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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 27 July 2010

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Regional and Local Representatives

1. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues involving elected representatives at regional and local level in decision making by Government Departments. (11073)

The Government are committed to not just promising localism, but practising it. I and other Ministers have regular meetings with local authority colleagues, across a range of issues and at regular intervals, about the decisions that we are thinking of making. That is what greater transparency and devolution are all about.

The Deputy Prime Minister talks a good talk about devolution and localism, but that is about all he does. In fact, he and the Business Secretary acquiesced in the abolition of the regional development agencies. I have here a letter from him in which he acquiesced in the abolition of Government offices—one of the few areas in which local representatives can have an input.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister now give an undertaking to the House that he will intervene on his colleagues in the Government to make sure that the new regional growth fund decisions have a proper input from elected councils and local authorities, rather than—

I am interested that the hon. Gentleman should think that the abolition of the regional development agencies and Government offices is somehow a blow against localism. Our view is that the Government offices had become a representation of Whitehall in the regions, rather than a voice for the regions in Whitehall. Equally, some RDAs do a good job, but he knows as well as I do that many local communities do not identify with regional development agencies. That is why we were right to say that it was up to local communities to come together with the private sector and others to create local enterprise partnerships, which are genuinely representative of what local communities want.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the abolition of outposts of central Government in the regions is good news so long as the decisions that they previously took devolve locally and do not drift to the centre? Does he also recognise the importance that business in the north-east attaches to the creation of a new enterprise partnership that is able to do some of the things that the regional development agency used to do?

Yes, of course I recognise that it is very important that the manner in which the local enterprise partnerships are now established—not least in the north-east, which has a strong regional identity—should be shaped around the needs of the communities involved. We look forward to receiving proposals from the north-east for the local enterprise partnerships in the north-east.

May I just say that localism is not just about bureaucratic structures? It is about giving local authorities greater control over our health service and people a say over how policing is conducted in our local communities. It is about looking long term at how local authorities can have a greater say over money as well. That is real localism, not bureaucratic localism.

Boundary Changes

2. What assessment he has made of the effects on constituency cohesion of parliamentary constituency boundaries which do not follow existing administrative boundaries. (11074)

The Government believe that constituencies should be of more equal size, and that should be more important than administrative convenience for Members of Parliament. In any case, many constituencies cross local authority boundaries at the moment. For example, 19 of the 32 London borough boundaries are crossed by constituencies today.

Will the Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister explain to me their definition of the localism that means that local people in Newcastle will have no say locally in the boundaries imposed on them because there will be no opportunity for a local public inquiry?

Clearly, the hon. Lady has not read the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which we published last week. We are actually extending the consultation period for local people from one month to three months, to give local people, local organisations and political parties more opportunity to comment on the boundary commission proposals, not less.

In considering this matter, will the Minister bear in mind the fact that people have historic loyalties to the traditional counties of England, not to administrative regions? In particular, will the people of Somerset be allowed their historic county, not some monstrous, vague, administrative nonsense?

If he has looked at the Bill, my hon. Friend will know that the boundary commissions are able to take into account local ties, but only to the extent that we can still have equal-sized constituencies. They are able to look at those things, but we think that the principle of equal-sized seats is most important and should take priority.

Will the Minister confirm that under the Bill, local boundaries, including county boundaries, can be completely ignored and that the only boundaries required to be observed are the national boundaries? Will he also confirm that under the Bill the Boundary Commission will be required, by law, to begin the process of redrawing the boundaries for the whole of the United Kingdom in the Isle of Wight—to transfer 35,000 voters in that constituency across the Solent into Hampshire, and then to work up the United Kingdom in an equally arbitrary way, with no public inquiries?

I heard the Minister’s waffle about extra consultation, but that is no substitute whatever for independent public inquiries, which the Government are abolishing because they are scared of the results. How does what is in the Bill fit with any idea of the practice of localism and greater transparency that the Deputy Prime Minister has just promised?

There were so many questions in there that it is not clear which one to answer. First, we are not proposing to move anybody who currently lives on the Isle of Wight; I think that they will continue to live where they are. The right hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. We do not lay down a prescriptive method for the boundary commissions to draw the boundaries; they are independent, and they will continue to draw the boundaries. Frankly, the hyperbole that he has come out with today and in his reasoned amendment to the Bill bears no relation to the proposals that we published last week.

The Minister has obviously not read his own Bill. If community cohesion is good enough for separate seats on the outer isles of Scotland and for the invention of an entirely artificial rule to protect the seat of a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, why is it not good enough for the rest of the United Kingdom?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that there are two exceptions, which are the two Scottish seats that have unique geography. There is not an exception for the seat of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats; it is simply a rule to prevent the Boundary Commission from drawing an extraordinarily large seat, and his boundaries are able to be redrawn in the same way as anybody’s else’s. All this bluster simply highlights the fact that Labour Members do not believe in seats of equal size and votes counting equally across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Voter Registration

3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the system of voter registration in Great Britain. (11075)

The Electoral Commission reports that the completeness of Great Britain’s electoral registers remains broadly similar to the levels achieved in comparative countries. The Government want to improve the accuracy of the register by speeding up the introduction of individual electoral registration in Great Britain. We are also considering giving electoral registration officers the capacity to compare the data on their electoral registers with other, readily available, public data to identify individuals who may not be registered.

