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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2011

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Parliamentary Constituencies

1. What recent representations he has received on his proposals to create fewer and more equally sized constituencies. (42561)

The last representation that I received on this matter was from Parliament, to say that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 received Royal Assent on 16 February, and I am sure that many Members of this House and the other place were grateful that it did.

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics last Wednesday showed that on 1 December the Wirral—represented in this House by four Members of Parliament—had 239,000 electors, whereas my borough of Croydon, with just three MPs, had 243,000 electors. Can my hon. Friend tell me when the boundary commissions will publish their draft proposals to deal with this shocking injustice?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on exactly why it was necessary to have more equally sized constituencies across the country, so that voters will have equal weight when they cast their votes. He will know that the boundary commissions have to report finally to Ministers by 1 October 2013. We expect that they will set out their initial proposals some time this year, but that is a matter for the independent boundary commissions.

Democratic Audit has said that equalising constituency sizes will lead to chaotic boundaries. Does the Minister think that the Deputy Prime Minister—or, to be more precise, his immediate successor in 2015—will be happy representing not only parts of Fullwood and Broom Hill, but Glossop, 20 miles away?

I simply do not agree with the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. The 2011 Act provides for a spread of plus or minus 5% of the quota, which is quite a significant number—around 8,000 electors—so that the boundary commissions can take into account all the traditional things, such as local ties and local government boundaries, but ultimately they have to deliver constituencies of more equal size. At the moment, constituencies can vary by over 50%, which is simply not right.

Recall of MPs

2. What plans he has to introduce a power for electors in a constituency to recall their elected Member of Parliament. (42562)

5. What plans he has to introduce a power for electors in a constituency to recall their elected Member of Parliament. (42566)

7. When he plans to publish his proposals to allow electors in a constituency to recall their elected Member of Parliament. (42568)

The Government are committed to bringing forward legislation to introduce a power to recall Members of Parliament. We are currently considering what would be the fairest, and most appropriate and robust, procedure, and we will make a statement soon setting out our plans to establish a recall mechanism.

Will the Government’s proposals provide a definition of serious wrongdoing, enabling voters to know clearly what could trigger a recall? That is important in providing clarity about what voters can do.

My hon. Friend is exactly right: that is precisely the kind of detail that we need to get right in the Bill. In some cases it is clear: if someone is sentenced to prison for 12 months or more they are automatically disqualified already, under the present rules. There is certainly a case for removing that 12-month cut-off line. If someone is imprisoned for any period, it seems to me that there is a strong case for disqualifying them. The key problem is when wrongdoings do not lead to a prison sentence, and that is exactly why we would want to engage the House authorities, to provide a means by which they could be clearly proven.

In other countries that already have a right of recall, there is a significant annual cost in having departments to administer public petitions. Has the Minister considered making an impact assessment of the annual cost of introducing such a measure?

As my hon. Friend may know, we want the recall mechanism to be based on two simple steps: first, proof that wrongdoing has been committed, as I explained in answer to the previous question; and secondly, a petition by at least 10% of the electors to trigger a by-election in the constituency concerned. That is slightly different from some of the models to which my hon. Friend referred, in California and elsewhere, where there is a much more open-ended process.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether he still believes that MPs should be recalled for breaking their promises—and if he does, how many Liberal Democrat MPs does he expect would be subject to that system?

The recall mechanism—as supported, I think, in the manifestos of all three parties—is for serious wrongdoing, as I explained in answer to previous questions.

I am not quite sure that that is right, is it? Did not the Liberal Democrat manifesto say that people would be given the right to sack MPs who had broken the rules? The question then is: who gets to decide who has broken the rules? If, as the right hon. Gentleman says, it is the courts, that is a fairly straightforward process. However, if it was left up to voters, might they not think that if someone promised 3,000 more police officers and then cut 10,000, or promised not to raise VAT and then put it up by 2.5%, they had broken the rules?

As I said before, wrongdoing has clearly been committed if someone is given a prison sentence, and I think that any prison sentence of any length should disqualify MPs. Otherwise, we clearly need to establish a mechanism here in the House to prove serious wrongdoing, and only once that has been established would we grant electors the right, following a petition of 10% of the electors, to trigger a by-election—[Interruption.] I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking from a sedentary position whether that mechanism should be without any kind of filtering here in the House. The honest truth is that if we did it like that, and had a sort of free-for-all, there would be a real danger of a lot of vexatious and unjustified claims being made against one Member by others.

Will extreme care be taken in the drafting of the legislation to ensure that in absolutely no circumstances will a recall of a Member of Parliament be possible because of the way in which a Member votes or speaks—however objectionably—or because he changes party, as Winston Churchill did on two occasions?

