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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Coalition Government

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of coalition Government under the UK’s constitutional arrangements. (27056)

The coalition Government are sorting out the mess they inherited from the previous—[Interruption.] This always gets Opposition Members going from the beginning. The coalition Government are sorting out the mess they inherited from the previous Administration, including a woefully unreformed political system. That is why we are giving power back to Parliament by establishing five-year fixed-term Parliaments, why we are offering the public a choice, for the first time, on using a different and fairer electoral system, and why we will create fairer, more equal-sized constituencies in time for the next election.

I beg the right hon. and learned Lady’s pardon, and I also beg Mr McCabe’s pardon as we have not yet heard from him and we want to do so. I call Mr Steve McCabe.

I feel so let down, Mr Speaker.

In her paper comparing the coalition to a difficult marriage, Miss van der Laan advises Back Benchers that they should

“never take advice from those who have secured Government jobs because their self-interest clouds their judgment.”

Is she right?

I think the hon. Gentleman asked, “Is he right?”, but Lousewies van der Laan is a lady; I think we should get such facts right. As I have said, two parties have come together to repair the damage left by one; it is as simple as that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the coalition Government are breaking new ground along European lines? Might we send a message to the rest of Europe that actually we do believe in coalition Government in this country?

I certainly agree that in other democracies in Europe and elsewhere the idea of two parties compromising with each other in the national interest is considered to be a good thing. Only backward-looking Opposition Members regard every compromise as a betrayal.

Speaking of which, is not the effectiveness of coalition Government a question of substance? On the substantive coalition policy of tuition fees, the House will want to know how the right hon. Gentleman, as Deputy Prime Minister, is going to vote. Is he going to vote for, is he going to abstain, or is he going to vote against it, as we are?

I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Lady is finally referring to substance. For weeks now Opposition Members have refused to tell the House, or the students demonstrating outside, what their policy is. Is it a blank sheet of paper? Is it a graduate tax or not? The fact is that the proposal we are putting forward—we have a plan; they have a blank sheet of paper—is fairer for students than the system we inherited from the Labour Government.

We are clear: we are going to vote against the trebling of tuition fees, but the right hon. Gentleman will not tell us what he is going to do. This is about what he said he stood for when he was asking for people’s votes. He said that as a matter of principle he wanted no tuition fees and that he would vote against any increase. People will judge him on this. If he votes against, that is the only principled position; if he abstains, it is a cop-out; if he votes for, it is a sell-out. Which is it?

Since the right hon. and learned Lady does not want to discuss her policy or policy in general, let me illustrate what this means in real terms. A care worker who has graduated from university, starting on £21,000 and earning more over time—[Interruption.] No, what people are interested in is what is going to happen to them in practice. Under our proposals, they will pay back £7 a month on average, compared with £81 a month on average under the scheme we have inherited from Labour, and £36 a month on average under the system of graduate taxes her right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party wants to advocate. I hope that we will now be able to have a reasonable and reasoned discussion about what our proposal actually means for graduates in this country in future.

Electoral Register

The Government have not made such an assessment, but the Electoral Commission found in its March 2010 report “The completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain” that

“it is likely that the accuracy of the registers remains broadly similar to past decades”.

It is clear, however, that more can be done to support accuracy. To that end, I have announced that the Government will speed up the implementation of individual voter registration from 2014, which will ensure that only those entitled to vote get on the register, bringing greater protection against electoral fraud.

I thank the Minister for that answer. We hear a great deal from Labour Members about the missing 3.5 million people. Can he explain what was done over the past 13 years to help them? What are our Government going to do to ensure that people entitled to vote can do so?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, and I congratulate him on being elected to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, where he can pursue his interest in these matters. He will know that when in government the Labour party did, to be fair, try a number of things, but the things it tried were not successful. We are going to introduce individual electoral registration and we are going to trial data-matching next year, so that we can see whether there are more effective ways of allowing electoral administrators to get people on the register when they are entitled to be on it.

Does the Minister agree that some individuals deliberately keep themselves off the register because they are partaking in or are aiding and abetting benefit fraud? How does he think we should address that important issue?

One of the things that we will do on individual registration is ensure that people will have to register with a signature and their date of birth and national insurance number details. Those will be checked against Department for Work and Pensions records to ensure that the voting record database is accurate. One of the things that we will be doing when we trial data-matching next year is looking to see what other benefits can be obtained from those public sector databases.

What plans does the Minister have to require voters to produce proof of their identity at polling stations?

The Government do not have any current plans to do that, but we keep this area under review. In January, the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers will bring out their report on this year’s general election. We will look at their conclusions to see whether there is evidence of fraud taking place and whether we need to take any further steps to deal with it.

