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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2011

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

House of Lords Reform

1. What recent discussions he has had with constitutional historians and experts on House of Lords reform; and if he will make a statement. (63487)

4. What recent progress he has made on his plans for House of Lords reform; and if he will make a statement. (63490)

10. What assessment he has made of the recent debates in both Houses on his proposals for House of Lords reform. (63496)

The Government have received many representations on all aspects of House of Lords reform, including from constitutional experts. We recognise that a variety of views were expressed in recent debates in both Houses, and we are sure that the Joint Committee will take account of the debates when scrutinising the draft Bill and White Paper.

The elegance of our unwritten constitution allows it to adapt when necessary to meet a pressing need, but change for some other reason could be regarded as constitutional vandalism. Has the Deputy Prime Minister reflected on the fact that if a pressing need is not articulated, his plans for reform of the other place might fall into the latter category?

I do not think it is a new need, and in that sense it is not a pressing need, but there is an enduring need to make decisions in this place and the other House as accountable to the British people as possible. The simple principle that those who shape the laws of the land should be held to account by people who have to obey the laws of the land is a long-standing democratic principle.

One matter of great concern in this Chamber is that the other place is most certainly secondary to it. Does my right hon. Friend see the opportunity to remove any ability for the other place to initiate legislation as a way to ensure the hierarchy between this place and the other place?

As we explained in our White Paper, we believe that the different mandates, electoral systems and terms of office, and of course the conventions enshrined in the Parliament Acts, will guarantee that although there will no doubt be an evolution in the relationship between the two Houses—that is bound to happen under any arrangement—the hierarchy between this place and the other place will remain intact.

The Deputy Prime Minister has just referred to the different mandates of Members of the other place, if it is reformed, and of this House. Does he not think, though, that the reforms would benefit from some clarification of those different mandates, so that the essential and long-standing relationship between MPs and constituents is not eroded?

We already have a system, of course, in which politicians are elected to different assemblies and Parliaments with different mandates, and as long as those mandates are clearly differentiated, as they would be under the proposed arrangements, there is no clash between them. Let us remember that what the Government suggest in the draft Bill is that elected Members of a reformed House of Lords would represent vastly larger areas than the smaller constituencies that we in this House represent.

Given that in our debates so far no one has rushed to the defence of the hereditary principle or patronage, does my right hon. Friend not agree that if we are to make haste in delivering the principles behind Lords reform, it would be best to get on with removing the hereditary principle and patronage now? No one disagrees with that.

I certainly agree that we aspire to create a reform that, although evolutionary in its implementation—it will take several years rather than happen overnight—will at least be comprehensive and create a reformed House of Lords with a far greater mandate and democratic legitimacy than is currently the case.

In the Deputy Prime Minister’s nirvana of 15-year terms, will he consider ruling out Members of the newly elected other place standing for this place, so that we do not have people roaming around one individual constituency trying to unseat the Member of Parliament by using their democratically elected 15-year position in the other place?

The right hon. Gentleman may have noticed that in the White Paper we suggest precisely that. We suggest that there should be a cooling-off period of at least one term, so that those who leave the other place cannot instantly stand for this place. That is precisely to avoid the clash that he rightly identifies.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister have a view on Lord Steel’s suggestion that a payment of £30,000 should be made to enable Lords to retire?

We are not in favour of that, but we are in favour of many provisions of Lord Steel’s private Member’s Bill and look forward to incorporating many of its transitional arrangements and so on into the Government Bill.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister not understand that even those of us who support Lords reform cannot help wondering whether he has masochistic tendencies in trying to win this fight with one hand tied behind his back, and with the Prime Minister simply holding his coat and egging him on from the sidelines? Does he believe that he has the overwhelming support of his coalition partners to steer the Bill through both Houses? If not, is he not just wasting—

I remind the hon. Gentleman that all parties went to the country in last year’s general election with a clear manifesto commitment to reform the House of Lords. As I have said, it does not strike most people as a radical suggestion that the democratic principle that operates in Parliaments around the world should gently and incrementally be applied to the other place.

Do the Government’s proposals for the House of Lords include excluding peers not from England on voting on matters solely related to England?

We have not addressed that in the White Paper. If people want to discuss it in the Joint Committee, they are free to do so.

Has my right hon. Friend read the debates in which the argument was advanced that the House of Lords does its job, and therefore should not be changed in any way? If so, did he think he was reading the right issue of Hansard, or the one dated 1911, or perhaps the one dated 1832?

Whatever their views about the proposals for House of Lords reform that the Government made in the White Paper and the draft Bill, I believe that everybody accepts that the House of Lords is not immune to reform or improvement. My view is that political institutions are always susceptible to some improvement over time, and I believe that that package of carefully considered reforms, which I hope, over time, will enjoy cross-party support, will finally allow us to make progress on something that has been debated for more than a century.

Fixed-term Parliaments

2. What recent representations he has received on the Government’s policy on the proposed length of fixed-term parliaments. (63488)

The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill has been debated almost fully in both Houses. We have received representations from the public, and I feel sure that, very shortly, another will emanate from the hon. Gentleman.

