to build on it.
The hon. Lady identifies the challenge we face. We as a nation have to increase our capacity to deliver education and all the other services that are required to assist in rehabilitating offenders. That is why we are going to effect a rehabilitation revolution which will involve that great army of people out there who want to help us and who have so far found our current structures very difficult to engage with. Moving to output-based measures will enable us to use the capacity of all those people who want to help us in the incredibly important work of rehabilitating offenders much more effectively than we have done to date.
Foreign National Prisoners
Ministry of Justice officials have been in regular contact with their colleagues at UKBA to identify suitable prisoners for transfer under the additional protocol to the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons. A number of cases are currently being pursued. Discussions between officials of member states of the European Union on the implementation of the EU prisoner transfer agreement took place in April.
We currently have the pleasure and privilege of paying for the board and lodging of 752 Nigerians in British jails at a time when we are giving that country £132 million a year in development aid. Her Majesty’s Government have been negotiating with the Nigerian Government on the compulsory transfer of those prisoners since 2007. Could we urge them to get a move on?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about this and note the ten-minute Bill he recently introduced. The Government believe that wherever possible foreign national prisoners should serve their sentences in their own country. Negotiations on a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Nigeria will be concluded as soon as changes to Nigerian domestic legislation have been made.
In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this morning, Lin Homer, the head of UKBA, told us that 14% of the prison population were foreign nationals and that 700 officials were working in her department on this issue. As it is a priority for the Government, is the Minister confident that he has sufficient staff dealing with what is a very important issue?
The Government are determined to improve performance in the removal of foreign nationals and in prison transfer agreements. The right hon. Gentleman will know that only 41 prisoners were transferred this year, but compulsory transfer has been available only since November 2009, so we expect performance to improve.
Universal Jurisdiction Offences (Prosecution)
The Government consider it unsatisfactory that an arrest warrant for such offences can be issued on the application of a private prosecutor on the basis of evidence that would be insufficient to sustain a prosecution. We are urgently considering how to proceed and expect to make an announcement shortly.
Of course we must enforce properly in respect of war crimes and other matters of universal jurisdiction where proper cases arise, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is not in any sense in this country’s interests that people can be arrested upon arrival on a level of evidence that would not remotely sustain a prosecution, which is why we intend to address this matter and to make an announcement in the very near future.
Over the coming months we will look in detail at the sentencing frameworks for adult and young offenders, as well as at the range of penalties available in the criminal justice system. That means introducing more effective policies, as well as overhauling the system of rehabilitation to reduce reoffending. We will take the time necessary to get it right and will consult widely before bringing forward full plans for reform.
I will not anticipate the sentencing review. [Interruption.] No, I will not. The last person I met in jail who clearly should not have been there had been sent to prison because he was in dispute with his ex-wife over the maintenance he was supposed to pay for their children. Of course he was under an obligation to pay for his children, but providing a place for him in jail was not the best use of prison. Anybody who visits a prison will find people who are there for rather surprising combinations of reasons, some of which are far away from those relating to serious crimes.
Prison is the most effective punishment we have for serious criminal offenders. There is a continuing case, and there always will be one, for protecting the public against the activity of serious offenders by imprisoning them. However, in recent years, we have not paid enough attention to how, at the same time, we minimise the risk of reoffending, seek to reform those in prisons and divert them away from future crime, and eventually ensure that there are better and more effective ways of dealing with those who are capable of being dealt with.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend carefully examine the early release scheme pursued by the previous Government, which led to a very high proportion of those released early going on to reoffend, to great harm to the British public?
That was not a policy; that was a catastrophe. The previous Government went through a phase of allowing their rhetoric and some of their policy intentions to outrun any serious common sense and then found that they had to let people out early, before they had finished their sentence, because they could not physically get them into prisons. Whatever else comes out of a sentencing review, I trust that we will avoid any nonsense of that kind in our period of office.
Evidence suggests that 75% to 90% of rapes go unreported, and I hope that the whole House will try to deal with that situation to improve it. Is the Justice Secretary at all worried that his plans to provide anonymity for defendants in rape trials will contribute to fewer rapists going to prison?
I do not think that there is anybody in this House—and there has not been for as long as I can remember—who is not in favour of anonymity for people who make complaints of rape and who does not think it extremely important to encourage women to come forward on all proper occasions to press complaints about the serious criminal offence of rape. The issues surrounding anonymity for the person accused are quite different from that, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), has just addressed those questions. This is a matter of how far we can protect those people, and others accused of criminal offences, up to the time of charge. That approach was agreed by those on both sides of this House in the not-too-distant past—in the previous Parliament—and it probably will eventually be agreed in this Parliament too.
Short Prison Sentences
We are conducting a full assessment of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective in deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and cutting reoffending. Short custodial sentences will be considered as part of that assessment, and we will be asking judges and magistrates for their views on these sentences and on community sentences.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In the case of non-violent young offenders, will he support restorative justice programmes, such as neighbourhood justice panels, which are much more successful in reducing crime than traditional forms of punishment?
We are very interested in taking further the idea of restorative justice. Some very interesting experiments in youth restorative justice are under way and they will be carefully evaluated. In all these matters, evaluation is extremely important. People come forward with extremely enlightened and attractive views on how reoffending might be reduced or on how youth offenders might be diverted from the prison system, some of which work and some of which, alas, do not. One has to take a realistic look at them and evaluate them after a sufficient experiment to decide what works. On rehabilitation generally, that is one of the main reasons why we will concentrate on paying by results, wherever possible.
I am not sure where the idea that I am against all short sentences has come from. A short sentence is usually taken to mean any sentence of less than 12 months. My own view, pending this review, has always been that there is indeed a case for some short sentences where there is no realistic alternative and one is dealing with a recidivist offender. Wherever possible, of course, the pointless short term of imprisonment should be avoided where a really effective and convincing community penalty is available in its place.
