House of Commons
Tuesday 27 July 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Regional and Local Representatives
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.
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.
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.
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?
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)
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.
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.
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.
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—
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)
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.  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.
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—
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?
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
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
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)
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?
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.
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—
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
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.
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?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
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?
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.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago.
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.
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.
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)
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.
Annual Energy Statement
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on energy policy. This statement and the departmental memorandum that I am placing in the Libraries of both Houses fulfil our commitment to present an annual energy statement to Parliament. In making this statement within three months of coming into office we are signalling the importance of this policy. We are setting out a clear strategy for creating the 21st-century energy system that this country urgently needs if we are to have affordable, secure and low-carbon energy in future.
We face short-term challenges as a result of the legacy inherited from the previous Government. We have the third lowest share of renewable energy of all 27 states in the European Union, which is the same ranking as in 1997. In the longer term, we must meet the challenges of a volatile oil market and increased energy imports. We are taking three big steps forward: we are creating a market for energy savings through the green deal; we are ensuring a properly functioning electricity market; and we will strengthen the carbon price.
Our actions must be informed by the best information about the future. That is why I am publishing our work on 2050 energy pathways, which has been worked up in consultation with industry, scientists, engineers and economists. We are making the data and analysis available and we are inviting comments over the summer. We want to start a grown-up debate about what a low-carbon future will look like and the best way of achieving it. These are possible pathways; we are not claiming to be able to see the future with certainty, but we cannot continue on the current pathway, which is high carbon and highly dependent on imports, with highly volatile prices.
Like the other industrial revolutions, the low-carbon revolution will be driven by entrepreneurs, the private sector, local communities, individuals, businesses, scientists and engineers—not by government. However, industry needs stable policy and functioning markets. The role of government is to provide the policy framework and to act as a catalyst for private sector investment. As the 2050 pathways work demonstrates, we need to apply those principles to the challenge of changing fundamentally the way we produce and consume energy.
The cheapest way of closing the gap between energy demand and supply is to cut energy use. We need to address the state of our buildings—we have some of the oldest housing stock in Europe. Our green deal will transform finance for improving the energy efficiency of Britain’s homes. It will get its legal underpinning from measures in the first-Session energy Bill. We are also accelerating the roll-out of smart meters, which provide consumers and suppliers with the information to take control of their energy management. Alongside this statement, the Government and Ofgem are publishing a prospectus for smart meters, which sets out how we will do this.
Openness is important to us, as it is to business and the public. Alongside this statement, I am also publishing analysis of the impact of energy and climate change policies on both household and business energy bills up to 2020, and I will continue to do so on an annual basis. At the moment, the UK economy is reliant on fossil fuels. As UK oil and gas production decline, this leaves us more exposed to volatile prices and increasing global competition for the resource. The challenge is to spur the capital investment required for new energy infrastructure. The volatility of fossil fuel prices and continuing uncertainty about the carbon price makes such investment high risk, pushing up costs and slowing development, so the first step is to support the carbon price.
In addition, I can announce that we are carrying out a comprehensive review of the electricity market and I will issue a consultation document in the autumn. This will include a review of the role of the independent regulator Ofgem. The Government will also put forward detailed proposals on the creation of a green investment bank. The coalition agreement is clear that new nuclear can go ahead so long as there is no public subsidy. The Government are committed to removing any unnecessary obstacles to investment in new nuclear power. In the memorandum, I have outlined some clear actions to aid this. As a result, I believe that new nuclear will play a part in meeting our energy needs. In the heating sector, I can confirm our strong commitment to action on renewable heat. The Government are considering responses to the renewable heat incentive consultation and will set out detailed options following the spending review.
The UK is blessed with a wealth of renewable energy resources, both onshore and offshore. We are committed to overcoming the real challenges in harnessing those resources. We will implement the connect-and-manage regime, and I am today giving the go-ahead to a transitional regime for offshore wind farms. Both those measures will help to speed up the connection of new generation to the grid. We remain committed to developing generation from marine energy, biomass and anaerobic digestion. Biomass investors that were promised help under the renewables obligation will continue to benefit.