We certainly would not want a recall mechanism that would have disqualified Winston Churchill. Precisely for the reasons that my hon. Friend has alluded to, we need to ensure that the system contains checks and balances so that it does not impinge on the freedom of Members on both sides of the House to speak out and articulate our views. That will not be the purpose of the recall mechanism. Its purpose will be to bear down on serious wrongdoing and to give people a chance to have their say in their own constituencies without having to wait until the next election for an opportunity to do so.

Boundary Reviews

4. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of holding constituency boundary reviews every five years. (42565)

Our current estimate of the costs of undertaking a boundary review under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 is £11.2 million. We are currently working on that estimate to update it to take into account all the changes made to that legislation in the later stages of its progress through Parliament.

Although it appears that the Deputy Prime Minister has calculated the cost of the changes in pound notes, he does not have a clue about the social cost of his plans, which will lead to the fragmentation of communities as new constituencies cut through historical, political and cultural boundaries simply to achieve his arbitrary arithmetical norm. Does the Minister not wish that he had simply decoupled that part of the Bill to secure his miserable little compromise?

The reason why I gave the hon. Gentleman an answer in pounds was that his question was about the cost to the public purse, and I was answering that question.

I do not agree with the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. There is a 10% margin, plus or minus 5%, within which the independent boundary commissions can take account of factors such as local ties and local government boundaries, but it has to be right that constituencies should be more equal in size. In the part of the world that the hon. Gentleman represents voters have more weight in the House of Commons than they should, compared with those in other parts of the country, and that is simply not right.

Does the Minister not agree that holding a boundary review every five years will be a recipe for chaos and uncertainty, given that the number of seats allocated in each country within the United Kingdom could change in that period? That would create great uncertainty among local electors, local authorities and local communities, who will not know what constituency they are going to be in. That will have a direct impact on the make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

There is a choice: we can have either infrequent boundary reviews, which would be more disruptive, or more frequent ones, which—all other things being equal—would be smaller. Clearly the first boundary review, with a change in the rules that will result in a reduction in the number of seats in the House from 650 to 600, will be a fairly significant one. After that, however, boundary reviews will simply reflect the movements of the electorate, and I think that that will be a much less disruptive process.

House of Lords Reform

The cross-party Committee, which I chair, has been considering proposals for a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. The Government will publish a draft Bill shortly, which will then be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government hope that that will be carried out by a Joint Committee of both Houses.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. Will the proposals include a fulfilment of the Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment to a fully elected House of Lords?

From what the hon. Gentleman has said, I take it that he supports 100% election to the other place, which is a great advance on the 0% of elected Members that the Labour Government delivered over the past 13 years. My party’s manifesto was very clear about a fully elected House of Lords, so it is no secret that that would be my preference, but as I have explained, we want to proceed with this process on a cross-party basis as much as possible. That is why I have been chairing the cross-party Committee, and why I would like all the proposals in the draft Bill to be subjected to rigorous scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses. My preference is clear, but all I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that, given the fact that the reform of the other place has been stalled for about 150 years, there is always a danger of making the best the enemy of the good.

The Deputy Prime Minister said that it had taken 150 years to get to this stage. May I urge him to take another 150 years before we have to vote?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend, for the simple reason that a principle is at stake—that those who make the laws of the land should be accountable, as is common to bicameral systems across the democratic world, to the people who have to abide by those laws. That is a simple principle. As he knows, we are committed by the coalition agreement to introducing legislation for a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords. As I said, we shall publish a Bill shortly, and it will then be subject to extensive scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses.

The Deputy Prime Minister has just confirmed what he said at the last Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions, which is that he has not made up him mind whether the draft Bill will keep his promise to have a 100% fully elected second Chamber, or whether there will only be a partially elected one.

On another issue of timing, the Deputy Prime Minister has said that he will publish the draft Bill shortly. Before the general election he said that a Bill would be published within six to seven weeks of a new Parliament being formed, and the coalition agreement said that one would be published by December 2010. I know that he is a busy, hard-working Deputy Prime Minister, so when exactly can we expect to see this draft Bill, and what is the reason for the delay?

I profess to being a little surprised, given that the right hon. Gentleman sat in the cross-party Committee that I chair, and I seem to remember that our last meeting was shortly before Christmas. He may profess ignorance of this matter, but he knows very well that the Committee, which I think has been proceeding in a methodical, co-operative and cross-party manner to try to create a cross-party consensus, concluded its work only relatively recently. He attended the last meeting shortly before Christmas, and we are now doing the work in government, which is entirely reasonable, to present a draft Bill based on that Committee’s work—and as I said, we shall do that shortly.

Topical Questions

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

We have heard that while the Prime Minister was touring the middle east, the Deputy Prime Minister was skiing in the Alps. Does that suggest that the Prime Minister prefers to have the Foreign Secretary in charge, rather than leave the Deputy Prime Minister running the shop?

