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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Disabled People (Elected Office)

1. What progress he has made on implementing his proposals for additional support for disabled people to achieve elected office. (56959)

We conducted a public consultation exercise, which ran from 16 February to 11 May, to seek views on a range of proposals designed to help to remove barriers faced by disabled people who are seeking elected office. We are currently analysing the responses, and intend to announce the strategy later this year.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. In Hastings we have 32 councillors and in East Sussex 49, but not one of them is registered disabled. Can he give any advice to the leaders of my councils about what can be done to encourage more disabled people to get involved in local politics?

My hon. Friend is right: the issue is applicable not just to this place, but to councils up and down the country. There are clearly barriers impeding the participation of people with disabilities in politics at all levels. I pay tribute to those who were involved in the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, which was started some years ago and identified this as a problem. In our access to elected office strategy, which we will announce, we will address how that might affect local councils as well as this place.

House of Lords

3. What representations he has received on his plans for the future composition of the House of Lords. (56961)

Yes, forgive me. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I would like to group questions 3, 4, 5, 11 and 12. A major issue—my omission to group the questions. That is how over-excited Members on the Opposition Benches get.

5. What recent representations he has received on his proposals for reform of the House of Lords. (56963)

11. What representations he has received on his plans for the future composition of the House of Lords. (56969)

12. What recent representations he has received on his proposals for reform of the House of Lords. (56970)

The loudest voices inevitably belong to those who object the most to our proposals to make the House of Lords a more democratic Chamber but, as the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) said last week, a democratic Chamber was endorsed in the manifestos of all three of the largest parties in the House.

Accountability is the essence of democracy. If the newly elected Members serve only one term for 15 years, how can that be called democratic?

As was discussed in the debate last week, the principle that one of the ways in which we distinguish between a reformed House of Lords and this Chamber is to introduce long non-renewable terms for the elected component in the other place was not invented by this Government. It was identified in a series of cross-party commissions over many years, but if the Joint Committee that is to be established thinks otherwise, that is exactly the kind of thing that we should debate in the months ahead.

Given that reform of the House of Lords was in all three major parties’ manifestos, is it not right that the House discuss the matter in Committee to work out the best way to implement it?

Yes, and that is precisely why we look forward to a Joint Committee of both Houses being established through the usual channels, which will be able to get to grips with all the many questions, queries and objections that have been raised, so that we can as far as possible proceed on a cross-party basis on something that all parties are committed to seeing through.

From his conversations with the Prime Minister, how committed would the Deputy Prime Minister say the Prime Minister is to facing down his own Back Benchers and, if necessary, using the Parliament Act to get the reform through before the next election?

The Prime Minister gave an unambiguous answer to the question about the Parliament Act at Prime Minister’s questions last week. Not only was the commitment made by all three parties in their manifestos, but it is one that we entered unambiguously into the coalition agreement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that the reforms lead to an increase in the diversity of representation in the second Chamber? What steps will he take to ensure that that is the outcome of the reform?

One of the advantages of the system that we are introducing, as explained in the White Paper, is that it will permit political parties to take active steps, in so far as they wish to do so, to use elections to the other place to increase the diversity of representation in Westminster as a whole.

Given the country’s firm rejection of AV in the recent referendum and the fact that the Government’s proposals include the possibility of some form of proportional representation for election of Members of this Parliament, will my right hon. Friend at least consider giving the people of this country a referendum on this important constitutional change?

The first point of which to remind my hon. Friend is that this was a manifesto commitment of all three parties. It is something that we as a country have been discussing for around 100 years or so, and we have introduced changed electoral systems to a number of Assemblies and Parliaments in the UK without referendums in the past.

It is understanable that there is tension and disagreement between the two coalition parties on this issue, and perhaps on other matters, but it was reported last week that during a recent meeting of Tory MPs one Member described the Liberal Democrats as “yellow” followed by a second word beginning with “b” then “a” and ending in “s”. Was the Deputy Prime Minister as shocked as I was by such behaviour?

Order. May I gently say to the Deputy Prime Minister and to the House that I do not think he is responsible for what is said at meetings of Conservative Members of Parliament?

Should the right hon. Gentleman not drop this unpopular policy, which does not resonate with the majority of the public, and concentrate instead on finding a solution to the problem of the West Lothian question?

I am the first to acknowledge that, whether it is the West Lothian question or reform of the House of Lords, these are of course not matters that are raised by our constituents or on the doorsteps as we campaign at election time, but it does not mean that they are unimportant. We discuss many things in this House, from local government finance to world trade rules and all sorts of things that are not raised from day to day in our local communities, but that are none the less important. That is why we as a country have been struggling with this dilemma for more than 100 years and why all three parties have a manifesto commitment finally to make progress on reforming the other place.

