House of Commons
Wednesday 1 December 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I have regular meetings with the energy industry, including with Scottish Power, and will continue to do so, given the sector’s importance to the Scottish economy.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He says that he has had these meetings, yet British Gas, Scottish Power and Scottish and Southern Energy have said that on no occasion has he ever discussed the price hiking that these companies are undertaking. When will he try to support the people of Scotland by doing something about the price hikes?
What I recognise is the importance of ensuring that we get a fair deal for consumers, as well as for the shareholders—the companies are concerned about that. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Ofgem has announced an inquiry into consumer protection and competition in the sector. I expect that to be a very thorough process.
I am glad to see that the Secretary of State was able to get back from Scotland to be here today, despite the cold weather and the travel difficulties. Given that cold weather, and the increase in energy bills that many people have experienced, is he aware of the concern among many of my constituents and many others that the most vulnerable people will struggle to pay their bills, when they should be entitled to be on social tariffs? Will he therefore undertake to convene a summit of the six energy companies to discuss, in particular, what they are doing to ensure that people who should be on social tariffs are on them, and that people in Scotland are not left cold at home this winter?
I am glad of the hon. Gentleman’s welcome, and I appreciate, as he will, that many people in Scotland, and indeed in the whole of the United Kingdom, have been struggling to get to work and go about their business today. He rightly focuses on temperature and the fact that this will cause extra difficulty for people, so I am sure he will welcome the fact that we are maintaining the cold weather payments and the winter fuel allowance. I am certainly happy to discuss ideas of getting together with the different energy companies to make sure that they are properly focused on the needs of their customers.
The Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with the Home Office on matters relating to asylum seekers. I understand that the UK Border Agency is working closely with support organisations in Glasgow to ensure that there is minimum disruption to those affected by the termination of UKBA’s housing contract with Glasgow city council.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he think it acceptable that no detailed discussions were held between UKBA and either Ypeople or the Angel Group ahead of the decision to scrap the contract with Glasgow city council, even though they will be made to take responsibility for more than 1,000 asylum seekers in the city? Will he agree to meet representatives of all those involved in the dispute, so that he can make an informed contribution to the Immigration Minister?
I will certainly be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other people who have an interest in this matter. I know that he has already had the opportunity to meet UKBA, and I think that he will share with me the positive view that although the people involved will no longer have a contract with Glasgow city council and will instead have one with another provider, many of them will stay in the same properties and that will minimise disruption.
Does the Minister even start to understand and appreciate the outrage that exists in Scotland about the treatment of asylum seekers? This is not just about the Glasgow situation, appalling though that is; it is also about the detention of children and the operation of the section 4 card. Will he get down to the UKBA to explain that we look at these issues very differently in Scotland and we expect the UKBA to act accordingly?
I do recognise that there are concerns in Scotland about how the matter in Glasgow was handled, and the Immigration Minister accepts that the correspondence with those affected could have been much better handled. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome, as I do, the inquiry that the Scottish Affairs Committee is conducting into relations in Scotland with UKBA.
I welcome the Minister’s acceptance that the correspondence could have been handled better on the cancellation of the Glasgow contract, because as a result of letters sent out by UKBA, vulnerable people, including many families, were left in a state of extreme anxiety about where they would be living. Can he reassure us that lessons will be learned from this, so that such mistakes are not repeated in future?
Indeed, I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. As soon as these issues came to light, the Secretary of State for Scotland was in contact with the Immigration Minister. There is a recognition that the correspondence was inappropriate, and a number of measures have been taken. For example, everyone affected will have at least 14 days’ notice if they have to move. Progress has been made. The initial letter was regrettable, but the situation will be better in future.
I am in contact with the Secretary of State for Health and the Scottish Government on a range of matters. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government published their public health White Paper yesterday. As that is taken forward, close attention will be paid to the lessons that can be learned from the Scottish Government HIV action plan.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. On world AIDS day, it is worth reminding ourselves of the rather obvious fact that viruses such as HIV do not respect borders. Will he reassure me that as the Government seek to draw up their sexual health and HIV strategy they will work closely with all the devolved Administrations to ensure a coherent and joined-up approach? That is the only way that we will slow the spread of the virus, which has already claimed far too many lives.
It is indeed appropriate that the hon. Gentleman has asked his question on world AIDS day. He is to be commended for his work as chairman of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS and for his work on the “Halve It” campaign. The Secretary of State will shortly meet the Minister for Public Health in Scotland, Shona Robison, and I shall ensure that this matter is on the agenda.
Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking to discuss with the Scottish Government the findings from the eight pilot projects that the Department of Health is running to extend HIV testing in primary care hospitals and community centres?
I am happy to give that undertaking. As the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) intimated, HIV and AIDS know no borders and the rest of the United Kingdom can learn from what has happened in Scotland, just as Scotland can learn from what is happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I have had a number of exchanges with the First Minister in recent weeks. Yesterday, the Scotland Bill was introduced in this House. If enacted, the Bill will strengthen devolution by giving the Scottish Parliament a financial stake in the Scottish economy while maintaining the economic strength we all desire from being in the United Kingdom.
Now that we know that the Scottish nationalist party—[Hon. Members: “National party.”] It put Holyrood’s tax-raising powers out of commission for two years without telling the Scottish Parliament. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scottish Government should be made more accountable for their financial management to such an extent that there should be a closer relationship between economic growth and how much money is spent?
My hon. Friend makes some interesting observations. I can confirm that the Scotland Bill, if enacted, will provide exactly what he asks for. It will empower the Scottish Parliament, increase its financial accountability and secure Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.
Where the Scotland Bill makes a real difference to the lives of people in Scotland and to the Scottish economy, it will have the support of the SNP. During the passage of the legislation in this House, will the Secretary of State and his Tory colleagues accept improvements that will deliver additional powers that will give the Scottish economy a competitive advantage?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s initial comments. As he is aware, the Bill introduced yesterday and the Command Paper that goes with it are the result of the work not just of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats but of the Labour party and others across Scotland. I hope that we will get proper engagement. I am confident that the measures in the Bill get the balance right for Scotland. They are right for this time and I am sure that they will pass the test of time.
The Secretary of State knows that many of Scotland’s leading businessmen and women issued a statement this week, in which they said that there must be
“real economic levers to help sustain recovery and grow the economy.”
Will the Secretary of State and his Tory colleagues reconsider their plans and consider improvements to the legislation, such as devolving corporation tax to help business grow?
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State. I do not know what the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) had for breakfast this morning, but I am not sure that it has had the desired effect. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman must not rant at the Government Chief Whip or anybody else. He must calm himself—it is better for his health if he does.
If I can repeat what I was saying before your intervention, Mr Speaker, I listen carefully to a range of opinion from across business and different sectors of Scottish society. The business community was well represented in the Calman commission, which produced and supported the proposal. We will continue to listen to a range of opinion, but we have no intention of devolving powers over corporation tax.
In 1997, the Scottish people voted to give the Scottish Parliament tax-varying powers, but in a disgraceful and secret decision, the SNP Government gave up those powers. I welcome the Scotland Bill. Will the Secretary of State assure us that those tax-varying powers will remain with the Scottish Parliament and that the Bill will be phrased in such a way that, were the SNP ever elected again, it would not be able to give up those powers in a secret decision?
As my hon. Friend knows, the consequences of the Scottish Government’s decision not to maintain the Scottish variable rate have been debated in the Scottish Parliament in recent days. The fundamental difference between the existing arrangements and what will follow if the Bill is enacted is that the Bill will create a Scottish income tax that sits alongside United Kingdom income tax, and there will be a requirement to set that rate every year. That is a fundamental change, and it will bring the accountability and empowerment that I discussed earlier, which will be a good thing for Scotland.
It is shocking that both the UK and Scottish Administrations are failing to prioritise job growth. While there was a slight fall in UK-wide unemployment last month, the jobless total for Scotland continued to increase. The latest figures show that in Campbeltown an astonishing 13 claimants are chasing every available job. Our youngest people are suffering the most, and if Labour wins in 2011, we are committed to continuing the future jobs fund to help them into work. Why is the Secretary of State set on removing that vital support, while at the same time supporting tax cuts for our biggest banks, which are at the root of our economic problems?