We also need incentives for small-scale and community action. We are consulting on a new microgeneration strategy, and I am today laying an order to allow local authorities to sell renewable electricity to the grid.
Fossil fuels can also have their place in a low-carbon future, provided that we can capture and store most of their carbon emissions. We will introduce an emissions performance standard and we intend to launch a formal call for future carbon capture and storage demonstration projects by the end of the year.
This is a bold vision. We will not be able to deliver it without a 21st-century network that can support 21st-century infrastructure. The statement sets out practical measures that we are taking to improve network access and begin the building of a truly smart grid. However, the vision needs to be grounded in reality. The low-carbon economy must happen, but it will not happen tomorrow. There are potentially 20 billion barrels of oil equivalent remaining in the UK continental shelf, but we must maximise economic production while applying effective environmental and safety regulations. We are doubling the inspections of offshore oil and gas rigs, and we will undertake a full review of the oil and gas environmental regime.
We must also be mindful of our inherited responsibilities. My Department is responsible for managing the country’s nuclear legacy. I am committed to ensuring that those essential duties are carried out with the utmost care and consideration for public safety.
The UK does not stand alone. The Government will work together with our international partners in efforts to promote action on climate change and energy security across the world. We are working hard to put Europe at the front of the race for low-carbon technology. This will help to refresh the appetite for action across the world after the disappointment of Copenhagen.
In conclusion, the statement is about planning ahead and providing clarity and confidence in the policy framework. That is why I am also publishing today my Department’s structural reform plan to show how we are carrying out our priorities. Once we have completed the spending review, we will publish a full business plan. At last we can have an energy policy with real direction and purpose, and a Government who are willing to take the bold steps necessary. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement and the associated documents. There are some things in the statement that I welcome: the continuation of our work on the 2050 pathways and scenarios; the role of local authorities; and what he said about smart metering, although I think that he has adopted our timetable for the roll-out of smart meters despite the great rhetoric before the election about a faster timetable.
The problem with the statement, however, is that the Secretary of State did not tell us that, on a whole range of issues, he is going backwards not forwards compared with the actions of the previous Government. The truth is that the Government have gone from the rhetoric without substance of opposition to rhetoric without substance in government. Let me take the issues in turn and ask him some questions.
Contrary to what the Secretary of State says, we had a clear plan on the long-term transition to the low-carbon economy that Britain needs—it was the low-carbon transition plan that was published in summer 2009. That plan was widely applauded by industry, employers and green organisations. The problem, however, is that he is unpicking parts of that plan. If he wants a higher renewables target, will he explain why he is abandoning the measures that we put in place to meet the existing renewables targets? He has given in to Conservative nimbyism by abolishing local and regional targets for renewables.
It is absolutely unclear from the documents that the right hon. Gentleman has presented to the House how he will meet the higher targets. We do not even know what they will be. On onshore wind, his own Minister, Lord Marland, in another place, says:
“It is our determination there should be no dramatic increase in this”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 July 2010; Vol. 720, c. 5.]
How will the right hon. Gentleman meet his renewable targets without a dramatic increase in onshore wind? If he does not agree with Lord Marland, he had better get a grip on his own Department.
The right hon. Gentleman is going backwards on wind power and on the incentives to use renewable heat in our homes. We were set to be the first country in the world in April 2011 to have a renewable heat incentive in place. All that he has done in the statement today is to postpone any decision on this until after the spending review. Will he explain why has he done so and what the timetable will be for the renewable heat incentive?
On nuclear, the right hon. Gentleman has finally said something positive, but I do not think that anyone will really believe that his heart is in it. Let me test him out. We said in our national policy statement that we believed that new nuclear should be free to contribute as much as 25 GW towards new capacity. Does he agree with that?
On a green economic future for Britain, I am afraid that his statement goes backwards too, most shamefully with the decision on Sheffield Forgemasters. A written answer has been smuggled out by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills this morning trying to explain how it is possible that the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and others said in this House that Sheffield Forgemasters had refused to dilute the loan when that was not the case.