The thing we find most bizarre about all this is that it is a priority for the Government at this time. The coalition agreement states that they will continue to appoint peers to the House of Lords

“with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”

There are currently 792 unelected peers, after a year of the fastest level of appointment of new peers in the history of this country. To get to the objective set out in the agreement, the Deputy Prime Minister would have to appoint another 269. Are there another 97 Liberal Democrats to make peers in the House of Lords? Should there not be a moratorium?

Every time the hon. Gentleman asks a question, I find it more and more baffling why anyone should want to hack his phone and listen to his messages. It is quite extraordinary. The point he has just made illustrates why we need to reform the House of Lords.

Postal Voting

6. What recent assessment he has made of arrangements for the provision of postal votes on demand. (56964)

We have made no specific assessment of postal voting on demand, but we of course keep postal voting under review as we consider electoral administration in general.

There have been widespread reports of shocking abuses of postal votes, especially in areas with high levels of multiple occupancy housing. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what steps the Government are taking to stamp out postal vote fraud and ensure honesty in our elections?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He will know that we are introducing individual voter registration before the next general election, which will mean that everyone who wants to cast an absent vote, a postal vote in this case, will have to register individually and provide their identifiers to their registration officer in order to make the register more secure.

Conservative Members are very prone to making rash statements about alleged postal vote fraud, and not just in this House, but in another place. I have been in correspondence with the Minister and regularly asked the Leader of the House whether he can get Baroness Warsi to retract her statement that the Conservative party was robbed of a majority at the last election because of electoral fraud on behalf of the Labour party, particularly in the Asian community. Although a Cabinet member, she resolutely refuses to reply. Will the Minister do so now on her behalf?

The right hon. Gentleman raised this matter at business questions. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House drew it to my attention, as I am the Minister responsible for that policy area, and I replied as quickly as possible and gave the right hon. Gentleman a full answer. If he wishes to raise it with me again and ask me anything—[Interruption.] If Labour Members would actually listen, they might hear my answer. If he would like to ask me anything that I have not already answered in my letter, I would be delighted to write to him again.

Voting Facilities (Service Personnel)

7. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on steps to facilitate voting in elections by service personnel serving abroad. (56965)

I have discussed that issue with the Minister responsible for defence personnel, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), and our officials in the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence are continuing to work on proposals to make it easier for our brave service personnel abroad to be able to participate in general elections. The hon. Lady will know some details about that from the written answers I gave her last week.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but I am disappointed by the lack of urgency with which his Government are addressing the matter. I was shocked to find that, as a result of the Government’s initiative in relation to voting on 5 May this year, only 40 of the thousands of service personnel deployed in Afghanistan voted in secret by post in the referendum, compared with the 217 who voted by post in the general election last year. At a public meeting in October 2008—

Order. We must have a one-second question; there is a lot to get through. Quick question, and we will carry on.

The Deputy Prime Minister assured my constituent Devina Worsley that he and the Armed Forces Minister would take action to address the issue. Is that another broken promise, or is he just not up to the job?

I thought that we were going to get something good then, but that was clearly rehearsed. The hon. Lady will know from my detailed answer that the number of people who voted in the specific initiative that we set up, building on the one that the Labour party undertook for the general election, does not take into account all personnel in Afghanistan, some of whom will have registered separately. She will know also that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government plan to lengthen the campaign period for general elections so that overseas voters, including our service personnel, have more opportunity to vote. That is a very clear promise—

When the Minister talks to the Ministry of Defence about voting, will he try to ensure that not just the way our servicemen and women vote but the way they are required to register is as simple as possible?.

I agree, and we are doing two things. We are going to make registering as a service voter more straightforward, and we are going to undertake some data-matching pilots with a number of local authorities, working with the Ministry of Defence, so that we can look at improving the way service personnel are registered so they all have the chance to register and vote in elections.

Police and Crime Commissioners

8. What discussions he has had with the Electoral Commission on the conduct of elections for police and crime commissioners. (56966)

I have discussed the conduct of the elections for police and crime commissioners with the chair of the Electoral Commission. Cabinet Office officials have also been working closely with their counterparts at the Electoral Commission as part of work with the Home Department on the policy and legislation that will be required to allow for the conduct and regulation of those elections.

Many of my constituents would far rather see the estimated £100 million cost of running such elections for police commissioners spent on keeping police on the beat, but will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us the views of the Electoral Commission on limits to the campaigning expenses for elected police commissioner candidates?

