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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

House of Lords Reform

1. What process he plans to follow to develop and implement proposals for a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. (33928)

I am chairing a cross-party Committee to look at all aspects of House of Lords reform. We plan to publish a draft Bill in the coming period for pre-legislative scrutiny by—we hope—a Joint Committee of both Houses. Then it will be for the Government to decide on the introduction of the Bill.

Given that an all-elected upper House would, in effect, double the number of MPs while resulting in hundreds of highly skilled and eminent men and women being thrown out, what effects does the Deputy Prime Minister think will be applied to the legislative process as a result of this brilliant idea? Will it lead to greater effectiveness, greater prestige or just more machine politics?

My own view, as someone who has always supported greater democracy in the other place and greater accountability to the British people, is that the legitimacy of the other place would be enhanced. There are plenty of other bicameral democracies around the world that have two elected Chambers of different size with different mandates, elected even by different systems, which work extremely well in striking the right balance between effectiveness and legitimacy.

Of course, it was the previous Labour Government who made sure that the large majority of hereditary peers were removed—nearly 700—from the House of Lords. Has the Deputy Prime Minister any words of congratulations for Members of the current House of Lords on the way in which they are defending democracy against gerrymandering?

If we needed any confirmation, this week of all weeks, that the Labour party’s commitment to cleaning up politics and political reform is a complete and utter farce—the leader of the Labour party who, sadly, is not in his place, was going around the television studios last weekend saying that he believed in new politics and that he wanted to reach out to Liberal Democrat voters—it is the dinosaurs in the Labour party in the House of Lords who are blocking people’s ability to have a say on the electoral system that they want. There cannot be meaningful political reform with such weak political leadership.

One hundred years after the temporary provisions of the Parliament Act 1911 were introduced, some of us are impatient for my right hon. Friend to succeed in achieving an elected second Chamber. Can he reassure me that the grandfathering of voting rights will not be offered to newly appointed peers under the present Government?

The specific reference to grandfathering in the coalition agreement applies to the staged way in which we want reform of the House of Lords implemented over time. We want to be clear about the end point, which is a fully reformed House of Lords, but the stages by which we get there should be subject to proper scrutiny and proper debate, and will be, not least in the Joint Committee, when we publish the draft Bill, which we will do fairly shortly.

The Deputy Prime Minister has got himself a reputation as an habitual breaker of promises. May I ask him a simple and straightforward question, to which I hope he will give a simple and straightforward answer? In his draft Bill on the House of Lords to be published shortly, will he keep his promise of a 100% elected second Chamber?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows—he is a member of the very Committee that I have been chairing—that issue is still under discussion. We will make our views clear, as he well knows, when we publish the draft Bill. He talks about promises. Is that the equivalent of the promise to hold a referendum on the alternative vote—a manifesto commitment made by his party, which is now being blocked by the Labour party in the other place?

Parliamentary Constituencies

2. When he expects his proposals for fewer and more equally sized constituencies to be implemented. (33929)

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill currently being considered, if somewhat stalled by the Labour party in another place, requires the boundary commissions to submit their reports before 1 October 2013. The Secretary of State or the Lord President is required to lay before Parliament an Order in Council to bring the commissions’ recommendations into effect.

The majority of this House will certainly condemn the delays not only in this Chamber but in the other place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that demonstrates the Opposition’s contempt for equal-sized constituencies and equal votes for people throughout the country?

As I said earlier, the leader of the Labour party said this very weekend that he believed in new politics and political reform, yet he cannot control members of his own party in the House of Lords. Either he did not mean what he said at the weekend, or he is too weak to lead his own party. Either way, the Labour party cannot be relied upon to deliver political reform.

Many reform-minded Members of this House are getting fed up with the right hon. Gentleman’s attitude to electoral reform. He has broken so many promises in the coalition agreement, so why does he not separate the date of the referendum on the alternative vote from the gerrymandering that his Government are putting through?

We want to hold the referendum as soon as possible. We think that it is right to hold it when people are going to the ballot box anyway. That will save the taxpayer £30 million. We think that that is the right way to proceed. We on the Government Benches do not agree on the issue of AV, but at least we agree that the British people should have their say—something that the Labour party is now trying to block.

My constituency is one of the smallest English seats. If I adhered to the principle of naked self-interest, I would be supporting the status quo. Is it not right that we have equal-sized constituencies—equality for all voters so that each vote has equal value?

Of course it is. It has been a principle for political and democratic reformers of all parties for generations that all votes should be valued in the same way. It simply cannot be right, for instance, that right now Islington North has an electorate of just over 66,000, and yet 10 miles away in East Ham the figure is 87,000. Voters in a constituency just 10 miles away have less value attached to their votes than those up the road. That is wrong. That is what we are seeking to remedy. It is a simple principle: all votes should be worthy of the same value wherever they are found in the country.