As for the events of last week, I am sure everyone will agree that we should all pay tribute to the extraordinary courage and professionalism of the armed services personnel who did so much—last week, again this weekend and ongoing now—to secure the safe return of British citizens from Libya, which was the first priority of the Government throughout last week. In the end, I spent just short of two days—two working days—away last week, but as soon as it became obvious that I was needed here, I returned.

T3. Can my right hon. Friend please tell me what steps he is taking to restore the public’s faith in politics, and in their Members of Parliament? (42444)

Our whole constitutional reform programme is directed towards restoring the public’s faith in politics, and in their MPs. That is why we have legislated to give people a choice in the electoral system for the House of Commons. We have also legislated to introduce more evenly sized constituencies so that people feel they are equally represented in the House of Commons. As was discussed earlier, we will introduce a recall mechanism so that when an MP is found to have committed serious wrongdoing, a by-election can be held. We will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, and our plans for fixed-term Parliaments will mean that Prime Ministers can no longer manipulate the timing of general elections for their own party’s advantage. Finally, our plans for a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber will mean that the people, not the Prime Minister, will have a role in determining how our legislatures work.

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister back to the Dispatch Box. At least today it has not slipped his mind that he is Deputy Prime Minister. May I follow up on the question asked by the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom)? The Deputy Prime Minister talked about how the Lib Dems represent trust in politics—a politics that keeps its promises. Will he remind the House what he promised at the general election about police numbers?

As the right hon. and learned Lady knows very well, this Government have the unenviable, difficult task of clearing up the unholy mess that she left. I know that she and her colleagues want to live in complete denial, but because of the mistakes and economic incompetence of the Labour Government, we are spending £120 million, every single day of every single week, simply to pay off the interest on her debts. That is why, as the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, “There’s no money left.” Unfortunately, when there is no money left, we must make savings across the public services.

But that has not stopped the Government spending £100 million on elected police commissioners, and the Deputy Prime Minister has not answered the question; perhaps it has slipped his memory again. May I remind him? He promised 3,000 more police, and he has voted for 10,000 fewer police. Is the problem not just his forgetting that he is Deputy Prime Minister, but that he has forgotten every promise he ever made? Is he aware that his complete betrayal on tuition fees, VAT, the NHS and the police has led to a new word in the English language: if someone has been the victim of a total sell-out, we say that they have been “clegged”? Is he proud of that?

What an extraordinarily laboured question! The right hon. and learned Lady may have forgotten that her party promised an emergency Budget some time soon, and £14 billion of cuts starting in a few weeks. She complains about the difficult decisions that we are having to take, yet I have not heard her and her colleagues make a single suggestion about how to fill the enormous black hole in the public finances that they left to us to sort out.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend agree to consider extending the terms of the Protection of Freedoms Bill to give stronger powers to the Information Commissioner to fine internet companies who misuse people’s personal data? Does he not agree that we need an internet Bill of Rights to stop the advance of the privatised surveillance society? (42446)

This is a very important issue. As it happens, since April last year the Information Commissioner has had the power to impose a penalty of up to half a million pounds for serious breaches of the Data Protection Act, and that applies to internet companies who misuse personal data. The commissioner can also serve information notices and enforcement notices, apply for warrants, pursue prosecutions and accept undertakings. As my hon. Friend may know, the commissioner has issued a code of practice for collecting personal information online. Finally, he might be interested to know that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are working on updating the relevant regulations and are considering extending the powers of the Information Commissioner and the sanctions available when privacy is breached.

T2. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House his definition of front-line policing? If he cannot, does he understand that the House will have great difficulty in believing that he can protect essential services? (42443)

Actually, I think that one of the problems in policing, as is widely recognised, has been that there are not enough police officers out on the front line, on the beat, in our communities. By some estimates, only 11% of police officers are out and about in our communities at any one time. Yes, we are having to deal with financial pressures because of the reasons that I explained earlier, but at the same time we must reform policing to minimise the amount of time that police officers allocate to work in the back office, and to ensure that they are free to be out on the streets, which is where we want them, for as much time as possible.

T7. In a sample of more than 80 immigration cases coming through my constituency, more than 15% of those involved were found to be on the electoral roll when they had no entitlement to be there. Does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that urgent, immediate steps are needed to introduce positive voter identification? (42448)

I strongly agree that we must introduce measures to tackle electoral fraud. As my hon. Friend may know, we have announced that we will legislate to speed up the introduction of individual electoral registration to before the next general election, in 2014. Under that new scheme each person will have to register individually, whereas the current system is registration by household, and they will be asked to provide personal identifiers, including their national insurance number, to enable registration officers to verify the identity of a person before they are added to the register. That should tackle fraudulent or inaccurate register entries, which my hon. Friend rightly highlights.