Wisbech Magistrates Court
In selecting courts on which to consult, one of the key principles applied was to try and ensure that people should not have to make excessively long or difficult journeys to attend court. Although it is important, proximity to a court should not be the only consideration—we need also to consider the speed with which cases are dealt with and the quality of the facilities at our courts. We also want to explore ways we can harness technology more effectively so people do not necessarily physically have to attend court when accessing court services.
I thank the Minister for that reply and for the constructive way in which he is consulting. As he says, proximity is not the only factor but what is relevant is how many people are affected by a journey of more than 60 minutes. Will he clarify which year he is using to assess the population given that Fenland has seen a significant increase in its numbers in recent years? Will he allow for the housing trend where planning permission has already been given?
We are consulting on one court in my hon. Friend’s constituency, Wisbech. As my hon. Friend noted, it is envisaged that work from that court will be transferred to Peterborough magistrates court, which is approximately 23 miles away. Travel times and distances will be constant from various locations within the constituency, so population is only one aspect to consider. We must also consider the frequency of court attendance, which is very low in Wisbech, with a utilisation of only 37%.
My departmental responsibilities remain unchanged, but may I take this opportunity to point out to the House and to the hon. Gentleman that I have today made a written statement setting out plans for the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010? This important piece of legislation from Parliament reflects cross-party support for anti-bribery measures and its effective implementation is a priority for me in my role as the coalition’s international anti-corruption champion—[Interruption.] I used to shadow Lord Mandelson—he had more titles than I have. The new framework of offences will replace the old and fragmented mix of statutory and common law offences and they should facilitate a more effective criminal justice response to bribery. An important part of the implementation is a public consultation on the guidance to be produced under section 9 of the Act. We want the formulation of this guidance to be informed by the expertise of the business community, specialist anti-bribery organisations and others with informed opinions. I expect this process to allow us to publish guidance early in the new year, in time for the commencement of the Act in spring 2011.
May I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent remarks about tackling the causes of crime as well as crime itself? Will he bear in mind the words of John Carnochan, the hard-bitten head of homicide in Glasgow who, having dealt with offenders who had committed serious and violent crimes who were the sons and grandsons of offenders, said that given the choice between 100 extra police officers and 100 health visitors, he would choose the health visitors given his intergenerational experience? Will the Secretary of State will the means as well as the ends in tackling the causes of crime?
I am afraid that the Government have inherited a situation, for which I blame the previous Government, in which we must tackle these solutions against a background of not simply being able to wheel in more resources. The first step is to make cuts in wasteful expenditure now. I accept quite a large part of the hon. Gentleman’s analysis and we should also consider how we look across all Government Departments and all sectors—we must take into account health, housing, employment, education and training at the same time as we consider policing, justice and imprisonment—because the whole picture contributes to the broken society and tackling it will help to contribute to a less criminal society.
T2. In the light of the Legal Services Commission’s recent misallocation of duty solicitor scheme membership and duty rotas for criminal legal aid work, will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake an urgent review of the LSC’s continuing inefficiencies? (9436)
My hon. Friend has just made serious accusations of mismanagement, and I shall certainly consider the issues that he has raised and get back to him shortly.
T4. The Secretary of State should be aware that the Justice Minister north of the border has said that any questions regarding al-Megrahi resided with the United Kingdom Government. If that is true, will the Secretary of State make a statement? If it is not true, can he put the record straight? (9438)
My understanding is that this was a decision solely for the Scottish Government and that it was taken on humanitarian grounds. Plainly, it predates my period of office, and that just about sums up my full knowledge of the situation, so I am not in a position to make a statement.
T3. Following today’s newspaper reports, will the Secretary of State ensure that we will never again release a mass murderer who was convicted by British courts, letting them out of prison on dubious health grounds and where there are murky commercial interests and sending them away to be lauded by a dictatorship? (9437)
My hon. Friend takes a particular view of the facts. From the Dispatch Box, I must take the view that the decision was taken by the Scottish Government on the declared basis of humanitarian grounds. No Minister of the Crown—certainly not me—is in a position to add to that.
Given the proposed review of legal aid, does the Justice Secretary agree that the problems faced by the Refugee and Migrant Justice organisation because of the late payment of fees and the lack of clarity about the number of current cases affected—the Home Office has told me that it is 5,000 and the Legal Services Commission has admitted that it simply does not know—mean that it is vital for the Government to intervene until these problems are resolved to prevent that organisation from going into administration and to avoid the possibility of further chaos, with expense, within our asylum system?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady has brought up this important issue. The RMJ was maintaining that it had 10,000 clients, but the administrators who went into that organisation to put it into administration assessed the number of clients at more like between 4,000 and 5,000. What is important is the clients. We need to move on from the administration of that organisation to concentrating on its clients, and I assure her that the Department and I are doing exactly that.
T5. Having read the published figures that one in seven of our prisoners are non-UK nationals—according to recent statistics, 585 of them are from Vietnam—does the Minister agree that we could save some of the money spent on UK prisons by transferring those prisoners, perhaps also paying or giving aid to their Governments, perhaps up to 25%, to house them in their jails? That would save money for the UK taxpayer and would put foreign prisoners where they belong. (9439)
There are already a number of schemes to encourage foreign national prisoners to go home and serve their sentences there. As I said in the last Justice questions, we will have to work very hard in this respect. I have noted the comment of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee about the fact that some 700 people in the UKBA are working on it, which gives some idea of the priority that it has. I assure my hon. Friend and all hon. and right hon. Members that that level of priority will continue. We need to save the money that we should not be spending on imprisoning foreigners in our jails.
Following the revelations at the weekend that some quite shocking restraint methods are authorised in the “Physical Control in Care” manual for use by staff in secure training centres for children, will the Secretary of State introduce an explicit ban on corporal punishment in secure training centres and other youth offender institutions? Will he establish a public inquiry, chaired by a member of the judiciary, to establish the compatibility of practices in secure training centres with article 3 of the European convention on human rights?