Over the past 13 years, there was much talk by the last rotten Labour Government about sorting out the shambles of electoral registration. What plans do the new Government have to speed up the process of introducing individual registration?

I agree with my hon. Friend that far too little progress was made by the previous Government in dealing with this issue. We will accelerate the process of individual electoral registration, and we will make announcements about that shortly. Our whole approach to this is governed by two principles: first, to bear down on fraud in the system, of which individual electoral registration is a key component; and secondly, further to improve the completeness of the register itself. If Members in all parts of the House have particular ideas about how the annual canvass can be improved, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is responsible for constitutional reform, will be keen to hear their views. That is why we are having the pilot scheme this autumn to allow electoral registration officers to compare the register with other databases, go to the homes of people who are not on the electoral register and ensure that they get on to the electoral register.

Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister would turn his mind to the reality of what is about to happen with the boundary changes that we have been discussing. Is it not a fact that this is a straight gerrymander, and that if he meant what he said, he would delay the boundary changes until there was a full 100% compulsory register based on the reality of where people actually live so that we do not end up with the distortion of taking away seats in inner-city areas?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about straight facts; here are some straight facts. Last December, Islington North’s electorate was 66,472. Just 10 miles away, East Ham’s electorate was 87,809. It cannot be right to have constituencies in which the worth of people’s votes is so very different from place to place. Fairness is a simple principle that should operate in our democracy. He should also be aware that 218 of the existing constituencies are already within 5% either side of the 76,000 threshold that will operate when the boundary review is conducted. In other words, more than a third of Members here are already in line with the new rules. What on earth is wrong with fairer votes across the whole of the country?

Would it be possible to go to those who have great details, such as credit agencies and mobile phone operators, and within data protection law use their private information to help to ensure that the canvass is complete?

We certainly want to see what we can do in the pilot schemes that will start this autumn to compare the electoral register database with other readily available databases, public and private, obviously entirely in keeping with data protection rules. The sole objective will be to allow electoral registration officers to go to people’s homes and say, “We’ve seen by comparing these databases that you’re not on the electoral register. That’s why we would like you to come on to the electoral register.” Let us remember that Opposition Members, who are making a great deal of noise about this now, did nothing to improve the electoral register for 13 years.

AV Referendum (Scotland)

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on preparations for the proposed referendum on the alternative vote system. (11077)

It was right and important that Parliament was the first to know about proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote. The Bill will be debated in Parliament, and we will listen also to views from all the devolved Administrations. I have written to the First Minister in Edinburgh to explain the reasons behind our proposed timetable for the referendum.

The Deputy Prime Minister must understand the level of anger in Scotland on this issue, and the fact that there was no consultation with the Scottish Parliament before the decision was made has increased that anger. Did he ever consult the Scottish Parliament before making it, and will he now discuss it with it?

As I said, I thought it right that this Parliament was the first to know about such a major issue. I simply do not understand why it is considered in any way a detraction from the Holyrood elections next May in Scotland that, at the same time, people across the United Kingdom should be asked to reply to a simple yes/no question on whether they want the alternative vote. It is disrespectful to the voters and people of Scotland to suggest that somehow they are incapable of making two decisions at once.

Notwithstanding the fact that my new and best right hon. Friend would, I am sure, now deprecate the fact that if we had had the alternative vote in 1997 the Conservative party would have been reduced to a pathetic rump of 65 MPs, does he not think that precisely because AV is not proportional, it raises complicated questions? It is extraordinarily dangerous, therefore, to have the referendum on the same day as other elections, namely the Scottish elections. We need a proper debate on the issue.

About 84% of voters in England will be voting, or eligible to vote, next May. In Scotland and Wales everybody will be entitled to vote. About 39 million people will be invited to vote next May, and it seems to me that instead of asking people constantly to go back to polling booths to cast separate votes, it is perfectly right to invite them to have their say on a simple yes/no issue on the same day, at, by the way, a lower cost to the Exchequer—it will save about £17 million.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister in the full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within Government I take direct responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about his responsibilities as regards the great repeal Bill, and whether it may be brought forward in the next Session?

As my hon. Friend may know, our priority in the autumn is the freedom Bill, and that will be the principal legislative vehicle to repeal and pare back many of the incursions that have occurred into our privacy, civil liberties and great tradition of freedom, which were so roundly abused by the previous Government.

On the assumption that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are not holidaying together in Montana, will the Deputy Prime Minister say if and when he will be in charge of the country when the Prime Minister is away on holiday?