I know that the Deputy Prime Minister gets in a terrible lather whenever anybody has the effrontery to contradict him, but may I suggest to him that he could perfectly easily have his referendum on the day that he wants it by splitting the Bill? It is perfectly straightforward. He said that the main reason for cutting the number of MPs is to save money. How does he reconcile that with the fact that it is costing £12.3 million extra every year for the 117 extra peers he has appointed, that it is costing £11.2 million extra for bringing the boundary review forward, and that he is to double the cost of the boundary commissions by making them every five years rather than every eight?

Cutting the number of MPs will save about £12 million every year, and holding the referendum on the same day as other elections saves us about £30 million. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to incur greater costs for the taxpayer—

It is the choice of the coalition Government to say that we want to reform politics not in a piecemeal fashion, but in a meaningful way. To introduce both the right for people to have a say over the electoral system and to ensure that constituencies are of roughly the same size seems a perfectly sensible way to proceed. That is what we will do, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should be whipping up the dinosaurs in the Labour party in the other place to stop us from doing so.

Act of Settlement

I am no monarchist, but does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that, if we must have a monarchy, women should have equality with men in succession?

Ministers have already accepted that the provision in the Act of Settlement might well be discriminatory, and I have already confirmed at the Dispatch Box when responding to a previous debate, not that we are doing nothing, but that discussions are under way with other countries of which Her Majesty is Queen. She is not just our Queen, but Queen of 15 other realms, and those matters have to be taken forward together in a careful and considered way. It is not as straightforward as the hon. Gentleman would like to pretend it is.

I welcome that response. As the Minister knows, my ten-minute rule Bill on that subject is to be introduced at 3.30 pm today. Will he confirm whether I could perhaps have that response in writing before the Bill is introduced?

I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech introducing his Bill. Discussions are under way, as has been confirmed in this House and in the other place. He knows that the Statute of Westminster states that those matters must be amended in all the other realms of which Her Majesty is Queen, and it takes only a moment’s thought to see that that is not as straightforward a process as some who would wish to move more quickly might think.

Register of Lobbyists

My hon. Friend should know that the Government plan to carry out a wide-ranging consultation later this year and then to bring forward legislation in the second Session of this Parliament.

Does the Minister agree that for the statutory register to be effective and fit for purpose, it must be robustly transparent?

I do, and that is a very important point. Lobbying is a perfectly reputable industry for making sure that the voices of charities and businesses are heard, but it should be transparent so that people know who is talking to those in Parliament. That is what the Government intend to do—mainly to clean up the dreadful behaviour that we saw last year, which has resulted in some former Members having their passes removed.

The purpose of lobbying is to give further advantages to the already advantaged. Is the Minister not concerned that already lobbying has taken place between his Department and BSkyB which might have the most damaging consequences for the people of this country? Should not these reforms be brought in quickly by the Tory-Lib Dem junta?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation that all lobbying is to benefit the advantaged. Members are lobbied all the time by charitable organisations, charities and, as I found in my previous role in opposition, those who campaign on behalf of disabled people, for example. It is important, however, that such lobbying is transparent and that people know who is talking to Members of Parliament and members of the Government. That is exactly what our statutory register will achieve.

I applaud the Minister’s efforts, but will he consider proposals to shut the revolving door between big Departments and big business contractors, which leaves taxpayers ripped off and democracy diminished?

Processes are already in place to vet what Ministers and former Ministers do after they leave both ministerial office and this House. My hon. Friend makes a good point, and those matters are being looked into and kept under review. I am sure that he will continue pressing that point in his usual vigorous way.

Topical Questions

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

Mindful of the difficulties that the right hon. Gentleman’s rushed proposals for the AV referendum, muddled with the equally rushed boundary changes, are having in the other place, what persuaded him to insist on an electoral system that was not in his manifesto, while abandoning promises that were in his manifesto, such as votes at 16, the 3,000 more police officers and the scrapping of tuition fees?

I would have hoped that the hon. Lady would welcome and support the proposal to hold a referendum on the alternative vote system, not least for the reason that it was in her party’s manifesto at the last general election.

The hon. Gentleman keeps saying “Split the Bill” from a sedentary position. We believe it is right to proceed together on reforming—[Interruption.] No—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me say to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and other Members that it is not too much for the Chair to ask that Members treat the Deputy Prime Minister with courtesy, whatever they think of him or his policies.

I find it extraordinary that, as I said, just a few days ago the leader of the Labour party said that he believed in new politics, but he is now using the oldest tricks in the book in the other place simply to stop the British people having their say. That is the worst kind of old politics I can imagine.

T2. If the Deputy Prime Minister is to save the taxpayer money by holding the fairer votes referendum on the same date as other elections in other parts of the country, how much longer can the board games in the other House continue? (33939)

As I reminded the House earlier, holding the referendum on the same day that people have an opportunity to vote anyway saves the taxpayer a considerable amount of money—£30 million. If we are to have a referendum on such an important issue, it is right in principle and in practice to do so on an occasion when people are invited to vote in any event.