Of course, we keep under review the very careful guidance about the use of restraint techniques in those circumstances, and it is a matter of regret that such guidance has to be issued. However, the hon. Lady should bear it in mind that we are talking about children and young people, some of whom are much bigger than I am and who probably have a problem with drug abuse and a history of violent crime. The completely unarmed staff have to be given some instructions in how to control those young people when they are getting out of control and it is not always easy or possible to use totally restrained methods.
T7. All members of the European Union have signed the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, yet we still have 3,100 EU nationals in our jails. The Secretary of State and I share an enthusiasm for the European Union, so will he co-operate with the EU and repatriate those prisoners? (9441)
Unfortunately for my hon. Friend, I am afraid that that agreement does not come into force until December 2011. I note that the Irish apparently have an opt-out on it and that it will take five years for the Poles to make it fully applicable, but with those exceptions aside, I assure him that we will implement that agreement absolutely as soon as it comes into force.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the retiring chief inspector of prisons Dame Anne Owers that a reason for the reduction in young people coming into the criminal justice system is the effect of Sure Start? If he does agree with her, will he speak to colleagues across the Government about investing in Sure Start, rather than in youth jails, because it is cheaper and works better?
We are, of course, having to address Sure Start, as with every other programme, in the light of the resources—or rather lack of them—that we have inherited as a result of the economic situation, but the Government are concentrating Sure Start on its original priority purpose, which was particularly to target areas of deprivation and social difficulty. That part of Sure Start’s work does indeed have some relevance to what we have been talking about in our exchanges on youth justice and how to keep people out of criminality in their youth.
T8. Will the Minister pay tribute to Winston Churchill, who, exactly 100 years ago today, as Home Secretary, commented:“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”? (9442)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, it is a delight to offer a tribute to the greatest parliamentarian of the 20th century. Right hon. and hon. Members should note that today is precisely the 100th anniversary of one of the great speeches on prison reform, given by Winston Churchill while he was in his Liberal phase. I am delighted that I will mark that anniversary by speaking to the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will allow me to use the final phrase of that speech 100 years ago, when Churchill said:
“an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man—these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”—[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. 19, c. 1354.]
Those are measures that we will live up to.
And I should say that the people of the Rhondda remember Churchill’s period in relation to the Tonypandy riots. However, the Lord Chancellor has responsibility for marriage law, and he will know that the law forbids civil weddings from including religious readings or music, even though many people who are not able to get married in church or who do not want to do so would like to have such readings. The Government say that they will allow that for civil partnerships, but not for civil weddings. Can we not have a little more equality for heterosexuals?
I am answering this question because I am the only one in the village. [Laughter.] I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that his question was transferred. The Equality Act 2010 removed the express prohibition on civil partnership registrations taking place on religious premises. In response to that amendment of the law, the Government are committed to talking to those with a key interest in how to take this forward. That will include consideration of whether civil partnerships should be allowed to include religious readings, music and symbols, and the implications for marriage will have to be considered as part of that.
The average daily costs in Crown courts are more than double those of magistrates courts at about £1,700, compared with £800 a day, and Crown court cases take much longer of course. That is why it is imperative that we rebalance cases between magistrates courts, operating at some 64% of capacity, and Crown courts, operating at full capacity, to ensure that we get value for money.
The National Archives and my Department will continue to co-operate with the ongoing work to get the files released, which we hope to be able to facilitate. Our Department will play its part, together with the National Archives, for which we are responsible.
On the subject of magistrates courts, will Ministers consider seriously any proposal from magistrates that would have them hearing cases in venues other than courts so that they can continue to deliver local justice locally?
On Sunday evening, Radio 4’s “File on 4” programme made serious allegations about Isle of Man shipping companies’ involvement in sanction-busting shipments of arms to Sudan. Given that the Secretary of State has responsibility for the relationship between the Isle of Man and the UK Government, will he hold urgent discussions with the Isle of Man Chief Minister to ascertain what, if any, truth there is to those allegations?
I will certainly follow up that matter as I did not hear the “File on 4” programme. Obviously, the Isle of Man has a good, functioning system of justice and we can confidently expect it to enforce criminal law and international sanctions to the standards that we would expect. However, I will ensure that we contact the Isle of Man to ensure that everything that can properly be done is being done to ensure that no breach of international sanctions that could be prevented is being allowed to go ahead.
We are reviewing it, although we have no immediate intentions that we are withholding. We are looking across the whole field of the Department, and we will reduce the number of so-called arm’s length bodies, quangos and agencies. The Office of the Public Guardian carries out quite an important function, however, so I do not think that we will make any changes there unless we are quite confident that its key responsibilities can be properly discharged.
The annual report on Parc prison by the independent monitoring board singled out the work of the Prince’s Trust and the excellent staff in the young persons unit for particular praise, which I am sure that Front Benchers will join me in echoing. Every time that we ask for continued investment in such units—the report said that the unit needed more investment—we hear that there is no money, so if the Secretary of State is going to use that excuse, how will the big society ensure that we have less reoffending when these young people come out of jail?
We will produce positive policies on criminal justice, prison reform and the rehabilitation of offenders, but we have to do that on the basis of a realistic appraisal of the current state of the economy. We have inherited the worst financial and fiscal crisis of modern times. We have succeeded a Government who simply borrowed ever more money and who threw money at every problem, often with a considerable lack of success for public protection. I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the work of the Prince’s Trust and others throughout our Prison Service, but he will have to find a positive contribution to policy making, rather than saying just, “Let’s borrow and spend more public money,” because that is ruled out for the immediate future.
Office of Tax Simplification
I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the establishment of the Office of Tax Simplification, further to the written ministerial statement that I laid before the House this morning.
The need for simplification in the UK tax system is clear. The quality of our tax law is a major determinant of our economic competitiveness. A complex tax system creates uncertainty and instability, which sends the wrong signal to international businesses looking to invest in the UK and so damages our economic growth. A complex tax system also means that businesses end up spending more time dealing with their tax affairs and less time on their core business. That can be particularly burdensome for smaller businesses.