T4. Before the election the Deputy Prime Minister said that providing more police was “the only way to create safer streets.” Now the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice says that there is no link between crime and police numbers. Which is it? (42445)

As I explained in answer to an earlier question, of course we want the police officers who are available to be out on the streets as much as possible. It is true that this is partly a question of resources—[Interruption.] Nothing is possible when there is no money. It was the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury who said, “There’s no money left.” Those were not our words; they were his words.

We cannot provide for our schools, hospitals and police forces unless we have money. Because of the mistakes made by the hon. Lady’s party, we are pouring £120 million down the drain every single day simply to pay off the interest on her party’s debts. That is the problem that we face. At the same time, we need to reform policing to ensure that police officers can spend as much time as possible out on the beat rather than behind their desks.

T8. In both Nantwich and Crewe, and in the surrounding rural areas, many people feel strongly that the current planning system is not on their side, particularly when it comes to wind turbines, mobile phone masts and overdevelopment. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what the Government are doing to improve the situation? (42449)

The basic principle is that we want people to feel that they have a stake in the planning system rather than feeling that things are being done to them. That is why, in the Localism Bill and in further measures that we wish to take, we are introducing new powers enabling local communities and neighbourhoods to determine for themselves what kind of decisions they want to be pursued in their areas, if necessary by triggering local referendums. For too long planning has been obscure, difficult to understand, very technocratic and highly over-centralised, and that is what we will be trying to change in the coming years.

T6. The first Deputy Prime Minister in British history to fail to turn up for work when the Prime Minister has gone abroad for a week! I think what I want to ask is, “What is the point of Nick Clegg?” (42447)

That was another much-rehearsed question. [Interruption.] I merely sigh at the laborious way in which these questions have been rehearsed and over-rehearsed.

The Prime Minister was away on an official trip. The fact that the Prime Minister is away on an official trip does not mean that he is not the Prime Minister any more. When the chief executive of a company goes on a business trip, he is still the chief executive. When the manager of a football club attends an away game, he is still the manager. As I sought to explain earlier, last week I was away for just under two working days, and I returned as soon as it became clear that I was needed back here.

T9. The pilot for the public reading stage of the Protection of Freedoms Bill is an innovative way of opening up the legislative process to the public. In that context, can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress on the delivery of a mechanism allowing formal parliamentary debate of petitions bearing at least 100,000 signatures? (42450)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is working on a proposal to deliver precisely what my hon. Friend has described: the ability of people who petition the House to ensure that their demands are heard on the Floor of the House of Commons. That is one of a number of innovations that will open up the way in which we scrutinise legislation and allow the public, as well as ourselves, to have a say in how we do it.

How will the boundary reviews take the 2011 census into account, given that the preliminary results will not be available until the middle of next year?

As the hon. Lady may know, we are basing the boundary reviews on the electoral register rather than the census. That has been standard practice for a long time, and we do not intend to change it.

What action can the Deputy Prime Minister take to ensure that local authorities make every effort to ensure that young people find their way on to the electoral roll?

It is a vital issue of concern for all Members on both sides of the House that those who are not registered should be registered. One step that we will soon be piloting is to allow electoral registration officers to compare their databases with other publicly available databases, so that they can literally go from door to door and say, “You’re on this database, but you’re not on that one,” and thereby encourage people to register. Drawing international comparisons, our registration rates of just over 90% are pretty respectable, but of course we want to continue to do whatever we can to raise that standard even further.

Birmingham city council will today vote through the biggest local government cuts in history, with cuts of £212 million for next year. Two weeks ago the council’s deputy leader, Liberal Democrat Councillor Paul Tilsley, wrote to The Times protesting against the cuts, but 24 hours later he signed the budget. As the Deputy Prime Minister believes in restoring faith in politics, how would he describe the actions of Councillor Tilsley, or is he too on a slippery slope?

All local authorities of whatever political persuasion are clearly facing a very tough local government finance settlement, and we have never hidden the fact that it is extremely difficult. I think there is a great deal of discretion in how local councils can respond to those same pressures, however. For example, I am very struck by the fact that in Sheffield, the city where I am an MP, the Liberal Democrat council has kept every library and swimming pool open and has not made any major cuts to adult social services, and only 270 people will be laid off next year, whereas across the Pennines in Labour-controlled Manchester, 2,500 people have been laid off and almost everything has been closed across the whole city. In Birmingham, as in all great cities, difficult decisions are being made, and I trust that they are being made in a way that safeguards the services for the most vulnerable in that city.

I too welcome the excellent innovation of a public reading stage for the Protection of Freedoms Bill, to involve the public in the law-making process. Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the Government intend ultimately to extend that process of public engagement to all Bills? Will they also consider improving it even further—for example, by putting a Bill’s explanatory notes on the consultation website and considering the public’s suggestions at Committee stage?