T8. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about the referendum on the alternative vote taking place on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections? In Scotland, the Electoral Commission says that it does not have the resources to hold both votes on the same day. Will he agree to meet the electoral commissioner in Scotland? (33946)

My team and I are more than happy to meet the Electoral Commission with regard to Scotland. We have always maintained that the two votes are very different in nature. There are, of course, practical issues with the administration of the vote, which we are addressing. However, a vote for a devolved Parliament or Assembly and a vote on a referendum of this nature can easily be separated in the minds of voters.

T3. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that to restore trust in politics it is essential that we reduce the cost of politics in Westminster, especially at a time when so many people are struggling with increasing costs? (33940)

Absolutely; that is why I marvel at the Labour party’s objection to saving £12 million every year by reducing the size of this place from 650 seats to 600. That is a modest cut of 7.6% which will bring the size of this Chamber into line with Parliaments in many other mature democracies. It is resisted only by Labour Members.

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about his Government’s actions on the national health service? By unleashing the biggest ever reorganisation at the very time when the NHS faces a real-terms cut in its budget, he is posing a huge threat to our national health service. How on earth can he justify that?

The only party in this House that wants to cut the NHS budget is the Labour party. The coalition Government have increased spending on the NHS. We recognise that if we want to preserve the very best of the NHS, it needs to be reformed in the years ahead. Crucially, we need a people’s NHS—[Interruption.] We need an NHS that is there to serve patients, and is not a plaything of unaccountable bureaucracies. That is why we are reducing the layers of unaccountable administration in the NHS and ensuring that the people who know patients best—the GPs—have more say in how the system works.

Yes, it is the people’s NHS, and the Deputy Prime Minister has no mandate for the changes. Even after the general election, the coalition agreement said that there would be no “top-down reorganisation”. This is a smash and grab on the NHS. Will he make the Government think again?

As it happens, in opposition we continually made the case against an over-centralised NHS that was not responsive enough to the needs of communities and patients, and insufficiently accountable to them. That is why we are giving more power, not less, to local authorities, particularly in the area of public health, and why we are giving more financial authority to GPs, rather than less, because they know patients best—[Interruption.] Hon. Members say “The private sector”, but it was the Labour party that rigged the market through the introduction of independent treatment centres to force private sector providers in the NHS. Through the reforms, we will ensure that there is a level playing field, on which public, voluntary and private providers can compete.

T4. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my belief that the will of this House to equalise constituency boundaries and reduce the number of MPs should not be frustrated by the grotesque spectacle of former Labour Members, who have been rejected by the electorate, leading a filibuster in the other House? (33941)

It is indeed a spectacle to see on the television that former Members of this House who were virtually monosyllabic here have become so very loquacious in the other place, particularly late at night, to block a simple measure that was one of the great campaigning themes of the Chartists in the century before last—namely that all votes should be of the same value and that all constituencies should be roughly the same size. I think that everyone in the country would agree with that principle, except for Opposition Members.

A few minutes ago, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the proposed cut in the number of seats in the House of Commons was a modest 7.5%. How would he describe the 25% cut that will happen in Wales?

It is all based on the simple principle that each constituency should represent, give or take a margin, roughly the same number of members of the public—voters—across the country. I do not think that even the hon. Gentleman would claim that Wales should somehow be exempt from that simple democratic principle.

We have already taken a number of measures. For instance, just this April, 23 million basic-rate taxpayers will get £200 in their pockets, because we have dramatically increased the personal allowance, so that people who work hard, play by the rules and want to do best for themselves and their families get more money back. We have invested significant additional money in early years and pre-school support, with 15 hours’ free pre-school support for all three and four-year-olds, and a new entitlement for the most disadvantaged children at the age of two. We are delivering the pupil premium, which by the end of this Parliament will mean a full £2.5 billion of extra money targeted at the most disadvantaged children, who were let down by the school system that we inherited from the previous Government.

The system by which we elect parliamentarians is enormously important. We should have a proper debate and discussion in this country. If the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is not passed through the Houses of Parliament, how does the Deputy Prime Minister plan to allow for a full 10 weeks of campaigning, as recommended by the Electoral Commission?

It will be passed; we are determined that it shall be passed. It cannot be right that the Opposition, having failed to make their case in this place, are now using the lowest forms of foot-dragging in the other place to prevent this Government from proceeding with the political reforms that the hon. Lady’s party used to believe in.