We set out our proposed approach for reforming the tax policy-making process in a discussion document that was published alongside the Budget last month, but as well as reforming the way in which we develop new tax law, there is also significant work to be done to correct the mistakes of the past by reducing the complexity in the British tax system. That is where the Office of Tax Simplification comes into play.
In his Budget statement of 22 June, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed our plans to establish the Office of Tax Simplification. Today, we have done so. The OTS will advise Treasury Ministers on delivering a simpler tax system, drawing together expertise from throughout the tax and legal professions as well as from business and other interested parties, to provide advice on options for addressing existing complexity in the tax system. Its objective will be to reduce the burden of compliance for both businesses and individuals. The OTS will do that by advising the Government on where, in its expert view, the tax system is too complex and could be simplified, and by conducting inquiries into complex areas of the tax system, gathering evidence and suggesting options for reform.
The office will publish a report on each of its inquiries, detailing the evidence that it has collected, the views of interested parties, its analysis of potential reform options and proposals for simplifications. Either the Chancellor or I will discuss the findings of each report with members of the OTS board. The first such inquiry will be a review of all reliefs in the tax system. The OTS will review the full list of reliefs and identify those that should be repealed or simplified to create a simpler tax system. The second review will focus on simplifying the tax system for small businesses and the specific question of finding a simpler alternative to IR35.
The OTS will be led by an externally appointed and unpaid chairman and tax director, who will be supported in undertaking their duties by a secretariat of civil servants and private sector secondees. The chairman and the tax director will have complete control over forming the OTS’s judgments and will be accountable to Parliament for their advice. Michael Jack will be the interim chairman, and John Whiting has agreed to be the interim tax director. Together they will lead the establishment of the OTS and the reviews that it conducts in its first year. Over the summer, John Whiting will lead the appointment of the permanent secretariat, so that the first reviews can begin by early September. He will also establish committees over the summer to steer the OTS’s work and ensure close consultation with all interested parties. The committees will include experts from the tax and legal professions, the business community and other interested parties.
Making the right reforms to the tax system will help to pave the way for bringing more international business to the UK, which will give our economy the boost that it so urgently needs in the years ahead. We commend the creation of this body.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his statement. He will hear this afternoon that there is wide-ranging interest in the questions that he has raised, which is why it was all the more unacceptable that the statement was delivered at a press conference before it was made to Members. That, I am afraid, is becoming a pattern of behaviour. First, £6 billion of spending cuts were announced in the Treasury courtyard rather than in the Palace of Westminster. Then the approach to the spending review was announced in a press conference, not in this Chamber. Then reforms to the institutional arrangements for bank regulation were briefed to newspapers before the House was told. Then plans for a bank levy were outlined in a speech in the City, not from the Treasury Bench. If we wanted a timely reminder of the importance of the first debate to be held on business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee—on information relating to statements—the hon. Gentleman has just given us one.
Let me turn to the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s announcement. From all parts of the House this afternoon he will hear an endorsement of the principles of a simpler tax system that allows people to focus on their business affairs and profitability. He will see, too, an endorsement of the use of outside experts; that is nothing novel. But will he confirm the answers to a couple of questions about the office’s scope? If he is all for simplification, will the Office of Tax Simplification be advising him on his proposals to complicate the tax system by introducing a marriage tax allowance, all for the sake of sending an ineffective £3-a-week signal about his party’s views on what a family should look like? Will the office be advising the Chancellor either to advance or to drop those plans, and if so, on what timetable?
Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Office of Tax Simplification will be advising him on dropping the measures announced in the Budget to increase the number of people facing marginal deduction rates of more than 90%? And if he is all for simplicity, why is the Treasury briefing that it wants a more complicated stamp duty system in connection with energy conservation in housing?
Secondly, there are a series of questions to be asked about the nature of the new beast that the hon. Gentleman has told us about this afternoon. We have heard a lot of talk in recent weeks about the Chancellor’s push for a bonfire of the quangos. Can the Minister tell us how much the new office will cost? Can he promise us that this is the last quango that the Treasury will announce this year? Can he tell the House how Mr Jack was appointed, and whether his appointment is fully in line with Nolan principles? What reassurances can the hon. Gentleman give the House this afternoon that, unlike the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Chancellor’s last independent creation, this office will not release its reports to help the Prime Minister get through a sticky Prime Minister’s Question Time?
Simplification is a good thing, and I am sure that the whole House will welcome the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s proposals. But I am afraid that today’s announcement sounds rather more like an attempt to grab headlines than like real evidence of a push to improve legislation—legislation that is the responsibility of this House.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman requested an urgent question because he had prepared a speech and had forgotten that this development was announced in the Budget on 22 June. The creation of this organisation was not only in the Conservative party manifesto and the coalition agreement; it was also announced to the House on 22 June by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Today we have announced the appointment of two distinguished individuals to perform the task that we have already set out. The misplaced outrage from the right hon. Gentleman is extraordinary, particularly given the record of the previous Government in this regard.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman recognises, at last, the need for a simpler tax system and for outside experts to be involved in the tax system. We think that an important point; we have to make use of the expertise in the tax and legal professions, and the OTS is but one example of how we will do that, along with the creation of a business forum and a tax professional forum. All that will add to the sense of co-operation that exists in our tax system and the sense that the system can become an asset, not a liability—as, sadly, it had become under our predecessors.
The purpose of the OTS is to look at the stock of tax law—the thousands of pages of tax law in this country, which has the longest tax code in the world. It is an attempt to examine the existing tax code to make recommendations for simplification. All decisions will be made by Ministers accountable to the House. Parliament will continue to make tax law, but clearly the use of independent experts and publication of their recommendations and analyses will be a useful addition to our tax system.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the appointment process. These are interim appointments; we believed that it was important to establish the OTS quickly. The appointments will be there for 12 months, at which point we will go through the usual process of appointment for permanent appointees. In that 12-month period Mr Whiting and Mr Jack will add a great deal to our tax system, will establish the OTS—[Interruption.] In spite of that attack on the appointees, John Whiting, for example, has advised Opposition parties, including the Labour party in the past few weeks. These are well-established individuals. Michael Jack was a distinguished Minister in this area, who established the tax law rewrite project, and we think that that is useful experience.
