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Commons Chamber

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

House of Commons

Tuesday 24 May 2011

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

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.


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.


Pursuant to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973, NATO-led air strikes have been successful in reducing Colonel Gaddafi’s ability to attack his people, but he continues to target civilians in clear contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and international law. As the Foreign Secretary has said, it is now necessary to intensify the military, economic and diplomatic pressure on the Gaddafi regime.

We constantly review our military operations to ensure that we can continue to enforce UNSCR 1973 and prevent Gaddafi from attacking the Libyan people. Attack helicopters are one tool for that purpose, and the use of such helicopters is one of a range of capability options under consideration. However, I stress that no decision has yet been made about whether to use our attack helicopters in Libya. We will keep the House informed as decisions are made.

Thank you for allowing the urgent question, Mr Speaker.

The Opposition have always made it clear that we support the stated aims of the military operation in Libya: to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1973, to protect Libyan civilians, and to implement a no-fly zone. We have also made it clear not just that we support the Government and the UN mandate, but that it is crucial for Parliament to have an opportunity to scrutinise Government decisions and the campaign in Libya.

Yesterday Le Figaro reported that 12 French helicopters had been dispatched to Libya on 17 May. There was no comment from the Ministry of Defence other than

“we are constantly reviewing our options”,

but the French Defence Minister, Gérard Longuet, said:

“The British, who have assets similar to ours, will also commit…The sooner the better is what the British think.”

Is that an accurate statement by a French Minister of the British Government’s policy on Libya? The British people will be desperately concerned that French Ministers seem to know more about the deployment of British military equipment than the British Parliament.

Parliament has not written the Government a blank cheque on Libya, and Ministers should never keep the British public in the dark about major deployments. This is a serious moment, and it would be a serious escalation if such a commitment were to be made. Parliament should never be kept in the dark.

I want to ask the Minister a number of questions. First, why have discussions about an escalation of such magnitude with our French partners and colleagues reached such an advanced stage without Parliament being allowed even the courtesy of discussion or scrutiny? Secondly, will the Minister go into more detail about the situation on the ground which is leading Ministers at least to consider—and, in a private conversation with the French, to confirm—this military commitment?

Thirdly, if this were to happen, would the operational allowance be extended to those serving in and around Libya in the same way as in respect of Afghanistan? Fourthly, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Defence Analysis estimation that the cost of the conflict could be £1 billion by September? Finally, will he say more about the UK’s military capability to maintain the current tempo, and have the Government decided to order further Brimstone?

Parliament thought long and hard about whether to commit military force over Libya on behalf of the United Kingdom. The House sought in good conscience to take a deep and significant decision about our nation, and now we are expected simply to wave through a possible major escalation in military commitment without a proper debate in Parliament. It is utterly unacceptable that the UK Parliament has to be informed about a possible deployment of UK forces by the French Defence Minister.

On this complicated issue, the Government need to provide greater clarity. On behalf of this Parliament and those who voted for this conflict, which we support—and, indeed, on behalf of those who voted against the conflict—Parliament is right to demand that decisions such as this one are announced in this Parliament, debated in this Parliament, scrutinised in this Parliament, and should never be kept from Parliament again.

The right hon. Gentleman quotes the French Minister, and my understanding is that the French have indeed taken a decision to deploy their attack helicopters in Libya. I state again for the avoidance of all doubt that no such decision has been taken by the United Kingdom. It is an option that we are considering, but no decision has been taken, and there is absolutely no sense in which it is true to say that we have kept Parliament in the dark about a decision that we have taken.

I do not accept that if we were to take the decision to use attack helicopters at some point in the future, that would be an “escalation” of what we are doing in Libya. The targets would remain the same; it would simply be a tactical shift in what assets we used to try to hit those targets. The right hon. Gentleman asks why we would consider doing this, and what would be the military logic of contemplating using attack helicopters. The principal advantage it would give us over the air assets we are currently deploying is the ability to strike moving targets with greater precision.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the costs. I do not recognise the figure he gives. It is not possible to compute in real time a figure, but I say to him again that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made it clear that the cost of this operation will be met by the reserve.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about maintaining the momentum. We keep our stocks under regular review, including specifically of Brimstone. We are content that we can keep going for the foreseeable future, but we will have to make adjustments as time goes on and calculate whether it will be necessary to increase our stocks.