T6. Section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 means that any Member of this House who is in receipt of long-term mental health care forfeits his seat. We know that, nationwide, one in five people suffers from a mental health condition. No doubt the same figure applies in this House, yet no Member has ever spoken at length about their mental health conditions. What plans does the Deputy Prime Minister have to follow the recommendation of last year’s Speaker’s Conference to repeal section 141 of the 1983 Act? (33943)

As we can hear from the reaction on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend has highlighted a very important issue, concerning a provision that the Speaker’s Conference rightly identified should be repealed. It is simply not right that under section 141 of the Mental Health Act MPs lose their seats if they are detained in hospital under the Act for more than six months. We will shortly come forward with announcements to repeal section 141.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister intend to propose Elwyn Watkins, his twice-failed candidate in Oldham East and Saddleworth, for the House of Lords?

T7. The Deputy Prime Minister’s proposed recall mechanism will apply only to MPs, and its use will be possible only with the permission of a narrow, parliamentary committee. Will he consider expanding the mechanism, to include other elected representatives, and revising it, so that recall decisions lie with constituents, not parliamentary committees? (33944)

The coalition agreement stipulates that we want to introduce a recall mechanism, as exists in parts of north America and elsewhere, for those parliamentarians who have committed wrongdoing. It is important that it should not be a completely arbitrary mechanism; it should be shown that serious wrongdoing has been committed. We have recently seen various serving or former MPs in court, with one having been convicted and been handed down a prison sentence, and the public have been reminded that they do not want to be left powerless when they see such wrongdoing occurring. They do not want to wait until the next general election to have their say; they want to be able to force a by-election themselves. We will come forward with the detail of our ideas on how to do that shortly. I hear what my hon. Friend says about wanting the mechanism to be extended to other bodies immediately, but I hope that when he sees our proposals, he will recognise that we are taking a significant step in favour of giving people that recall power.

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister spoke of “alarm clock Britain”. Given the collapse of Liberal Democrat support in the opinion polls and the complete rejection of the Liberal Democrats in Oldham East and Saddleworth, will he heed the wake-up call before his MPs and party are forced to face electoral oblivion?

I heard the same predictions before the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election—that we would disappear without trace into complete oblivion—but our share of the vote went up. Honestly, the utter—[Interruption.]

Order. I wish to hear the Deputy Prime Minister. I would happily hear him for longer if there were more time, but there is not.

It went up because many people in Oldham East and Saddleworth and elsewhere recognise that we are doing a very difficult job in difficult circumstances. Why? Because we inherited the most unholy mess from the previous Labour Government, who have now forced us—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) might just want to listen. We are spending £120 million every single day simply to pay off the interest on the debt caused by his party when it was in government. That is enough to build a primary school every single hour. What waste. What a terrible legacy.

T9. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to review, amend or repeal sections 3 to 18 of the Digital Economy Act 2010, which was rushed through so awfully by the last Government? (33947)

This Government do not believe that people should be able to share content unlawfully, but we are disappointed that the industry has not made faster progress towards adapting its business models to meet consumer demand. I agree with my hon. Friend that there are legitimate concerns about the workability of some aspects of the Digital Economy Act. The Government are looking actively at those questions now, and we will make an announcement in due course.

May I suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that the reputation of this House is being maligned during the debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill? That is because Front-Bench spokespersons for the coalition have continually said that we are not interested in the Bill in this place, and that we could have debated the amendments that the Lords are debating at the moment. That is simply untrue. I was one of 20 Members who was standing during the debate in Committee on the Welsh constituency boundaries, and we were not called to speak. So it is simply not true to say that people in this House are not interested in the excellent discussion that is taking place up the corridor.

I wonder whether the right hon. Lady would characterise the debate taking place in the other place as “excellent” if she were to have a look at the foot-dragging that is now taking place on the Labour Benches there. I am sorry if she was not called to speak during the debate on the Bill when it passed through this place, but, as she knows, there were eight full days of debate on the Bill, which was subject to the fullest possible scrutiny.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Rape (Prosecution)

The appointment of specialist rape prosecutors is the responsibility of local chief Crown prosecutors, who appoint specialist prosecutors in accordance with the requirements of their area. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently unable to provide figures as to how many specialist rape prosecutors there are in the CPS. However, the CPS has trained and appointed a significant number of prosecutors as specialist rape prosecutors as part of a rolling programme in all 42 CPS areas. By the end of March 2011, all training for 2010-11 will be completed, and the information on the number of specialists will then be available.

I thank the Attorney-General for his response. May I remind him that the Stern report said that nine out of 10 rapes go unreported? Given the 25% cuts in the budget of the CPS, will he assure us that all those who have been trained by the end of March 2011 will be in jobs?

First, I can give the hon. Lady a figure: 584 delegates are shown as having attended the rape and serious assault training course between July 2008 and December 2010. That might help to give her an idea of the numbers. There is no intention that the priority that is given to this extremely serious offence should be in any way downgraded as a result of savings having to be made within the Crown Prosecution Service.

National Fraud Authority

The National Fraud Authority is an Executive agency of the Attorney-General’s Office, which is the authority’s sponsoring Department. The Law Officers are the Ministers accountable to Parliament for the work of the agency.