As for the cost, I know that the view of the Labour party in government is that quangos must always cost a great deal of money—but Mr Jack and Mr Whiting are not being paid for this. The cost of the secretariat will be paid out of existing Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs budgets. This is good value for money, it will be a good contribution to our tax system, and we are very proud to announce it.
Order. The opening contributions of the Minister and the shadow Chief Secretary were a little on the long side. Many people want to take part. What I require is brevity—a textbook example of which can now be provided by the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, Mr Andrew Tyrie.
I am not so sure about that, Mr Speaker.
I warmly welcome anything that simplifies the tax system; I think we all do. The Chancellor described the new office as a
“a permanent force for a simpler tax system”,
but he has appointed it initially for only one Parliament. Can the Minister explain why? What is to be the annual budget of the office’s permanent staff, and will permanent appointments be subject to scrutiny by the Treasury Committee?
On the appointment process, we will see how we go. We are keen that the OTS should be accountable to Parliament, and I dare say that it will give evidence to my hon. Friend’s Committee. As for the cost, as I said a moment ago, the intention is that the costs will be borne from the existing budgets of HMRC and the Treasury. There will be secondees from the private sector, and we expect them to fund that at their own cost. As regards longevity, the initial appointments are for 12 months. We have set up the OTS for a Parliament, but I hope that it will be a permanent feature of our tax system.
One of the pieces of tax complexity that Treasury officials will be counselling this body to get rid of swiftly is perhaps one of the most important that has recently been introduced—the patent box, which enables intellectual property developed in this country to be domiciled in this country for tax purposes, not domiciled overseas at a great loss to the British taxpayer. Will the Minister ensure that the new body is not bamboozled by Treasury officials who have opposed that measure for far too long, and will continue to try to get rid of it?
As I mentioned earlier, the intention of the OTS is to look at the existing stock of tax law, not to examine new proposals for tax law. On the patent box, as we announced in the Budget, the intention is to carry out a consultation on intellectual property and on how the patent box works, how research and development tax credits work, and how the controlled foreign company rules apply in that context. We will be carrying out that consultation in the autumn.
May I welcome the announcements about the OTS, particularly the appointment of John Whiting—a move that will be very popular in the industry? Does the Minister agree that by simplifying the tax code, the Government are reducing the opportunities for tax avoidance?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The greater the complexity, the greater the opportunities for avoiding tax, and a simpler tax system closes down some of those opportunities. The relationship between avoidance and complexity is itself complex, because avoidance leads to more complexity. As a Government, we take tackling tax avoidance very seriously.
The old tax law rewrite project only managed, in more than a decade, to bring about the Capital Allowances Act 2001, four income tax measures, the Corporation Tax Act 2009, the Corporation Tax Act 2010 and the Taxation (International and Other Provisions) Act 2010. As the Minister expects a report on each of this new body’s inquiries, with an analysis of its reform options and recommendations, all of which might take some time, may I ask him, if he does nothing else, to urge the new Office of Tax Simplification to work rather more swiftly than the old tax law rewrite project was able to?
The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the point that tax law is a complicated matter, and such matters are not addressed easily and simply, but we believe that we have appointed the right individuals, and that there is engagement by the tax professions. We believe that the tax law rewrite project had many commendable features, but it was very restricted. It focused merely on wording, and we want an independent body to consider policy recommendations to see how we can improve our tax system.
Does the Minister agree that this is a very long overdue initiative, with two aspects that we would never have heard about from the Opposition—a focus on simplicity, and the idea that things can be done without the benefit of an overpaid quango?
To prove to the House the independence of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Chancellor finally conceded that the appointment of its chair would be subject to the agreement of the Treasury Committee. If the so-called independent OTS is actually to be so, will the same arrangements be considered for the appointment of its chair?
We have not taken a view on that yet. We have to understand what the role of the OTS will be—to publish recommendations that will be, by necessity, in the public domain. People can debate those matters, which we think is a valuable purpose in itself. Whether the Treasury Committee needs to endorse every appointment made by the Government is a debate that we should have.
Is the Minister aware that one tax expert has described the “Gauke doctrine” as one of the most important changes in improving the competitiveness of our tax system—so long as it is delivered properly? Will he assure me that the Government will work to ensure that what has been put down on paper in the Budget will be delivered properly over this Parliament?
I am grateful to whichever tax expert identified the Gauke doctrine: my hon. Friend is right about so many things, because this is a question of following things through. We have set out some very good intentions and made a great deal of progress in our first few weeks, in demonstrating how the UK tax system can be an asset, but it is our responsibility as a Government to ensure that we follow through and build on what I believe have been some early successes.
We certainly anticipate that the Treasury Committee will want to take evidence from the tax director and the chairman, and that documents and recommendations produced by the OTS will be available to Members. I dare say that those recommendations will inform our debates on Finance Bills and, if it is possible, raise the quality of debate.
Any reduction in the burden on small businesses, or indeed any businesses, of administration costs in paying tax is to be welcomed. However, can the Minister say whether, as a result of simplification of the tax system, he expects to raise more tax or less?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming these measures. The intention is that the OTS will be neither a tax-raising nor a tax-cutting body but a tax simplification body. It will make recommendations, and our approach, wherever possible, is to broaden the base and lower the rate. If, for example, there are recommendations that reliefs should be withdrawn, we anticipate that the money saved could be recycled into tax cuts elsewhere. The OTS should not be seen as anything other than revenue-neutral.
I thank the Exchequer Secretary for this initiative on behalf of businesses small and large in Watford and elsewhere—but not on behalf of the tax accountants, who have not contacted me to say how happy they are. Does he agree that measures such as this, when the public and small businesses find things simpler, are very much to the advantage both of them, and of the Exchequer purse?