The intention will of course be to bring the legislation on elections for police and crime commissioners into line with that on other elections. We are absolutely determined to deliver the commitment in the coalition agreement to hold the elections so that we have greater accountability in policing. Policing matters to every single family and community in this country, and that is why we should make the police more accountable to the people they serve.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure us that he will do what he can to ensure that there is no repeat of what happened in Northern Ireland earlier this month, when we had three different polls on one day, an inordinate delay in declaring the AV referendum result and significant delays in the other polls as well?

I am obviously very keen to hear from the hon. Gentleman any specific reservations he has about how the combination of polls operated, but the provisional feedback seems to be that, despite some very dire warnings about the combination of polls not only in Northern Ireland but elsewhere, on the whole it was conducted very successfully indeed.

The Deputy Prime Minister will know that plans for police commissioners are a pretty major change in the way we do things, with new electoral boundaries and a new post. I will not go into the substance of the disagreement between the two sides about police commissioners, but on a procedural point the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned his discussions with the Electoral Commission. How soon in advance of the elections, which are now less than a year away, will we see the rules on spending limits, on fundraising transparency and on how the elections are held? He will be aware that all parties need to have time to select candidates throughout the country.

The right hon. Gentleman —unusually—makes a fair point. We do need to get these rules into place in good time, and we will be working with the Electoral Commission at all levels to make sure that the rules are available to everybody who wants to participate in these elections in good time so that they can be held in the proper way.

Political and Constitutional Reform

9. What representations he has received on the application of the Salisbury convention to legislative proposals relating to political and constitutional reform. (56967)

The Deputy Prime Minister is well known for his love of Parliament and democracy. Perhaps no representations have been made because there is no question of the Parliament Acts being invoked at any time during this period of government because no single party was elected to government.

The hon. Gentleman’s question is about the Salisbury convention, which is one of many conventions that entrench the relationship between the other place and the House of Commons. The Parliament Acts are also vital in that regard. We have no intention of altering either the Acts or the convention.

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 this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer. Now that the Deputy Prime Minister is even less popular than the Swiss entry in the recent Eurovision contest—at least they got 19 points—what immediate plans does he have to redeem himself in the public eye? Moreover, what principle or value is he not prepared to sell out over in his quest to cling to power?

Well read and well rehearsed! I will tell the hon. Gentleman one thing that I am not going to flinch from for one minute, and that is to clear up the mess left by Labour. Because of the sheer economic incompetence of the Labour party in government, this country, on the backs of our children and grandchildren, is borrowing £400 million a day. He might think that is okay; I do not.

T2. Can the Deputy Prime Minister give the House a timetable for his proposed reforms of the House of Lords? Will it be during the life of this Parliament, and how flexible are the proportions? Would he consider 30, 30 and 30? (56975)

The timetable is that the Joint Committee of both Houses first needs to complete its work, and we hope that it will do so in the early stages of next year, with a view to the Government then publishing a Bill in the second Session in order to see the first steps in a reformed House of Lords and the first elections taking place in 2015.

People are worried about the NHS being turned from a public service into a commercial market. Part 3 of the Health and Social Care Bill makes this about profits, not patients. The Deputy Prime Minister has reportedly told his Back Benchers that he is against that, so will he tell the House now that the Government will strike out of the Bill the whole of part 3? He has been talking tough in private, but will he say it here in public?

I can be very clear, and the Government as a whole can be very clear, that there will be no privatisation of the NHS. It will not be run for profit and it will not be fragmented; it will be free at the point of use based on need rather than the ability to pay—full stop.

The right hon. Gentleman ducked the question on part 3, did he not? It is clear that he will not stand up for the NHS against the Tories. There has been a pause in Parliament, but have not the Tories told him that on the ground they are forging ahead with this?

It was the right hon. and learned Lady’s party in government that rigged contracts with private sector providers, undermining the NHS and undermining NHS hospitals—a rigged contract with private sector providers to undermine the very ethos of the NHS. We are legislating to make sure that, once and for all, there is a level playing field in the NHS for everyone who is providing care to the British people.

T3. Just 30,000 of the 5.5 million British citizens living overseas are registered to vote. What plans do the Government have to make it easier for them to register and to lengthen the election timetable so that those who do register can vote by post? (56976)

I think there is a strong case for lengthening the election timetable to address that issue. We are looking at the matter in detail and will come forward with proposals as soon as we can.

T5. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that he is prepared to see Liberal MPs and peers veto the Health and Social Care Bill. Given that, why did he sign the foreword to the health White Paper? (56978)

The principles of the White Paper were less bureaucracy, more patient-centred health, greater control for people who know patients best so that they can decide where money circulates in the system, greater accountability, and less centralisation. First, those are worthwhile reforms. Secondly, they build on many of the reforms that the Labour party introduced when in government. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues were more honest, they would back our attempt to listen to the British people and reform the NHS so that it is safeguarded for future generations.