That was an interesting insight into the Opposition’s economic policy, although I realise that Opposition Front Benchers are divided on exactly what it should be. I remind the hon. Lady that we are dealing with the consequences of the largest deficit in peacetime history—£155,000 million. We took urgent action to deal with that, which has drawn us back from the danger zone. We will announce proposals in due course on the Work programme which will replace the future jobs fund. We are dedicated to ensuring that we create the conditions for growth and for a private sector-led recovery to deal with the problems that we inherited.
Unfortunately, yet again Scotland’s youth are not the Secretary of State’s priority. His party does not think twice about dancing on the head of a pin. In its autumn edition of “Scottish News Extra”, which is turning out to be one of Scotland’s better reads, his colleague, the Business Secretary, is described as
“launching a scathing attack on the previous government’s unfair tuition fees which still have to be paid by Scottish students studying elsewhere in the UK. He likened tuition fees to the infamous poll tax.”
Now that his colleague has said that he may abstain on the forthcoming vote to increase tuition fees in England to £9,000, will the Secretary of State confirm whether he will support the increase, whether he will vote against it in support of the 3,000-plus Scottish students who are directly affected, or whether he will be absent again from the vote?
It is interesting that the hon. Lady interpreted the question by seeking to get away from anything that might focus attention on Labour’s record on the economy and on our determination to create the conditions that will get us back to sustainable growth for Scotland and the United Kingdom.
I regularly have exchanges with the industry and will be meeting the Scotch Whisky Association in the near future.
The importance of the Scotch whisky industry, not just to Scotland but to the United Kingdom, is shown by the fact that it contributes roughly £4 billion to our economy, £3 billion of which is represented by exports. At the moment our exports to China are very small in comparison with those to the rest of the world. This important new concession—this agreement with the Chinese—which we very much welcome, will ensure that we can grow our exports in China as we have done in the rest of the world.
As the hon. Gentleman will know from his distinguished position, the industry is well represented in discussions with the Treasury at all times throughout the year, as it was under the previous Administration. I continue to have discussions with my Treasury colleagues on this very important issue, and will continue to do so in the months ahead.
The Secretary of State will know that only yesterday the Scotch Whisky Association said that the Treasury’s review on alcohol tax was a missed opportunity. Will he confirm to the House today that he will make specific representations to his Treasury colleagues for fair taxation of all alcoholic drinks based on their alcohol content only, and no other spurious issues?
The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record of following these issues very carefully. He will have made representations, as has the industry. The review was concluded a few weeks ago and will report in due course. As I said in answer to the earlier question, I will continue to discuss these issues with the Treasury.
The Commonwealth Games Federation is currently leading a formal review of the Delhi games. The Scottish Government and Glasgow 2014 games partners are participating in that review, and will be seeking to identify the key messages to inform planning for the 2014 games. The Scotland Office will do whatever we can to contribute to a successful games in 2014.
As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, most of the responsibilities in respect of the 2014 Commonwealth games are devolved and rest with the organising committee. I have already met the leader of Glasgow city council and assured him that the UK Government will do everything that we can to support a successful games.
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on this issue. In the spending review, the UK Government took decisive action to reduce the inherited record deficit. Along with the June Budget, the spending review has set the conditions to promote a balanced economy and sustainable economic growth for all parts of the UK.
The Scottish Government used to be very keen on the economic growth achieved by Ireland. Will the Secretary of State assure me that, as well as taking measures to promote growth, he will ensure that the First Minister has fiscal responsibility at the top of his agenda?
All of us are very concerned about what has happened to Ireland in recent months, and our Government have set out some very important steps that we are taking to contribute to the recovery in Ireland and other parts of Europe. We need to ensure Scotland’s place within the stability of the United Kingdom. The Scotland Bill, given its First Reading in this House yesterday, will ensure that we give Scotland the tools to achieve that, and I hope that it will be an Act in due course.
For every job vacancy in Lanarkshire there are 10 people on jobseeker’s allowance. Indeed, in Motherwell and Wishaw, that figure rises to 12 or 13. What priority will the Secretary of State give to the Lanarkshire economy to ensure that it gets back on track as quickly as possible? [Interruption.]
I recognise the challenges faced by Lanarkshire and other parts of the Scottish economy and by those who are looking for a job. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, I visited Lanarkshire recently and met people who are working their way into employment, and students at Motherwell college. We have to keep focused, and we have to put in place the right conditions to ensure that we achieve a sustainable recovery across the country. I believe that the measures we are taking will ensure that that happens.
The Secretary of State will know from his visit to the north-east of Scotland just how important the region is, not just to the Scottish economy, but to the UK economy as a whole. We received a welcome boost this week with the announcement of the extension of the runway at Aberdeen airport and improvement in that transport link, but will he emphasise to the Scottish Government that all transport links in the north-east need to be improved? They do not need new levers to improve Scotland’s economy; they need to use the existing levers, as well.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our Government here in the United Kingdom are committed to ensuring that we invest in infrastructure that will support growth, and we have produced other support for business that is geared towards growth, but I take his points about the Scottish Government. His points will have been heard, and I am sure that they will form the basis of further discussions between myself and Scottish Ministers.
The VAT rise is part of the Government’s credible plan to tackle the largest deficit in peacetime history. Difficult decisions are necessary, but as a consequence we will get our country back on a sustainable economic footing, to the benefit of everyone.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The voluntary sector in Scotland plays a vital role in supporting some of our most vulnerable families. The increase in VAT will cost Scotland’s voluntary sector dearly. What is the Minister actually doing to support that sector, so that it can deliver his vision of a big society?
This Government are committed to supporting the voluntary sector in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, but the hon. Lady should tell people in that sector and elsewhere in Scotland that the rise in VAT is a consequence of her party’s Government’s overspending.
MOD Hospital Unit
Although there are currently no plans to extend the existing network of Ministry of Defence hospital units, I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government recognise the importance of maintaining world-class medical services for our armed forces in the UK.
Despite the increase in the number of injured coming back, we have no MOD hospital unit in Scotland. Organisations such as the Royal British Legion Scotland believe that there should be one. Will he meet the Royal British Legion Scotland, myself and any interested colleagues to discuss the matter?
In recent months, the numbers in employment have been rising in Scotland, though overall labour market trends remain mixed. This Government will continue to create the conditions to foster sustainable and balanced economic growth.
Does the Secretary of State agree that current levels of unemployment in Scotland are the fault of 13 years of mismanagement by the previous Labour Government and that the people of Scotland need to back this coalition Government to give Scotland a chance again?
Since this Government came to office, they have taken decisive action to tackle the issues that we inherited—a record deficit of £155,000 million. We have pulled Britain back from the danger zone, we are setting out the conditions for sustainable economic growth, and that is the right way for this country.
The latest official statistics show strong economic growth in Scotland in the second quarter of this year. We are determined to ensure that Scotland will benefit as the Government tackle the deficit to secure growth, and provide the confidence that businesses and individuals need to invest.
Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether those figures support the claim made by the last Labour Secretary of State for Scotland that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) would be a “kamikaze” Prime Minister who would “plunge” Scotland “back into recession”?
Funnily enough, I completely disagree with that assessment. I am pleased to say that not only has the Prime Minister led the Government’s efforts to get us away from the danger zone that the economy was in, but he has set out a constitutional path for Scotland that will enhance its economic growth and keep it within the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This morning I returned from Zurich, where I have been meeting decision makers, aiming to convince them of what a brilliant World cup England could host in 2018. On my return, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I give the Prime Minister Glasgow’s best wishes in the bid for England? I mean that most sincerely.
In a recent Lib Dem leaflet in Scotland, the Business Secretary compares tuition fees to the poll tax. Is it acceptable for the Business Secretary to say one thing in the House and, when campaigning for votes in Scotland, to condemn that policy?
I thank the hon. Lady for what she says about the England 2018 World cup. I know she would never mislead the House, so I know that what she said was utterly sincere, and I am sure it is shared by Members, whatever part of the United Kingdom they represent.
On tuition fees, let us look at the system that we are introducing. Under the new system, nobody pays anything up front. Every single student will pay less per month than they do currently. Half a million students will benefit from the increase in maintenance loans. It is time we started looking at the substance of the issue, rather than just the process.
I am grateful for that question. England 2018 has a very strong bid. With regard to the technical aspects, we have the stadiums, the facilities and the transport networks. We have the enthusiasm in our country for football and we can put on an absolutely first-class World cup. I know that many people will ask, “Are you spending too much time on something that might not succeed?” I would say, “If you don’t get on to the pitch, you have no chance of winning.” We should all get behind the bid.