As already announced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister will take his vacation in the second half of August. He will remain Prime Minister and in overall charge of the Government, of course, but I will of course be available to hold the fort.

T2. What measures is the Deputy Prime Minister taking to tackle postal voting fraud, which particularly affected me during the last general election? (11083)

In 2006, new measures were introduced by the previous Government—measures that the Liberal Democrats supported—to improve the personal identifiers required in the administration of postal votes. We want to build on that work and are reflecting further on the matter. We welcome views from either side of the House on how we can further strengthen measures to deal with fraud. As I said earlier, one of the fundamental principles that guides all our work on such matters is ensuring that everybody who can, and is entitled, to vote is on the register, so that they do vote, and ensuring that fraud is tackled wherever it arises.

T3. On 22 June, the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that the decision not to proceed with the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was a consequence of the reluctance of the shareholders to dilute their shareholding. Today, a written statement from the Business Secretary clarifies that it was an issue of affordability. The Government have announced a £1 billion regional growth fund. Were the company to make a fresh application, will the Deputy Prime Minister give an undertaking to the House that it will be considered as a matter of priority, and will he support it as a Sheffield Member of Parliament? (11084)

In the written statement to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, the Business Secretary concludes:

“We have made clear that we stand ready to work closely with the company as it pursues its ambitions and we are willing to look carefully at all proposals, as we would for any project”

from any other company

“when the future availability of public funds becomes clearer after the completion of the spending review.”

The hon. Gentleman will know that the issue was the lack of affordability in this year’s current Budget, because we discovered when we came into government that the previous Government had promised £9 billion more than departmental budgets. That was wrong. That is why it was wrong for Government Ministers at the time to write out cheques that they knew would bounce.

T6. I welcome the Government’s plans for fewer and more equal-sized constituencies. However, I notice that we are proposing to reduce the number of MPs only to 600. Was a greater reduction considered, and if so, why was it rejected? (11087)

In considering how to reduce the cost of politics and the size of the House, which is far larger than the vast majority of equivalent Chambers in mature democracies around the world, we had to balance two things. As I said, we had to balance reducing the cost—50 fewer MPs means a saving of about £12 million per year—against the ability of hon. Members on both sides of the House to serve their constituencies and constituents. That is why we arrived at the cut of around 7.6% in the total number, to 600 MPs.

In his statement on 5 July, the Deputy Prime Minister said he wanted to empower local people, but the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill specifically excludes the right of the Boundary Commission to hold local public inquiries. How is that empowering local people to have understandable, local boundaries that respect acknowledged local communities?

As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said earlier, we are extending the period of consultation on proposals for the independent boundary commissions from one month to three—[Interruption.] I hear a lot of chuntering from Opposition Members, but I ask them again to consider this question: what is wrong with trying to create greater fairness and equality in the conduct of our democracy? They seem to think that the measure is somehow targeted at them, but I remind them that the problem of gaps in the electoral register occurs not just in inner-city areas, but in coastal constituencies, where there is a pattern of under-registration, and in constituencies—

The hon. Lady screams from a sedentary position to ask what we are doing about it, but what did she do about it for 13 years?

T7. Does my right hon. Friend have any plans if the referendum on AV is successful and the voting system is changed for parliamentary elections to reform the voting system for local government elections? (11088)

There is of course a legitimate debate to be held about the voting systems for local government, but we have already embarked on a fairly rich menu of political and constitutional reforms, and we have no plans at present to make changes to the electoral arrangements for local government.

I am happy to confirm that what I said last week at Prime Minister’s questions about the legality of the war was a personal opinion—[Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but I welcome the fact that they are asking questions about that disastrous decision now. It would have been handy if they had asked those questions when it was first taken.

T8. The coalition Government are committed to equal-sized constituencies for Westminster elections. In my constituency, we have discrepancies in local government wards of nearly 20%. Does the Deputy Prime Minister support the principle of equal-sized wards for local elections, and what action will he take to ensure that that happens? (11089)

As I said in an earlier reply, there are of course legitimate questions about how elections are conducted for local councils. It is not something that we have plans at present to embark on, simply because we have a heavy agenda of constitutional and political reforms that we are seeking to progress. Therefore at present we do not have plans to revisit the issue that my hon. Friend raises.

T9. The Deputy Prime Minister has announced that the consultations for the new constituency boundaries will be minimal and not involve communities. How does he reconcile that minimal consultation with the Prime Minister’s pronouncements about the big society, community engagement and power passing from the centre to communities, giving them the right to make representations about how they are represented? (11090)

It seems to me that extending the period during which representations can be made from one month to three months is not minimising people’s ability to make their views known: it is doing exactly the reverse.

A vital part of rebuilding trust in our political system is giving constituents the power to call a by-election if their MP has been found guilty of wrongdoing. I am delighted that the right of recall is in the coalition agreement, but can my right hon. Friend tell us when he will bring forward legislation to implement this?