Order. I am sure no one is suggesting that any right hon. or hon. Member would be dishonest in this Chamber. [Interruption.] Order. I take that as read.

T4. Did not the Government inherite an unreformed, unwieldy, unaccountable health service that was partly privatised, and are not these reforms necessary to secure the future of the health service for the next generation? (56977)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Opposition Members simply cannot get their heads around the fact that this Government are prepared to listen. We are prepared to listen to doctors, nurses, consultants and patients. What is more—this is something the Labour Government never did—when we think we can improve our proposals, we are prepared to do so.

T6. The Deputy Prime Minister has repeated ad nauseam that the commitment to reform the House of Lords was in all three parties’ manifestos. [Hon. Members: “It was.”] Of course it was. Does that not mean that the electorate did not have the choice to vote for somebody who did not want to reform the House of Lords? Is there not therefore a strong case for a referendum on this issue, which is much more important than AV? (56979)

A seriously surreal doctrine is emerging. The hon. Gentleman was unable to persuade his colleagues to exclude the issue from the manifesto, so he wants to circumvent the manifesto on which he stood at the last general election by way of a referendum.

T7. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister shares my view that the influence of lobbying can cause serious defamation to the democratic process. Will he update the House on the status of his register of lobbyists? (56980)

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), has announced in the House that we are consulting on that matter. We hope that the consultation will proceed during the summer to meet the objective in the coalition agreement of creating a register of lobbyists.

T8. Will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the discussions he has had with his Government and party colleagues on the circumstances in which parliamentarians should be above the rule of law? (56982)

I do not think that anyone should be above the rule of law. If we do not like the law in this place, we should act as legislators to change the law, not flout it.

T10. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals for House of Lords reform were not met with total acclaim last week, will he reflect on the points that have been made last week and this week, and try to seek consensus on the issue? To invoke the Parliament Act would be a most unwise move. (56984)

I do not think that any proposal to reform the other place has been met with total acclaim for as long as the matter has been discussed, which is more than a century. That is the nature of the issue. There are strong feelings on all sides of the debate and, let us be frank, some strong vested interests who do not want to see any change. That is why we want to establish a Joint Committee of both Houses. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend that, where possible, we should proceed on a cross-party basis on something as significant as this.

T9. Under the Government’s proposals, Newcastle will have a mayor and a police commissioner imposed on it by London. Given that the people of Newcastle recently voted overwhelmingly for a Labour council to replace a Lib Dem one, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the democratic voice of the people of Newcastle is loudly against wasting money on such vanity projects? (56983)

I do not think there is anything wrong with asking people to vote for more representatives, particularly on issues as important as policing. The basic principle of enhancing and increasing accountability, and of enriching our democracy by giving people more opportunity to express their opinions at the ballot box, seems to me a good one.

T13. Given the announcement that Anglican bishops will remain in the newly reformed House of Lords, does the Deputy Prime Minister have any ideas about representation for other Christian groups, and indeed other faiths? (56987)

One of the options that we have set out in detail in the draft Bill is indeed continued representation, if on a much reduced numerical basis, of what is after all the established Church in England. That is clearly what distinguishes it from other faiths in England.

T11. During the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election earlier this year, the Deputy Prime Minister said about the newly opened Tesco in Greenfield that we needed to“keep our high streets diverse, and make sure that we support small shops as well as big ones”.Why, then, did his party vote against Labour’s new clause 29 to the Localism Bill, which would have required councils to include a retail diversity scheme in their local development framework? (56985)

We feel that the provisions in the Localism Bill, which give local communities an ability to express their views on what they want to happen in their neighbourhoods to an extent that did not exist for the 13 years under Labour, are sufficient to meet precisely the demand that the hon. Lady makes.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any discussion of the West Lothian question, and therefore of the role of Scottish MPs in this place, would necessarily have to include the position of Welsh MPs and those from Northern Ireland, where there are also devolved forms of government?

That is one of the many questions that we are now considering in advance of making an announcement about the establishment of the commission to look into the West Lothian question, which we will do during the course of this year.

T12. The Deputy Prime Minister has just said that he is in favour of the public having more people to vote for. Has he read the Hansard proceedings of last week’s debate in Westminster Hall, in which Conservative, Labour and Plaid Cymru MPs criticised the fact that the relationship between Wales and Westminster was being put at risk by the cut in representation from 40 MPs to 30? Only Liberal Democrats seem willing to defend that policy. Is he ready to repent, or has he given up on Wales? (56986)

What I have not given up on is having a system of election that is fair. I do not think it is right or fair to have some Members of the House representing far, far fewer constituents than colleagues in other constituencies. The principle that all of us should represent roughly the same number of people seems to me a basic one.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to review the effectiveness of the current methods of electoral registration, and to assist all councils to maximise the number of people on the electoral register?