For how long will we have to watch this space to see an end to the quicksand of complexity that is IR35? Will the experts appointed to assist the OTS include people who understand the difficulties caused for families and firms who work and live on a cross-border basis in Northern Ireland? Those people are caught in an utter matrix of tax complications.
Does the Minister agree that a more simplified tax system will encourage UK manufacturers to retain jobs here rather than export them to other countries? Does he also agree that the measure will make the UK look more favourable as somewhere for global companies to locate their business?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, we want to ensure that our tax system is an asset to the UK, so that we can go out there and sell the UK as a place to do business. We want one advantage of doing business in the UK to be a certain, stable, predictable and simple tax system.
All policy decisions will be for the House and Ministers. The hon. Lady makes the fair point that one cannot take politics entirely out of the tax system, but there are times when it is simply a question of complexity versus simplicity. There is scope for improvement, which is what I hope the OTS will be able to deliver.
Will the Minister make a special effort to simplify tax legislation so that it is understandable for ordinary people? As a former tax lawyer—a poacher turned gamekeeper—I know that too often, the best advice is the preserve of the richest. That is not fair.
My hon. Friend, too, makes a good point. On the day of the Budget we published our document “Tax policy making: a new approach”, which set out a more consultative and deliberative approach to tax law, ensuring that draft legislation is properly examined. We think that that is to the advantage of all people; greater clarity in tax law is clearly helpful.
The appointees will not be paid. If they incur proper expenses, they will be reimbursed, as is only reasonable—[Interruption.] I would have thought all Members of the House would appreciate that. Ultimately, the appointments will be in accordance with the relevant provisions, but we believed it important to set the OTS up quickly. We have done that, and with two excellent individuals.
Many hon. Members have made points about fairness. Will the Minister ensure that the OTS will not simply dance to the tune of the wealthiest in society, and their accountants, in putting issues on the agenda? I refer to the decision in the Budget to reduce the backdating of new claims and changes of circumstance for tax credits from three months to one month, at a cost of £1 billion to ordinary people. Is it not the case that this Government are more interested in helping the wealthiest and putting obstacles in the way of the least well-paid?
I really do not accept the point that having a simpler tax system, which is understandable by everyone and not just those who can afford expensive advice, is in any way a regressive step. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said, it will benefit everybody and we are pleased to be able to do it.
It is ironic that the new Government’s anti-quango approach seems to be translating into setting up more quangos. Apart from grabbing headlines, why cannot the functions of this new office be carried out within the Treasury and, therefore, be directly accountable to Parliament?
Some months ago my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a speech identifying those areas in which quangos would be an advantage, and one of those was the ability to provide independent advice in a technical area. This is one of those areas, and we believe that engaging with outside bodies and making use of outside expert advice will actually benefit the creation of good tax law and improve our tax system. This policy is not about grabbing headlines, but improving our tax system because that is what we want to do. We will leave the headline grabbing and the sudden announcements to our predecessors.
I welcome the statement by my hon. Friend. Does he agree that it is striking that the independent experts who will lend their expertise to the OTS are doing so without being paid, and does that not contrast starkly with the millions spent on ineffective quangos by Labour?
We are very grateful to Mr Whiting and Mr Jack for giving up their time for free in an attempt to improve our tax system and provide a public service. They deserve thanks from both sides of the House, and it is a pity that there has been a little sniping from one or two Opposition Members.
Is the Minister aware that in Hastings we have some very successful business groups? They often complain to me about the over-regulation and complexity of the system. If we are to achieve the necessary growth, we need to allow them to expand their businesses. Can he assure me that this office will focus especially on those small and medium enterprises that will provide the growth that this country needs?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. Of the two reports that the office will produce initially, one will focus on taxation for small businesses and the problems with IR35. We believe that this organisation will be able to address that difficult issue, which frankly has not been dealt with satisfactorily in recent years.
I welcome the response to the urgent question today. As a former finance director, I will join many others in celebrating this simplification agenda, so that instead of spending time thinking about tax they can think about business growth. In particular, can my hon. Friend assure me that the office will also cover the subject of VAT which is as complex as corporation tax and others?
The spat at the beginning of the urgent question about whether the written statement was first leaked to the press raised the blood pressure of the shadow Minister. Would the Minister encourage all Back Benchers—indeed, all Ministers—to come along to the first Back-Bench business debate scheduled for later this evening on the very topic of information on statements for Back Benchers?
I welcome today’s initiative. Will the Office of Tax Simplification have a remit specifically to look at tax bands, particularly to make the UK more competitive? The corporation tax band between the small rate, the marginal rate and the large rate contains a slight anomaly.
Yes, the OTS could consider such matters. Essentially, rates will not be matters of complexity and will be entirely for the House to consider. However, the point that my hon. Friend highlights is one that the OTS might well be looking at in its small business review.
We will certainly encourage the OTS to take representations. Mr Whiting and Mr Jack are keen to do so and will be establishing consultative committees to provide organisations and businesses with an opportunity to have their say and more generally to engage with businesses. We believe that, in the tax area in particular, it is important that we engage with business. That has been a characteristic of this Government, and we hope to continue to do that.
I welcome the Exchequer Secretary’s statement. Does he agree that tax simplification will lead to greater business confidence in small and medium-sized businesses, such as those in my constituency of Dudley South, which will lead to the confidence to make greater plans to create more jobs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is at the heart of what this is about. A strong tax system can encourage strong growth in the private sector, which can encourage the growth we need to tackle our deficit, and I hope that the OTS will make a useful contribution to that.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, on 15 July, in Department for Communities and Local Government questions, in reply to a question about the future of the Government office for the north-west, the Secretary of State said:
“We are currently discussing this with interested parties, including the trade unions.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 1076.]
However, in a letter he sent nine days earlier to the Deputy Prime Minister, dated 6 July, he said that his colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), and himself had met formally to discuss the abolition and proposed
“to move to an early announcement of the abolition of the remaining eight offices.”
Mr Speaker, is it in order for the Secretary of State to say one thing in the House about continued open discussions when he has already written elsewhere about it being a done deal?
I shall come to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment.