I start by wishing the Prime Minister well as he plays his part in efforts to secure England’s bid for the 2018 World cup. As he says, ours is a fantastic bid and all of us will be hoping for a successful outcome tomorrow.
We note that the Deputy Prime Minister is away on official business, and left the country before the tuition fees vote, but of course we understand that he had urgent business to attend to in Kazakhstan and we wish him well in that.
The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast on Monday was hailed as a great sign of success by the Chancellor, but I want to test out what it will mean for families up and down the country. The Prime Minister has been telling us for months that under his plans unemployment will fall next year, but on Monday the OBR said that unemployment would rise next year. Can he explain why that is the case?
First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the England 2018 bid. I know that the former Prime Minister worked extremely hard on it, and I know that there is cross-party support for it. We need to maintain that as we go into the vital last 48 hours.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the OBR forecast, which the Chancellor announced on Monday. Let me stress again that these are independent forecasts, published for the first time independently, and not interfered with by a Chancellor of the Exchequer. On unemployment, what the Office for Budget Responsibility found is that unemployment this year will be lower than previously forecast. It has not altered its forecast for unemployment next year, for which it is forecasting a rate of 8%, but it is forecasting increases in employment all the way through the forecast period. Above all, what the forecasts showed is that our policy of trying to cut the deficit and get growth at the same time is working.
What the OBR actually shows is that growth will slow next year compared with the forecast, and that is what will mean that unemployment will rise. What the Prime Minister needs to explain is why unemployment will fall next year in the USA, in Germany and in other major industrial countries, but will rise in the United Kingdom. Why is that the case?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is determined to talk down the economy, but even he will find difficulty in finding depressing statistics in the OBR’s report, because, generally speaking, what it reported was good news for the UK economy. It finds, and the last European Commission forecast report found, that average UK growth for the next two years will be higher than in Germany, France, the US, Japan, and the eurozone, or the EU average. It would be more worth while for us to debate across the Dispatch Box how we get the country’s growth rate up. What reforms do we make to try to make our economy more efficient? Has he got something to say about that, or is it another blank page?
The Prime Minister asks how we get the growth of the economy up—absolutely right. What we should not do is put up VAT next year from 4 January and cut public spending by £20 billion. That is why the OBR says that we will have the weakest recovery from recession for 40 years. I come back to my point about unemployment. Can he tell us when, over the five years of the Parliament, unemployment will return to pre-crisis levels? That tests the strength of the recovery. When will it return to the levels before the recession?
We inherited an 8% unemployment rate, and the OBR says that it will be 6% by the end of the Parliament. He asked the question, he gets the answer. Let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman of something. At the last election, the Labour party, himself included, said that if we cut £6 billion out of the Budget, it would end in catastrophe for the British economy. He was proved completely and utterly wrong.
Mr. Speaker, have you ever heard a more complacent answer to a question? Families up and down the country are worried about their jobs and unemployment will rise next year, and all the Prime Minister can say is that it is some kind of rosy scenario. Let us take the rise in VAT, because that is one of the reasons why unemployment will rise next year. Can the Prime Minister tell us what impact that will have on economic growth and jobs next year?
First of all, let me deal with VAT precisely. The former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) said:
“VAT would have allowed you to pay off a sizeable chunk of the deficit.”
That is the policy that the last Chancellor supported.
If we had followed over the last six months the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, we would be linked with Portugal, with Ireland—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Yes. We would not be standing here today discussing how we will get faster growth and lower unemployment; we would be sitting around discussing how to rescue and bail out Britain.
The deficit was 2.5% of national income before the crisis—the recession—hit all around the world. It went up all around the world; it was a global economic recession. The question is: should we cut too far and too fast, which is what the Prime Minister is doing, so that there are four years of sluggish recovery—the most sluggish recovery from recession in 40 years? Why does the Prime Minister not answer the question? Is this the most sluggish recovery from recession in Britain for the last 40 years? Yes or no?
This is one of the fastest recoveries in Europe, and the point is, if we had followed the right hon. Gentleman’s advice we would not be discussing recovery; we would be discussing meltdown. He can have a blank sheet of paper about the future; he cannot have a blank sheet of paper about the past. We know we were left a record budget deficit; we remember “no more boom and bust”; we remember all the things that he was responsible for. I have to say to him that, after all that—and he has been doing the job for the last three months—people are beginning to ask, “When’s he going to start?”
With that answer, it is no wonder that today we learn that the Foreign Secretary describes this gang as the “children of Thatcher”. It sounds just like the 1980s—out of touch with people up and down the country. Why does the Prime Minister not admit that he is complacent about the recovery and complacent about the people who will lose their jobs? And it is they who will pay the price.
Not waving, but drowning. My mother is still with us, so she is able to testify that what the right hon. Gentleman has just claimed is not literally true, but let me say this: I would rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Prime Minister will be aware that British citizens affected by the 7/7 bombings were supported by the criminal injuries compensation scheme. However, when such attacks take place abroad, such as in Bali, Mumbai or Sharm el Sheikh, no such compensation for things such as prosthesis and long-term care exists. Does the Prime Minister agree that any Britons caught up in terrorist attacks deserve our support, no matter where in the world that attack takes place?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise that issue. People who are victims of terror, whether at home or overseas, deserve our support, as he says. People might not know, but my hon. Friend’s brother was tragically killed in the Bali bombing—that horrific attack that took place some years ago. We are looking at this very difficult issue of trying to make sure that, when we consider criminal injuries compensation and what has been proposed for injuries overseas, we have a fair and reasonable system. The Justice Secretary is looking at that, and we will come forward with proposals.
Q3. The Prime Minister’s Government are spending £4 billion so that councils can promote wellness, £2 billion on reorganising the NHS, £100 million on electing police commissioners and £2 million on a happiness survey. Does that not demonstrate that the Prime Minister has lost touch with reality? (27560)
No, it does not. Let me take—[Interruption.] Generally speaking, I think the hon. Gentleman should cheer up a bit. Let me take the issue of NHS reform. Even with the settlement that we have set out for the NHS, which involves real-terms increases each year, if we stand still with the NHS and keep the current system, we will find it running into very severe problems each and every year. So, it is necessary to reform the NHS, it is necessary to cut out bureaucracy and it is necessary to reduce management costs, so that we have a system where we actually try to create a healthier nation and, therefore, reduce the demands on our NHS. That is what our reforms are all about.
Q4. Along with Jamaica, Nigeria and Vietnam, the Irish Republic has one of the largest groups of foreign national prisoners in the UK. Given that we are about to lend it more than £7 billion, could the Irish Republic be persuaded to pay for the incarceration of those people by taking them back to jails in their own country? (27561)
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We are looking at how we can transfer prisoners who are foreign nationals from the UK to other countries. Obviously with Ireland the situation is slightly different, because of the long relationship between our countries. The previous Government announced that they would not routinely support the deportation of Irish nationals from the UK; that was announced in February 2007. Since then, there has been a European directive that is helpful, because it makes more automatic the removal of prisoners to other countries. But there is still the specific issue with Ireland, and I will ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary to look at it to see whether we can do a little better.
The Government are cutting their teaching grant to Liverpool university by 30%, to Liverpool John Moores university by 70%, and to Liverpool Hope university by 97%. Is this a policy for closing down opportunity?
No, this is a policy to make sure that we have a strong university sector in this country. [Interruption.] Opposition Members can object, but it was the Conservatives and the Labour Government who set up the Browne review. I would recommend that hon. Members read the Browne review, because with the alternative of staying where we are now, we would either have to cut student numbers or find universities struggling. What Browne has come up with is a proper answer for a strong university sector for the future.
Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that when this Government are devising policy they should look at the evidence of what works in tackling reoffending, substance abuse and youth crime, rather than relying on the tub-thumping, shroud-waving, ambulance-chasing antics that pass for a policy-making process in the Labour party? (27562)
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The fact is that with the difficulties of the budget deficit and the spending problems that we have, we do not have any choice but to look at the evidence and make sure that what we do works and is cost-effective. I think that we should start with the issue of drug rehabilitation, because if we can reduce drug-related crime and cut those costs we will make very great progress.
Will the Prime Minister carry out an urgent check on the satellite navigation system used in ministerial cars? My concern is that just a few short months ago the Deputy Prime Minister could not be stopped from driving himself from university campus to university campus, but since he has got his chauffeur-driven ministerial car, he has not been seen near a student union. Is the sat-nav broke, or has he simply lost his political direction?