We are planning to legislate to introduce individual electoral registration, which of course is intended principally to deal with cases of electoral fraud. At the same time, we hope to pilot in the coming months new schemes to compare the electoral register with other publicly available databases, so that electoral registration officers can go out to communities in which they are active and ensure that if people are missing on one database, they can be included in the other.

T14. The Deputy Prime Minister told my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that there would be no privatisation of the NHS. I will give him another chance. Will he oppose part 3 of the Health and Social Care Bill, or are his comments just meaningless words? (56988)

There is a world of difference between allowing patients greater choice and ensuring that there is diversity in how the best health care is provided to patients, and any sell-off of the NHS to bargain-basement bidders, which we have ruled out. There will be no privatisation of that kind whatever under this Government’s plans.

I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister has noticed that if proportional representation is used for a reformed House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats will almost always hold the balance of power in the other place. Does he intend to make being Deputy Prime Minister a job for life?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in a House of Lords without any elections of any description whatever, no party has an overall majority in any event, so a balance of power in a reformed House of Lords is no different from the status quo.

If, as the Deputy Prime Minister told us last week, the main role of a reformed House of Lords will be as a revising Chamber, why does he propose that people should be appointed under prime ministerial patronage as Ministers and Members of that House? Would it not be better if nobody could sit as a Minister in that House? Would not that properly differentiate the role of this Chamber from that one?

We looked at this very carefully and proposed, on balance, that a very small number of appointees should be Lords only for the time that they hold ministerial office. We need to ensure that Ministers are held to account in either this Chamber or the other place. We therefore felt it right to suggest that the Prime Minister retains a prerogative for a very small number of positions, so that for the limited time that those appointees are Ministers, they are accountable to the reformed House of Lords.

The Deputy Prime Minister has been a good supporter of my constituent, Gary McKinnon, and his case. He will recall that when the Prime Minister visited America, President Obama said that because of the unsurpassed special relationship between our countries, an appropriate solution would be found. Will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that the case of Gary McKinnon is raised during the President’s visit, and does he agree that the appropriate solution is to stop that extradition to the US?

I cannot anticipate exactly what will be said in those meetings, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman, and everybody who has followed the case with great interest over a long period, welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has made it quite clear that she is available to listen to new representations from Gary McKinnon, his family and his solicitors; that she will judge that new information against the impact on his human rights; and that she will make up her mind in a quasi-judicial form as soon as possible.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how a second Chamber elected under a different voting system, some of whose Members could be elected for 15 years, and almost certainly on a different manifesto altogether, would improve the legislative process?

I always thought that the Labour party was against bastions of privilege and patronage. I thought that one of the founding principles of the so-called progressive party was that it believed that the British people should be in charge, not politicians in Westminster. Labour Members seem to be turning their backs, yet again, on one of their many long-standing traditions.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that the proposed new House of Lords will cost more or less than the existing one?

We want to reduce the number of people in the reformed House of Lords very dramatically—the draft Bill and White Paper that we published last week suggests 300 Members. Exactly what the cost will be depends, of course, on the proportions of elected and non-elected Members, so it is quite difficult to come up with precise estimates at this stage.

Good businesses in all our constituencies are being denied bank lending, and new data show that bank lending to small businesses is £2 billion short of the Government’s targets. When will the Government show some backbone and take robust action on the banks?

That comes from a party that let the banks run completely amok, and a party that landed us with that problem in the first place! However, I totally agree with the hon. Lady on the Merlin agreement, which the Government have signed with the banks—it commits the banks to lending targets to businesses generally, and to small and medium-sized enterprises specifically. The agreement is in its very early days, but we have made it unambiguously clear to the banks that they must honour its terms. If they fail to do so, we will not be bound by our side of it either.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us who have to support his and the Government’s measures night after night cannot understand why, when the country is in such crisis, he is prepared to invoke the Parliament Act and gridlock essential legislation in the other place? Will he invoke the Tory principle of gradualism, ditch those radical proposals and come back with something much more modest?

I do not know what could be more gradualist than a proposal that would start in 2015 and not be complete until 2025. Many of the options for transition that we set out in the White Paper could not reasonably be accused of going too fast. We totally accept that a change on this scale, given that it has been discussed for more than 100 years, needs to be done carefully and incrementally.