Will the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change explain once and for all, because it has not been explained before, why, given that it was a loan, given that the money was set aside, given that there was value for money as judged by the independent panel that looks at these issues, he cancelled that loan? Why has he taken the £1 billion away from the green investment bank? We set aside resources from the sale of High Speed 1 towards the green investment bank and he has taken that money away. So the right hon. Gentleman is going backwards, too, on the question of our industrial future.
Finally, on fairness, we all accept the huge challenge of fuel poverty amid the green transition. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why, in the documents that he publishes today, he no longer says that he will necessarily be going ahead with the compulsory social tariffs that will give cut-price energy for the most vulnerable? Again, it is put off until after the spending review, and again it is subject to review. Does he agree that it is vital? The Liberal Democrats’ position before the election was to do more to help the most vulnerable, including through compulsory social tariffs.
The truth about this Government is that they promised that they would be the greenest Government ever. Any fair-minded person looking at this statement will conclude that they are a huge disappointment—to industry and to the country. In our first debate, the right hon. Gentleman said:
“One thing that the Government are going to do is to under-promise and over-deliver”.—[Official Report, 27 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 317.]
On today’s evidence, he got it the wrong way round.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his response. Let me make it clear that we have set out in this annual energy statement a clear route map with a framework that will deliver the low-carbon economy that I believe we both want. That is something that will be seen in the test of results rather than in the test of rhetoric.
If one looks at wind power, for example, I cannot accept that the Government should take lectures from the Opposition on renewable energy. The reality is that we have the third worst record of all 27 European Union member states. I know that the right hon. Gentleman, in the latter years of the last Government, improved the policy settings, to which I pay tribute, but the reality is that, taken as a whole, the record of 13 years of Labour rule on this agenda is truly shocking. For us to take office after 13 years of Labour Government, when they have made no progress whatsoever in improving our rankings on renewable energy compared with all 27 members of the EU, is extraordinary.
The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that, on the renewable heat incentive and, indeed, on Sheffield Forgemasters and the fuel poverty commitment, we are inevitably subject to the spending review for the very simple reason that his colleague, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), said extremely pithily when he left the Treasury, “There is no money left.” Although I have enormous respect for the green credentials of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), I do not think that he does the cause of progressive politics or green politics any good by pretending that there is a bottomless bucket of money that we can dip our hands into and throw at problems.
The right hon. Gentleman did not say anything about the constraints that, if elected, the Labour party as he very well knows would have laboured under exactly as we do. He certainly talks the talk, but we are delivering. We will introduce a carbon price floor; he did not. We will introduce an emissions performance standard; he did not. We will introduce a green deal to tackle energy saving in every household, including fuel-poor households; and he did not. That should be a matter of shame to Labour Members.
Order. A very large number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part in this statement, but there is another statement to follow and then a ten-minute rule Bill, followed by the Backbench Business Committee debate to which nearly 50 Members have applied to contribute, so what I require both in questions and in answers is brevity.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the energy-intensive industries in my constituency, such as ceramics and aluminium, which have already achieved great efficiencies over the past 10 years, are very concerned about the impact of the new carbon trading rules that are due to be introduced in a couple of years. Will he assure us that the rules will not result in production and jobs simply moving overseas to jurisdictions that do not take carbon emissions as seriously as we do in this country?
Both the Department and the European Commission have looked closely at those competitiveness issues, and we feel confident that a range of measures, such as free allocation when it comes to the emissions trading scheme, can deal with those problems. We should remember that there are substantial transport costs, which provide some protection, and I believe that the industries concerned have a healthy future.
I welcome the idea of an annual energy statement and, indeed, much of this statement’s content, particularly what I think is a step forward—the assertion that new nuclear will play a part in meeting our energy needs. Given the coalition’s differences as was—or perhaps as still—who has ministerial responsibility for driving forward the civil nuclear programme? Given my experience of working with three Secretaries of State, and given the complexities of the matter, I know that one needs a Secretary of State who is determined to drive the programme forward.