On the operational allowance, the arrangements will remain as they are, but we are looking into the possibility of extending special consideration for those who would not meet the normal criteria.

The Government have been doing their utmost to ensure that the House is kept informed about what is going on. There have been debates and questions, and we have given several briefings, and if the right hon. Gentleman feels at any stage that he needs more information, he needs only to ask and we will do everything we can to afford him that information. We are involved in a military operation, however. We have to consider from time to time the tactics we are using, and you will understand, Mr Speaker, why we would not do so in advance on the Floor of the House. Apart from anything else, telling the enemy exactly what we are up to would be a very unusual strategy. As soon as decisions are taken, however, we will ensure that Parliament is informed.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. If the Apache helicopter were to be deployed, that would be entirely appropriate, particularly given the Gaddafi forces’ change in tactics, and the requirement to have a highly effective machine that can lurk and deal with the hard-to-find targets. What steps would need to be taken to marinise the Apache if it were to be operating off-carrier?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we are right to consider this in pursuance, as I said, of UNSCR 1973. Gaddafi and his regime remain a real threat to the civilian population in Libya and if we were to take a decision to use an attack helicopter, it would be in pursuit of that resolution. Such helicopters give us a greater ability to pinpoint targets, we are able to operate them from HMS Ocean or other maritime assets, and there is no need for any specific adaptation in order to do that.

Like many others, I am very concerned about the massive air raid that took place last night, which will inevitably cause civilian casualties, although I entirely accept that the Gaddafi regime will try to make as much propaganda of it as possible. Is the Minister aware that there is an increasing feeling that, despite denials, resolution 1973 is being used for regime change? I emphasise again that regime change is totally outside international law.

We are very familiar with the terms of UNSCR 1973, which remains absolutely our abiding objective. I recognise that there are risks inherent in whatever military options we take, but let me reassure the House that we are doing our utmost, and so are our NATO allies, to ensure that there is no loss of civilian life. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is in sharp distinction to the Gaddafi regime, which is retaining that loss as its objective and is continuing to cause it. We are there to prevent it from doing so.

May I sympathise with the Minister’s reluctance to permit a running commentary on operations in Libya, for the reasons that he has outlined? Were Apache helicopters, which carry missiles, to be deployed, how would that be different in principle from the use of fast jets carrying missiles?

I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend: the objective and the targets would remain exactly the same, but we would have at our disposal a weapon with a greater degree of precision, which is better able to hit targets, including moving ones, and with a lower risk of collateral damage. This would be a tactical switch from using one asset to using another, which is why I do not believe it would constitute an escalation, but I repeat that no such decision has, as yet, been taken. The French have taken a decision and announced it. We have not taken that decision, but I confirm that it is an option we are considering.

This decision, if it is made, would make a qualitative difference to the strategy, because it would mean a greater risk to British service personnel. For that reason, the Government should seek not only a debate on the Floor of the House, but a renewed vote to sanction any such measure. May I also ask the Minister what efforts are being made, again, to get a negotiated settlement to this war?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The use of attack helicopters in contested territory is certainly inherently dangerous—about that there can be no doubt—but they have been used elsewhere very effectively and those dangers have not had a deadly effect. I repeat that this is a consideration of using another tactic; this is not a step change in what we are doing. The suggestion that while we are in the course of operations we would come to the House of Commons for a full debate and a fresh resolution every time we took an operational tactical decision is not realistic, and I do not think it would be justified.

As I ordered the attack helicopters, I am rather disappointed to hear that no decision has been taken on their use. I agree entirely with the Minister that firing a missile from a rotary-wing aircraft as opposed to a fixed-wing aircraft is not an escalation, but does he agree that this decision would also help to address another issue of increasing concern, which is the airframe hours left in the Tornados? That matter is worrying a number of people.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having placed that order, because the Apache helicopter has proved itself in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years since then. It is useful that it is at our disposal for consideration at this time. I agree that sharing the duties out across our air assets will better enable us to sustain them over a period of time. I repeat that no decision to do that has been taken.