Okay then. There was a failure to answer the question put by the deputy Leader of the Opposition. No doubt the—

Is the Minister aware of the great efforts made this year by Glasgow city council to increase voter registration? For example, it has worked with minority groups and carried out targeted canvassing. All that work is going to show a big increase in the level of electoral registration tomorrow. Why are his Government not joining good local authorities such as that in Glasgow to get the 3.5 million people not on the electoral register on to the voters roll as soon as possible? Why are they instead rushing to have a boundary review that benefits the coalition?

I congratulate Glasgow city council, if what the hon. Gentleman says is accurate, because the work it has been doing is excellent. He will know that I wrote to the chief executive of every council in the country suggesting that they work with the Government on our data-matching pilots, to which I referred in a previous answer. We want to examine what steps can be taken to enable local government to look at those public sector databases in order to get more people who are eligible to vote on to the electoral register, as Glasgow city council has done.

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Lady, but that question really was not worthy of her. The completeness of the electoral register is as important as making sure it is accurate. It is perfectly reasonable to move towards fairer and more equal-sized constituencies, as this House has made a very clear decision to do, and their lordships will start debating the matter this very afternoon.

According to research, the level of registration will fall on the introduction of individual registration, and we need only look at the situation that occurred in Northern Ireland to back that up. This was recognised in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. Will the hon. Gentleman take into account the advice given by the Electoral Commission? If it decides that things are being done too quickly to improve the register, will he listen to it?

I am pleased to say that I can do better than that. We have already considered the experience in Northern Ireland and the hon. Gentleman will know from my statement to the House that that is exactly why we will not remove anyone from the electoral register before the 2015 general election just because they have failed to register individually. We will leave them on the register to give them an extra chance and to avoid the situation that occurred in Northern Ireland, where there was a sudden drop in the number of voters on the register. I hope that that is helpful.

Parliament Acts (Lords Reform)

3. Whether he plans to bring forward legislative proposals to amend the provisions of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 as part of his proposals for House of Lords reform. (27058)

I am chairing a cross-party committee to produce a draft Bill on House of Lords reform early next year. The Government believe that the basic relationship between the two Houses, as set out in the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, should continue when the House of Lords is reformed.

I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for that response, but is it not in the nature of elected representatives to seek to acquire more power unto themselves, as has happened in Wales and Scotland and could well happen down the end of the corridor? Will that not bring an elected upper House into direct conflict with the provisions of the Parliament Acts? What does he propose to do about it if that should happen?

I certainly agree that it would be self-defeating if a reformed House of Lords tried in any way to mimic the House of Commons. Most bicameral systems around the world manage a clear division of labour between one Chamber and another. That is why the devil is in the detail—we must consider how long the terms are for any elected Members of a reformed House of Lords and in what manner they are elected in order to create a clear division of labour between the two Chambers.

Will the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals on Lords reform refer in any shape or form to the historic convention on collective responsibility? I note that the new ministerial code of conduct refers to collective responsibility in exactly the same words as the old ministerial code of conduct, namely by saying that all Ministers must adopt the same position in public, but now contains the extraordinary new phrase,

“save where it is expressly set aside”.

There is an extraordinary rumour that the Deputy Prime Minister is thinking of not voting with the Government later today. Surely that cannot be right. Surely he is man enough to stand up and sign up to what he voted for in the general election—or at least to sign up to what he voted for in the coalition agreement. Otherwise, nobody will be able to trust a word he says again.

The hon. Gentleman always gets terrifically excitable, but none the less asks a question that is wholly irrelevant to the subject we are dealing with. That was absolutely nothing to do with House of Lords reform. I think—he was trying to be so clever that it is difficult to tell—he was referring to the coalition agreement and what it says about higher education policy, which is very clear.

Topical Questions

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

A man tours the country telling people that if they vote for him he will abolish tuition fees. When he has the power, he increases tuition fees. What is the best description of the integrity of such a man?

This must be the same integrity that led the Labour party to introduce fees having said that it would not in 1997 and to introduce top-up fees when it said that it would not in its 2001 manifesto. Labour commissioned the Browne review, which Labour Members are now busily trashing. The facts are—[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and his colleagues do not want to hear the facts of our policy, but the facts are that our proposal will remove any up-front fees whatsoever, including for the 40% of part-time students at our universities. The fact is that all graduates will pay less per month than they do under the scheme we inherited from Labour. The fact is that at least one in four of the lowest paid graduates will pay less in total than they do now. That is a progressive package; Labour’s was not.

T2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister feel that the integrity of voter registration would be aided if electoral registration officers could make inquiries about the validity of suspect applications? (27065)

Of course they have the power to do that now. Under the individual electoral registration scheme that we are seeking to introduce, we will ask voters to provide three proofs of identity and residence in order to verify the validity of their claims.