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman’s expertise in this area. We work very much as a team in the Department, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), the energy Minister, and I have been working very closely with nuclear suppliers and attempting to meet some of their concerns about the regulatory framework. It was precisely because we had two different views, from the Conservative side and the Liberal Democrat side, that we dealt with the issue right at the beginning, with a coalition agreement that makes very clear what is going to happen.
On the point that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North made about whether we should commit to a particular target, I simply say that I do not believe that it is the job of government to micro-manage how we put in place a framework for, and facilitate, low-carbon energy. However, there is no doubt that the coalition agreement sets out that there is a place for new nuclear, and I believe that there will be investment in new nuclear to meet our energy needs in the future.
The Secretary of State will know, from his visit to north-east Scotland so soon after his appointment, just what skills have been developed in the sub-sea engineering field and the world-leading companies that are in my constituency. Does he recognise that those skills will be very much needed to drive forward further gas and oil production, the carbon sequestration projects in the North sea and existing marine renewable skills? Will he build on those skills to ensure that we have a British-based solution to the carbon problem?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Nobody who has visited his part of the world can fail to be impressed by the professionalism and expertise in the area. Interestingly, such skills not only exist in oil and gas exploration, where it started, but are extending right the way across the piece. For example, companies that were involved in building rigs for oil and gas exploration are now involved in building bases for wind turbines. I can assure my hon. Friend that we in the Department are very conscious of the extremely valuable resource that we have in north-east Scotland among all those energy sectors.
I note the right hon. Gentleman’s reference to the ambition of the green deal that he is going to bring forward shortly. However, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) recently ruled out the inclusion of microgeneration in green deal offers for homes. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, therefore, the green deal will effectively prove to be a small mouse rather than a mighty change? Does he accept also that, based on securitisation, bodies such as Eaga already use the feed-in tariff to offer home improvements, including solar photovoltaic cells, at no up-front cost? Why cannot he do that in the green deal?
I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the green deal, which is primarily about insulation. We are very happy for any green deal provider to offer microgeneration alongside insulation, and he should remember that an extraordinary level of incentives for microgeneration is available through the feed-in tariff, so we are by no means excluding it. We want to see it encouraged, and if green deal providers supply green deal insulation for households they will be able to offer microgeneration packages, too.
The hon. Gentleman should make an important distinction. The green deal, along with home energy insulation, needs to be in place in our existing housing stock right the way through to 2050. Whereas, with the best will in the world, if we look at boilers and other forms of microgeneration, we see that there is going to be a replacement process, because we have yet to produce boilers that can last right the way through to 2050, which would be quite a stretch. Inevitably, there are two different markets.
I very much welcome the Government’s strong commitment today to renewable heat. In my constituency we hope to host the first commercial deep geothermal energy plant in the UK, and we have the only UK manufacturer of ground-heat pumps, so the speed with which the Government can act on bringing in the renewable heat incentive is vital to my constituents. Will the Minister be so kind as to outline the time frame?
My hon. Friend should be aware that all those decisions need to be taken in line with the spending review, but in the statement there is a very clear commitment to renewable heat, from which I hope that she can draw comfort. I have been in discussions with other MPs from Cornwall, and I am very aware of the potential for geothermal. My hon. Friend the energy Minister is planning a visit shortly to Cornwall, and I also hope to be able to see the progress that is being made in those important areas.
I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to look at the energy markets, but will he accept that the markets in both gas and electricity do not offer fair prices to the poorest people? In that context, will he commit to giving the power to Ofgem to ensure that it regulates the delivery of energy to the poorest people in our country?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that competition is an absolutely key part of ensuring that everybody gets fair prices, but so is social price support and the other steps that we can take to target energy-saving measures on, in particular, the poorest households. The green deal will very much include that element, because dealing with the cause of the problem will be infinitely preferable to having to deal merely with the symptoms.