My hon. Friend is right. By the time the election was called, I think that all parties had a manifesto commitment to introduce a power of recall, whereby if it were proved that a Member of Parliament was guilty of serious wrongdoing, his or her constituents would not have to wait until the next general election to cast judgment on the fitness of that individual to continue to represent them, but would be able to trigger a process of recall by a petition from 10% of constituents. We intend to bring forward that proposal in legislation next year, and I hope that it will enjoy cross-party support.

My constituent Karen Taylor received a letter from the Deputy Prime Minister on 21 June saying that we can cut public spending in a way that is fair and responsible and asking her to provide ideas about getting more for less, not to hold back, to be innovative, radical and challenge the ways things are done. I know that my constituent has replied to you, indicating that she wants you to invest more in public services, to pull the economy out of recession and stop the use of consultants. How do you intend to reply?

I certainly agree with the last suggestion—that there was a bonanza of consultants in the programmes conducted by the last Government. One consultant was even made a millionaire from the fees alone in the Building Schools for the Future programme. So of course we need fewer consultants. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have entered government having to deal with a very difficult situation. The last Government announced £50 billion of cuts, but had not bothered to tell people what they meant in practice, so we are having to do the work for them. The structural deficit is £12 billion higher than we were told by the previous Government. These are difficult decisions. However, I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that what we have said in the Budget on increasing the allowance—the point at which people start paying income tax—on the extra, including up to £2 billion over the coming years in child tax credits, on the guarantee that pensions will be increased by 2.5% above inflation—

T10. [11091] Just this morning, the Deputy Prime Minister sent us all a very helpful letter about the forthcoming Bill on the alternative vote system and so on. In it, he wrote: “The Government also believes it is important to give people a choice over their electoral system.”Given that, why will the forthcoming referendum offer only a choice between first past the post and AV, which he himself described as a pathetic excuse for a voting system? Why will it not also offer the single transferable vote?

Let me remind my hon. Friend that, during the general election, there was a party, the Labour party, that wanted to press ahead with the alternative vote and another party, the Liberal Democrats, that believed in a more proportional voting system. As is the nature of a coalition agreement, we reached a compromise—[Interruption.] Opposition Members talk about pluralism and choice in politics, but only if it is on the basis of things that they want, not what anybody else wants.

One hundred and fifty Labour MPs voted against the Iraq war. How many of the Deputy Prime Minister’s new bedfellows did?

I am not a walking encyclopaedia of how people voted, but of course I pay tribute to the small number of Labour MPs who did stick to their consciences and asked difficult questions. However, what I find astonishing is that now Labour Members seem to be exercised about the matter despite having not raised the alarm when they should have done—when the decision was taken in the first place.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Defendant Anonymity

1. What recent representations he has received on the effect of introducing anonymity for defendants in rape cases on rates of prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service in such cases. (11102)

2. What recent representations he has received on the effect of introducing anonymity for defendants in rape cases on rates of prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service in such cases. (11105)

7. What recent representations he has received on the effect of introducing anonymity for defendants in rape cases on rates of prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service in such cases. (11110)

There is a serious concern that if we introduce anonymity for defendants in rape cases, other witnesses will not then come forward and rates of prosecution will drop. Hon. Members understood that the Government were to compile all available research and statistics, and report to the House before the summer. However, reports in the media say that that will not now happen. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman urge the Ministry of Justice to commission research into the impact on victims of rape and their likelihood of reporting the crime if anonymity is granted to defendants?

The research is ongoing and will be published in the autumn, but I can assure the hon. Lady that the Ministry of Justice has the matter well in hand.

I have received many representations, including from Swansea student union and women’s groups in Swansea. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman now confirm once and for all, given the rumours, that he intends to drop plans to stop police giving out the names of those accused of rape whom the police believe are serial rapists?

I am not sure of any such proposals, but if the hon. Gentleman has information that would help me to reach a proper conclusion, or if he wishes to refer the matter to the Ministry of Justice, which has the policy lead on this issue, or the Home Office, given that it has responsibility for the police, I am sure his representations would be gratefully received.

I am very disappointed to hear that the research is now not going to be out until the autumn. An answer from a Justice Minister, on 17 June, said that it would be published before the summer recess. Will the research alluded to be original research into the incidence of malicious false accusations of rape, or will it be a survey of existing evidence?

The research will be research, and no doubt we will look into the matter as a whole. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady—this must be very annoying for her—but she really needs to address her questions to the Ministry of Justice, which is the lead Ministry dealing with the issue.

Violence against Women

3. What the outcomes were of the Crown Prosecution Service’s review of its violence against women strategy. (11106)

The Crown Prosecution Service’s violence against women strategy, 2008 to 2011, was published in June 2008. No review has been carried out to date. Quarterly assurance is provided by the voluntary sector, and annual reports are published. The assessment of the benefits of the strategy on violence against women prosecutions will be made in 2011.