I am grateful for that answer. Given the estimated £30 billion cost to the UK economy of fraud, does the Solicitor-General agree that the coalition’s spending cuts must not undermine the work of the National Fraud Authority?

Phone Hacking

3. What support the Law Officers’ Departments have provided for the investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service into alleged telephone hacking and blagging; and if he will make a statement.


The roles of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are distinct. The police investigate allegations of criminal conduct; the Crown Prosecution Service provides them with advice, when requested to do so, and takes prosecution decisions. The constitutional role of the Law Officers is to superintend the CPS. The Law Officers are not involved in the provision of such advice. On 14 January, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that the CPS would conduct a comprehensive assessment of all material in the possession of the Metropolitan Police Service relating to phone hacking, following developments in the civil courts in cases taking place on this issue. The purpose of this assessment is to ascertain whether there is any material that could now form evidence in any future criminal prosecution relating to phone hacking.

Are the Law Officers confident that the CPS is giving the right advice? In particular, is it asking the Metropolitan police to examine the separate secure e-mail server used by News International executives of the grades of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade and also to examine the existing illegally transcribed phone message made by Ross Hall for “Neville”?

The hon. Gentleman may have seen a copy of the letter written by Mr Yates, the acting deputy commissioner, to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That letter makes it quite clear that he wishes to re-examine all the material collected in this matter and then to seek the advice of the CPS and the DPP in relation to it.

Does the Attorney-General agree that it is important for this matter not to be just a witch hunt against the Murdoch press, which is what the Opposition are trying to turn it into? The Information Commissioner’s report published some time ago made it plain that this habit of hacking and bad behaviour by reporters was happening across the whole of the press, not just in the Murdoch press. Will he make sure that the issue does not become concerned only with the Murdoch press, but that the investigation is carried out on a wider basis?

I am not going to be drawn into making criticisms of any individual in this matter. What is quite clear is that the hacking into telephones is indeed a serious criminal offence, that the Crown Prosecution Service will apply the code of Crown prosecutors in order to weigh up the information and evidence available, and that it is plainly in the public interest for proceedings to be brought against individuals where there is evidence that an offence has been committed.

As the Attorney-General is aware, serious concerns have been expressed about the handling of the News of the World phone hacking investigations to date. The announcement of a comprehensive assessment of all the material held by the Metropolitan Police Service is to be welcomed, but will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm whether he shares these concerns about the handling of the case to date? Will he clarify what prompted this change in direction only a matter of weeks after the CPS announced that there was no admissible evidence on which it could properly advise the police to bring criminal charges?

The hon. Lady must understand that any investigation in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors must take account of the information and evidence available. If evidence and information become available that warrant looking further at a matter, that is exactly what happens. In this particular case, as I indicated in my first answer, information has emerged in the course of civil proceedings, which gives rise to a justification and reason for looking again at the material. That is exactly what the police and the CPS are going to do.

Judicial Review (Ministerial Decisions)

4. On how many occasions decisions by Ministers have been overturned on judicial review in the last five years. (33910)

Figures for the number of occasions on which decisions by Ministers have been overturned on judicial review in whole or in part over the last five years are not held centrally, and such information could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

Well, there have clearly been quite a number. Does not the Solicitor-General’s response highlight the fact that the concept and reality of parliamentary sovereignty are often misunderstood and that, increasingly, the last word on what Parliament has decided will not be determined here, but by the judges on the other side of Parliament square, in the Supreme Court? The increase in judicial review is a reality that is now part of our constitutional fabric.

I do not think that my hon. Friend, who is an eminent member of the Bar, is at all confused about the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Nor, if I may say so, is our right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who responded to the debate on clause 18 of the European Union Bill last Tuesday.

Judicial review has increasingly become part of the legal armoury since the second world war. Ministers, whether of the present Government or the last, are not above the law, and it is for our independent judiciary to arbitrate, through judicial review cases, in disputes between the citizen and the state. The courts apply the laws enacted by Parliament, and Parliament can make, amend and repeal legislation as it thinks fit.

Given the increase in judicial activism and, in particular, legislative activism on the part of the judiciary, is it not important for us to examine much more closely the qualifications and background of the individuals who are making these decisions, so that we can ensure that the judiciary is much more representative of the society from which we all come?

That is a point of view. I tend to think that judges ought to be highly professional, legally qualified and of the highest intellect. If the hon. Gentleman takes a different view, perhaps he will let us know.

Arrest Warrants (Private Prosecutions)

5. What estimate he has made of the likely funding required by the Crown Prosecution Service to implement proposals to restrict arrest warrants in private prosecutions. (33911)

The Crown Prosecution Service continues to assess the costs of implementing the proposals to restrict arrest warrants in private prosecutions. The service currently expects any additional costs to be absorbed in current resources. I should point out that such private prosecutions relate solely to cases involving international jurisdiction.