At the beginning of Question Time, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was against “privatisation”. Half an hour later he said that he was against “privatisation of that kind”. A week used to be a long time in politics, but he has reduced it to half an hour.

I said there would be no privatisation of the NHS, and that is what I meant. There will be no privatisation of the NHS.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister reassure my constituents that the Government will resist any siren calls to water down the Equality Act as part of the red tape challenge?

I can certainly confirm that, as far as I am concerned, there will be no move to dilute incredibly important protections to enshrine and bolster equality in this country under the guise of dealing with unnecessary or intrusive regulation.

If the Deputy Prime Minister is in listening mode, from where is he hearing a vote or voice calling for a House of Commons diminished in power and influence?

I ask the hon. Gentleman, as I ask all his Opposition colleagues: what is wrong with the basic democratic principle that those who create the laws of the land should be accountable to the millions of people who have to abide by the laws of the land? It used to be called democracy. It used to be something the Labour party believed in. I do not know why it is turning its back yet again on a progressive step towards further reform.

Attorney-General

The Attorney-General was asked—

Domestic and Sexual Violence

1. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the provision of specialist domestic and sexual violence services to support prosecutions involving allegations of such offences. (56989)

I have not held specific discussions with ministerial colleagues on the provision of domestic and sexual violence services to support prosecutions. The Solicitor-General is a member of the inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which is responsible for monitoring progress against its action plan. This action plan identifies the importance of support for victims of violence against women.

I know that the Attorney-General has recognised the importance of specialist services in pushing up prosecution rates. Does he share my concern about the cuts to these services up and down the country? If so, what is he doing about it?

It is worth bearing in mind the fact that the Department for Communities and Local Government has secured £6.5 billion of funding for the Supporting People programme, which will include accommodation for vulnerable people, including domestic violence victims, over the next four years. That equates to an average annual reduction over the four years of less than 1% in cash terms. In addition, I can reassure the hon. Lady that the issue continues to be a high priority for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. The evidence to date suggests that despite the difficult financial climate, the success rate for prosecuting this type of offence continues to improve.

Will the Attorney-General agree that, contrary to recent media distortion, Members on both sides of the House take crimes of violence against women very seriously indeed? Will he further assure the House that the Government will continue to support alleged victims of rape and that he will do all he can to ensure that justice is done in cases that are often very difficult to prosecute?

I can assure my hon. Friend that that is the position. The provision of specialist co-ordinators and rape prosecutors, the issuing of stalking guidance and the effective monitoring of the measures we have put in place will continue. As I said in answer to the earlier question, the evidence suggests that the good work done by the previous Government is being successfully continued. I want to emphasise that both in terms of the volume of prosecutions and their success rate.

Crown Prosecution Service

8. What priorities the Crown Prosecution Service has set during the comprehensive spending review period. (56996)

The priorities are to provide a prosecution service of the highest quality, informed by its core quality standards, published in April 2010, which set the measures by which the CPS is judged by itself and others; to provide a more streamlined and efficient service, for example by making good use of all available technology; and, by working with the police and the courts, to eliminate unnecessarily bureaucratic systems, while at all times promoting justice.

I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer, but will he respond to the serious concerns of defence barristers and Victim Support about the CPS instructing single counsel for the prosecution, including for murder cases with multiple defendants, as a result of cost pressures?

I do not know whether that is a direct result of cost pressures, but I, too, have raised this very matter with the CPS, and we are looking into it with some care.

The cost pressures on the CPS over the coming period are leading it to prioritise cases such as those involving serious domestic or sexual offences. What cases will it have to de-prioritise to achieve those aims?

In all prosecuting decisions, the CPS will look at the prosecutors code to see whether there is sufficient evidence and whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. It is not a question of picking one type of crime and not picking another.

I support the Government’s drive for more prosecutions of rape. Will the Solicitor-General support my move to allocate a centre to North Yorkshire and York to help victims of rape? Were we to have such a centre—

Order. I am not sure that this is a priority of the Crown Prosecution Service, but the Solicitor-General can respond to the first part of the question briefly.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the way in which rape cases are currently prosecuted. As was stated in this House the other day, we want to bear down on the attrition rate. The conviction rate bears comparison with other aspects of the criminal system, but we want to ensure that rape victims can report their allegations to the police and that they are treated with care and sensitivity right the way through to what we hope is a conviction.

The Prime Minister has said that it should be a priority for the CPS and the Metropolitan police to follow the evidence where it goes in the phone hacking scandal. Will the Minister say whether it is cost pressures at the CPS that have left the Metropolitan police reluctant to pursue the evidence of other private investigators involved in the illegal covert surveillance of British citizens?