I am grateful for that reply. Does the Minister accept that the concerted effort of the previous, Labour Government led to a 64% reduction in the incidence of domestic violence according to the British crime survey? Will he therefore ensure that potential cuts of 25% in CPS funding and his Department will not lead to a lesser focus on domestic violence issues, which are important not just to women, but to the whole community?

I have no reason to disagree in any way with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. He is right that, for example, successful prosecutions from charge to conviction have significantly increased, from 65% in 2006-07 to 72% in 2009-10, against an increasing volume of such prosecutions. The number of discontinued cases has fallen, from 26% in 2006-07 to 21% in 2009-10. Similar statistics apply to rape cases. Although there will clearly be financial constraints on all Departments, let me reassure him that it is certainly my intention and that of the Director of Public Prosecutions to ensure that the CPS can maintain its record of momentum and good progress in this area.

Is not one reason for the progress in successfully prosecuting domestic violence and rape cases that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has reported the existence of independent domestic violence advocates and independent sexual violence advocates? Will he give the House a commitment that he will continue to resource such a programme—a programme that is helping women bring their attackers to justice—or persuade his colleagues who are budget holders to do so?

Yes, there are currently 141 specialist domestic violence courts, and in these courts there is the assistance of independent domestic violence advisers, as the hon. Lady says. Indeed, as she and I both know, in Slough there is an excellent voluntary service helping those who have been the victims of domestic violence. I will do all that I can to reassure her that there is no intention of allowing that excellence to be diminished. Clearly, I accept that in times of financial constraints we will look across the board at everything. However, as matters stand at the moment, it is the intention of the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as my intention as the Attorney-General, to ensure that the progress that has been made in this area is maintained.

I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments about his continuing focus on the issue. However, now that he has given up his role of co-ordinating the policy response to domestic violence across the criminal justice system as a whole, and in view of the CPS submission to the Treasury—we have all read it on The Guardian website: it says that delivering only key priorities will be affordable in future—will he confirm today, in terms, that tackling domestic violence will indeed be one of those key priorities for the CPS and him?

Yes, I am happy to confirm that tackling domestic violence will remain a key priority. However, going back to the point that I made last time I answered questions about the role of the Attorney-General and the office, perhaps I could explain that the decision to cease taking a lead in this area is reflective of the size of the Law Officers’ office and their ability to drive such an agenda. There is a trilateral partnership, as the hon. Lady is aware. The role of the Law Officers is to be heavily involved in that tripartite relationship, providing policy advice and helping to drive agendas. However, it is right and proper that driving the agenda in question should lie with another Department, because those other Departments are specifically resourced to introduce the necessary legislation.

Serious Fraud Office

5. What assessment he has made of the resource implications for the Serious Fraud Office of the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010. (11108)

An impact assessment was prepared for the Bribery Bill when it was introduced into Parliament in November 2009, and the Serious Fraud Office contributed to it. The impact assessment estimated that the new offence of failure by a commercial organisation to prevent bribery would result in one additional contested criminal prosecution per year of a commercial organisation by the Serious Fraud Office. The overall cost to the SFO was estimated at £2 million a year. As regards the implementation of the Bribery Act, funding for the SFO from April 2011—which is when the Act is expected to come into force—will, as with all other Government Departments, be settled in the current spending review. The SFO expects to be able to carry out all its normal functions, including Bribery Act investigations and prosecutions, within that funding settlement.

Our international obligations under United Nations and OECD conventions require us not only to have an effective law to prohibit transnational bribery but to enforce that law. Given that the cost of enforcing the new Bribery Act is about £2 million a year, will the Serious Fraud Office have that amount of money set aside to fulfil its obligations under the Act from April next year?

As I indicated a moment ago, the view of the Serious Fraud Office is that, on the basis of its submissions, it will have the necessary resources—including that £2 million—to do what is necessary in this area. It is worth remembering that the policy, which was commenced by the previous Government, was designed to limit the number of contested cases. For example, section 7 of the Act, which covers the failure by commercial organisations to prevent bribery, is intended to encourage commercial organisations to self-refer and co-operate. This is one of the reasons why it is hoped and expected that, in many cases, expenditure on major trial processes will not be necessary. The £2 million that has been identified is the Serious Fraud Office’s best assessment of what will be needed to take this policy forward.

May I suggest one other area in which the Serious Fraud Office should do a bit more work? It relates to the suborning of police officers. We have only to read a couple of tabloid newspapers every day to see that newspapers and journalists pay police officers for stories, which constitutes suborning a police officer.

By its nature, the Serious Fraud Office is concerned principally with offences of serious fraud. I certainly think that suborning a police officer is an extremely serious offence, but it seems to me to be a matter that is more likely to lie with the Crown Prosecution Service.

People with Disabilities (Victims of Rape)

6. What assistance the Crown Prosecution Service gives to people with disabilities who are giving evidence as victims in rape cases. (11109)

Giving evidence as a victim in a rape case must be a traumatic experience, no matter whether the person has a disability or not. The Crown Prosecution Service endeavours to ensure that individually tailored support is given to all victims. Victims with disabilities are eligible for a range of special measures to enable them to give their best evidence. In appropriate cases, prosecutors offer to meet victims personally to discuss the need for special measures.