Q6. Last week the governors of Christleton high school in my constituency made the decision to apply for academy status. However, before they made that decision, they faced a barrage of opposition from trade unions and local Labour party activists. What message would the Prime Minister send to those who seek to undermine much needed reforms of public services in order to fulfil old-fashioned, outdated, left-wing ideology? (27563)
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The academy movement—just like the city technology colleges before it—has brought greater independence and greater authority to head teachers and has led to an improvement in educational standards. If Labour Members have got any sense, they will not back off from it, and they should tell their friends in the trade union movement to stop objecting to new academies.
Q7. I have recently come across workers in Wigan who were forced by gangmasters to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, below the minimum wage, and were threatened and bullied when they complained. Why have the Prime Minister’s Government failed to take any action to tackle this issue? Will he join me in supporting the Gangmasters Licensing (Extension to Construction Industry) Bill and help to bring an end to this appalling abuse? (27564)
Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Olympics offer a golden opportunity to encourage more disabled people to take part in sport? Would he like to pay tribute to the Welsh Paralympic team, who we hope will be visiting the Welsh Affairs Committee in February? Should my right hon. Friend be available on that day, he would be very welcome to come and give his best regards. (27565)
I am happy to endorse what my hon. Friend says. As to his invitation, as he is an amateur boxer, I should probably say yes immediately. It is great that the Paralympics are returning to their birthplace for London 2012, and I am sure that it will be a great showcase for sporting talent. Obviously, I wish the Welsh team well.
As the happy son of Paisley, may I too wish the Prime Minister well in his bid to bring the World cup to the United Kingdom? Will he support the campaign of the historic town of Ballymena in County Antrim to achieve city status during Her Majesty’s jubilee year?
The hon. Gentleman is not only metaphorically, but biologically the son of Paisley—he is on safe ground there. I shall certainly look at the matter that he raises. I know that campaigns for city status can gain great traction. Before I start endorsing every single one, I shall look at what he has said, but I am sure that there is a strong case.
Q9. The Prime Minister may have noted that the Leader of the Opposition approaches economic questions with the acumen of a novice out of his depth. By the next general election, families in my constituency will each have paid back £21,000 in Government debt. Will the Prime Minister resist Opposition demands to scale back on the deficit-reduction measures? (27566)
I will certainly resist those demands. The fact is that we inherited a situation that was completely unsustainable. Not just the Conservative party made that point; the Governor of the Bank of England, the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the OECD and the IMF were all saying that the previous Government did not have a proper plan. We needed a plan, we have got a plan and we should stick to that plan.
I wish the Prime Minister well in his efforts in Zurich and hope that we will get the right result tomorrow. There was a great debate in the House yesterday on school sport partnerships and there was consensus that something needed to be done. There was an offer from the shadow Front-Bench team to try to come to an arrangement on the issue. Will he look at it urgently with the Secretary of State for Education? I am sure that we can resolve this matter, because it is important that sport is available to all.
I know that the hon. Gentleman was a very successful Sports Minister in the previous Government. I thank him for his endorsement of the 2018 bid and all that we are doing to win for England.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about school sport is important. I am looking carefully at yesterday’s debate. We all have a shared interest: we all want good sport in schools and more competitive sport, and we all have to ensure that money is spent well. Everyone accepts that not every penny was spent well in the past. There is a quite bureaucratic system. The Secretaries of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and for Education are working hard on this issue. We are talking with head teachers to ensure that what we come up with works on the ground. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement soon.
Q10. The plans to link London and Manchester by high-speed rail will bring huge economic benefits to my constituency and the greater north-west. Does the Prime Minister agree that anyone who wants to eliminate inequality between north and south should support High Speed 2? (27567)
My hon. Friend makes the right point in the right way. I understand that there will be difficulties with High Speed 2 in terms of the impact on some hon. Members’ constituencies and on some neighbourhoods. However, it is true to say that Governments of all parties for 50 years have tried to deal better with the north-south divide and to bring our country closer together. I profoundly believe that high-speed rail and good transport links are a really good way of making that happen. This measure could succeed where others, frankly, have failed.
Q11. The community of Collyhurst in Manchester has waited patiently and stoically with its insecure doors and draughty windows, while it has seen huge regeneration across large parts of Manchester. The Prime Minister will understand the sense of anger and despair in that community last week when the Minister for Housing and Local Government announced that its regeneration will not go ahead. Will the Prime Minister or the Minister for Housing and Local Government meet my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) in Collyhurst with tenants’ representatives to see how the matter can be taken forward? (27568)
I will make sure that the Minister for Housing and Local Government does as the hon. Gentleman says. The regional growth fund will be available for investment in those sorts of areas, and the replacement of regional development agencies—the local enterprise partnerships—will, partly because they will be more locally based, have a finer-tuned ear to local problems such as the one that the hon. Gentleman raises.
Opposition Members do not seem to think it is serious that we now have trade union leaders who actually say that there is no such thing as an irresponsible strike. There is such a thing, and those who are bankrolled by the unions ought to speak up about it.
Q13. Every year, about 25,000 people die from thrombosis in hospitals, which is two to three times greater than the number of people who die from hospital-acquired infection, yet many of those deaths are avoidable if hospitals follow the NHS guidance on blood clot risk-assessment. What are the Prime Minister’s Government doing to ensure that the UK’s No. 1 hospital killer becomes the NHS’s No. 1 health priority? (27570)
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, and I know that he is chair of the all-party group on thrombosis. In answer to his question about what we are going to do, the first thing is to make available more information. It was a freedom of information request by the all-party group that showed that only 14 acute trusts in England were even close to meeting the goals for risk-assessing patients submitted to hospital for the dangers of thrombosis and blood clots. He is right, and the best thing that we can do is provide more information. That will help us to ensure that hospitals are coming up to the mark.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue, and to say that we need to look at what is happening both at home and abroad. Abroad, the biggest decision was to maintain the commitment to 0.7% of gross national income going to our aid budget, and we make a very big contribution out of that budget to the battle against AIDS globally and to ensuring that antiretroviral drugs are made available. We also have to look at home, where there are worrying signs of infection rates that are still extremely high. We need to get the message out today and on other days about the importance of safe sex and the precautions that people should take.
Q14. I have just got back from a visit to Israel and the west bank, and I was shocked to witness with my own eyes 13-year-old Palestinian children in leg irons and manacles in Israeli military prisons. That is one of numerous breaches of the UN charter and of article 49 of the fourth Geneva convention. Whether or not the Prime Minister is the legitimate son of Thatcher, I am sure that as a father he would join me in condemning that appalling practice, but what will the British Government do to put pressure on the Israeli Government to comply with their obligations under international law and to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian people in both the west bank and Gaza? (27571)
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. Every country should obey the Geneva convention and the other conventions that it has signed, and Israel should be no exception to that. Ministers in the Government I lead raise those issues with Israeli Ministers, as we should, and that is extremely important. The fact is, what we really need is a long-term settlement of the Palestinian issue, and we want a two-state solution. It is very important that we put pressure on both sides at all times to ensure that we make progress. The lack of progress only plays into the hands of the extremists, and we can see that all the moderates in the middle east who are trying to make progress are being undermined by our failure to do better.
It is right that we should be replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. I have personally looked at the matter long and hard and believe that there is no better solution than that. We are committed to starting a process of looking at that to see whether we can remove some of the nonsenses that have grown up over recent years and show that we can have a commitment to proper rights, but they should be written down here in this country.
My hon. Friend raises a very good point. We need to look at all those sorts of issues under the work that we are doing on the military covenant—there are very complicated issues of pensions and interaction with taxes. I do not want to give a flip answer from the Dispatch Box; we have a proper process of looking at the military covenant, which is the right way to do things.
Climate finance will be critical at the ongoing climate summit at Cancun. Although I welcome the fact that the Government have pledged £2.9 billion to the global climate fund, will the Prime Minister confirm that any future money pledge will be additional to existing aid budgets, and can he say what further innovative funding mechanisms he plans to employ to deliver the UK’s share of the annual $100 billion pledged at Copenhagen?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that. Although Cancun will not achieve the binding global agreement that we want, it can make important steps towards that, so we can stay on track. On climate finance, first, we will stick to what was set out previously on the limit in the aid budget for money used for climate change purposes, although there are very real connections between climate change and poverty; and secondly, there is a commitment, which we will keep to, of £2.9 billion for climate change finance. Britain is a leader on that, but as she said, we must look at innovative ways of levering in more money from other parts of the world, including—frankly—from some fast-growing areas which, when Kyoto was first thought of, were very underdeveloped and are now fast-developing countries. We need to help them, but the finance should not flow only from us.