The trouble is that if the Government’s aim is not regime change, we are basically at stalemate. The worry for many of my constituents is how long that stalemate will go on.

I do not accept that we are at stalemate, as I believe recent events in Misrata have demonstrated. The situation is still dynamic and fluid and we have to respond to the situation on the ground by making tactical decisions. The consideration of whether we should use attack helicopters will be informed in no small part by the tactical call of those closest to it, who make the judgments about what we face.

May I remind the House of my interest as a member of the military stabilisation support group? Will the Minister update the House on the post-conflict reconstruction planning and, crucially, does he believe that it will require a further UN resolution to implement it effectively?

We already have a stabilisation unit in Benghazi preparing the ground for the post-conflict situation. We would expect the UN to play the leading role in co-ordinating that and there might well be an appetite for EU involvement, too. We are laying the ground as best we can but we are taking these things a stage at a time. The overriding priority at the moment remains preventing Gaddafi and his regime from attacking civilians in Libya.

According to the latest statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross, there is a growing humanitarian crisis on the ground. What can we do to address that?

There are certainly immense humanitarian difficulties in various parts of Libya, the most obvious example being Misrata. We were among several nations in sustaining the pressure to get supplies and relief into Misrata. There has been some success with that operation, but one does not want to overclaim on that. It remains an overwhelming priority to ensure that we can relieve humanitarian suffering by all means possible.

Whether or not we deploy attack helicopters, the fact that a key NATO ally has represents, in my view at least, a significant escalation in this conflict and reinforces the point that regime change has been the objective of our intervention. Given the air strikes and this latest news, at what point does the Minister believe that our actions on the ground will cross the line as regards UN resolution 1973?

My hon. Friend refers to operations on the ground and asks at what point they would cross UNSCR 1973. What was specifically prohibited was a landing and occupying force and I do not see that one can in any way compare the use of attack helicopters to take on moving targets with a landing and occupying force. We are talking about two completely different things. The French have, as I understand it, taken the decision to use attack helicopters, although I do not believe that they have as yet started in practice to do so. I do not accept, for the reasons I set out earlier, that that would constitute an escalation of the conflict in Libya. It would be a tactical shift in the way we were pursuing it.

The House is going into recess today and will not resume until 7 June. Given that the Minister has said on several occasions that no decision has been made, can he tell us, first, why the French Defence Minister thinks a decision has been made and, secondly, when this House will know when a decision is made, if it is?

I cannot comment on what the French Minister has said, but I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman once again that we have not taken this decision and have not suggested to the French that we have taken it. I am aware that we are about to have a short recess, but it would be wholly unacceptable in my view artificially to accelerate a military decision in order to comply with the parliamentary timetable. If a decision is made it will be made according to military criteria and the operations will be conducted in the normal way. We will inform Members as soon as we can if any such decision is taken but I stress again that no such decision has been taken and I cannot anticipate that it will be taken on any particular timetable.

May I assure my hon. Friend that he is entitled to plan military operations and discuss them with allies in private and that so long as he reports decisions to the House he will not have taken his country’s name in vain in any manner at all? May I draw his attention to the fact that US Carrier Strike Group Two will be visiting Portsmouth this weekend and then proceeding to the Mediterranean? Will President Obama be included in these discussions about military options in Libya, because we either have to break the stalemate or broker a peace?

I thank my hon. Friend for his initial remarks. He is absolutely right that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said, it would not be appropriate to keep up a running commentary throughout an operation on the tactical decisions we might take. The French have taken a decision and have seen fit to put that into the public domain and that is entirely a matter for the French. So far as the Americans are concerned, it is certainly the case that during President Obama’s visit we will be discussing with him operations in Libya and Afghanistan as well as other world issues. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the US carrier strike group will be passing through the Mediterranean—I understand that is the intention—but these are things that we will keep discussing with allies. Let me say again that absolutely no decision has been taken.