As my hon. Friend may know, using the Protection of Freedoms Bill as the first pilot for providing the public with a public reading stage is precisely that: a pilot. We must learn the lessons from that, and see whether a public reading stage sufficiently engages people and makes the whole legislative process accessible to the public. If it does prove to be successful, and if we can make all the technical adjustments that might be needed work, then yes of course, in principle we would like to see this extended to all other pieces of legislation and draft Bills.

Attorney-General

The Attorney-General was asked—

Serious Fraud Office

2. What the policy of the Serious Fraud Office is on seeking costs from those convicted as a result of a prosecution brought by the office. (42452)

I am extremely pleased about the change of policy in the case of the British Aerospace contract in Tanzania, for which costs were sought and paid. Will the Attorney-General make sure that costs are always sought where there is a conviction? At a time of very tight public expenditure, it is important for the SFO to get income from wherever it can in order to investigate and prosecute such cases.

I entirely agree that costs should normally be sought. Of course there may be instances where that is simply not appropriate, such as where the defendant is destitute or penniless and it is clear that a cost order will serve no purpose—and, indeed, a court is unlikely to make one. Subject to that, however, it is the normal policy that where a conviction is secured, costs are sought.

Human Trafficking

3. What plans the Crown Prosecution Service has to improve the effectiveness of prosecution policy in human trafficking cases. (42453)

The CPS keeps the effectiveness of prosecution policy and guidance to prosecutors on human trafficking under review, and updates them on a regular basis. The CPS will soon publish a new public policy statement on human trafficking to explain the prosecutor’s role in such cases and the approach taken by the CPS.

I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer. In June 2010 there were 139 convictions for human trafficking. Will he write to me with an updated figure for such convictions?

Will the Attorney-General meet the officers of the all-party group on human trafficking, because one thing we have learned is that there is a considerable problem in prosecuting human trafficking cases and prosecutors often decide to pursue a lesser offence as it is easier to get a conviction?

On the first point, both my right hon. and learned Friend and I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the group at some mutually convenient time, and I look forward to doing so. On the second point, all successful prosecutions depend on bringing the available evidence to court. It is not only our policy, but that of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, that every assistance should be given to vulnerable witnesses, particularly those in cases of the sort that my hon. Friend describes, so that we can achieve prosecutions. We take this matter extremely seriously—indeed, I was in the Court of Appeal just before Christmas applying successfully to have an unduly lenient sentence increased.

But the Solicitor-General will be aware that often in human trafficking cases the victim is reluctant to give evidence or does not assist the progress of the case. Can he assure the House that in such cases, where the victim is more frightened of the police than she is of her abusers, the CPS is committed to carrying forward prosecutions wherever possible?

Yes, I can. The hon. Lady is perfectly right to say that many victims of human trafficking come from countries and jurisdictions where the police are seen as oppressors, rather than as assistants to the criminal justice system and to victims. However, the CPS and this country’s police forces are acutely aware of that and are sensitive to the needs of those traumatised victims. I can assure her that everything will be done to assist the prosecution of traffickers, with or without the evidence of the victim.

The Solicitor-General will be aware of the recent legal challenge to the Government threatened by the POPPY project, the organisation that supports victims of trafficking. It is based on the Ministry of Justice’s failure to consult and to publish an equality impact assessment on the proposed funding cuts, which the POPPY project claims breaches the Council of Europe convention against human trafficking. Given the High Court’s recent damning verdict on the way in which the Department for Education cancelled the Building Schools for the Future programme and given the Fawcett Society’s challenge relating to the disproportionate impact on women of the emergency Budget, will the Solicitor-General assure the House that Departments are aware of their duties to consult properly and consider rigorously equality impacts before decisions are made? Will he place a guidance note on the matter in the Library so that Parliament can better understand the obligations, thereby avoiding such abuses of power?

The hon. Lady’s first paragraph or so would be better directed at the relevant Departments—the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education—but the points that she makes will doubtless have been noted. On the later points, I will certainly consider what she has to say and see whether it is appropriate to put such a note in the Library.

Ministerial Speech

5. If he will place in the Library a copy of the speech he made to Politeia on 14 February 2011. (42456)

I did not make a formal speech during the Politeia event, so any comments I made were in response to points raised during a seminar. I therefore regret that I do not have any written record that can be placed in the Library.

The Attorney-General is reported as having said the following at the Politeia seminar:

“The court”—

the European Court of Human Rights—

“doesn’t have the last word. It only has the last word so far as parliament has decided that it should. We could, if we wanted to, undo that—I think we should always bear that in mind—and actually undo it without some of the consequences we have over the European Union.”

Did he say that? If so, what does it mean?

The question arose in the context of parliamentary sovereignty. What I said to the seminar was what I also said to this House on the previous Thursday, which was that the operation of the European convention on human rights and the jurisdiction of the Court are based on the UK having signed up to the convention in the late 1940s and having ratified it through Parliament, with Parliament thereby accepting the jurisdiction of the Court. It is legally open to Parliament to enact primary legislation or otherwise to withdraw from the convention if it wished to do so and if the Government wished that through Parliament. That was the point that I was making; I was simply trying to explain the legal framework under which parliamentary sovereignty works in this context. I would add that any withdrawal would not come without costs or consequences, and it is not Government policy to withdraw.