I am afraid that the Minister’s answer reflects the fact that my question has appeared on the Order Paper in a substantially different form from how it went into the Table Office. What I am really concerned about is that people with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, are disproportionately the victims of rape, yet the prosecution rate in such cases is very low. What more can be done to ensure that, despite any difficulties they might have in giving evidence, their cases are brought to court?

I will endeavour to assist the hon. Lady, irrespective of the way in which her question ended up on the Order Paper. First, I want to congratulate her on her appointment as the shadow Minister for those affected by disability issues. I am sure that she will be an active participant in these debates, and I hope that policy will develop as a consequence—[Interruption.] I was endeavouring to be genuinely helpful, Mr Speaker.

The main point that I want to get across to the hon. Lady is that any prosecution depends on evidence, and achieving best evidence from people with disabilities is vital. If she is right in saying that a disproportionate number of people with disabilities are raped and that their cases do not get to trial, we must do all that we can—and I do mean we—to ensure that their evidence is presented to court in a way that juries can consider and, if appropriate, bring in a true verdict of guilty.

Will the Attorney-General keep in mind the recommendation of the Justice Committee that the courts are quite capable of treating people with learning disabilities, and those with mental health problems, as credible witnesses? The Crown Prosecution Service should not be frightened to bring such witnesses before the courts.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As I hope I indicated in my first reply, the Crown Prosecution Service does its very best to ensure that all victims of rape are properly treated and that their evidence is put before the court so that the alleged defendants, or alleged criminals, can be brought to justice. I have absolutely no doubt that the CPS will do its very best. I should add that, having recently attended the Judicial Studies Board course on serious sex offences, I know that the judiciary are acutely aware of the need to deal with the sort of problems that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Given that one of the vulnerabilities that people with learning disabilities face is that some of those carrying out abuse and rapes in residential settings will move to another care home and might get lost in the system, and given that the Government have announced that they no longer intend to proceed with putting the application for anonymity on a legislative basis, and want to look at non-statutory options, may I urge the Solicitor-General and his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to ensure that there is wide consultation on any non-statutory option to extend anonymity?

Certain European jurisdictions have the use of specialist rape courts, which enable best evidence and have increased conviction rates, so would the Attorney-General consider that?

All judges who try serious sexual offences cases are specially trained, as are the prosecutors from the Crown Prosecution Service and the people who assist prior to trials, such as those who work in the sexual assault referral centres and the independent domestic and sexual violence advisers, who were mentioned in an earlier question. My hon. Friend makes a good point, which underlines our earlier discussions.

Domestic Violence

8. What assessment he has made of the effects of the appointment of domestic violence specialist Crown prosecutors on the effectiveness of prosecutions for domestic violence offences. (11111)

All Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors have been trained in domestic violence cases. Dedicated prosecutors are linked to specialist domestic violence courts and each CPS area has a co-ordinator to deal with violence against women. As I mentioned earlier, successful prosecutions of domestic violence have significantly increased from 65% in 2006-07 to 72% in 2009-10. We believe that these roles have been key contributors to such improvement.

The introduction under the Labour Government of specialist prosecutors has no doubt been a crucial factor in driving up the success rate of prosecutions in cases of domestic violence. Will he commit the CPS to continue to focus its efforts on prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence?

As I mentioned earlier, the CPS sees the prosecution of domestic violence as one of its key priorities—there are, of course, others, but it is one of them. For that reason, it has no intention of relaxing or giving up on trying to ensure that these cases are properly prosecuted and taken through the courts.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Registration

1. What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on the effect of individual voter registration on the accuracy of the electoral register. (11092)

The Electoral Commission informs me that since January 2010 it has received representations from two Members of Parliament on the possible effect of individual electoral registrations on the accuracy of the electoral register.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. Individual voter registration is something that the Electoral Commission has always favoured and has passed through this House on the promise that steps would be taken to ensure that it did not impact on the number of people registered to vote. Has he had any discussions with the Commission about what it is going to do to ensure that individual voter registration, which has now been speeded up by the current Government, will not mean that thousands and thousands of extra people are not registered to vote?

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman and others that there are other questioners. Questions need to be a lot shorter and sharper.

The Electoral Commission is extremely concerned to maintain the accuracy and completeness of the register, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the point. It now awaits the Government’s bringing forward of their proposals on speeding up individual electoral registration. It will then, of course, give its advice to Government in the usual way.

Electoral Reform

2. What discussions the Electoral Commission has had with Government Departments on funding levels necessary for it to undertake its functions under the Government's programme of electoral reform. (11093)

The Electoral Commission informs me that its chair and chief executive have held discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister on the commission’s role in relation to a referendum on changes to the voting system for the United Kingdom Parliament, and on the funds that it will require to perform that role. The commission also informs me that it has not held discussions with the Government about the funding implications of other proposals for electoral reform.