Has not this intervention been subject to mission creep ever since it began, as statements to the House have indicated? There has been a little bit of help here, the use of special forces there and further intervention. It is no surprise to me that the French, who initiated the intervention in the first place because of an election in France next year, are now telling the British Government what the next phase is. How many civilians, whom we were supposed to safeguard, have been killed by NATO forces? When will we reach £1 billion of expenditure on this intervention, which is paid for by the British taxpayer? Is it right what the media say that it will be at the end of this summer, or will it be even sooner?

We know for a fact that Gaddafi was on the verge of an absolute bloodbath in Benghazi and that if we had not intervened there would have been an absolute slaughter. In conducting this operation we have at all times done our utmost to minimise the number of civilian casualties, of whom there are far fewer than Gaddafi has killed and would have killed. I do not accept that there has been mission creep from UNSCR 1973 at all. It remains the case that we are prosecuting it to the best of our ability and it remains our overriding priority to reduce the risk to civilian life and the suffering of civilians. The best way in which that could be concluded would be for Gaddafi to comply with UN resolution 1973 and stop killing his own civilians.

I do not see this as an escalation but rather as a proper tactical response to a changing tactical situation on the ground that is in line with UN resolution 1973. We know from Afghanistan and Somalia that helicopters can be more vulnerable to attack than fixed-wing aircraft. What assessment has been made of UK search and rescue capability should one of our helicopters unfortunately be downed?

I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive remarks. It is inherently true that the use of attack helicopters in contested territory is dangerous, but we are deploying all our assets through NATO and if we were to decide to use attack helicopters it would be through NATO co-ordinated efforts, so the assets of other partner countries would be available to us to help defend them. We have experience of using Apache helicopters in contested territory and we have successful ways of minimising the threat to them, but it is an inherently dangerous business—there is no way of getting around that.

Will the Minister update the House on how many countries have now sent military advisers to Libya to help the rebels? Can he confirm who is responsible for co-ordinating their work?

We have sent some of our own advisers and they are working with the French. We co-ordinate that between us and they are the pre-eminent military advisers. There are some from other countries in that region but they are undertaking specific tasks in co-ordination with the British and French forces, so the predominant effort is Anglo-French and we are co-ordinating it between us.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will he clarify what the assessment is of the situation in southern Libya, bordering Chad—an area with a huge amount of oil deposits?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are huge oil assets to the south. I can only repeat that our objective in Libya is the protection of civilians, who we know are predominantly in the north and along those coastal stretches. The regime still has effective control over some of the oil assets to the south, but clearly its efforts to transport and export them have been significantly curtailed by the efforts of the coalition to implement UNSCR 1973.

My understanding is that the French have publicly briefed the press that the National Security Council has taken the decision to deploy the helicopters. When the Minister says that the decision has not been taken, does he mean that there is a recommendation from the National Security Council awaiting rubber-stamping from the Prime Minister in order to get sign-off from the President for an announcement later in the week?

I really cannot be expected to justify what may or may not have been said by French Ministers giving briefings to newspapers. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that no decision has been taken. No decision has been taken by the National Security Council and no recommendation is awaiting the Prime Minister’s approval. It is an option that we are considering and at some point in the future we might decide to go down that route. If the French really have briefed in those terms they have clearly misunderstood the situation in the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend has been clear that no decision has yet been taken to deploy ground-attack helicopters. May I ask him to assure the House that if such a decision were taken, it would in no way adversely affect our operations in Afghanistan?

I can indeed confirm that. There are currently Apache helicopters in the Mediterranean as part of exercise Cougar and if any decision were taken to use Apache helicopters in Libya, they would most likely be the ones used. That would therefore not have any impact on operations in Helmand.

Does the Minister accept that the more regime targets in Tripoli that are bombed and the more tactical weaponry that is employed on the side of the rebels, the more this appears, to the Arab world in particular, as a political rather than a humanitarian intervention?