CPS/Police Co-ordination

6. What steps he is taking to ensure better co-ordination between the Crown Prosecution Service and police forces. (42457)

The Crown Prosecution Service and the police have a close working relationship. They are working together on returning the charging of some offences to the police, eradicating duplicated work and improving communications, making greater use of information technology through the service and delivery of electronic case files and providing a better service to victims and witnesses.

In 2010, more than a fifth of abandoned prosecutions were because of the CPS’s failure to review cases before they came to trial, which was extremely upsetting for the victims concerned. What steps can my hon. and learned Friend take to make sure that the police and the CPS work together more collaboratively and share information so that this does not happen so much in future?

I commend my hon. Friend on his close interest, both within his county and nationally, in matters of this sort. Police charging of some offences will clearly help to cut time-wasting, as will doing away with the unnecessary duplication of case file preparation and the better use of IT. The police and the CPS need to co-operate and work together from a very early stage so that the gathering and assessment of evidence can be effectively and efficiently directed towards achieving justice.

Will the Minister advise the House what contact his Department has had with the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, the public prosecutor, the Police Service for Northern Ireland and our Justice Minister to ensure that cases in our courts are processed expeditiously and that there is not a two-gear system in which cases in Northern Ireland progress considerably more slowly than in the rest of the United Kingdom?

My right hon. and learned Friend and I meet and speak to the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland from time to time, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that the justice system in Northern Ireland is devolved to Northern Ireland and that it would not be right for us to interfere in its day-to-day work.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that one problem faced by the CPS is that there often is not sufficient time for those who have the charge of cases to review them, partly because they have to spend so much time on administration. What steps is he taking to ensure that changes?

I am not sure that the picture my hon. and learned Friend paints is of general application, although I am sure it is true in some cases. Certainly, the Attorney-General’s office and the senior management of the CPS, from the Director of Public Prosecutions downwards, are determined to ensure that we have a system of prosecution that is not only just but efficient and effective.

How can the CPS and the police work together better to persuade courts not to give bail to persistent and prolific offenders? Nothing annoys the police more than regular offenders appearing before a court only to be released to commit offences while on bail.

I understand the point of frustration that my hon. Friend raises. The Law Officers are not here to direct judges on what to do in any given case, but the CPS and the police need to co-operate to make sure that relevant evidence is put before the court so that it can make a decision based on its application of the facts to the law and the sort of cases to which my hon. Friend refers happen on fewer occasions.

Witness Care

9. What steps he plans to take to ensure that the outcome of the comprehensive spending review will not have an adverse effect on the provision of services by witness care units. (42460)

The Crown Prosecution Service is committed to ensuring that the provision of services by witness care units is protected. Future funding for witness care units will still be made from the CPS baseline budget along with the commitment that also comes from the Ministry of Justice. Consequently, the outcome of the comprehensive spending review will not have an adverse effect on the provision of those services.

I thank the Attorney-General for his reply. Has he made representations to the Home Secretary to ensure that the police input into funding, which is extremely important, continues in respect of witness care units?

It is my experience, from the importance that the Home Secretary attaches to ensuring that witnesses and victims are properly cared for, that she gives this matter considerable priority. I have not been made aware of anything that suggests that my Department’s work will be adversely affected in this area by anything being done by the police, but I will certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend. If she or I can provide the right hon. Gentleman with some reassurance, I am sure we will be happy to do so.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Registration (Students)

1. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to improve levels of voter registration among students. (42461)

The commission runs campaigns before every election to encourage electors to register to vote. These typically include activities targeted at students. The commission is running a public awareness campaign ahead of the May 2011 elections and referendum, which will include working with student unions and other student groups across the UK to promote awareness of the election and referendum and the voter registration deadline.

In the Loughborough constituency, 12,000 students are studying at university, yet only 50% or so are on the electoral register. Registration is patchy among those in halls and those living out. It is important that students register to vote because for many of them this will be the first election in which they can vote. Is my hon. Friend happy that the Electoral Commission is providing specific guidance on the fact that they can be registered at their home and also where they are studying?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are confident that all the information that students need is on the Electoral Commission website, but the role of local electoral registration officers, student unions and universities in getting that information across to students is critical.

The Electoral Commission has had discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister about the use of national data sources to aid registration levels. Does this extend to the use of the national insurance database, which contains rising 16-year-olds? Giving them early experience of electoral registration might improve subsequent levels of registration by students.

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I know that these matters are being discussed between the Deputy Prime Minister’s Department and the Electoral Commission. Hopefully, these discussions will come to a fruitful conclusion before too long.