It is good to see the Deputy Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box. I hope that before the end of these questions he might actually answer one. I am trying to get to the bottom of his and the Government’s views on prisoners and voting. In an interview that he gave to The Guardian, when he had another job, he said he believed “the bulk of prisoners” should be given the vote. Is that his personal view or the Government’s view? Can he reassure those of us who are concerned about violent offenders and those who have committed sexual offences being given the right to vote that he can today rule that out?

As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the Government inherited a situation in which a 2005 court ruling had shown our current arrangements to be illegal and to fall foul of court rulings. The previous Government looked at the options for moving into line with the court rulings and there have been a succession of court rulings since then, most recently last week. We will provide our final response on how to make sure that our practices are in line with those rulings in the very near future.

T3. What progress have the Government made on ensuring that the banks meet their obligation to pay their fair share of taxes? (27066)

A year ago, the previous Government announced that they would require—[Interruption.] It is worth listening to this as a contrast between inaction and action. They announced that they would require the banks to sign up to the code of practice on taxation. Last month, only four of the top 15 banks had signed up, which was in our view completely unacceptable. We want the banks to play not just by the letter of tax law but by its spirit. That is why the Chancellor instructed Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in October to work with the banking sector to ensure that the remaining banks implemented the code by the end of this month, and I can today confirm that all the top 15 banks have now signed the code. That is an extra 11 banks in one month versus the four that signed previously. [Interruption.]

Order. First, I want to hear the answers. Secondly, the greater the noise, the longer the delay and the fewer Back Benchers will have a chance to be called. That would be a great pity.

I would be for a system that provided a fair settlement for students. As I said before, unlike the system that we inherited from the hon. Gentleman’s party, ours will remove all up-front fees paid by students and will only ask graduates—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members do not want to hear this because they do not want to talk about policy as they have a blank sheet for policy. We have a plan and they have a blank sheet—that speaks volumes.

T4. I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s consultation on the freedom Bill. Is he aware that terrorism convictions have plummeted by 91% in the past four years, and will he continue to support the repeal of control orders and the ban on intercept evidence so that we can prosecute more terrorists and defend our freedoms? (27067)

I strongly agree with the assumption and the assertion that the previous Government got the balance wrong between liberty and security. Indeed, I think that is now acknowledged even by that great liberal, the current Labour spokesperson on Home Affairs. That is why we are conducting a review of how the anti-terrorism powers introduced by the previous Government are operating so that we can tilt the balance definitively in favour of liberty.

If the Deputy Prime Minister is so confident on tuition fees, why does he not go to speak to the students who are demonstrating outside now? They would be very interested in his broken election promises.

I heard the hon. Gentleman’s leader on the radio the other day saying that he was tempted to speak to the students. When asked why he did not, he said that he had something in his diary—it must have been staring at a blank sheet, which takes an enormous amount of time, does it not?

T5. Could the Deputy Prime Minister update us on his plans for introducing a register of lobbyists? Does he expect the new chairman of Global Counsel, Lord Mandelson, to be on that register? (27068)

It must be a measure of Lord Mandelson’s confidence in the leadership of the Labour party that he has decided to set up on his own to lobby the Government directly himself. We are indeed moving ahead next year to set up a statutory register of lobbyists.

A few months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister said, in a personal statement, that he thought the Iraq war was illegal. On that basis, for the benefit of the House could he set out what he sees as the limits of collective responsibility?

As I said before, collective responsibility operates, but this is also a coalition Government, whereby two parties with different views, different traditions and different perspectives have come together to govern in the national interest. That is why we are keen, on both sides of the coalition Government, to stick scrupulously to the open, public coalition agreement that we entered into with each other.

T6. Given that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s policy responsibilities, what action will he take to ensure that IPSA stops spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds on its own public relations and its ever-expanding bureaucracy? (27069)

I of course acknowledge that there is a great deal of unease on both sides of the House about how IPSA is operating in practice, which is why it is right that its working practices should be reviewed and, where possible, strengthened and improved. However, the fundamental principle that the administration of our expenses, pay and so on is independent remains exactly right in the wake of the terrible damage done to the House by the expenses scandals in the last Parliament.

On Lords reform, does the Deputy Prime Minister think it right that those who give large donations to political parties find their way to the House of Lords?

I think we need reform of the funding arrangements for political parties, and we are keen to work on a cross-party basis with all parties in the House to restore public confidence in the way political parties are funded, while at the same time proceeding with reform of the other place, as I described earlier, by publishing a Bill on House of Lords reform early in the new year.

T7. The Deputy Prime Minister will recall that last month I asked him about electoral registration fraud in Tower Hamlets. Will he agree to have a look at postal voter fraud, too? In Halifax in May, an astonishing 763 postal votes failed to match voter registration records. Does he agree that evidence is building of systematic electoral fraud in this country, which needs to be investigated? (27070)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, electoral registration officers already have the power to look into allegations of abuse, which are in some cases, as he has highlighted, very serious indeed, and where necessary and justified, refer them to the police. That is exactly what I would expect should happen.