If there is one thing more important than tackling the deficit, it is the integrity of our democratic system. The hon. Gentleman has set out part of the ambitious programme of reform with which the Electoral Commission is having to deal. Will he also press the Deputy Prime Minister to ring-fence the commission so that its budget will not be cut at this difficult time?

The Electoral Commission expects to have to spend about £9.3 million in connection with the referendum on the alternative voting system. I am sure that the House will approve that amount, and I do not expect any difficulty to be involved in providing the commission with sufficient resources to enable it to do its job properly.

During his discussions with the Electoral Commission about the cost of the forthcoming referendum on electoral reform, did the Deputy Prime Minister tell the commission how much the referendum would cost if it were held on 5 May and how much it would cost if it were held on some other date?

I am afraid I do not know the precise answer to that question, but no doubt the Deputy Prime Minister will be in touch with my hon. Friend to make the position clear.

The extra jobs that the Electoral Commission will have to do in helping with individual registration and so forth will cost money if the system is going to work. Will the hon. Gentleman agree to be the champion of the additional resources that the commission will require, and will he argue for them with his colleagues in Government?

I am happy to be considered to be a champion on that issue. I have little doubt that the Electoral Commission, which has an important role to play in overseeing the political processes in this country, will receive sufficient resources to enable it to do its job.

Voter Registration

3. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to include on electoral registers eligible unregistered voters resident (a) in the UK and (b) overseas. (11094)

Individual electoral registration officers are responsible for the management of electoral registration. However, the commission undertakes public awareness activities to encourage voter registration. As a result of its campaign before the general election, more than half a million standard and 40,000 overseas voter registration forms were downloaded from its website.

What is the commission’s estimate of the number of unregistered voters in the United Kingdom and overseas? Would it not be a good idea if every time an unregistered voter came into contact with a Government Department, the Department asked the voter, “Are you on the electoral roll?”

I think it is fairly well known that there are estimated to be about 3.5 million unregistered voters in England and Wales. As several million British people live overseas and only about 15,000 are on our voting register, there is clearly a huge job to be done in relation to overseas voters. I will pass my hon. Friend’s interesting suggestion to the powers that be.

One of the main reasons why people, especially young men, stay off the electoral register is the fact that their partners can often receive the single person’s council tax discount. Does the hon. Gentleman think it would be a good idea to look at that relationship to establish whether the benefits and, indeed, the tax system could be used to encourage electoral registration?

I am not sure that that is a matter for the Electoral Commission, but the hon. Gentleman will have heard the Deputy Prime Minister say earlier today that the Government were considering using existing databases to inform electoral registration better, and I think that that is probably one of the answers.

In recent years, thousands of Polish nationals in Hammersmith and Fulham have voted in Polish national elections at polling stations set up for the purpose in locations such as the Polish cultural centre in Hammersmith. Has the Electoral Commission had any discussions with the Government to establish whether we might be able to do the same for United Kingdom nationals based abroad, enabling them to vote in United Kingdom embassies and consulates?

My hon. Friend has made a good point. I believe that such discussions have taken place over the last two or three years. However, decisions of that kind are ultimately a matter for Government, and it will be for Government to make any changes to the existing law.

Has the Electoral Commission conducted any research into the impact of our process of applying for citizenship on a reluctance to register, and if it has not, may I urge the hon. Gentleman to encourage it to do so? I am thinking in particular of the level of fees that are charged; does that put people off becoming citizens and therefore going on to acquire the right to vote?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. I am not aware of any such research, but I will certainly pass that suggestion on to the Electoral Commission.

Will the hon. Gentleman invite the Electoral Commission to come up with radical proposals for improving the level of registration of people entitled to vote in the UK and to consult with the public urgently on ideas for achieving that, because there are many ideas out there that need to be collected and shared with Government so we can have a much better registration system?

I am very happy to pass those suggestions on to the Electoral Commission. It is worth making the point that Governments of all colours have attempted over the years—indeed, over the decades—to improve voter registration and the Electoral Commission runs well-resourced public awareness campaigns, but there is still a group of hard-to-reach people in this country. I will certainly pass his suggestions on to the Electoral Commission, however.

Church Commissioners

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

Women Bishops

I have received numerous representations from people on all sides of the argument. I recently addressed the General Synod of the Church of England on this matter in York, and I have placed a copy of my statement in the Library.

Will the hon. Gentleman take a guess as to when he thinks we will have the historic first woman bishop in the Church of England? When does he think that will be?

The legislation completed its Report stage at York. It now has to go to all the 44 dioceses of the Church of England. If a majority of them agree, it will go back to General Synod, probably in 2012. If two thirds of each of the General Synod’s houses agree to it, I would then expect it to come here to the Ecclesiastical Committee and this House in 2013, and if this House agrees, we could see the appointment of the first woman bishop in 2014.