I thank the Secretary of State very much for a clear sense of direction on energy security, which we have lacked for many years. What plans do he and his Department have to implement the marine energy park proposal that was in our manifesto before the election? My constituency, which includes the world’s largest offshore wind farm, would very much like to be part of that proposal to ensure that we can create a much more progressive renewables sector in Thanet.
The Secretary of State commented a lot about the importance of the private sector in his policy, but he did not show a real understanding about how the private sector operates in this area. He will recall that a few weeks ago he visited the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group stand at the All-Energy conference in Aberdeen. The point was made to him strongly that the private sector was gearing up for the renewable heat initiative, which as I understand it was intended to come about, with all-party support, in 2011. There has, however, been silence on the issue and, given his statement today, I am sure that there will be concern about more than that. There will be concern that the whole affair has been shelved until after the economic statement later in the year and that there will be chaos in the private sector. There is real concern about the Government’s failure to implement what was anticipated.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that it is absolutely essential that any private sector investment, which we aim to unlock, should have certainty and clarity. On the renewable heat incentive, the statement is clear about our commitment to renewable heat, which is absolutely essential if we are to meet our target. The hon. Gentleman has to appreciate that the country is facing an exceptionally severe fiscal crisis and that it is inevitable that we deal with these matters in the context of the spending review. However, people in the sector can take considerable comfort from my words today about renewable heat.
My right hon. Friend assures us that there will be no subsidy to the nuclear industry. Today, BP has announced that it expects to spend £20 billion on the clean-up following the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Will he raise the limit on the exposure of nuclear operators to catastrophes to an equally demanding level?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. One of the things that we are looking at in the context of making sure that there is no public subsidy for nuclear is the contingent liability regime and ensuring that there are no holes in it. In due course, we will be able to make a statement on that.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s acknowledgement, albeit somewhat grudgingly, of the role of the new nuclear industry in providing for our future energy needs. I seek reassurance from him that his party’s previous objection to nuclear was not a factor in the withdrawal of the loan from Sheffield Forgemasters. If he can give that reassurance, will he at last give us a transparent and coherent explanation of why funding for extremely welcome projects at Nissan and Ford were allowable when funding for Sheffield Forgemasters was not?
I can absolutely and categorically give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that whatever he imagines to be the prejudices or otherwise of me or my party have absolutely nothing to do with the decision on Sheffield Forgemasters, which was a matter of affordability. I merely draw his attention to the written ministerial statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. That clearly sets out the reasons that underlay the decision.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on the low-carbon economy, particularly his commitment to offshore wind. In the beautiful Blackmore vale in my constituency we face yet another application to erect wind turbines. The only business case is the subsidy paid for those turbines; the wind blows barely 20% of the time. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it will still rest with the local planning authority to judge such applications on planning considerations?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that below 50 MW the decision is for the local planning authority. However, I urge him not to fall into the easy trap of assuming that the only reason for building onshore wind turbines is for subsidy. The recent study on costs that the Department has had from Mott MacDonald shows that there has been a dramatic reduction in the cost of onshore wind. The result is that it is competitive in a free market with other sources of energy.
Thirty per cent. of the UK’s energy supply will be going off stream between 2017 and 2025 as nuclear power stations are decommissioned. Is it good enough for the Secretary of State to say that the private sector may supply new nuclear facilities? Surely he has to come up with a plan now to replace that 30% of energy and tell the House where it is going to come from.
The hon. Gentleman and I have already had this debate, which is a bit like dancing on the head of a pin. The reality is that the Government’s job is to set a clear framework that will deliver the energy investment that we need to deal with the problem that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises. I believe that the statement is a first step towards doing that. We will have a clear amount of new energy infrastructure investment. I merely point out that it is really no part of the business of government to micro-manage decisions that should properly be left to the marketplace and the private sector.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his announcement. However, I am concerned that there will be no public subsidies for the nuclear power industry. My constituency has two nuclear power stations that pump out 10% of the national grid. One is to be decommissioned in the next 10 years. Nuclear technology is a low-carbon fuel source, and the statement represents that. We should be looking into part-funding privatised nuclear power stations. Surely that is the way ahead.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. There is a clear economic reason for making a distinction between nuclear power and the other sources of energy on which we can rely in coming years. It is simply that there is a strong argument for encouraging an infant industry, at an early stage of development, from the public sector. We have seen that with onshore wind, whose cost has come down dramatically precisely because of the encouragement of the public sector. I am afraid that the same argument cannot be made for nuclear power, which has been around for a long time. It is not an infant industry, but an established and mature one and it can and should compete on that basis, along with all other comers.