I do not think that that is at all true. The hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in this matter and I have no criticism of him for doing that, but the relationship between the CPS and the Metropolitan police is entirely clear and constitutional, and will, as the Prime Minister has said, permit both to lead the investigation to where the evidence takes it.

CPS Advocate Panels

3. What plans he has to reduce the administrative burden on those completing references for candidates for appointment to Crown Prosecution Service advocate panels. (56991)

On 17 May 2011, the Crown Prosecution Service announced three changes to improve the reference process: allowing additional time by extending the deadline for applications by two months; removing the requirement for a minimum number of judicial references; and allowing references to be submitted directly to the CPS, rather than via the candidate.

I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer, but he will probably know that the completion of such references—indeed, the entire process—places a considerable burden on the judiciary and others. Will he undertake to ensure that a rather more simplified procedure is applied the next time such an exercise is undertaken?

As my hon. and learned Friend will be aware, the issue is ensuring that the panels prepared by the CPS are of a high quality, and are able to provide both sustained support to the CPS and regular work to the barristers who are on them. I have to say that I do not agree that the forms are particularly onerous to fill in. A form requiring somebody to provide between 100 and 300 words of reference does not seem to me to be onerous. Many judges are very happy to fill it in, but there are always lessons to be learned from any process of change, and I will bear in mind his comments.

Does the Attorney-General agree that there is widespread concern among the criminal Bar about the new procedure, notably the fact that someone who is unsuccessful in applying for one grade is not allowed to apply for another? There seems to be no parity with CPS in-house advocates.

The process of evaluation of CPS in-house advocates is at present extremely complicated, and rather thorough. I do not think that it could be satisfactorily extended to the independent Bar. Discussions on the panels’ structure are continuing between the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Bar Council the Criminal Bar Association and the circuits, and I am rather confident that they will find a satisfactory solution. I would like to emphasise, however, that the provision of those services by the independent Bar in future is dependent on having an effective panel system in which there is widespread confidence.

Forced Marriage

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of forced marriage. (56992)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of forced marriage. (56998)

I have had no recent discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service on forced marriages, but I shall have one of my regular meetings with the director later today, at which I have no doubt the matter will be discussed. The CPS and the Law Officers are studying the Home Affairs Committee’s report on forced marriages, and the Government will respond to it in due course.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Forced marriages are an appalling abuse of human rights and have no place in modern society. May I press him further on the subject of the Home Affairs Committee’s report and ask whether the Government will consider legislating to make forced marriage a criminal offence?

I am sure that the Government will, but it will essentially be a matter for the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to consider. The matter was considered by the previous Administration. The Labour Government held a consultation via the Home Office in 2005, and announced in 2006 that, on balance, they did not consider that it would be advantageous to turn forced marriage into a criminal offence. The Select Committee’s report is now available for us all to consider, and the Government will come back to the House with their response.

Forced marriage and associated crimes are already thought to be chronically under-reported. Will the Minister explain how 25% cuts to the CPS’s budget will enable more, rather than fewer, victims of forced marriage to come forward?

The most essential thing in this area of the criminal law, as in any other, is to encourage people who have been affected to come forward with evidence, because it is upon evidence that we can bring prosecutions. I can assure the hon. Lady that neither the Attorney-General nor I is in the least bit reluctant to encourage the prosecution of people who have committed crimes. The CPS works hard to ensure that women, in particular—forced marriage cases principally involve women, but about 17% of those affected are men—are properly protected by the law of England, and we will endeavour to ensure that they are.

Fraud and Economic Crime

5. What steps he is taking to maintain the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office to investigate and prosecute economic crime during the comprehensive spending review period. (56993)

6. What steps he is taking to ensure the effective prosecution of cases involving fraud and economic crime. (56994)

7. What steps he is taking to maintain the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office to investigate and prosecute economic crime during the comprehensive spending review period. (56995)

The Serious Fraud Office will meet the requirements of the comprehensive spending review by making efficiency savings in all areas of its business and ensuring that its budget is focused on its core activities of investigating and prosecuting crime. The Crown Prosecution Service also recognises the need to ensure that fraud and economic crime are prosecuted effectively and efficiently. Its structure ensures that cases requiring input and direction by specialist prosecutors are dealt with rigorously.

The director of the Serious Fraud Office has said:

“My concern has always been if investigations and prosecution powers…are split, the fight against complex economic crime will be damaged.”

Does the Minister share those concerns? If so, why are this Government insistent on letting dodgy bankers off?

I am not quite sure that I see the direct correlation between the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question and the first. On the structure of the Serious Fraud Office, it is certainly my opinion that the present structure has been successful in delivering growing effectiveness in dealing with serious and complex fraud. The director has an important point to make. The Government are discussing how they can achieve the best structures for dealing with serious and complex crimes of all kinds, and discussions are taking place on how the Serious Fraud Office will fit into that structure. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the point that he has raised is very much in the Government’s mind.