Electoral System

2. What steps the Electoral Commission plans to take to inform members of the public about the merits and demerits of the alternative vote system for elections to the House of Commons. (42462)

5. What steps the Electoral Commission plans to take to provide information to voters on the forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote system for elections to the House of Commons. (42465)

The Electoral Commission plans to send an information booklet to each household in the United Kingdom. The booklet will include a factual description of the first-past-the-post and alternative vote systems. It will not comment on the merits of different electoral systems used for particular elections. That is a matter for the yes and no campaigns. The booklet will also include information on the devolved elections and how to register to vote, and will be supported by an advertising campaign.

I have already seen some palpably false claims about the alternative vote system from the no campaign, which the yes campaign will obviously need to rebut, yet I note that it has been awarded only £380,000 to make its arguments, as of course has the no campaign, whereas a maximum of £600,000 was available. Is there any chance that the Electoral Commission will increase the funding equally to both sides?

Nobody has been awarded any money yet because nobody has been designated to run the yes and no campaigns. That will happen later in March. I am not aware of the specific figures that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I will refer his comments to the Electoral Commission. If there is an opportunity to do more and do better, we will certainly take it.

I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier reply. Will he go further and clarify what independent academic input has been used by the Electoral Commission as it prepares the briefings, who those people are and on what basis they were selected?

I am happy to be able to reassure my hon. Friend on that point. As part of the development of the text for the core section of the information booklet, the commission consulted academic experts on electoral systems. These were Professor Colin Rallings of the university of Plymouth and Professor David Sanders of the university of Essex. The consultation was intended to ensure that the explanations of the first-past-the-post and alternative vote systems were accurate. The commission also consulted the Plain Language Commission to ensure that the text was as accessible as possible, and undertook research co-ordinated by the Central Office of Information to ensure that the text was understood by voters. This involved in-depth interviews with members of the public in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Church Commissioners

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

Property Disputes

3. What procedure exists for resolving disputes between the Church Commissioners and third parties over the ownership of property. (42463)

There is no set procedure for resolving disputes of property ownership. Each dispute is treated individually, having regard for the particular circumstances of the case.

In one of the villages in my constituency, just outside Harlow, a community group is in dispute with the local parish church over the ownership of a hall and its land. Does my hon. Friend agree that an arbitration service would surely be preferable to a costly court case in such matters, as the community group concerned does not have the resources to fight a lengthy legal battle?

In such instances, I suggest that mediation is always preferable. I understand that the Archdeacon of Harlow offered to act as a mediator but was turned down. I am a qualified and trained mediator, so if I was acceptable to Roydon parochial church council and the Dobbs Weir residents association, I would be willing, pro bono, to act as mediator.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral System (Referendum)

4. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the adequacy of the time available for provision of information to the public on the forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote system for elections to the House of Commons. (42464)

The Electoral Commission believes that there is sufficient time for it to provide factual information to the public on the alternative vote and first-past-the-post voting systems and for campaigners to put across their arguments effectively. The commission has been preparing for the referendum since the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was introduced in Parliament last summer.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. However, in response to an earlier question he indicated that the Electoral Commission will not even designate the yes and no campaigns until the end of March, or thereabouts, leaving only April and five days in May for the campaigns. Is that really long enough?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The designation of the yes and no campaigns will happen as soon as possible after 15 March—anyone can bid to become part of those campaigns before then—and in any event by 29 March. The Electoral Commission is confident that the campaign period is adequate for the purpose.

Will the hon. Gentleman condemn the outlandish and wholly fictitious claims being made by the no campaign about the costs of introducing the alternative vote if there is a yes vote? These include claims about voting machines, which the Electoral Commission has confirmed would not be necessary, about the cost of the referendum itself, which will be the same whichever campaign wins, and about the cost of an education campaign, which the commission has made quite clear would not be necessary. Will he deprecate those false claims?

I am delighted to say that it is not the role of the Electoral Commission to act as a referee between the yes and no campaigns. It is up to those campaigns to make their political arguments and rebut those with which they do not agree.

Church Commissioners

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

Former Roman Catholic Priests (Ordination)

6. How many former Roman Catholic priests have sought ordination in the Church of England since 2005; and if he will make a statement. (42466)

Figures held by the Archbishops Council show that in the past five years 14 former Roman Catholic priests have sought to be received into ordained ministry within the Church of England. As there is also discretion at diocesan level for acceptance into the ministry, not all candidates are centrally recorded, so the national figure is likely to be higher.

National newspapers suggest that there is a one-way road leading from Canterbury to Rome. I have no brief for the established Church—I come from good non-conformist stock—but does the hon. Gentleman agree that more should be done to make it clear to those Roman Catholic priests who are unhappy that there is a welcome for them in the Church of England?