I welcome the statement, but does my right hon. Friend appreciate that 4,000 different tariffs cause understandable confusion among consumers? Under pressure, the previous Government promised that annual statements would include information on the cheapest tariffs so that consumers could more easily see whether they were paying too much for their energy. Are this Government going to continue with that promise? If so, has the Secretary of State considered including cheapest-tariff information on monthly bills? An annual statement discriminates against active switchers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right; one of the most powerful instruments in the toolbox is the unleashing of competition as effectively as possible. Competition is ineffective if there is not a clear commitment to information and understanding on the part of consumers. We will bring forward proposals in the energy Bill later this year to make sure that consumers are properly informed. We will take account of the time scale that my hon. Friend has proposed.
Is the Secretary of State aware that at this moment in time coal produces up to 35%—at times, 50%—of the electricity generated in the UK, yet the announcement this morning did not make a single reference to coal? Will he give a commitment to the continuation of the British deep mining coal industry?
The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to the part of the statement that dealt with carbon capture and storage. The future of the coal industry—and, potentially, of gas—is about carbon capture and storage. It is an exciting technology on which this country has led. We have done a lot of the interesting, pioneering science on it. That, above all, will be the commitment to the coal sector.
I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. Further to the question by the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd), who is no longer in his place, what reassurance—indeed, guarantee—can the Secretary of State provide to the House that vulnerable households will be supported and not further impoverished as a result of the measures that will be rolled out following this statement of policy?
My hon. Friend will know that the forecasts that we are making for 2020 crucially depend, in terms of their impact on household bills, on what one thinks will happen to the price of oil and gas. If one thinks that it will basically be the same as today, there is a modest increase in the cost of policies compared with the alternative; if one takes the International Energy Agency’s view of a $100 price for a barrel of oil, for example, one sees that our policies are reducing the cost of electricity to households. However, it is absolutely crucial to ensure not only that the policy framework delivers overall lower costs but that poor households, in particular, will not bear the brunt. That is why we are looking at social price support and why, as I said to the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd), it is absolutely crucial to target our energy efficiency measures on fuel-poor households so that we can deal with the cause, not merely with the symptoms.
I was grateful to hear the Secretary of State’s reconfirmation of the doubling of inspections of offshore oil and gas rigs. However, given that we have just seen testimony from the United States about Transocean oil rig managers ordering that a general alarm on the Gulf of Mexico oil rig that exploded be disabled, is it not time for the Secretary of State or the energy Minister to summon the Health and Safety Executive and Transocean to give further assurances about the safety of the 10 Transocean oil rigs that operate in UK waters?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that we are very aware of and have been devoting a lot of attention to in the Department. We had our own problems in this country with Piper Alpha at the end of the 1980s. In response to that, substantial changes were made in the regulatory regime which meant that there were no conflicts of interest of the sort that have existed in the American regime, and the US Administration are taking on board some of those lessons. We have tightened up the regime, which we want to be as effective as possible, and we will learn the lessons as they come out from the various inquiries into what happened with Deepwater Horizon. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will also be in close discussions with our Norwegian counterparts; we are already doing so at an official level. Last week in the US, at the clean energy ministerial meeting, I had some interesting discussions with my Norwegian counterpart on learning the best lessons from what has gone on in the Gulf of Mexico to ensure that we have an absolutely state-of-the-art regulatory regime, as I assure the hon. Gentleman we will.