Nevertheless, the director of the Serious Fraud Office has major concerns. If the Attorney-General is determined to pursue this route, what assurance can he give the House that the impact of the change on complex crime prosecutions will be monitored, so that it does not have the effect that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is concerned about?

The hon. Gentleman pre-judges a decision that has not been made. It is sensible within government for discussion to take place on how to improve the services, including prosecution, that the Government deliver. My point in reply to the earlier question was that the director has an important role in contributing to that debate, and I am sure that his views will be listened to very carefully. I certainly listen to them very carefully indeed.

In his previous question session, the Solicitor-General told the House that the UK’s international reputation on tackling corruption would be safeguarded by his getting on with his job. Will he therefore explain how he expects staff at the SFO to get on with their crucial jobs in the face of 50% budget cuts and the separation of its investigation and prosecution functions?

The first point to make is that the Serious Fraud Office is getting on with the job very effectively indeed. During 2010-11, it took 17 complex cases to trial with at least one conviction in every case; 31 defendants, both corporate and individual, went to trial, of whom 26 were found guilty, giving a conviction rate of 84%. That is an extremely good rate, and I wish to see it continued and built on. I have every confidence in the professionalism of the Serious Fraud Office and in its dedicated staff in delivering its service. I have every confidence that they will be able to do so in the future as well.

As The Times reports today, the Government’s proposals on serious fraud and international corruption are in total disarray. First, there was dilly-dallying over the Bribery Act 2010 and now there are trailed press reports on dismantling the SFO. Are the Government following the trend and going soft on economic crime? When will a statement on the SFO’s future be made, and will the Attorney-General confirm that it will be made first on the Floor of the House?

I have no doubt at all that it will be made first on the Floor of the House, but I entirely disagree with the hon. Lady’s premises. The position is very straightforward. The SFO is doing a good job, but I think everybody agrees that we need to see ways of improving the fight against economic crime. To take the hon. Lady’s point to its logical conclusion, there should be no discussion in government or anywhere else about such structures because doing so might raise some uncertainty. I simply do not share that view. I am confident that we will come out with the correct outcomes and that they will enhance our capacity to deal with economic crime generally. [Interruption.]

Order. I was trying to indicate gently that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) must not leave before the question has been concluded. I am sure that he is enjoying the exchanges.

In parts of the United Kingdom, there is widespread organised criminal activity. During the comprehensive spending review, what assurance can the Minister give us that those involved will not be able to gain yet more from their illegal and ill-gotten deeds and activities?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, perhaps missed by other questioners —that there are different kinds of economic crimes, some of which move into serious organised crime as well. That is why it is so important for the Government to give this matter a high priority. As I said to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), that is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others, as well as me, have been focusing on how to deliver the best outcome to cover the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has spoken about, while also ensuring that the financial end of serious crime is tackled correctly. I am very confident that we are going to come up with the right solutions.

Will the Attorney-General assure us that the Serious Fraud Office will not be swallowed up by the national crime agency, relegating fraud and corruption to third place after terrorism and organised crime?

I am absolutely confident—because of my own commitment and that of my fellow Ministers to this matter—that the area of crime the right hon. Gentleman identifies is of the highest priority to the Government. That is precisely why it is being discussed. I can reassure him—and I will stand by it when the time comes for announcements—that the outcome will commend itself, I hope, widely across the House.

Transnational Bribery

9. When he last met the Director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss the investigation and prosecution of transnational bribery. (56997)

I hold monthly meetings with the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss all aspects of the SFO’s work, including transnational bribery. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Bribery Act 2010 comes into force on 1 July and the SFO is well prepared for it.

I was reassured by some of what the Attorney-General said in reply to an earlier group of questions. Richard Alderman is a very talented civil servant who has greatly improved the performance of the SFO, but I believe that that improvement is threatened by the proposal to break the SFO into an investigating arm and a prosecuting arm. It appears that the Law Officers are currently having an argument with the Home Office about the matter. The House clearly supports the Law Officers. May I have an assurance that even if the nature of the SFO changes, the prosecuting and investigating arms of whatever new agency takes over will be kept under one roof?

I thank the hon. Gentleman and agree with his assessment of the SFO’s director, Mr Richard Alderman, who has proved to be a loyal and dedicated public servant and prosecutor in whom the Attorney-General and I have the utmost confidence.

I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman’s support for the Law Officers. We accept whatever support we can whenever we can get it. On that basis, I will quit while I am ahead.