The purpose of our being there is to carry out UNSCR 1973, the objective of which is to reduce the threat to civilian life. What the hon. Gentleman refers to as regime targets are in fact command and control targets—military targets. They are targets relating to the regime’s ability to persecute its own civilians, so those are the targets we have been aiming to hit. I do not accept a narrative from that that regime change is the objective of the exercise. The aim is to prevent the regime from slaughtering its civilians and that will continue to be the aim.

I say again that this is simply an option that is being considered, and the detail of how exactly these things would be organised has not yet been worked up. It is not the intention that the helicopters would land. The intention is that they would be deployed, if at all, from naval assets, most probably from HMS Ocean, but that is the sort of detail that is being worked through at present as the option is worked up and considered. It certainly should not be inferred that there is any intention to use helicopters in order to land ground troops and take off in a different direction.

I endorse the Minister’s emphasis on saving civilian lives. Can he update us on whether the Libyan electricity and water infrastructure has been damaged by bombing in recent weeks?

We have no grounds to think so. There are undoubtedly problems with electricity and water supplies in different parts of Libya for different reasons, but we have no grounds to believe that the actions of NATO or any of our allies have had that effect, and of course it is most certainly not our intention or objective to do anything of that kind.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had, or does he intend to have, with Arab League countries as part of the decision whether to deploy Apache helicopters?

If any decision were to be taken to go down that route, that would be discussed with Arab countries through the contact group. I stress to the House that the Arab League support for what we are doing in Libya remains strong, and we will consult our allies in the Arab League as we go along.

The Minister’s reason for withholding information from the House makes no sense at all. If French helicopters are attacking Gaddafi’s forces, there is no tactical advantage to knowing that there will be British helicopters attacking with them; that gives no militarily useful extra information to Gaddafi. When he made the original statement, the Prime Minister gave a commitment to keep the House informed in detail. There should be a votable resolution on the matter because there has undoubtedly been mission creep towards an objective of regime change since the start of this war.

I am not withholding information from the House. There is no information to withhold. No decision to deploy attack helicopters has been taken, and if any decision is taken we will take steps to inform the House. The idea that we should have a votable resolution each time we make a tactical decision to use a different air asset is ludicrous.

In his first answer the Minister spoke of the need to increase the military pressure on the Gaddafi regime, but subsequently refuted any concerns about escalation or regime change. As well as reporting to the House, under resolution 1973 any country or group of countries taking an action under that resolution must report it to the Secretary-General of the UN, who will then refer it to the Security Council. Have the latest actions been reported by France or on NATO’s behalf, and does the Minister anticipate no concerns from any member of the Security Council that the resolution has been exceeded?

In my initial answer I was quoting the Foreign Secretary, who said, quite rightly, that we had to step up the pressure on the Gaddafi regime through military, economic and political-diplomatic channels. That is true. I do not, however, accept that there is any significant escalation or a broadening of our military objectives. It remains the case that our overriding objective is to prevent the threat to civilian life, and if there are different assets that different members of the international force working in Libya can bring to bear at different points in time, I do not think that such micro-operational decisions need bother the Secretary-General of the UN. However, if we were to shift focus significantly on what we were doing, that would be of a different order altogether, and the UN very well might be involved.

Green Investment Bank

Today I am publishing detailed plans for a green investment bank, building on the announcements that the Deputy Prime Minister made yesterday. Copies of the document will be placed in the Libraries and will be available to download from the BIS website. I would like to take the opportunity from inform the House of these proposals.

The UK will be the first country in the world to create a bank dedicated to the greening of the economy. This Government are committed to ensuring that the UK makes a successful transition to a low-carbon economy. This will be a big challenge. The UK is committed by law to a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2025. Over the coming decades, much of the UK’s energy, transport and waste infrastructure will have to be revolutionised or even rebuilt in order to achieve the ambition of decarbonised electricity, low-emission cars and an end to landfill. This transition will involve considerable costs, but also considerable benefits if new enterprise can seize the opportunities presented by the green economy. The task for our Government is to ensure that these benefits exceed the costs.