My right hon. Friend has made it clear that there is no public money for the mature nuclear energy markets, but I presume that that means nuclear fission, not nuclear fusion. May I encourage him to consider the latter technology? It has always been said that it is 20 years away, but we are now talking about a 2050 energy pathway, which will take us beyond 20 years. May I encourage public spending on this area such as that we have seen in Oxfordshire?
As my hon. Friend says, the technology has been held out as having enormous promise for many years. It would be absolutely marvellous, as I think everybody can agree, if we were able to move to new nuclear fusion, which has all sorts of fantastic advantages. I will await with interest the briefing from my excellent chief scientist on the practicalities of incorporating it within a 2050 pathways review.
The nuclear industry is worth an estimated £30 billion of investment over the next 10 years in the north-west of England alone. At the time of the announcement on Sheffield Forgemasters, that was part of a much wider strategy mainly based in the north-west, which included public money being spent on research, not least in the area that the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) mentioned—for example, at the Dalton nuclear institute and the advanced manufacturing research centre. That is public money for investment. Is that money secure, or does the Secretary of State see it as a subsidy to the nuclear industry?
The hon. Gentleman really does not get it yet, and I am afraid that he shares that with a lot of his colleagues on the Labour Benches. The reality is that the fiscal constraints under which this Government are now labouring—I use that word advisedly—are such that we are having to look with extraordinary forensic acuteness at spending right across the board. The days when he and his colleagues were able to sign blank cheques and leave them like confetti across the country are over. If he has not yet woken up to that fact, he had better do so pretty soon, because the electorate will not take him seriously until he does.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and invite him to come to Suffolk Coastal or, as I rechristened it in my maiden speech, the green coast, where he will see a range of energy schemes such as those that he is proposing. However, in considering the subsidy that is given to the production of offshore energy, will he also consider how we get that energy onshore? One of the great ironies would be the production of all this very environmentally friendly energy but the blight of pylons right across areas of outstanding natural beauty and beautiful countryside.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. We are indeed considering the transmission regime to ensure that we get the appropriate type. One of the big issues is that we essentially have a cost profile for the transmission regime that is based on an incentive to put mobile power stations as close as possible to their markets. That is absolutely fine when we are dealing with sources of energy that are mobile, but increasingly we are dealing with sources of energy that are not mobile. If we want to build wind turbines, we have to put them in areas where there is wind and where there is an economic basis for doing so. My hon. Friend’s point is a significant one for us in the Department, and we are addressing it.
The Secretary of State said a few minutes ago that his Department was kept informed about the decision on Sheffield Forgemasters. Were he and his ministerial colleagues consulted before the decision was made, and if so, what views did they put forward in that consultation?
We were consulted on Sheffield Forgemasters, although the matter relates to the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The reality is that advice between Ministers obviously remains confidential—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”]—as indeed I believe it was confidential under the last Government. However, I would be happy to ask the shadow Secretary of State to come to the Dispatch Box and explain all the occasions on which he disagreed with his colleagues.
The Secretary of State shows the same enthusiasm for new nuclear power as I do for the European Union, but I do not have to lead the charge for the European Union, whereas he does have to lead the charge for new nuclear. How does he square that circle?
The Secretary of State’s statement shows that he has quickly assimilated and merged with the Conservative view—the “market knows best” approach to environmentalism. However, will not the swingeing and unnecessarily quick cuts to some of this expenditure, particularly for local authorities, make a mockery of any carbon-reduction strategies or aspirations that he has?
The hon. Gentleman is not listening if he thinks that I am saying that the market always knows best. I am saying that the Government have a responsibility, in the national interest, to set a framework that will deliver a low-carbon economy and energy security in what is likely to be an increasingly volatile and difficult world. In that context, having put the incentives in place, it is up to the market to deliver. We need to ensure that those incentives are adequate, and I assure him that I believe in the need for that overall framework.