Will the Prime Minister have urgent talks with the Leader of the House and the Business Secretary on introducing legislation for a national regulator or ombudsman for supermarkets before more suppliers are decimated by their conduct?
We have new arrangements in terms of ensuring that supermarkets treat farmers fairly. All of us as constituency MPs have heard stories about supermarkets behaving very aggressively towards farmers, and it is right that there is a proper way of trying to police that independently, so that our farmers get a fair deal for the food that they produce.
Point of Order
I asked the Solicitor-General about the UK’s failure to sign up to the proposed EU directive on preventing and combating the trafficking of human beings. He said that the UK was a signatory, and repeated that in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle). However, that is not the case: the UK has opted out of the proposed directive. Could you advise me, Mr Speaker, on what is the best way for the Solicitor-General to correct his mistake?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The short answer to her question is that the best way for a mistake to be corrected is for the Minister, if he has made a mistake, to correct it. We are about to hear from the hon. and learned Solicitor-General.
There was a degree of confusion; the hon. Lady’s question was too general. I answered the question correctly. There are two European directives, one of which is signed, and one of which is not, hence the confusion. The former right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, now Lord Reid, signed on behalf of the Government the European directive to which I referred in my answer yesterday. The hon. Lady may have referred to a different directive that has not yet been signed, so we were both right and we were both wrong.
Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (Amendment)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to broaden the scope of the general duty of library authorities so as to include a duty to provide related cultural facilities alongside the library service; and for connected purposes.
At a time of global economic turmoil, it may seem strange to some to want to talk about culture. However, I would like to quote in favour of doing so one of this country’s finest economists, Maynard Keynes. On the publication of the first annual report of the Arts Council in 1945, he said:
“The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied…by our real problems—the problems of life and of human relations, of creation”.
He was right about that. The economic problems that we face are real, many and serious; however, culture and its role in our towns and cities is highly important. I want to raise the matter in my ten-minute rule Bill, in order to put on record my concerns about what could happen to culture in some of our towns, cities and counties in Britain.
There is real fear out there that there could be not just cuts in the arts sector—everybody appreciates that there will be cuts and that the cultural sector will need to bear its share of efficiencies—but the total withdrawal by some local authorities from providing cultural services. I give the example of Somerset, which recently cut all 160,000 of its direct grants to arts and cultural bodies, while Bedfordshire looks set no longer to fund its music service. I draw on my own experience as a councillor in the London borough of Southwark, where I had to watch the local authority close the only children’s museum in London. That showed me the importance of ensuring that local authorities continue to prioritise culture.
Of course local funding choices are important. I would not dream of telling local authorities what to do—by and large. The Government’s role in giving local authorities enough funding will have a massive part to play in determining whether they can provide decent cultural services. Nor do I want to be prescriptive. I am not introducing my Bill in order to tell local authorities that one kind of culture is good for them. Diversity in the cultural services provided by our local authorities is a truly good thing. In my experience, great local authorities lead on culture in places as diverse as Kent, Merseyside—my part of the world—and Leicester. We have some visionary local authorities. I pay tribute to what they do in ensuring that our towns and cities are places we can be proud of, and where there are public spaces that bring people together to share in their history and heritage.
The reason for my suggestion is to start a debate. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 gives the Culture Secretary an important role. It enables the Culture Secretary, if they feel it necessary, to say to a local authority, “You’re in danger of not providing sufficient library services. I want you to stop with those plans. They’re not good enough for the people in your area. They need a library service that provides public education”—and for a very good reason. My argument is that this public education role should be extended to the wider cultural service. There are lots of people in local authorities up and down the country who are fearful of what is to come. My question is what kind of country do we want to be? Do we want to be the kind of country where culture is, by and large, for those who already access it? Or do we want to be the kind of country where culture is for everybody and where local authorities fulfil their responsibility in involving people?
I know that there is a real appetite among local authorities to take on that role. When I put the word out that I was seeking to ask leave to introduce my Bill, I asked people to come forward with examples. I would like to quote Councillor John Warmisham from Salford. I do not know whether Councillor Warmisham agrees with my Bill—he might not—but he told me that the best example of what can be done is that of Salford Quays:
“First we had the Lowry, which attracted the Imperial War museum in the north, and this laid the foundation for MediaCity. This will give us more jobs than when we had the docks in Salford”.
That, coming from a local councillor, is a powerful example of the good that culture can do.
There is sometimes a view in the cultural sector that local authorities do not care about cultural services because they do not consider them to be as important as housing or social services, but there are many councillors out there who really do care. I want this Bill to start a debate, to highlight those councils that do great work and to determine whether we need protection in law for the cultural services provided by local authorities. I think that we do; and we at least need to have that discussion.
In Merseyside, we know—probably better than many other parts of the country—the massive value of culture to places. Of course, this is about the economy, and I must mention the impact that City of Culture ’08 had on Liverpool, Merseyside and the wider north-west. I know that people will understand the importance of that, but this is also about the strength of community that was created at the time. People have pointed out to me examples of the work that went on to bring culture not only to Liverpool city centre but to the wider area of Merseyside. I know from experience in my own constituency how empowering it was for the young people and older people in our communities when the cultural services in the local authorities brought them together to discuss their history and their heritage. We need to ask whether that needs some protection in law.
The 1964 Act has been a vital backstop to our library services at a time when they feel under constant threat of being de-prioritised, driven down and questioned. I have every sympathy with local authority leaders, who are having to make terribly difficult decisions, but the 1964 Act is an important check on what might happen. It ensures that we will never have to face the situation that my own grandfather faced when he was growing up in the inter-war years. He used to go to Liverpool central library and, I confess, he used to steal books because it was not possible to borrow library books for free at that time. The Act is important because it provides a backstop and enables the Government to question any local authority that is proposing to decimate its library services.
We all know the importance to our own constituencies of the local art gallery, the museum and the local theatre. We have all seen young people from our schools gain confidence from coming into the theatre for their first performance. My reason for introducing the Bill is simply to ask whether we want to be the kind of country in which those services are available to everybody. Do we want the Secretary of State to take responsibility for those services? Such a task need not be prescriptive or demanding, and it would not require a large amount of funding, but it would allow local people to appeal to the Secretary of State and say, “Please stop. We don’t want our local cultural services to close.” That is important for all of us.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alison McGovern, Tristram Hunt, Stephen Twigg and David Miliband present the Bill.
Alison McGovern accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 June 2011, and to be printed(Bill 118).
Fixed-term Parliaments Bill
[3rd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]
Early parliamentary general elections
Amendment proposed (24 November): 5, page 2, line 11, leave out from ‘Government’ to end of line 14. —(Mr Cash.)
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 22, page 2, line 12, leave out ‘14’ and insert ‘ten working’.
Amendment 36, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
‘(2A) In reckoning for the purposes of subsection 2(b), no account shall be taken of any time during which Parliament is prorogued or during which the House of Commons is adjourned for more than four days.’.
Amendment 37, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
‘(2B) Where the House of Commons passes a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, the Prime Minister shall tender his resignation to Her Majesty within a period of seven days of the motion being passed.
(2C) On tendering his resignation under subsection (2B), it shall be a duty on the Prime Minister to advise Her Majesty to appoint as his successor the person who appears to him most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons.’.
Amendment 25, page 2, line 24, at end add—
‘(6A) In this section a “motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” shall be—
(a) in the terms “This House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” or
(b) in the terms “This House has no confidence in the Prime Minister”.’.
Being in this position almost persuaded me of the merits of knives, which at least enable us to conclude debates at approximately the point at which everyone else has spoken.
I remind the Committee that the amendments deal with the mechanism providing for an early general election following a vote of no confidence, as set out in clause 2(2). Last week, on the second day of this Committee stage, we engaged in a wide-ranging discussion both of the merits of the various amendments and of the Bill. Before I deal with the amendments, let me respond to some of the questions raised by Members last week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who is present and who speaks for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, asked a number of questions relating to the constitutional consequences of a vote of no confidence under the Bill. She was particularly concerned about the possibility of a Government’s forcing a general election by refusing to act both in accordance with conventions and in the spirit of the Act. She gave the example of a Government who engineered a vote of no confidence in themselves, or who sought to trigger a series of elections close to one another by refusing to resign after an election result.