Vital to achieving a successful transition is the development of well-designed, long-term and stable policies. They are needed to provide the incentive for businesses to invest in new green infrastructure, which by its very nature repays the investment only over many years. To this end the Government have introduced a carbon price floor, proposals on electricity market reform, the green deal for energy efficiency in buildings, a major waste policy review and new initiatives to encourage the roll-out of electric vehicles.

However, the lack of available finance could be a limiting factor. Detailed research and market analysis have established the need for an institution to address market failures that are constraining the flow of finance. The proposals published today set out a vision for a new and enduring institution—the world’s first dedicated national green investment bank—to complement the existing policy landscape.

The green investment bank’s mission will be to accelerate private sector investment, with an initial remit to focus on relatively high-risk projects that are otherwise likely to proceed slowly or not at all. It will work to a “double bottom line” of both achieving significant environmental impact and making financial returns delivering value for money. It will also operate independently and at arm’s length from Government, who will agree its strategic long-term priorities. Initial market analysis suggests that the early contenders to be priority sectors for the bank are offshore wind, industrial energy efficiency and waste, but a wider range of energy and other activities could become relevant over time.

The new institution will need to comply with state aid rules. Therefore, the proposals that I am publishing today will need to be approved by the European Commission before we can establish the bank. The time to act is now, so in order to make rapid progress, from April 2012, my department will start to make direct, state aid-compliant investments in green infrastructure projects. Investments could be in the form of equity, subordinated debt or senior debt on a pari passu basis. In due course, we will transfer these investments to the new institution.

I am also creating a green bank advisory group, comprising independent finance experts, who will advise Government on the setting up and strategic direction of the new institution. Sir Adrian Montague has very kindly agreed to chair this advisory group.

As the Chancellor set out in the Budget this year, the initial capitalisation of the GIB will be £3 billion and the bank will invest with and through the private sector and tackle risks that the private sector cannot adequately finance. In this way, the bank will mobilise projects significantly in excess of the Government’s contribution. With the funding provided in this Parliament the GIB could mobilise an extra £15 billion of private investment. We do not envisage that this level of activity will require a large institution—an estimated 50 to 100 professional staff during this Parliament. Proposals have been made to locate the headquarters in, among others, London, Edinburgh and Bristol, and a decision will be taken in due course based on their ability to deliver the aims of the bank.

The Government will enable the GIB to have borrowing powers from 2015-16 and once debt is falling as a percentage of GDP, which will allow it to scale up its operations significantly at a time when the financing need is greatest. We are not seeking at this stage to be prescriptive about which form borrowing should take or, more generally, about the bank’s products or structure. Once state aid approval is achieved, we will move to enshrine the institution’s enduring status in legislation.

In conclusion, setting up a bank of this kind is a major undertaking. There is much work to be done to build and grow the green investment bank, and the Government look forward to updating the House on further milestones in future.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, but although the Deputy Prime Minister announced this policy yesterday and the statement was timed for 12.30 pm today, I had not received a copy by 10 minutes to 1, and did not receive it until five minutes to 1.

A successful green investment bank can make a significant contribution to developing low-carbon technologies and enabling British companies to succeed in the low-carbon green technology markets of the future. That is why the green investment bank was in Labour’s manifesto. Will the Business Secretary confirm that it has taken a year of infighting to get to this stage? Is it not true that the Government are at odds over green policy, and will he confirm that only a month ago he tried to block the adoption of the carbon emissions targets announced this week? So much for “the greenest Government ever”!

Progress is welcome, but have the Government not already taken a series of decisions that have damaged investment in green technologies and activities? Did they not set feed-in tariffs that encouraged many investors into green energy and then suddenly change the rules, leaving investors high and dry and deeply cynical about the Government’s commitment to green technology? Is the Business Secretary aware that the target for zero-carbon homes by 2016 was encouraging new and innovative business approaches to architecture, building technology, skills training and offset technologies? It was already encouraging a supply chain to make our homes greener. Now that has been changed by the flip-flops of Government decision making. Is it not true that when the Severn barrage was abandoned the Government ruled out any tidal investment for five years, so that when this country turns to tidal power we will end up relying on foreign technology?