What guidelines are likely to be set in relation to the time that the Director of Public Prosecutions is given in which to respond to private arrest warrant applications, and will those guidelines take into account late notification of arrivals?

By its very nature, the system that is likely to operate when such references are made to the DPP will involve extremely short time frames. The point has been well made in the House that it is much better to go to the police and make a complaint, because the police can arrest, interview, search and conduct forensic examinations. If an application is made through a private prosecution or through the DPP, all that is possible is for a person to be taken immediately to court. I have no doubt that the DPP will ensure that he can operate within a time frame that reflects the urgency of the matter concerned.

I welcome the fact that Ministers are dealing with the matter, and that they are doing so by using the DPP rather than the Attorney-General as the person to whom reference can be made. Will this be covered in any way by the superintendence responsibilities of the Attorney-General, or will it be clear that the DPP has an independent role in the matter?

The decision will be that of the Director of Public Prosecutions. As in all matters, if the DPP wishes to consult the law officers in relation to their superintendence, it will be open to him to do so.

Does the Attorney-General not agree that the reputation of the country would be better served if the current system whereby private individuals can seek prosecutions in the courts, or seek arrest warrants in the courts for crimes against humanity or war crimes, were preserved rather than taken away and handed over to public officials?

I think that the reputation of the country will be best preserved through proper and targeted work by the police and prosecutors to bring to justice those who have a case to answer. The reputation of the country will not be served if the use of private prosecutions is seen merely as a tool of harassment, and there is no proper outcome from an arrest.

Human Trafficking

6. What recent representations he has received on the effectiveness of prosecutions in human trafficking cases. (33912)

Is the Solicitor-General aware that many solicitors still face many problems taking instructions from child victims of trafficking who wrongly believe that their trafficker is their friend? If the Government are serious about ensuring that there are more prosecutions for this heinous crime, why will they not ensure that every child who undergoes the gruelling, awful court process is afforded a guardian to represent his or her best interests?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing my attention to the fact that someone of that nature is not available. I had hoped that that was the case. I will make some inquiries of the Crown Prosecution Service to establish what assistance of that sort can be given, but it is fair to point out that the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service already bend over backwards to ensure that vulnerable witnesses, be they children or vulnerable adults, are afforded every possible protection so that they can give their evidence. Without the evidence, we cannot have the convictions.

Domestic Violence

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Crown Prosecution Service’s performance in the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic violence. (33913)

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Crown Prosecution Service’s performance in the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic violence. (33914)

I have regular discussions with the DPP on a range of criminal matters. Domestic violence is a serious crime, which has real and lasting effects on the victim, their children, their wider family and society as a whole. I support the work undertaken by the CPS with other agencies to improve the way in which prosecutions are conducted and victims are treated in such cases.

How will the CPS prosecute domestic violence cases in the approximately 10 areas where proposed court closures include specialist domestic violence courts?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue, of which we are extremely mindful. Work is currently taking place within the court estate rationalisation programme, working in conjunction with the domestic violence national steering group, to issue guidance in those areas where provision may be affected. The detail of that will be finalised once the decisions and announcements are made. The CPS is absolutely determined to maintain the current quality of provision.

The Attorney-General acknowledges that the domestic violence prosecution rate improved greatly under the last Labour Administration. What measures will he put in place to ensure that it continues to improve against the backdrop of the 25% cut to the CPS budget?

We are doing a number of things. We are developing the recently launched cross-Government violence against women strategic narrative. For the CPS, we agreed on a number of steps to improve domestic violence prosecutions and the safety and support of victims, including specialist co-ordinators, guidance in respect of stalking, effective monitoring of cases and legislation, and ways to improve communication with victims. In addition, guidance for prosecutors on stalking and harassment cases was launched in September 2010, and a new violence against women assurance regime was launched on 1 January 2011. As there is not enough time available now to allow me to amplify my remarks further, I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with details of some of the things we are doing.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all he can to ensure that all Government agencies and Departments have a unified definition of domestic violence, as there seem to be alarming differences in that definition between different Departments, and that needs to be remedied at the earliest opportunity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention. It might be helpful if I have a conversation with him so he can identify in greater detail where he thinks these current misdescriptions exist. I entirely agree that it is important that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Church Commissioners

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

Redundant Churches

1. Whether the Church Commissioners have made an estimate of the number of redundant churches converted to other uses in the past five years. (33917)

In the last five years, there have been 117 schemes for dealing with churches that are no longer being used as regular places of worship, 93 of which have resulted in their being provided for alternative use.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. St Mary’s church in Nelson is probably the largest church in my constituency, and it has a 170-feet high tower and spire. However, it was last used for worship in 1989, and it has remained boarded up and empty since its deconsecration. Although St Mary’s itself is now owned by a heritage trust, will my hon. Friend tell the House what the Church Commissioners are doing to ensure that redundant churches are put to good use?