If a Prime Minister who would presumably be seeking to be re-elected in a subsequent election engaged in such constitutional shenanigans, he or she would first suffer a political penalty at that election. If a Prime Minister behaved in an absolutely unconstitutional fashion, there would always be the ultimate long stop: Her Majesty the Queen could dismiss the said Prime Minister. That is the ultimate check and balance in our system. Clearly it would require an extraordinary set of circumstances, but it is the position that would obtain if our unwritten or other conventions were breached in a really appalling fashion.
I did say that there would have to be an extraordinary set of circumstances for the Prime Minister to behave in such a constitutionally outrageous way. They would be circumstances in which a Prime Minister was abusing and stretching the constitution in order to stay in office and avoid the consequences of losing a vote of confidence in Parliament.
I think that that is extraordinarily unlikely. It is theoretically possible that the Queen could refuse assent to a Bill, but that has not happened since the reign of Queen Anne. Such constitutional anomalies remain theoretical, but so theoretical that it is inconceivable that they would arise whatever the emergency. I really feel that to rely on that for the passage of the Bill is most unsatisfactory.
I am not relying on it for the passage of the Bill. I was referring to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who last week, on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, raised some potential scenarios with which she was uncomfortable. I believe, and the Government believe, that those scenarios are indeed, as my hon. Friend says, theoretical, and extremely unlikely to happen. My point is that if a Prime Minister behaved unconstitutionally in such a theoretical and extremely unlikely way, a mechanism that already exists would be invoked. However, the Government contend—and I agree with my hon. Friend on this—that both sets of circumstances are highly unlikely. It is our contention that the eventuality to which my hon. Friend has referred would not be necessary, because a Prime Minister would not behave in a way that stretched constitutional convention to breaking point.
I must say that this is the second very worrying route the Minister has gone down. He is saying that if the Prime Minister were to behave unconstitutionally, the monarch would act. How would the monarch know whether the Prime Minister had acted constitutionally or unconstitutionally?
I am not setting out anything that is groundbreaking; this is the position that exists now. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that there would have to be an extraordinary set of circumstances; indeed, I said as much. I did so because I was referring to a point my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest made last week in raising some concerns of the Select Committee’s concerns. My view is that those concerns are not well founded because the events they address are extremely unlikely to happen and are only really theoretical in nature, but there is a response to them if they were to happen.
Will my hon. Friend reassure the Committee that it is the Government’s intention to fulfil their duty and that of Parliament to protect the Crown from being put in a position where the monarch would ever have to make such an important constitutional decision?
I think it would help the Committee if the Minister could cite an academic paper, some judicial text or something else that bears out this notion that Her Majesty the Queen would interfere in politics in the way he is suggesting she would. Can he quote anything?
The position is that Her Majesty the Queen appoints Prime Ministers and the ultimate constitutional long-stop is that if a Prime Minister behaves in a way that is outwith the constitutional position, the monarch can dismiss the Prime Minister—but that is the long-stop constitutional safeguard in our system.
Let us be absolutely clear: as I understand it, the Minister is saying that if the Prime Minister were “unconstitutionally”—to borrow the Minister’s word—to engineer a motion of no confidence in himself, for instance by tabling a motion of confidence in himself and urging his supporters to abstain, the monarch would sack him.
I am not setting out particular scenarios. I was making the point that we can set out some theoretical propositions that have not happened and that we think are extremely unlikely to happen. I was simply setting out that if such a theoretical and unlikely event, to use the words of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, were to happen there is a constitutional long-stop. That was all I was saying, and I think the hon. Gentleman is making rather too much of it, as it is not a new point.
Although we may well accept that the scenarios we are talking about are unlikely, they are none the less possible, and while they remain possible would it not be desirable for the Government either to accept the Select Committee’s amendments or, indeed, to bring forward some of their own to make sure that should such unlikely events occur, there is a clear road map for the sovereign to follow?
The fact is that some of these things can happen under our existing constitutional position; they are not triggered by anything we are providing for in this Bill. Our flexible constitution has worked rather well over the years in dealing with events that have not been thought of in advance, and I see no reason to undertake a rather more significant constitutional rewrite.
This Bill is intended to do one specific thing, which is remove from the Prime Minister the power to seek a Dissolution of Parliament. It makes the necessary changes to do that, but it does not seek to make changes that are not necessary to do that; it does not seek to go wider than achieving that particular change, and I think that is very sensible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest also asked last week how the Bill strengthened the power of the House to throw out a Government. Giving statutory effect to the vote that could bring about a general election, rather than simply relying on the conventions, strengthens the power of the House. The Bill transfers from the Prime Minister to this House the power to decide whether there will be an early general election. If I remember rightly, my hon. Friend did, however, say that she is broadly supportive of the measures in the Bill, as, I think, is the Select Committee.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked a number of questions last week. He asked whether the Bill should contain a provision to ensure that a motion of no confidence is given precedence so it is debated without delay. He is aware—he mentioned this last week—that there is a convention that the Government find time to debate a motion of no confidence tabled by the official Opposition. That is a long-standing convention, which has been followed by Governments. Also of course, it would always be open to the Opposition to table an amendment to a Government motion, changing it to one of no confidence to ensure that that was debated.
The hon. Gentleman also raised a number of related points about whether particular votes could be considered motions of no confidence and whether it was appropriate for the Speaker to rule on such matters. I think I am right in saying that he was concerned that the Bill would give too much discretion to the Speaker. The Government do not consider that to be the case. We would expect the Speaker by and large to take a fairly literal approach to clause 2(2). We do not think the Speaker would be left with appreciably more discretion in dealing with this sort of question than he already has, for example under the Parliament Act 1911 when he has to certify whether a Bill is a money Bill. That is a decision he makes; it is for him. It seems to me that that is a sensible amount of discretion for the Speaker to have, although I accept it is on a different issue.
The Minister is right, of course. In fact, at present Members of the House of Lords are fiercely contesting the Speaker’s decision on whether certain Bills are money Bills. My point, however, is that all that that determines is whether or not a Bill can be debated in another Chamber, whereas under this measure it would determine whether or not we had a general election and the Government had fallen. That is a very big decision to be placing in the hands of the Speaker, which heretofore has never been in the hands of the Speaker.
There are two issues there. I will not dwell on the money Bill issue to any great extent, because if I were to do so you would rule me out of order, Ms Primarolo, but I have read the account of the debate in the other place to which the hon. Gentleman refers and the other place is not challenging the Speaker’s ability to rule on whether a Bill is a money Bill. It is simply disagreeing with the consequences of that, and arguing that if something is a money Bill it is perfectly appropriate for the upper House to debate it in Committee and pass amendments to it, recognising that legally those amendments will have no effect if the House of Commons chooses not to take them into account. The upper House is therefore not challenging the Speaker’s right to make that decision.
The hon. Gentleman is also not right to say that this is about the Speaker deciding, effectively, whether to bring down the Government. That would be a decision for the House. The Speaker would have to make a decision about certifying something as a vote of confidence. As we debated last week, it would be extraordinary if the House were debating a motion of confidence—which the Speaker would certify as such—with everybody remaining in ignorance of the fact that it was a motion of no confidence in the Government. I simply do not think that would happen. Everyone would be very well aware of the fact that it was a motion of confidence—that it had that import to it. It would be for the House to vote on the matter, and the Speaker would then certify in a way that means the decision is outside the ambit of the courts.
As the Minister just appeared to touch on, under the Bill the Speaker issues the certificate only after the vote has taken place, not before. Therefore, would not the Labour amendment that specifies what is and what is not a vote of confidence be much better in everybody’s terms?
I shall deal with the specific amendments shortly, when I set out why the Government think that they are unnecessary and that their drafting makes them flawed. If the hon. Gentleman does not think I have adequately dealt with his point, he will be able to intervene on me and I will happily take such an intervention. We have debated the fact that there is also a purpose in the Bill’s not specifying the exact words in legislation, because such an approach gives the House some necessary flexibility. I will return to that in a moment.