I can tell the House what it is above and beyond everything else. It is a contrast with the big state. That was the governing ethos of the previous Government: every problem, every dilemma and every question, it was felt by the previous Government, should be sorted out by officials in Whitehall and politicians in Westminster. We believe—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman asked the Deputy Prime Minister a question. Members must have the courtesy to listen to the reply.

Mr Speaker, they are enjoying asking their questions so much that they are not bothering to listen to the answer.

We believe in empowering individuals, communities and families to be able to do what they think is right to improve their lives in the way they think is best.

T8. On 26 October, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was the Government’s“intention to set up a commission on the long-standing knotty problem of the West Lothian question by the end of the year.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 154.]Today—St Andrew’s day—can the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the establishment of the commission, its make-up and its precise terms of reference? (27071)

As my hon. Friend knows, reference is made in the coalition agreement to the issue and to the commission that we want to set up to look into it. I am glad to confirm that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is the Minister with responsibility for constitutional affairs, will be making a detailed announcement on the establishment of that commission before Christmas.

To prevent the voting problems that occurred in Sheffield and other places, the Electoral Commission recommended changes to administration, which I know the Deputy Prime Minister supports and which I support. The commission also recommended a change in the law. The right hon. Gentleman has stated that he does not believe the law should be changed. Can he tell us on what basis he made that decision and who he has consulted on it?

The hon. Lady has raised this matter before and it is indeed a serious issue. It is a question of trying to match the solution to the problem. Much of the evidence appears to suggest that the real problems were to do with the organisation by certain returning officers and the resources allocated to specific polling stations, not least the one that she and I know well in Ranmoor in Sheffield, where there were particularly long queues. I am open-minded about this but, in my view, simply changing the law without changing the resources provided to those polling stations will not improve the performance of the individual polling stations.

T10. What reassurances can the Deputy Prime Minister give to Shepshed town council and many other constituents that they will have the opportunity to give their views on proposed new constituency boundaries before those are finalised? (27073)

As my hon. Friend may know, we are tripling the period during which members of the public can provide written submissions as the boundary review is proceeding—up to 12 weeks. If the Boundary Commission comes up with a revised proposal, that trigger starts again and there is a further 12-week period, so in theory there is a six-month period during which members of the public can make their views known. That is a much better system than the party political rigged appeals that prevailed under the Opposition.

The Deputy Prime Minister has said that electoral registration officers and others can bring to book and to criminal court those who are charged with electoral fraud. Is he aware that a major barrier to doing that is the cost, and that the Labour party has just had to pay a £200,000 bill for the work it did to expose Conservative council candidates who fraudulently stole a seat in Slough two years ago?

I am afraid I cannot refer to the specific case. The hon. Lady makes her point of principle about the costs, which are important in themselves. Without knowing the details, I cannot comment on the costs of that case, but the ability of electoral registration officers to refer issues to the police and to allow the police and prosecuting authorities to take matters forward must always be protected.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Domestic Violence

1. What plans the Crown Prosecution Service has to increase the effectiveness of prosecution policy in respect of domestic violence. (27076)

The Crown Prosecution Service has an effective domestic violence prosecution policy, with a 29% increase in the number of prosecutions over the past four years and successful outcomes rising from 65% to 72%. In saying that, I recognise the work put in by my predecessors in this office in trying to raise the profile of that appalling crime. The CPS keeps its policy under review and in September 2010 it published guidance on prosecuting stalking and harassment. In January 2011 the CPS will introduce a new local assurance system to support the conduct of domestic violence prosecutions.

Given the 24% reduction in the Law Officers’ Department’s expenditure, will the Attorney-General confirm that he believes that the CPS has the resources that it requires to deliver effectively the violence against women strategy developed by the Labour Government?

Yes, I can. There is no intention of diminishing that strategy in any way and it will remain a major priority of the CPS.

Women’s refuges provide not only a safe place for women and their children, but a valuable service in the prosecution of men who have committed offences of violence against women. Will the Attorney-General do all he can to ensure that local authorities do not cut funding for women’s refuges, given the service that they provide?

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concerns that that area should remain a priority for local authorities. In each case, they will have to adjust their expenditure to the financial constraints upon them, and I am sure that one of the most important things will be for people, such as my hon. Friend and other Members who are aware of the good work in that area, to make those representations quite clear to their local authorities as well as the importance that they attach to them.

Witness Care Units

2. What assessment he has made of the effects of the recent funding settlement for the Crown Prosecution Service on the provision of funding to witness care units. (27077)

None specifically, but I have no doubt that the joint police and Crown Prosecution Service witness care units provide important support to victims and witnesses. In particular, such units have increased the number of effective trials by securing witnesses’ attendance at court and improved the overall satisfaction of victims and witnesses with regard to the criminal justice system.