Leading constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor said:

“If we are entering a world of hung parliaments, there is no reason for dissolutions to be made more difficult.”

Is the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill designed to serve short-term, coalition political interests rather than the long-term interests of the British people?

Not at all. I know the opinions of Vernon Bogdanor very well, because he was my tutor. He and I disagreed while we were at university, and we continue to do so on many matters now. The Bill is very much in the interests of Parliament, and of having a stable situation in which the Prime Minister, for the first time, has given up the power to call an election to suit his political party. That is a huge constitutional improvement.

Electoral Register

My hon. Friend will know that last Thursday the Government published their White Paper and draft legislation on individual electoral registration, to improve both the accuracy of the electoral register and its completeness.

Does the Minister agree with me and the many people in Brighton Kemptown who believe that accuracy and completeness are very important if fraud and malpractice are to be avoided?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We made it very clear in our proposals that we are interested in reducing the vulnerability of our electoral register to fraud and in ensuring its accuracy. We are also interested in ensuring that it is as easy as possible for anyone who is eligible to vote to get on the register. To that end, we are taking part in some data-matching pilots to improve that situation.

Does the Minister accept that not only registration but counting the votes properly is important? Is he aware that in most constituencies there are a handful of spoilt papers, whereas in mayoral elections there are sometimes more than 1,000? On two occasions at least, the number of spoilt papers has been larger than the majority of the election winner. Will he take that up with the Electoral Commission?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which will look at our individual elector registration proposals and carry out pre-legislative scrutiny. He has raised that question with me before, and I can confirm that I will ask officials to look into that matter. I will come back to him and the House in due course.

Specific to the electoral register, will the Minister provide precise details on the Government’s plans to extend the franchise to prisoners? Will proposed legislation on that come to the House, or will he defy Europe and uphold the will of the House?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question—this is a subject on which she is pursuing Ministers relentlessly both in the House and in written questions. The Prime Minister was asked a similar question at Prime Minister’s questions, and I can do no better than to say that the Government do not want to enfranchise prisoners, but there has been a clear decision by a court to which we have signed up. The Prime Minister said that the Government will ensure that any legislative proposals are as close as possible to the House’s decision earlier this year.

On 26 October last year, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister how he was going to ensure that everyone forced to move out of central London because of the changes to housing benefit would be enfranchised and end up on the register. He pooh-poohed that at the time, saying it was not going to happen. Now we know that the Department for Communities and Local Government believes that up to 40,000 people are going to have to move. How are Ministers going to ensure that those people are enfranchised?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Department does not say that at all—it is not what is stated in the impact assessment that Ministers have signed up to. I do not believe either that that is what the article in the newspaper said. On enfranchisement, we are very clear: our proposals will make it easier for people who are entitled to be registered to be registered. He will know that we are carrying out data-matching pilots across the country, and we will take forward and roll out any lessons from that to make it easier for people who are eligible to be registered.

Political Party Funding

The Government are committed to work to reform party funding. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is conducting a review and the Government will consider its recommendations, alongside other relevant evidence before taking this forward.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that the unseemly spectacle last week of union leaders criticising the Labour leadership for not overtly supporting the strikes while the Labour leadership looked uncomfortably at the floor shows exactly why we need to get big money out of party funding and why we need real reform?

I agree that it cannot be healthy in a democracy if any political party is over-reliant on one source of funding to the exclusion of others. [Hon. Members: “Michael Brown!”] It is worth saying that the current situation is unsustainable and has done damage to all political parties, which is why it is something that we should look to reform on a cross-party basis.

If reforms to party funding are to have any meaningful effect they need to come into force at least 18 months before the next general election. Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that if his timetable cannot deliver, it might be overtaken by one that simply commands the support of a majority of the House?

We are first waiting to see the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to consider whether they might kick-start a process of discussions between the parties, so that we can finally move beyond the shadow of the party funding scandals that have blighted all the political parties, and so that we can put the arrangements on a much more sustainable and transparent footing.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise the difference between 1 million trade union members donating £1 each to a political party and a wealthy individual writing out a cheque for a million quid?

As I said, I think that it is unhealthy if any political party is over-reliant on particular organisations, individuals or vested interests for their financial survival, and that is why I hope that all of us—given that all political parties have been affected by this in one way or another—can work together after the Committee on Standards in Public Life has produced its recommendations so that we can find a solution.

The Deputy Prime Minister is right that all three major political parties entered the election with a commitment to reform the way in which political parties are funded. Will he confirm that he will follow convention and seek cross-party agreement on the way forward? Will he also outline the timeline he has in mind? There has obviously been a delay in relation to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. When does he think we will be able to start the discussions to resolve this issue?

I agree that we should always seek to deal with this issue on a cross-party basis where possible. However, I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a precise timetable because it is not within the gift of the Government to decide when Sir Christopher Kelly produces his committee’s report. As soon as he does, I hope that we can consider the recommendations together to see whether they provide a basis for cross-party discussions.