I say to my hon. Friend that there is a welcome for everyone in the Church of England. He makes a good point; national newspapers give the impression that there is a one-way street for disaffected Church of England priests going to the Roman Catholic Church, but that is certainly not the case. There are very good ecumenical relations between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, as was demonstrated by Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the UK. There is certainly two-way traffic, and long may that continue.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral Fraud

7. What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on its report on fraud in the 2010 elections. (42467)

The Electoral Commission published its report on cases of alleged electoral malpractice in 2010 on 16 February 2011 and has received no representations on it.

I will make one representation. The commission’s report stated that it was not aware at the time of any case reported to the police that affected the outcome of the election to which it related. In fact, there has been one case of alleged electoral malpractice resulting in prosecution and conviction, and court proceedings have been initiated in another case. Does that not make absolutely absurd the claim made in September by the Conservative party chair, Baroness Warsi, that the Conservatives failed to win an overall majority in the general election because of electoral fraud, predominantly within the Asian community, that benefited Labour? Does the Baroness not owe the Electoral Commission an apology for the slur on its oversight of electoral proceedings? Frankly, does she not owe an apology to the Labour party and the Asian community as well?

The Electoral Commission is not responsible for the comments of any politician in this country, I am delighted to say. The report on electoral fraud showed that there were 232 cases of alleged electoral malpractice in 2010, 137 of which required no further action. Sixty-eight cases remain under investigation; in 23 cases police advice was given; two cases resulted in a caution; and court proceedings were brought in two cases, resulting in one conviction.

The House will know that, regrettably, six individuals have been found guilty of election malpractice arising from personation and postal vote fraud in Peterborough in the past four years. What specific strategies are the Electoral Commission pursuing to concentrate on postal vote fraud?

The Electoral Commission has made recommendations to the Government about tightening up voter identification, and the Government are considering that report. Naturally, the Electoral Commission takes all allegations of fraud seriously, but it is a matter for the police to investigate each and every incident.

Church Commissioners

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

Clergy Accommodation

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but does he not think that there should be such a policy in the light of what is happening in Christchurch at the moment? The vicarage adjoining the priory lies empty, but the diocese pays more than £2,000 a month to rent alternative accommodation, several miles from the priory, for the new priest in charge, who is quite willing to occupy the priory should the diocese be willing to allow that to happen. Will my hon. Friend convene a meeting, using his powers of mediation, to try to drum some common sense and economic sense into the diocese on that issue?

The Christchurch parsonage is a very large building, being twice the recommended size, and it is very expensive for the diocese to maintain and for the occupier to run. The diocese is looking to replace it with a more suitable property, and the newly appointed priest in charge has therefore simply been housed temporarily in a rented property. In this instance, I do not need to act as a mediator, because there is a perfectly good remedy. If the parochial church council is unhappy with what the diocese is doing, it can make representations that the Church Commissioners will have to consider.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Participation (Overseas Residents)

9. What recent discussions the Electoral Commission has had with Ministers on increasing the level of (a) registration and (b) turnout of electors resident outside the UK. (42469)

The Electoral Commission meets Ministers regularly to discuss the delivery of elections and referendums, including how to ensure that all electors, whether overseas or in the UK, can cast their votes easily and securely.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the shockingly low participation by overseas electors in UK elections. Of the potential 5.5 million British subjects living abroad, only about 15,000 are registered. What work has the Electoral Commission done on the implications of fixed-term Parliaments for sending out postal ballot papers significantly earlier in the electoral cycle, thereby improving the participation rate of overseas electors?

My hon. Friend is a consistent advocate of overseas voters. The Electoral Commission has done work on the issue and submitted representations to the Deputy Prime Minister as part of a comprehensive modernisation strategy for our electoral system. We wait to see what the Government will do with that report.

As I am out knocking on doors just now in East Lothian, encouraging people who are not on the register to register, or those who are on the register to register for a postal vote, I am not always confident that the forms will be returned. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a freepost return facility on all the forms would increase participation and registration?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her recommendation, which I shall certainly pass on to the Electoral Commission. I thought that that already happened. Obviously it does not, so I shall make representations, and we will write to her with our response.

Voter Registration

10. What discussions the Electoral Commission has had with electoral registration officers on their performance in respect of voter registration. (42470)

Since 2008, the Electoral Commission has monitored the performance of electoral registration officers in Great Britain against a set of standards, and it publishes an annual assessment of those standards which covers the key planning and management processes put in place by EROs. The Electoral Commission advises and works closely with EROs who do not meet these standards in order to improve their performance.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and welcome the steps that he has outlined. Should those steps not bear fruit, has the Electoral Commission considered any other, more directly interventionist actions that it could possibly take?

Once again, my hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Electoral Commission does work with EROs who underperform, but they remain at all times employees of the local authority, and the commission has no statutory power to intervene. It is of course a matter for this House whether we wish to consider further powers to enable the Electoral Commission to do an even better job.