I have not been informed that a Minister wishes to make a statement in the House today on this subject. However, on the wider issues, there is an opportunity later today—this point was flagged up by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—in the Back-Bench business debate for the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) and others to express their concerns about the matter. I have a feeling that some of them might be tempted to take that opportunity.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you give us your guidance on the appropriate procedures for a Minister to come to the House and correct factually inaccurate statements made in the Chamber? On 22 June, the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that the reason the Sheffield Forgemasters loan was not approved was that the company’s owners
“did not want to dilute their own shareholdings in the company”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 148.]
On 1 July, the Prime Minister repeated the point, saying that
“there was opportunity for them…to get more equity into the business if they wanted to…dilute their own shareholding”.
Yet this morning’s newspapers reveal that, in a letter to the company’s chief executive on 2 July, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“You explained to me the composition of equity holdings in the company including your own stake and made clear your own willingness to dilute your equity share”.
Mr Speaker, this letter clearly contradicts statements made by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister to the House, and I am sure that you will agree with me that it cannot be right for factually inaccurate statements to be made publicly in the House and then corrected purely by means of a private letter. Given that today the company has announced that it is suspending work on the 15,000 tonne project for which the loan was proposed, what is your advice on when it would be appropriate for the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House and admit publicly that the Government’s justification for this decision has been admitted by him to be wrong?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As he knows, and as others will be conscious, I am not responsible for the content—including the accuracy—of statements by Ministers. That said, if a Minister makes a factual error in a statement to the House, it is preferable, as far as I am concerned, that he or she should correct that error in the House. The right hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity very forcefully to register his point on the record, and it will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench. I do hope that if such instances arise again, the general guidance that I have just offered will be followed, for the simple reason that it makes sense and is fair.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We all appreciate what you have just said, but I should like to raise another issue. I received replies on the board yesterday from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to a number of my questions. I shall not go into that, but the replies included a background note. That is quite a novelty, as you will know—it has certainly never happened previously, in all my experience over the years of receiving answers to parliamentary questions. I was given one answer along with a background note, which says:
“Mr Winnick has asked several other questions of IPSA,”
about whether it should do this, that or the other, and the same applied with another answer. I do not mind—presumably the background note is saying, in effect, that I am a nuisance and that IPSA wishes that I would go away—but what I want to know is whether supplying a background note will become standard practice for Ministers. Indeed, I would like to see the background notes provided by civil servants to Ministers who are due to answer my questions, so perhaps on this occasion IPSA should be congratulated on setting a commendable trend.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what is, pretty much, a novel point of order. Whether those who penned the background note ever intended it to be seen by him is something that I rather doubt. I do not think that the Speaker should get into the business of dictating the precise form of answers to questions. However, in general terms, I am inclined to say that the answer should be the answer, and that should be all that is required. The idea that some supplementary text is either required or desirable seems to me to be wrong.
Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), Mr Speaker. I listened with gratitude to the answer that you gave my colleague, the shadow Minister, on Sheffield Forgemasters, but the gist that I caught was about those on the Treasury Bench conveying your sentiments, so that such things would not happen on future occasions. Would it not be appropriate to ask those on the Treasury Bench to convey that message to the Deputy Prime Minister, so that he can come to this House and right the matter, rather than—so it appears—being left in the clear, with only future transgressors affected?
That is a sophisticated point of order, which is what I suppose one would expect from someone who has served for a long time in the Whips Office. On the whole, it is not a good idea for me to get into the business of advising on the means of transmission of pieces of information or advice from one part of Government to another. That said, the hon. Gentleman has made his point, and perhaps it will be heard and heeded by people on the Treasury Bench.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In outlining the benefits of the Office of Tax Simplification, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury explained that tax simplification would result in greater revenues to the Treasury. However, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), he said that the effects of simpler taxation would be revenue-neutral. Given that the Minister is still in his place, would it be in order to ask him to reconcile those two positions?
Unfortunately the hon. Gentleman spoilt it a bit, as he was not able to keep a straight face towards the end of his attempted point of order, for the simple reason that he knows perfectly well that he was simply seeking to continue the debate.
I am conscious that we will shortly—not just yet, but shortly—have a ten-minute rule motion. The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) is waiting patiently—as, to be fair, is the Minister on the Front Bench—and we need to get on to that business before too long.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I will be brief. It was drawn to my attention this week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited my constituency—a matter of which I was not made previously aware. In order to be able to welcome senior members of the Government properly to my constituency in future, will you clarify for me your guidance, Mr Speaker, on such ministerial visits and what local Members should be made aware of?
The short answer to the hon. Lady is that if the Minister was undertaking an official visit—that is to say, on public ministerial business—the hon. Lady should have been informed by the Minister before that visit took place, preferably with reasonable notice. That is the answer.
parliamentary Standards (Amendment) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Adam Afriyie presented a Bill to amend the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 to require the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to reduce the cost and change the schemes of payment of Members of the House of Commons; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 October, and to be printed (Bill 60).
Safety of Medicines
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about methods of testing the safety of medicines; and for connected purposes.
Hypochondria is not an attractive condition in anyone, but someone who is genuinely ill may be prescribed medicine and may benefit from it. I say to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) that I very much hope this ten-minute Bill will become law.
The development of medicines has helped millions of people to lead longer and more active lives. Medicines, however, are not risk free. Regrettably, there has been an increasing level of adverse drug reactions, which is obviously unacceptable. Action needs to be taken to improve the safety of medicines as far as possible.
Extrapolating from a number of studies the number of hospital admissions due to adverse drug reactions indicates, quite shockingly, that around a million Britons are hospitalised by prescription medicines every year, costing the NHS £2 billion. This is a figure the public purse can ill afford, and does not take into account, even in purely financial terms, the wider cost to society, such as the burden of lost productivity. It is true that some level of risk cannot yet be avoided, but the question I want to pose is whether it would be better to test medicines for safety differently, before they are released to the general public.