Electricity in the UK—this is a legacy from the past 15 years—costs about 30% more than in France, where it is supplied by cheap nuclear. Is it a policy objective for us to fix that, and if so, under what time frame does the Secretary of State think that that will happen?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the French began their energy commitment to nuclear power in the wake of the first oil shock of 1973-74, so the subsequent period encompasses an awful lot of Governments of different persuasions. We are attempting to move as quickly as possible to a situation whereby we, too, can have highly affordable electricity that is relatively robust and resilient to the sort of shocks that we are likely to see across the world economy.
In his statement, the Secretary of State said that the Government were committed to removing any unnecessary obstacles to investment in new nuclear. I assume that that is a reference to Liberal Democrat policy. Does he still believe it is possible to deliver a low-carbon energy supply without nuclear? Is that his policy, or has he changed his mind, and will he be in a darkened room when we debate new nuclear in future?
The hon. Gentleman must know that I am a Minister in a coalition Government, who recognised right at the beginning of the negotiations that there were differences of views between the two parties. We were very clear, and the coalition agreement was very clear, about how we were reconciling them, and I am getting on with the job of delivering our agreement.
I was somewhat disappointed that although the Secretary of State made fleeting reference to marine energy, he had nothing to say about tidal power in particular and the potential to exploit it in the Severn estuary. Can he confirm his commitment to the Severn barrage feasibility study, and can anything be done to accelerate it so that we can have an answer sooner rather than later on whether it can go ahead?
European Investigation Order
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the draft directive for a European investigation order, and the Government’s decision to opt into that draft directive.
As people have become more mobile, so too has crime, and that has serious consequences for our ability to bring criminals to justice. To deal with cross-border crime, countries enter into mutual legal assistance—MLA—agreements. Those agreements provide a framework through which states can obtain evidence from overseas. MLA has therefore been an important tool in the fight against international crime and terrorism. It has been crucial in a number of high-profile cases. For example, Hussein Osman, one of the failed terrorists from the 21/7 attacks five years ago, might not have been convicted had it not been for evidence obtained through MLA.
However, MLA has not been without its faults. The process is fragmented and confusing for the police and prosecutors, and it is too often too slow. In some cases it takes many months to obtain vital evidence. Indeed, in one drug trafficking case the evidence arrived in the UK after the trial had been completed. The European investigation order is intended to address those problems by simplifying the system, through a standardised request form and by providing formal deadlines for the recognition and execution of requests.
The Government have decided to opt into the EIO because it offers practical help for the British police and prosecutors, and we are determined to do everything we can to help them cut crime and deliver justice. That is what the police say the EIO will do. We wrote to every Association of Chief Police Officers force about the EIO, and not one said that we should not opt in. ACPO itself replied that
“the EIO is a simpler instrument than those already in existence and, provided it is used sensibly and for appropriate offences, we welcome attempts to simplify and expedite mutual legal assistance.”
However, I know that some hon. Members have concerns about the EIO, and I should like to address them in turn. The first is on the question of sovereignty. In justice and home affairs, there are many ideas coming out of Brussels, such as a common asylum policy, that would involve an unacceptable loss of sovereignty. I want to make it absolutely clear to the House that I will not sign up to those proposals, and I have made that clear to my European counterparts. However, the EIO directive does not incur a shift in sovereignty. It is a practical measure that will make it easier to see justice—British justice—done in this country.
The second concern is about burdens on the police. At a time when we are reducing domestic regulatory burdens on the police, I agree that it would be unacceptable to have them re-imposed by foreign forces. That is why we will seek to ensure that there is a proportionality test, so that police forces are not obliged to do work in relation to trivial offences, and that forces will be able to extend deadlines when it is not possible to meet them. I want to be clear that the EIO will not allow foreign authorities to instruct UK police officers on what operations to conduct, and it will not allow foreign officers to operate in the UK with law enforcement powers.
The third concern is about legal safeguards. We will seek to maintain the draft directive’s requirement that evidence should be obtained by coercive means, for example through searching a premises, only where the dual criminality requirement is satisfied. Requests for evidence from foreign authorities will still require completion of the same processes as in similar domestic cases. In order to search a house, for example, police officers will still need to obtain a warrant.
The execution of the EIO must be compatible with the European convention on human rights. That mea