The CPS contributes £5.5 million per year and the police £6.5 million per year to funding those units, and the CPS provides a witness management system for use by police and CPS staff in WCUs. The CPS is committed to high-quality support for victims and witnesses, recognising its benefits to the criminal justice system.

Northumbria witness care scheme has already streamlined its operations without compromising its service to witnesses and victims, and for that it should be commended. Can the Solicitor-General therefore confirm that that successful and efficient service will not be put in jeopardy as a result of the cuts to CPS funding?


3. Whether he has had recent discussions with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on the application of international law in respect of Gaza. (27078)

I have had no discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on that matter.

What is the position under international law when Israel intercepts ships carrying aid for Gaza? Can the Attorney-General tell me what the legal position is there?

The Foreign Secretary deplored the loss of life during the interception of the Gaza flotilla. He also stressed the need to establish the facts about the incident, without which, if I may say so to the hon. Gentleman, it is impossible to ascertain what laws if any might have been breached and, especially, what was done during the operation to prevent deaths and injuries. My right hon. Friend therefore welcomed the United Nations Secretary-General’s establishment of a panel of inquiry into the interception and both Israel’s and Turkey’s commitment to participate. It is also vital that existing national investigations proceed swiftly, transparently and rigorously to ensure accountability.

What discussions and activities does the Attorney-General engage in with either Foreign Office Ministers here or Law Officers in other countries to ensure that countries such as Israel comply with their international law obligations and with United Nations decisions?

I certainly consult, and discuss matters with, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary as and when problems arise, and the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind also that my right hon. Friend has legal advisers in his Department who can help him with his work. The United Kingdom takes very seriously international law obligations and the maintenance of international standards of behaviour, and I can therefore reassure the hon. Gentleman that it is a matter with which the Government will continue to engage.

Victim Support (CSR)

4. What assessment the Crown Prosecution Service has made of the likely effect on prosecution rates of the comprehensive spending review settlement for victim support services. (27079)

The Crown Prosecution Service’s assessment is that there should be no impact on prosecution rates. May I take this opportunity to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for Trafford victim support?

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for his answer, and I am sure he takes very seriously his obligations towards the victims of crime, whose evidence is often crucial. Given the cuts to his Department and to police budgets, however, can he confirm to the House that he will uphold the standards set out in the victims code, and in particular that enhanced services will still be available to intimidated and vulnerable victims and witnesses?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows from his ministerial experience in England and Northern Ireland, and as I am sure he will agree, it is vital that victims are enabled to get their evidence into court. Special measures to protect vulnerable witnesses and intermediaries and other measures are therefore available, and from the work that his Government did and this Government will continue we intend to ensure that victims get their evidence into court—because without the evidence there are no prosecutions.


I have regular discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of criminal matters. Rape is one of the most serious and damaging of all crimes. I support the work undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service, with other agencies, to improve the way in which prosecutions are conducted and victims are treated in such cases.

What impact does the Attorney-General believe that cuts in police numbers will have on the number of rape cases being investigated and the number of cases being referred to the CPS for prosecution?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that sometimes we lose focus by discussing the process of decision making about prosecution instead of focusing on deficiencies in the investigation of the crime? Particularly with reference to rape, that is a real problem that police forces are having to cope with.

It is absolutely right that the investigation of rape is one of the most difficult tasks for the police. That is for a whole range of reasons, including the difficulties of getting victims to come forward, the problems that the police face in having to look after them properly when they do, and the difficulties of ensuring that they will come to court to give evidence. There are also the problems that have been experienced with victims retracting their evidence. The Crown Prosecution Service, the police and I are very much alive to all those factors, and we will continue to do all we can to improve the way in which this type of offence is handled.

The Law Officers will be aware of the case of Sarah, as covered in recent weeks by The Guardian newspaper. Sarah—not her real name—has recently been released on appeal from Styal prison having served 18 days of an eight-month sentence for falsely retracting rape allegations against her husband following alleged intimidation by him and his family. The case raises a number of very serious questions about approaches within the criminal justice system to supporting victims of rape and domestic violence, and there is a risk that it will deter victims from coming forward to report these terrible crimes. Will the Attorney-General meet the Director of Public Prosecutions and me to consider the CPS’s approach to prosecuting women in such cases and to discuss ways that we can better support victims and witnesses of crime?

First, let me reassure the hon. Lady that the comments made by the Lord Chief Justice in the course of that appeal against sentence are being considered carefully by me and, I have no doubt, by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and I trust that lessons may be learned from the way in which that case was conducted. However, it is also worth bearing in mind, as I am sure that she would acknowledge, that individuals who bring allegations and then retract them pose particular problems within the criminal justice system, and those cannot necessarily just be ignored. The hon. Lady knows that if she wishes to have a meeting with me, I will always make myself available, and if she wishes to meet the Director of Public Prosecutions, the convention has always been that she should have access to him as well.