In 2005, the Health Committee—of which I was a member, as was the Minister of State—recommended that a public inquiry should be conducted every time a drug is withdrawn on health grounds to determine whether sufficient testing of the drug took place before its introduction into the market. It is a recommendation that has yet to be implemented.
So how are medicines tested for safety and what constitutes sufficient testing? The final stage of this lengthy process is human clinical trials, and several actions are necessary to improve their quality, including ensuring that the range of participants more broadly reflects the population the drug is intended to treat. For example, many drugs for the elderly are never tested on the elderly, and women are massively under-represented in clinical trials, meaning that the evidence base for their treatment is of lower quality than it is for men.
Before new medicines reach clinical trials, the Government require that they are tested for safety on animals, and it is these tests that are the subject of the Bill. Animal testing is, I believe, ethically problematic and many people feel strongly, as I do, that there is an ethical imperative to switch to non-animal methods—but that is not the reason for this Bill. The reason for it is that animal tests have let us down badly in their role of protecting us against dangerous drugs.
Painkiller Vioxx, withdrawn in 2004, was the biggest drug disaster in history, killing more than 100,000 people worldwide in its five years on the market. Clinical trials of Vioxx did, in fact, reveal up to a fivefold increase in the risk of a serious reaction, such as heart attack, heart failure or stroke. However, tests on animals indicated that the drug was safe, and some animal studies even found that it was protective to the heart, which supported the manufacturer’s decision to market it.
In March 2006, six young men taking part in a clinical trial at Northwick Park hospital were nearly killed by a drug which had been tested in monkeys and shown to be safe, even at 500 times the dose that the men were given. Clearly the results from the monkeys had created a false sense of security. More comprehensive studies using human blood samples before the trial might have averted that terrible disaster. Since the infamous trial, several simple tests using human cells have been developed which can predict such dramatic reactions.
Those two examples are not isolated incidents. In fact, nine out of 10 new drugs that pass animal tests go on to fail in human clinical trials, either because they do not work on humans although they did work on animals, or because they are not safe when used on humans as they were apparently safe when used on animals.
The pharmaceutical industry needs new mechanisms. Many new technologies have been developed in recent years: for instance, a wide range of techniques using human tissues—including the interconnection of several different tissues to mimic the whole body in miniature—human DNA chips, computer modelling, and exciting new methods of testing minuscule, safe doses of new drugs in volunteers. A combination of those approaches promises to predict the effects of new drugs on humans more accurately than tests on animals ever could, with the bonus of significant savings in time and cost. It is astonishing that the regulations have not moved on in 42 years, especially given the way in which science has been revolutionised during that time.
Animal tests have never been compared with a set of those promising new technologies. My cross-party Bill calls for exactly that comparison to be conducted. A sample of drugs that turned out to have serious safety problems when they reached clinical trials, or reached the public market, will be tested. The tests will employ a set of those techniques, with their focus on human biology. The results will be compared with the existing results from the animal tests that were conducted before the drugs entered clinical trials. Thus no new human trials or animal tests will be needed. The process will reveal which set of tests is more successful at predicting the safety of medicines in humans.
The proposals that I have outlined have attracted a high level of support among scientists and in the House in previous Sessions. Early-day motions have been signed by as many as 250 Members, and, more recently, by 243 Members. The sheer scale of adverse drug reactions and the fact that they are increasing at twice the rate of prescriptions means that we have an ethical imperative to examine the causes and take action to address this very serious public health crisis. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr David Amess, Mr Peter Bone, Peter Bottomley, Karen Bradley, Jackie Doyle-Price, Paul Flynn, Mr Mike Hancock, Dr Julian Huppert, Caroline Lucas, Grahame M. Morris, Mark Pawsey and Bob Russell present the Bill.
Mr David Amess accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 October and to be printed (Bill 59).
Business without Debate
CONSOLIDATED FUND (APPPROPRIATION) BILL
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
[Relevant documents: The uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Treasury Committee on 13 and 15 July 2010, HC 350 i and ii, on June 2010 Budget.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have enjoyed a lively and wide-ranging debate during the Bill’s progress. I would therefore like to start by thanking all Members who have taken part in the four days of debate on what is a short but significant Bill—despite its brevity, it makes fundamental changes to Britain for the better.
The Bill follows the emergency Budget and puts in place many of the measures that are necessary to strengthen the economy and ensure fiscal discipline. It was a crucial Budget, and this is a crucial Bill because this is the time when we finally get to grips with our deficit. The Bill re-establishes the credibility of the country to the rest of the world. It shows that where tough choices are needed, the Government have the courage to make them, and it provides for a fair and productive society.
The Budget was tough, but it was also fair. It set out a decisive and credible plan to deal with this country’s record deficit and to tackle the other problems that were left behind: a structural deficit £12 billion larger than we had been told; a deficit that was the largest in the G20 and second only to Ireland in the European Union; one in every four pounds of public spending coming from borrowing; an uncompetitive tax environment; and endless complexity and unfairness throughout the tax system. Our plan will pave the way for sustainable private sector-led growth, keep interest rates lower for longer and protect jobs. It is the right approach for the country.
Last week the OECD said in its report on the UK:
“The comprehensive budget announced by the government on 22 June was courageous and appropriate. It was an essential starting point. It signals the commitment to provide the necessary degree of fiscal consolidation over the coming years to bring public finances to a sustainable path, while still supporting the recovery.”
Despite containing only nine substantive clauses, the Bill represents a clear change from the past and a new direction of travel, and it meets the three principles of responsibility, freedom and fairness set out by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary on Second Reading.
First, the Bill shows that we are taking responsibility for the problems we inherited, and it follows a Budget more honest, more transparent and more pragmatic than those before it. We have been honest about the scale of the challenge, and we have been honest about the actions needed to take it on. If we are to bring down the deficit without cutting vital public services, raising VAT is unavoidable. We recognise that Members have concerns about that, but for the first time we have published analysis of the distributional impacts of Budget measures. It shows that fairness underpins the tough choices the Government have taken to tackle the deficit.