Nelson St Mary was closed for worship in 1987. At that point, a decision would have been made whether to transfer it to the Churches Conservation Trust as a redundant church or to sell it. It was sold in 1989, and at that point the Church Commissioners’ responsibility for the building ceased.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many churches can remain in use while adapting to accommodate other uses? Will he commend the work of English Heritage and its field officers in trying to achieve that, and will he so organise the affairs of the Church Commissioners that they encourage and facilitate this kind of continuing useful worship?

Absolutely. Increasingly, churches are being put to other uses, ranging from post offices to shops, and from community centres to internet cafés. There are 19,000 churches across the country and in many communities the church is the most prominent public building, so we want to make sure that churches are used as much as possible, rather than just for a couple of hours each week on a Sunday.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Registration

2. What steps the Electoral Commission plans to take in respect of areas where voter registration remains low. (33918)

The Electoral Commission monitors the performance of electoral registration officers using a set of published performance standards designed to support the completeness of electoral registers. The Electoral Commission advises and works with local authorities that do not meet the standards in order to improve their performance.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Where electoral registration officers are failing on the ground, what specific powers does the Electoral Commission have to intervene?

My hon. Friend is on to a good point. The Electoral Commission has the power to make recommendations to electoral registration officers—after all, they are primarily responsible for concluding the registers—if they are underperforming, but it has no power to intervene and change the way that things are done. This may be something that the House might like to examine in due course.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that, peculiarly, electoral registration officers are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so obtaining information from them if they refuse to give it is extremely difficult. Will he examine this point, because it seems that all other local authority officers are subject to this legislation, but electoral registration officers are not?

I am sure that the Electoral Commission was aware of that point. I was not, but I will certainly take it back to the Electoral Commission and to the relevant Departments to make sure that it is examined, because there seems to be a bit of an anomaly.

Church Commissioners

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

Christians in Pakistan

It is a sad and terrible fact that Christian minorities who have lived peacefully in Muslim countries for generations are finding themselves subject to increasingly violent persecution. Churches have recently been attacked in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, and the assassination in Pakistan of Salmaan Taseer for defending a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death was particularly horrible. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Bishop of Lahore and, indeed, the Christian community as a whole in Pakistan are working hard to foster inter-faith collaboration in Pakistan during this time of difficulty.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the former assassinated Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, for the work that he did on this particular issue? Will my hon. Friend ensure that representations are made to the Government of Pakistan to ensure that the excellent work of Governor Taseer can continue?

Salmaan Taseer was an incredibly brave man and his death is a tragedy for Pakistan. We would all do well to remember the words of Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, who said in terms that

“you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship”.

What I suspect every Member of this House hopes for is that there shall be freedom of religion throughout the world, and I am sure that, as a Chamber, we will continue to campaign for that wherever we have the opportunity.

Christians in Sudan

The Church of England supports the Episcopal Church of Sudan. The dioceses of Bradford and Salisbury have diocesan links to Sudan and have done great work in the region to support the Christian community, as has Christian Aid.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. It looks as though there will be a new state of Southern Sudan, but it will face enormous challenges. Meanwhile, Christian minorities in the north of Sudan will face continued persecution, as organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide have highlighted during many years of work across Sudan. Will the Church of England do what it can to support and protect Christians and other minorities in the north of Sudan, while also helping, where appropriate, in Southern Sudan?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. Minority groups in northern Sudan have faced persecution, which is one of the many problems facing people in the region. Most southern Sudanese live on less than $1 a day, the country has almost no infrastructure—there are just 38 miles of tarmacked road in an area the size of France—and people are traumatised by years of rape and killings. I am sure that the Church of England and non-governmental organisations such as Christian Aid and Christian Solidarity Worldwide will give the people of Southern Sudan all possible support. Indeed, it behoves all of us to do what we can to support what may soon be the newest member of the United Nations as it sets out on the challenging road of nationhood.

Electoral Commission Committee

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


5. What steps the Electoral Commission has taken to reduce its spending over the next three years. (33921)

The Electoral Commission plans to reduce its core costs by 27%, or approximately £4.5 million, over the next three years, mainly by cutting spending on year-round public awareness work, staffing and offices.

I am pleased to learn about the cost-cutting, but can my hon. Friend reassure me that the Electoral Commission will have enough funds properly to promote the upcoming alternative vote referendum? Whatever one’s views on AV—I, for the record, am against it—we must ensure that the public are aware of the referendum and its importance.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Levels of public awareness about the forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote system are extremely low. The Electoral Commission has a budget of just over £9 million for the main referendum, which will enable a leaflet to be distributed to every household in the United Kingdom as well as a wider public awareness campaign.