Let us consider the amendments in order. Amendment 5 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who is not able to be here today because he is away on other parliamentary business. He explained that his amendment would remove the 14-day period before an early election was called in the event of the Speaker certifying that the House had passed a vote of no confidence. It is right to say that there would be circumstances in which it would be appropriate to move to an early election when the House determined that we should do so, and the Bill provides for that in clause 2(1). But it is perfectly possible that there may be circumstances within a fixed term in which a legitimate Government could be formed from the composition of the House as it then stood, so it would not be appropriate to insist on an election. Members will have been elected for five years, and they are able to give their approval to a Government formed from within their ranks without the need necessarily to go to the country. The House can decide to do so, because under our proposals if a vote of confidence is lost and no Government can be formed within 14 days who subsequently receive a vote of confidence, a general election would take place. It seems sensible to give the House the opportunity to test whether a Government can be formed.
My hon. Friend’s amendment contained a fundamental misunderstanding about what a Prime Minister should do in the event of a Government losing the confidence of the House. Two things can happen. One possibility, under our current system, is that a Prime Minister remains in office but invites Her Majesty to dissolve the House and call a general election. Thus the Prime Minister does not resign immediately, and that is what happened when the House expressed its lack of confidence in the Government in 1979. Mr Callaghan did not resign when he lost the vote of confidence; he resigned only when he lost the subsequent election. Alternatively, the Prime Minister could resign almost straightaway after losing a vote of confidence, as happened in January 1924 when the Government’s motion for the Loyal Address after the Queen’s Speech was amended: Prime Minister Baldwin resigned and the Labour Opposition formed a Government. This Bill seeks to encapsulate that double-sided convention.
At the moment, if a general election has an unclear outcome, the Prime Minister is able to test his support in the House of Commons. If the House then signalled that it did not have confidence in that Government, that Prime Minister would go and a new one could be appointed. Amendment 5 would insist that another general election took place, and if the result of that general election was unclear, we could end up having a succession of general elections. Amendment 5 would force such elections to be held. In countries that have fixed-term Parliaments it is very common for there to be a period of Government formation after a vote of no confidence before an election is triggered. That is what happens in Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden, so we are proposing an approach that has much precedent, which we think is sensible. We cannot ask my hon. Friend the Member for Stone to withdraw his amendment, because he is not here and thus unable to do so. However, we urge Members who are here not to insist on it being pressed to a Division.
I have been in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who makes things complicated because he does not text people. He is in Budapest representing the European Scrutiny Committee, but he has suggested that it would be in the interests of the scrutiny of this Bill to press the amendment to a Division, and one or two of us will attempt to do so.
As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is away on parliamentary business and, as he has perhaps not reached 21st century methods of communication, my words are unlikely to reach him in a timely way. So I can only urge him not to press his amendment to a vote, but I suspect that the decision on that will be for others, not for him.
As it happens, I agree with the Minister on this amendment. However, the one area that it will be worth considering on Report is whether it would be sensible to have a motion of confidence on the forming of a new Government after a general election, which should be treated in a slightly different way. Such an approach would address the 1924 situation that he suggests.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which has been raised by others. I believe I am right in saying that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, has said he is keen on the idea of installing Prime Ministers with an explicit vote in the House—he was speaking for himself there, not for the Committee. That would be a further change to our system and, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby), we have made the necessary changes in the law to take away the Prime Minister’s right to call an early general election, but we have not gone further. I shall think about what the hon. Member for Rhondda said and see whether we think it has merit.
The hon. Gentleman’s amendment 22 seeks to replace the 14 days that we set out in the Bill for that Government formation period with a period of 10 working days. He is supportive of a Government formation period, because he would not be attempting to keep one through this amendment were he not. I think he was wanting to understand why we chose the period that we did, using calendar days rather than working days. The reason why we did so was because the calendar day period is fixed and certain, whereas working days are not, as they are dependent on things such as bank holidays.
Two legitimate concerns are involved here, and they were touched on last week. There is a concern that the number of business days in the 14-day period would be curtailed or that the date of the no confidence vote could mean that the date for the Government formation vote fell on a non-working day. Our view—I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s—is that discussions on Government formation would not stop on weekends and bank holidays; I suspect that they would continue, given that having a Government is probably the most important thing for the country.
There are two ways around a scenario where the vital 14th day when the vote of confidence is due falls on a day when the House would conventionally not be sitting. The first is to arrange that the no confidence motion be taken on a day that means that the House will be sitting 14 days later. The alternative is for the House simply to sit on what would traditionally have been a non-sitting day. There is nothing to prevent the House from sitting, if it chooses to do so, on a bank holiday, a Saturday or a Sunday. Non-working days are not days when the House cannot sit, even though it does not do so. There are precedents for the House sitting on such days when emergencies have happened. I believe I am right in saying that the House was recalled to sit on a Saturday when the Falkland Islands were invaded by the Argentines. Holding a vote on whether a new Government did or did not have the confidence of the House would be sufficiently important that it would be in order for the House to sit that day, even if it was not a conventional day.
The Minister is right in relation to the Falkland Islands, and I believe that the House has also sat on a Sunday on the demise of the monarch. That is precisely why we did not specify “sitting days” in this amendment; we used the term “working days” because that is the language used throughout the rest of the Bill. We sought to provide a degree of flexibility; otherwise, over Easter, when there are bank holidays on the Friday and the following Monday, there might be a sustained period when the House would find it inconceivable to sit but the Government might, none the less, want to be able to do their business.
For the purposes of this particular set of motions, the only business that we would be talking about the House undertaking would be holding a vote on whether or not a new Government who had been formed had the confidence of the House. Given the things that the Government are responsible for, it would be important to have a clear Government in place for the financial markets and at difficult times. We know from experience and we can see it from what happens in other countries. Therefore, the Government formation negotiations would want to be concluded and it would benefit the country, the Government and the House for the House to vote on that without inordinate delay. If there were a number of bank holidays or other holidays in the way, that could be dealt with. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks about Good Friday. As I have said, the alternative is that we could arrange things by moving the no confidence vote so that it was 14 days before a sitting day.
Conventionally, no confidence motions are given time in the House very soon after they are tabled, but as long as the Government were prepared to table such a motion very soon and agreed that with the Opposition, it would not necessarily have to be tabled the next day. I do not think that it is an inordinate problem. We think that it is sensible for there to be a fixed timetable for a Government to be formed so that everyone has some certainty. That is why we picked the time period that we have.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest spoke in support of amendments 36 and 37, which are also tabled in the names of other members of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. Amendment 36 would make the 14 days in a period following a Government defeat a period that would not include periods of Prorogation or Adjournment for more than four days. Although I do not think that this is the intention behind the amendment, its effect would be to permit the 14-day period for Government formation to be prolonged potentially indefinitely if the House was prorogued or adjourned. The Government do not think that that is appropriate. We think that the 14-day period strikes the right balance between giving parties in this House time to discuss and see whether a Government can be formed and not allowing things to go on for so long that the country is plunged into a period of uncertainty. We do not think that amendment 36 is acceptable.
Amendment 37 provides that a Prime Minister must resign within seven calendar days of losing a vote of no confidence and recommend to the monarch a successor who appears to them to be the person most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House. I think I am right to say—my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest will correct me if I am wrong—that the purpose of the amendment is to avoid a situation in which a Prime Minister who has lost a no confidence vote wishes to remain in power and asks the monarch to prorogue Parliament to avoid an alternative Government receiving a vote of confidence, thereby forcing a general election.
My hon. Friend says that that is indeed the purpose of the amendment. However, I think amendment 37 is defective, because it rules out the possibility of what happened in 1979 occurring again. As I have said, Prime Minister Callaghan did not resign as a result of the no confidence motion. He remained in office, asked Her Majesty the Queen to dissolve Parliament and resigned when he lost the subsequent general election. That outcome remains a possibility under the Bill. My hon. Friend’s amendment would have meant that he would have been forced to resign before the result of the election was known. I do not think that that would have been a sensible outcome.
I fully appreciate the Minister’s point. Amendments 36 and 37 might well be technically defective—in any case, I have no intention of pressing them to a vote, as I said—but the Select Committee’s purpose was to ensure that this issue was properly discussed and scrutinised on the Floor of the House. Will the Minister reassure the House that he and his colleagues are satisfied that it would not be possible under the Bill’s provisions for the Government to seek indefinite prorogation in order to avoid a vote of confidence and a general election?