Privacy Law (Internet)

6. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the adequacy of privacy law in respect of the internet; and if he will make a statement. (27081)

Given the ongoing problems with personal and private data protection, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that because of the inadequacies of existing legislation, he should recommend to the Government the establishment of an internet Bill of rights so that individuals’ ordinary rights are protected?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting possibility. At the moment, there is a framework of law which allows wrongful interference with internet privacy to be prosecuted. He will be aware that in July there was a call for evidence by the Government in order to look at this. In 2011, a new European Union protection framework is coming out which will also provide an opportunity to revisit this. Moreover, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is looking at the e-privacy directive, which will have to be implemented. There is no lack of consideration of this issue, and if my hon. Friend would like to provide input into that process, it would be gratefully received.

Human Trafficking

All areas of prosecution policy are kept constantly under review. That said, the Crown Prosecution Service has comprehensive guidance for prosecutors to ensure that decisions in human trafficking cases are taken in line with the principles in the code for Crown prosecutors, taking account of the particular factors that are relevant in human trafficking cases.

In the short time that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have already been approached by a number of women—girls, really—in my constituency who have been trafficked. Not one of them had seen a successful prosecution for their abusers in this country. Will the Attorney-General explain why his Government do not sign the EU directive so that we can do all that we can to ensure that those responsible for this trade are brought to justice?

I will be corrected if I am wrong, but I rather think that we have signed that directive. The Government take issues relating to human trafficking extremely seriously. Indeed, I appeared in the Court of Appeal only the other day on an application to refer a sentence on the grounds of undue leniency and I await the reserved judgment.

Earlier this year, the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance in Glasgow highlighted evidence that showed an increase in human trafficking during large sporting events. Is the Solicitor-General concerned that the Olympic games in London and the Commonwealth games in Glasgow will increase the threat of human trafficking in the UK? If so, does he agree that signing up to the proposed EU directive is important in the run-up to those events?

I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). As a matter of general principle, any large event, sporting or otherwise, in this country—the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) will appreciate that Scotland is a separate jurisdiction in such matters—that may lead to human trafficking or an increase in human trafficking commands our attention. We will bear down on it as best we can. It is often difficult for the victims of trafficking to have the courage or ability to give evidence, but it is essential that we encourage them to do so and provide them with the utmost protection when they attempt to do so.

Business Plans

8. What progress has been made in his consideration of publication of internal business plans of the Law Officers’ Department. (27083)

As has been outlined in the House, departmental business plans, as launched on Monday 8 November 2010 are designed to provide key milestones for the fundamental structural reforms being undertaken in a Department, as set out in the coalition programme for government. Where there are currently no plans to undertake major structural reforms, such as for the Law Officers’ departments, no formal requirement has been made to create a business plan. Nevertheless, I am keen that the Law Officers’ departments are transparent in their activities and that they present information about their priorities and performance in a manner that is understandable to the public. The Treasury Solicitor, Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate and the National Fraud Authority have published business plans for the current year on their websites. The Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office and my office have internal business plans and consideration is being given to the most appropriate form of publication.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that answer, but given that the Law Officers’ Department is in receipt of substantial amounts of public money, why should it not be subject to the same level of transparency as every other Department and have its business plans published on the No. 10 transparency website?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is conflating two issues. If he is concerned about transparency in expenditure, he can obtain such information without difficulty. However, I am prepared to consider publishing it in a new form. The business plan of my Department—that is those officials who work for me—has, in a sense, already been implemented. The Department’s number of employees has reduced from 60 when the Government came to office to 42 today. It has therefore implemented its savings and streamlined its operations. On the other departments that I superintend, I think that the hon. Gentleman will be able to see their direction of travel on their websites. We will see what we can do to ensure that that is set out with greater clarity.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Alternative Vote Referendum

1. What discussions the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has had with the Electoral Commission on its monitoring of the conduct of the forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote. (27046)

The Speaker’s Committee has had no such discussions. However, under section 5 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission must

“prepare and publish…a report on the administration of”

any UK-wide referendum. The findings of its report will be based on evidence collected from a variety of sources, including an analysis of referendum data, feedback from electoral administrators, designated organisations and permitted participants, and public opinion research.

One area where the Electoral Commission is a statutory consultee is the allocation of referendum campaign broadcasts to the designated yes and no campaigns. In a debate such as that on the alternative vote system, about which there are currently very low levels of public understanding, public engagement could be encouraged and increased by having a higher frequency of much shorter referendum broadcasts. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that the Electoral Commission takes its responsibilities seriously and moves to modernise our system of party broadcasts?

Under current law, the BBC and other broadcast organisations must have regard to the commission’s views when deciding their policy and rules about any referendum campaign broadcasts. Discussions have already taken place, and the Electoral Commission supports the BBC’s proposal to allocate broadcasts on the referendum only to those organisations designated by the commission, which will ensure a fair balance between the yes and no campaigns.