As someone who considered entering the ministry but realised I had too many vices and not enough virtues, may I commend the life and ministry of women in the Church, but also ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that the first appointment of a female bishop, which will undoubtedly happen soon, must be on merit rather than political correctness?

I am sure that all appointments in the Church of England, including that of the Second Church Estates Commissioner, are made on merit.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Referendums (Timing)

7. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effects of holding referendums on the same day as other elections. (11098)

The Electoral Commission set out its position on the proposal to hold a UK-wide referendum next year on changes to the voting system to the UK Parliament in a statement on Thursday 22 July, a copy of which has been placed in the Library. The commission said in its statement that on balance it believes it should be possible to deliver the different polls proposed for 5 May 2011 if the key practical risks in doing so are properly managed. The commission will advise Government and Parliament if these risks have not been adequately addressed at the appropriate stage during consideration of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Given that the Deputy Prime Minister did not have the courtesy to consult the Welsh Assembly Government before making the decision to have the alternative vote referendum on the same day as the Welsh Assembly elections, will the Electoral Commission be listening to the concerns in Wales about the distraction caused by holding the two elections on one day, particularly in terms of competing media campaigns?

The Electoral Commission is extremely good at consulting all its stakeholders, and that will certainly involve all kinds of interest groups in Wales in the run-up to the referendum.

In November 2009 the Electoral Commission took a long look at all the international experience of holding different kinds of votes and referendums on the same day and came to the conclusion that, in principle, it is wrong to maintain that we cannot hold two votes on the same day along the lines that it had previously indicated. However, it is of course looking to make sure that the key safeguards are in place, notably those relating to public awareness and the design of ballot papers, and it will advise Government on that well before the referendum next May.

Church Commissioners

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

Women Bishops

As one who did go into the Church ministry and then discovered that I had plenty of vices, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to be a little more impatient about the issue of women bishops? To be honest, it felt as if he was saying, “Nearer and nearer draws the time”, but will it be the time that will surely come when we have women bishops, and why on earth does this legislation have to come back to this House? Surely the Church of England should be freed from the shackles of bringing its legislation here, so that we can move forward on this issue rather faster.

If the hon. Gentleman reads what I said to the General Synod, he will see that I made it clear that many of us want this legislation to come forward as speedily as possible, but we have to get it right. The reason it comes back here is that we have an established Church, and until such time as Parliament decides that we do not, we will continue to have an established Church.

I hope my hon. Friend will ask the Synod to recognise that the House welcomed the decision it took to trust women bishops to do the right things, rather than trying to force them into being second-class bishops.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I made it clear in York at the General Synod that I did not think I could get through this House any legislation in which there was a scintilla of a suggestion of women bishops in any way being second-class bishops.

Cathedral Restoration

9. What recent representations the Church Commissioners have made to the Government on public funding for the repair and restoration of cathedrals. (11100)

Church groups of all denominations are seeking to encourage and persuade the Government to continue the listed places of worship grant scheme, which enables a 100% refund of VAT on church buildings and repairs.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Yorkshire Forward, the Yorkshire regional development agency, was forced to withdraw a grant of £1 million toward the cost of restoring the great east window of York minster? Will the Church Commissioners make representations to the Government that funds withdrawn from RDAs should be made available to other regional or local bodies, and that funding applications to these bodies from cathedrals should still be supported?

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes. It is estimated that some £9 million is required to put York cathedral into good repair. Although funding has been coming forward—I understand that there is a grant application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the Wolfson Foundation has set up a fund for cathedral repairs—we will need to find money from all sorts of sources if we as a nation are to meet the responsibility of repairing these fantastic cathedrals, which are part of our national heritage.

Can my hon. Friend explain why two of the cathedrals in Scotland—Glasgow and Dunblane—are fully funded by the public purse, yet not a single cathedral in England is so funded?

The situation in Scotland is simply different from that here. As I said, we need to raise considerable sums of money—for Salisbury, Winchester and Lincoln cathedrals, and for York minster—but that will require a number of different sources of funding: part from the state, part from trusts and charities and part from private individuals.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Democratic Process (Engagement)

10. What recent proposals the Electoral Commission has made to engage people in the democratic process; and if he will make a statement. (11101)

The Electoral Commission informs me that its work in this area focuses on encouraging voter registration and making sure that people have the information they need to take part in elections. It believes that it is for political parties and candidates to give people a reason to turn out to vote on polling day.

The last general election was the most rule-bound, hidebound, bureaucratically hamstrung election for all of us as candidates. We had to fill in more papers, swear more oaths and write more notes to the electoral registration officer than ever before. When will the Electoral Commission get back to its core role of really trying to excite people to register, and to vote and thereby participate in our democracy?

I was not sure whether the hon. Gentleman, who is greatly respected in this House, was describing the Electoral Commission or the previous Government. He will have seen a report that has just been filed by the Electoral Commission that recommends significant changes to our electoral system along the lines he suggests. We very much hope that the Government will be listening to this excellent report.