With 3.5 million voters missing from the registers, will the Electoral Commission give even greater priority to electoral registration? With the difficulties faced by local government and the likelihood that it might look to electoral registration departments to make reductions, will the Electoral Commission ensure that the system is properly policed?

It is terribly important in this country that we try to achieve maximum registration of voters wherever possible. I encourage every colleague to visit their electoral registration officer and quiz them on how they are going about this important task. If any colleague is not happy with the work of an ERO in any locality, the Electoral Commission would be very pleased to hear from them.

Would the hon. Gentleman consider persuading the Electoral Commission to join the campaign for a democracy week—or democracy day—every year in March, ahead of the normal election cycle, as a very cheap and cost-effective way of raising consciousness about electoral registration and participation in elections and referendums?

My hon. Friend is always full of good ideas. That is another one, which I shall certainly pass on to the Electoral Commission.

Church Commissioners

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

Parish Priests

Vacancies are managed individually by each separate diocese. The last clergy vacancy in my hon. Friend’s constituency of St Michael’s, Kirklington was filled before Christmas after a short vacancy.

I am most grateful for that reply. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the number of rural parishes that vicars are asked to look after? What attention are the Church Commissioners giving to that vexing problem?

I am glad to say that the Church does not generally find difficulties in the recruitment of stipendiary clergy. Of course, it is for each diocese to decide how to organise parishes into benefices. I am told by the dioceses of Ripon and Leeds and of York that they do not have difficulty filling rural stipendiary posts. Clearly, the clergy find these appointments satisfying and rewarding.

Women Bishops

7. What assessment the Church of England has made of the likely requirement for provincial episcopal visitors following the entry into force of any legislation enabling the consecration of women bishops. (33923)

Provincial episcopal visitors operate under the terms of the Act of Synod, which will be rescinded if the draft legislation to enable women to become bishops is approved and brought into force. It will on any basis be at least two more years before that stage is reached and there remain important questions about how suitable episcopal oversight will be provided under the new legislation and associated code of practice for those with theological difficulties over the ordination of women.

Given the general climate of cutting costs and removing superfluous posts, if the welcome reform of women bishops is going to happen soon, which I hope it will, should not the new flying bishops be grounded now?

The provincial episcopal visitors are there under the Act of Synod. Under the Act of Synod, the archbishop is expected to take steps to secure the appointment of up to two additional suffragans in his diocese to act as provincial episcopal visitors. As I have explained, even if the Synod gives final approval to the draft legislation, the Act of Synod will remain in place for some time to come. We must keep faith with all sorts of different groups in the Church of England until there is a final decision on women bishops within the Church.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Franchise (Overseas Citizens)

8. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to ensure that citizens resident overseas who are not entitled to vote are not included on electoral registers for parliamentary elections. (33924)

The Electoral Commission has issued guidance to electoral registration officers on the checks they must carry out to determine whether to grant applications to register as an overseas elector. This includes checking evidence of the age of the applicant, their citizenship status and their relevant qualifying address in the United Kingdom.

What I want to know from my hon. Friend is what measures there are to make sure that returning officers and electoral registration officers ensure that those who are not entitled to be on the electoral register—foreign nationals and others—do not simply fill in and return the form to put themselves on the electoral register because it helps them to get other benefits and then have a vote although they are not entitled to one.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. He will be pleased to know that electoral registration officers have a range of powers to require extra information from people on the register, including evidence that they meet either or both of the requirements of eligibility. Other measures available to EROs are the ability to make house-to-house inquiries and to inspect other council records. However, my hon. Friend raises an important point and sends an important signal to EROs around the country to do their job well.

Church Commissioners

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

King James Bible

9. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to assist in the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James version of the Bible. (33925)

In her inauguration address to the General Synod, Her Majesty the Queen emphasised the importance of the King James Bible and the lasting impact it has had on the life of the Church and on the nation. The Archbishop of Canterbury also used his new year message to draw attention to the anniversary and enduring significance of the King James Bible. The 2011 celebrations were launched at Hampton Court and the King James Bible Trust, chaired by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), has been set up to oversee the programme of events and activities planned around the world to mark 400 years since the creation of the book that changed the world.

Hundreds of words and phrases in modern English came from the King James Bible, such as, “Eat, drink and be merry,” “Grinding the faces of the poor,” “No peace for the wicked” and “Fly in the ointment.” York minster and the trust will celebrate this event in many ways this year, but what will the Church Commissioners do to make this a truly national celebration of our language and culture?

The Church Commissioners will give every possible support to the trust because, as the hon. Gentleman says, no book has had a greater influence on the English language. It is a masterpiece of literature that unites English-speaking people everywhere. Indeed, a number of expressions are unique to the King James Bible, some of which are relevant to politics, such as, “How are the mighty fallen,” “Set your house in order,” “Be horribly afraid”, “A thorn in the flesh,” “Let us now praise famous men” and “To everything there is a season.” My favourite phrase from the King James Bible is, “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”