Local Government Boundaries

2. What discussions the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has had with the Local Government Boundary Commission for England on the likely effects on its future work programme of implementation of the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill. (27047)

The Speaker’s Committee and the Local Government Boundary Commission for England have held no such discussions. The LGBCE advises me that parliamentary constituency boundaries are not a statutory or material consideration in its review work.

But is the hon. Gentleman not worried, as I am, about the huge variation in ward boundaries in the most recent LGBCE assessments? In the last two, there has been up to a 30% difference between wards in Stoke and Cheshire in the number of voters per ward. Will that not make it much harder to ensure that wards will not be split in the new constituencies envisaged in the Bill? I think most Members would rather avoid that.

It is certainly the case that there are variations in the number of electors in certain wards, which is one reason why, in the hon. Lady’s own constituency, the LGBCE is about to start work on reforming the wards in Slough borough council. Whether the Boundary Commission for England will take those variations into account is very much a matter for itself, not for the Electoral Commission.

What recent representations and discussions has the Electoral Commission had with the Deputy Prime Minister regarding the real problems associated with second home voter registration?

I am not aware of any recent discussions about that very important matter, which perhaps afflicts hon. Members from the west country more than those from other regions, but I will take my hon. Friend’s representations to the Electoral Commission and see whether such dialogue can now take place.

Until now, local government boundaries have formed the building blocks on which constituencies are made up. It is important that local communities are understood so that electoral boundaries are easily and clearly understood by people who live within them. May I stress to the hon. Gentleman the need to make the case that local communities must take precedence in all decision making on future and current boundary reviews, which will affect parliamentary boundaries in future?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, and the LGBCE does indeed take into account the wishes and interests of local communities in settling where ward boundaries should lie.

Church Commissioners

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

Hospital Chaplaincy

Last month the Archbishops of Canterbury and York appointed the Bishop of Carlisle, the Right Rev. James Newcome, as the lead bishop for health care, including the support of hospital chaplains. The Church of England works extensively with workplace chaplains, especially in hospitals, and is keen wherever possible to develop interfaith chaplaincy co-operation. We believe that chaplains of all faiths play a vital role in the support of patients, families and staff in hospitals.

How is the Church of England responding to hospital trusts that have decided either not to replace chaplains who have left or to cut back on their chaplaincy?

Chaplaincy services are central to meeting the spiritual needs of patients, families and staff, and I am glad to note that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the noble Earl Howe, has recently stressed to hospital trusts the importance of chaplaincy services. We will continue to reinforce that message at every level, because we are all too keenly aware of the importance of chaplaincy services to those who are sick, the dying, their families and the bereaved.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Young People (Electoral Register)

4. What discussions the Electoral Commission has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the effect on the electoral system of accepting young people onto the electoral roll at the point at which they are issued with a national insurance number. (27049)

The Electoral Commission has had no such specific discussions. However, it has had discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister about how national data sources can be used to improve registration, including among young people, as part of the Government’s proposals for implementing individual electoral registration in Great Britain.

Even though the franchise begins at age 18, will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the benefits to young voter engagement of allowing them on to the register at age 16, when they are issued with a national insurance number, rather than waiting until the year in which they turn 18?

That decision is very much a matter for the Government and not the Electoral Commission. I understand that there is a range of views on that subject within the House.

Church Commissioners

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

Auckland Castle Paintings

5. What plans the Church Commissioners have for the future of Auckland castle and the Zurbarán paintings; and if he will make a statement. (27050)

8. What consultation the Church Commissioners have undertaken with organisations in the north-east on the future of the paintings of Jacob and the Patriarchs in Auckland castle. (27053)

I was grateful for the meeting yesterday that was chaired by the Bishop of Jarrow, which the hon. Lady helped to organise. As a consequence of those discussions, it was agreed that the lord lieutenant of Durham will chair a working party to consider over the next three months whether it is possible for the Zurbaráns to remain at Auckland castle.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer and I agree that we had a fruitful if rather cold meeting yesterday. In taking future decisions, will the Church Commissioners take account of the Christian mission in its widest sense because, as he knows, the castle is in a town with some of the poorest and most deprived wards in England?

The hon. Lady highlights the challenge for the Church Commissioners. I was grateful to her for taking me to visit Woodhouse Close church community centre and the Woodhouse Close church, which is in one of the poorest wards in the country. That demonstrates the Church Commissioners’ need to raise money to allocate to clergy in such parishes. However, we will consider carefully and seriously any suggestions that the local community makes that enable us to retain the Zurbaráns at Auckland castle. She must appreciate, however, that they are a drain on, and not an asset to, Church Commissioner funds.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s decision to initiate some new discussions with bodies that are interested in a sustainable future for Auckland castle and the paintings, but will he recognise that the paintings are a precious cultural asset of the north-east region? In their time and to this day, they make a strong statement about the emancipation of the Jewish community in the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The paintings were a strong and important statement by Bishop Trevor of the Anglican Church’s support for the emancipation of the Jewish community.