Despite all the talk of private investment, where is the evidence for it? Is it not damning that the Pew Environment Group’s report in March stated that investment in renewable technology in the UK crashed from £11 billion in 2009 to £3.3 billion in 2010—due, it says, to political uncertainty. That saw the UK drop from sixth to 13th in the ranking of countries encouraging green investment—another example of the Tories letting go Labour’s green legacy.

As with the green deal and the electricity market reforms, green businesses know enough about the green investment bank to be excited, but not enough to start planning investments and changing business models. Does the Business Secretary not accept that the bank will not work without much greater consistency, certainty and clarity about Government policies for green energy and the low-carbon economy than we have seen to date?

When will the green investment bank legislation be brought forward? Will he publish draft legislation so that all those interested can help shape it and ensure that the bank truly does become a long-term part of the infrastructure? How will the bank be staffed, and will he ensure that it is not an offshoot of the Treasury or his Department? Will he learn the lessons of Labour’s technology strategy board, where private sector leadership and real operational independence have helped to contribute to its considerable success? Given non-governmental organisations’ role in shaping all parties’ policies on this issue, will the Secretary of State at least consider allowing an NGO representative to join in the work of the advisory board that he proposes to set up?

Will the Secretary of State tell the House why the bank will be barred from raising its own finance until 2015 at the earliest? What does he say to the CBI, which made it clear at the time of the Budget that the investment

“is welcome, but the bank should have powers to borrow from the outset to give investors confidence.”

Has the Treasury imposed this rule? If so, is that not another case of the Government allowing their preferred reckless approach to deficit reduction to take priority over the investment in jobs and growth that would make it easier to get the deficit down?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, as of today, he does not even know whether the activities of the green investment bank will be on or off the public balance sheet? And is it not essential that that is clarified at the earlier possible opportunity? Does he not recognise that denying early investment in fledgling green industries will hinder their ability to create and expand into new markets? Does he agree that, above all, the UK needs long-term investment in the innovative, entrepreneurial companies that have the potential to become the pace setters and global market leaders of the future?

Does the Secretary of State recognise the risk that the available funds could easily be absorbed by major energy supply companies—companies that, relatively speaking at least, have access to capital—which would invest largely in the installation of established technologies, often supplied by overseas companies? Does he recognise that that risk could prevent UK-based innovators and suppliers from winning market share and developing the established technologies of the future? What assurances can be given that the bank will focus not only on the areas of activity named by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday, but on the less mature technologies that remain unmentioned, such as solar and marine energy?

There is clearly a balance to be struck between major infrastructure investment and all the activities of innovative companies, but will the Secretary of State tell us how he intends to ensure, in the legislation that will set out the green investment bank’s remit, that he will strike the right balance between those activities?

Finally, given the huge uncertainty and inconsistency that the Government have shown over the past year, can the Business Secretary set out how he intends to create greater confidence in green industry companies about the future direction of Government policy? There was precious little about that in the Government’s growth plan, but without that market confidence none of the high hopes that we all share for the green investment bank will come to fruition.

Order. Before I ask the Secretary of State to reply, I make the point that I allowed the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) to reach his conclusion because I saw that he was getting towards it, but we cannot again have a situation in which the response to a statement is longer than the statement.

I take it that, despite the slightly carping tone of the response, the Opposition do support this proposal. It is important that they support it, because the concept of the green investment bank is that it should be an enduring institution that lasts through successive Parliaments. It is important that we have all-party support for what we are doing.

The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) seems to be claiming credit for this policy, which leaves me with a very simple question: why, in 13 years, did Labour not do it? The demand was there and there were institutional finances looking for such an institution, but it never happened. Why did the Labour Government not do it? They did have a financial vehicle to fund infrastructure investment: the private finance initiative. The whole point about PFI was that it was off balance sheet and the debt was hidden. It was not independently assessed as the green investment bank will be,