I think I have set out why I do not think that that is likely. As we have heard, there are lots of theoretical possibilities that are very outlandish—I do not propose to rehash the conversations that we had at the beginning of this debate—but the Government do not think that they are realistic risks and that is why we do not think that amendments 36 and 37 are acceptable.
Let me turn now to the last amendment in this group, amendment 25, which was also tabled by the Opposition. It specifies the wording of motions of no confidence for the purposes of clause 2(2). It aims to remove the discretion of the House over its wording and that of the Speaker in his certifying of a motion of no confidence. The Government recognise that no confidence motions might take different forms, as they do now, but we do not want to remove the flexibility entirely. That raises an issue, which we will come to in the next group of amendments, to do with the House’s exclusive cognisance.
If we try to set out in statute the precise form of a no confidence motion, that could raise the risks to which the Clerk of the House has alluded. We think it is better for the Speaker’s certificate to be conclusive and for the Speaker to determine the nature of that certification. As I said when we touched on this matter in debating a previous group of amendments, if there were doubt—I think it unlikely that there would be—about whether what the House was discussing was a motion of no confidence, it would seem to be sensible for the Government, the Opposition and the Speaker to ensure that Members were clear on that point when they were debating it. I cannot believe that there could ever be a debate in this House about a motion of no confidence in the Government in which Members were sitting there completely unaware that they were debating the future of the Government of our country.
Of course, the Minister is right about the reality and the politics of the situation. He should remember, however, that we are talking about a situation in which legislation has been introduced and that legislation is always challengeable in the courts. Once things get into the courts, who knows what will happen regarding the interpretation of the provisions? For the sake of clarity and certainty, what is wrong with setting out the precise terms that must be used so that there can be no doubt? That goes to the issue in amendment 6, tabled by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), which sets out provisions for the avoidance of doubt. Surely there is merit in making it absolutely clear and plain.
I shall not attempt to rush forward to the certification procedure, because we will debate it when we discuss the next group of amendments.
Let me turn to the specific amendment before the Committee. I do not think amendment 25 achieves the certainty that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) suggests would be desirable. It states that a motion of no confidence “shall be”, not “must include”, so it is not clear whether the motion would have to consist exclusively of the specified text or whether that text could be part of a motion, such as if it were added to a Government motion by amendment.
The Opposition’s amendment tries to specify the text of the no confidence motion, but does not try to achieve equivalent clarity as regards the motion of confidence that would have to be passed within 14 days by an alternative Government in order to avoid a general election. The amendment is trying to achieve some certainty—that was what the hon. Member for Rhondda said—but I do not think it does. I also do not think it is desirable or appropriate to try to set out the text of the motions in the Bill.
The Government think that clause 2(2) provides a clear and practical mechanism that gives statutory effect to a vote of no confidence. I have set out the Government’s concerns about the amendments and I hope that hon. Members will not seek to press them to a vote.
When, after voting, Members remain in the Lobby behind the Speaker’s Chair, they need to be quiet; otherwise it is impossible to hear the vote in the Chamber.
Amendment proposed: 36, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
‘(2A) In reckoning for the purposes of subsection 2(b), no account shall be taken of any time during which Parliament is prorogued or during which the House of Commons is adjourned for more than four days.’.—(Sir Peter Soulsby.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move amendment 6, page 2, line 15, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
‘(3) Any certificate of the Speaker of the House of Commons given under this section shall be conclusive for all purposes and shall not be presented to or questioned in any court of law whatsoever.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 23, page 2, line 17, at end insert—
‘(4A) The Speaker shall issue a certificate under subsection (1) or (2) within 24 hours of the relevant conditions being met under subsection (1) or (2).’.
Amendment 6 stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who, as I mentioned earlier, is abroad on other House business as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee.
We are at a curious juncture in the Bill and, indeed, in our constitutional history. The background to the amendment is the tension, since time immemorial, between this House’s ability to function immune from judicial interference, and the courts, which periodically have sought to limit the extent to which we can continue our business unimpeded by the courts. That was, of course settled—to a degree—in the Bill of Rights in 1789—
Sorry, 1689. My hon. and learned Friend will keep me up to the mark, because he is much more of a lawyer than I am.
In recent years, however, the tension between the courts and the independence of this House has been thrown into relief. I remind the Committee of cases such as the one brought by Lord Rees-Mogg for judicial review of the ratification of the Maastricht treaty after this House had passed an Act of Parliament.
I would like to clarify that the judicial review case brought by my noble kinsman was not in any way to challenge what had happened in this House. It was to challenge the use by Ministers of the royal prerogative, which is why the judicial review was allowed by the courts.
I stand corrected—again. I fear that that may occur rather often during my presentation. The case relating to the Hunting Act 2004 was certainly an attempt to impede the free functioning of Parliament in its judicial function. In addition, an attempt was made to judicially review the lack of a referendum on what was then the Lisbon treaty. There are other examples of that tension, not least over the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), and I believe that only today, in connection with another matter, are the limits of the courts being resolved.
The present situation begs for something that many have recommended for some time: that this Parliament should have a privilege Act to delineate clearly the immunities of Parliament in relation to the functioning of the courts, but we are in an even more tense situation because we are arranging our constitution in other areas that question the very sovereignty of the House. We now have a Supreme Court and it is widely known that many jurists who serve at various levels of the judiciary take differing views of the notions of parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary privilege. There was recently a case concerning the possible effective expulsion of an hon. Member as a result of a judicial decision. I do not comment on its merits as it is still sub judice. I merely advert to the fact that it represents another testing of the boundaries between the courts and Parliament.
We are told not to worry—the Bill’s provisions are immune from the courts, and nobody is going to interfere in what we decide is a Speaker’s certificate, certificating a vote of no confidence that satisfies the majority. When we are blandly and bluntly told that by the Government and at the same time told by the Clerk of the House who has bravely and independently—in his constitutional capacity as an independent guardian of our constitutional arrangements—issued a memorandum, to which I shall refer later, that flatly contradicts the Government’s view, we are obliged to take the matter very seriously.
I cannot think of a precedent, other than the Parliamentary Standards Bill, where a Government flatly refused to accept the advice of the Clerk of the House on a question of the potential justiciability of legislation before the House. The Bill before us is a major change to the constitutional settlement of this country, and it is backed by people in the Government who we know favour a written constitution—an entirely different constitutional settlement. That raises the question whether the Government have got it right when they say that the Clerk’s fears are to be disregarded.
With the indulgence of the Committee, I shall quote rather extensively from the memorandum submitted by the Clerk as written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. He states that the Bill is
“to make statutory provision for matters which fall within Parliament’s exclusive cognizance and which may affect the established privileges of the House of Commons as well as upsetting the essential comity which has been established over a long period between Parliament and the Courts.”
Erskine May makes it clear that “cognizance” refers to the right of both Houses
“to be the sole judge of their own proceedings, and to settle—or depart from—their own codes of procedure.”
The Clerk is clear in a bald statement in paragraph 12 of his memorandum:
“The Bill brings the internal proceedings of the House into the ambit of the Courts, albeit indirectly by the route of Speaker’s certificates.”
He goes on to explain how that occurs under clause 2(2), which we have already debated. In paragraph 16 he states:
“The provisions of this subsection make the Speaker’s consideration of confidence motions and the House’s practices justiciable questions for determination by the ordinary courts.”
That should be obvious. We know that Crown prerogative, as exercised by the Prime Minister, is subject to judicial review. We know that statute is subject to judicial review. We know that proceedings in the House and Standing Orders have not hitherto been subject to judicial review or judicial question. The Bill provides a connection between what happens in the House and in the rest of the world. We are providing a bridge of law that brings the courts into the House.
Does the hon. Gentleman think, therefore, that the amendment goes far enough? The solution, as the Clerk of the House sees it, is for the Speaker’s certificate to be provided for not in statute but under a Standing Order, which would prevent the courts from interfering in the proceedings of the House.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, to which I shall return. The entire Bill could be dealt with through Standing Orders. The only reason we have a Bill is either that a Bill is favoured by those who want to move towards a written constitution—I do not remember that being in anybody’s manifesto—
There we are. Perhaps that is why the Opposition support the Bill. We have just had a Division in which 400 right hon. and hon. Members were in the No Lobby and only a handful of us in the Aye Lobby. That underlines the curious consensus in favour of certain principles of the Bill. I do not think either of the elected parties in the coalition was in favour of a written constitution—[Interruption.] That is two parties, but the one that won the election certainly did not—