The Church Commissioners, by and large, do not possess pictures—we tend to own land and property—but I am in absolutely no doubt of the importance and identity of those pictures, which is why the working party that I mentioned, which will be chaired by the lord lieutenant of Durham, will consider ways in which the Zurbaráns can stay at Auckland castle, but I say that without prejudice to the wider statutory and charitable responsibilities and obligations of the Church Commissioners.

I am not sure that the Church Commissioners fully understand the strength of feeling throughout the north-east about those paintings. I welcome the statement on the working party, but will the hon. Gentleman ensure that it includes representatives from the whole region?

The hon. Lady can rest assured that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and others left me in absolutely no doubt, in the four hours that we were stuck together in the snow yesterday, as to the strength of feeling about the pictures in Bishop Auckland. We fully understand that feeling, but may I explain? If the pictures were sold, they would generate something like £500,000 a year in perpetuity, which could be applied to funding clergy in deprived areas, not least in the north-east. There is a difficult balance to strike, but we understand the importance of the pictures to the north-east. We will listen, which is why I am glad that the working party, which will be chaired by the lord lieutenant, has been set up.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

UK Citizens (Voting Abroad)

6. What discussions the Electoral Commission has had with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on allowing UK citizens resident abroad to vote at UK embassies and consulates. (27051)

The Electoral Commission discussed that issue as part of a round table event with Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence officials in 2008, but the then Government failed to introduce the comprehensive strategy that the commission sought. The commission, however, has recently repeated its recommendations that the UK Government should introduce proposals for a comprehensive electoral modernisation strategy, including to address how it intends to improve voting opportunities for overseas electors.

I am sure that overseas electors will be delighted to hear that progress is being made. My hon. Friend will recall that I asked him a similar question last time round, after which I was inundated with e-mails from British ex-pats. One said:

“I have been abroad for 10 years now (ironically, working for the British Government) and have not once received our ballot papers in time to vote”.

Another says:

“As a result of poor planning on the Electoral Commission’s part, I was denied my vote.”

Will my hon. Friend agree that now is the time to consider having British subjects abroad voting in embassies and consulates, at least perhaps on a pilot basis?

My hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner on behalf of overseas voters. There is no question but that the cumbersome nature of registration requirements and the tight time scales for getting postal votes to and from overseas voters are part of the reason why so few register and vote overseas. As I mentioned earlier, the Electoral Commission has made radical recommendations to the Government about streamlining the procedures, and it is very much to be hoped that the Government will take those on board.

Church Commissioners

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

Churches Conservation Trust

7. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to support the work of the Churches Conservation Trust. (27052)

The Churches Conservation Trust was set up by statute to preserve

“in the interests of the nation”

churches that have closed for regular public worship but are of historic or architectural value. For the funding period to March 2012, the Church Commissioners will provide a further £4 million.

The CCT is supporting some 340 church buildings, all of which are of considerable historic or architectural interest. We are grateful for the co-sponsoring by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, on a 30:70 basis. This is an issue that is bigger than just the Church. Some 45% of all grade 1 listed buildings are churches, and those buildings represent an important part of the social history of our nation.

Rural Areas

9. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to support the work of the Church of England in rural areas. (27054)

The Church of England has a presence in almost every rural settlement and village in England and plays an important and intricate role in rural community life.

Village congregations play an important part in community life in my constituency. What can the Church Commissioners do to support the widest possible use of church buildings?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the use of church buildings. The cathedral and church buildings division of the archbishops’ council has been working for the last five years to help congregations do everything that they can to work with communities to identify how church buildings can be used creatively to serve the widest community use. We now see extended use of church buildings, including as post offices, shops, libraries, internet cafes, benefit advice centres and citizens advice centres. Wherever possible, we want to see churches as living buildings where as much community activity as possible takes place, and the Church Commissioners will always support such activity.

No one is more grateful for the end of that answer than the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous).


10. What steps the Church of England is taking to strengthen and support the marriages of people married in its churches. (27055)

All Church of England clergy seek to give support and personal attention to those getting married, at the time of their wedding. My hon. Friend is to be commended for his work with the South Bedfordshire Community Family Trust, which seeks to provide relationship education and support in partnership with churches—a good example of initiatives taken locally to strengthen and support marriage.

This is an issue that we take extremely seriously. The House of Bishops will consider next month what further advice needs to be issued to clergy and to diocesan chancellors to reduce the risk of sham marriages being conducted in our churches. The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and I will meet shortly with the Minister for Immigration to ensure that we work closely with the Border and Immigration Agency to see that the Church’s systems for preventing sham marriages are robust.