Voter Registration

The hon. Gentleman will know that it is the individual responsibility of electoral registration officers to improve registration rates, but the Government are committed to helping them. He will know that the local council in his area is taking part in one of our data-matching pilots. I hope that that will have a positive effect on driving up registration rates, and then we can see whether it has lessons for rolling out such a system across the country.

Although it gave me great pleasure that Iain McKenzie was elected comfortably as the Labour candidate in the Inverclyde by-election—I was doubly joyous that the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit—I was concerned by the number of people I met who did not have an electoral registration card and were somewhat confused. Will the Minister assure me that the data-matching that he mentioned will be followed up by the Government, so that the responsibility, and the blame, is not left to electoral registration officers? It is a Government responsibility, if they want equal votes of equal value, to ensure that everyone is on the register.

I very much agree with the last sentiment that the hon. Gentleman expressed. My officials are working closely with all local authorities that are looking at matching electoral registers with other existing government databases, to see whether we can identify people who are eligible to vote, but not on the register, and to follow them up. The evidence from the pilots will be looked at not just by the Government but by the Electoral Commission, and if the pilots prove successful we will look at rolling them out across the country. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for that initiative.

Given that a key issue in increasing voter registration is the performance of electoral registration officers in every locality, which we know can vary enormously, is it not time that the Government gave the Electoral Commission the power to direct, and not just to issue advice?

My hon. Friend, who answers very ably for the Electoral Commission in this House, will know that it has made that point strongly to the Government. We will look at the analysis of the referendum this year, when the head of the Electoral Commission, as the chief counting officer, had that power of direction. We will look at how that worked in practice and then take a view on whether it makes sense to consider it for elections more widely.

Topical Questions

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

I do not think that it is an either/or choice. As the hon. Lady knows, there is a commitment in the coalition agreement to establish a commission to look into the West Lothian question, but I do not think that that precludes the Joint Committee looking at proposals for reform of the House of Lords at the same time.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in expressing heartfelt concern for the horrendous ordeal of Milly Dowler’s family? There are now allegations that even as the police searched for Milly Dowler and as her parents waited and hoped, the News of the World was hacking into her phone. Today the Leader of the Opposition has called for a full public inquiry into illegality in the newspaper industry. Will the Deputy Prime Minister say that the Government will back that call?

I entirely agree with the right hon. and learned Lady, and I am sure that we both speak on behalf of the whole House and the rest of the country in saying that if the allegations are true such behaviour is simply beneath contempt. To hack into the phone of a missing child is grotesque, and the suggestion that that might have given false hope to Milly’s parents that she might have been alive only makes it all the more heart-rending. The absolute priority now is to get to the bottom of what actually happened—what is the truth—and that requires, above and beyond everything else, a police investigation that pursues the evidence ruthlessly, wherever it leads.

Of course, this time the police investigations must be thorough and rigorous, but there must also be a public inquiry. There has been widespread malpractice and criminality, and there is a stain on the whole system. We must protect people from this and clean up the British press. Is the Deputy Prime Minister going to act?

If there are wider issues that need to be looked at once the police investigation is complete, of course we can return to them. However, I am sure that the right hon. and learned Lady will agree that the key thing—this is what Milly Dowler’s family and families up and down the country want to know—is: who did what when, who knew what they were doing and who will be held to account? We will be able to get to the bottom of that only when the police ruthlessly pursue the evidence, wherever it leads.

T3. A constituent of mine who wishes to remain nameless has contacted me because she believes that a “YES! To Fairer Votes” preaddressed postal vote form was fraudulently completed on her behalf. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what action my constituent can take to establish who might have signed the form on her behalf and what measures we can introduce to prevent this from happening again in future? (63504)

If my hon. Friend has evidence from his constituent of criminal or fraudulent behaviour, it should of course be referred to the police. I suggest that should be done as quickly as possible.

T2. The NSPCC has announced the closure of ChildLine in Edinburgh, which will result in the loss of 14 staff and hundreds of volunteers. The thrust of the closure is to encourage children to use the internet, but there is concern that those who are most in need of ChildLine have the least access to the internet. Will the Deputy Prime Minister meet me, the NSPCC and the many hundreds of ChildLine volunteers in Edinburgh to see whether we can get this decision reversed? (63503)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right to raise his concerns about the effect of that closure, given that ChildLine exists precisely to help the most vulnerable children. I am more than happy to establish meetings for him, and I would also suggest that meetings take place in Edinburgh with the Scottish Government, whose responsibilities have a bearing on this issue—[Interruption.] They might be able to help.

T4. Is it not about time that we introduced a British Bill of Rights to address ludicrous cases such as that of the convicted foreign killer Mohammed Ibrahim, who is avoiding deportation by claiming the right to family life, even though he killed Amy Houston, thereby denying all her relatives the right to family life? (63505)

I hear my hon. Friend’s concern about these matters, and she is quite right to raise them. The Government have established a commission to look into the case for a British Bill of Rights that will incorporate and build on the existing rights that we already enjoy and extend them further where we can.

T6. The right to form coalitions is very much part of our constitution. In Sheffield recently, Lib Dem councillors have co-opted a United Kingdom Independence party candidate on to one of our local town councils in order to maintain their grip on power. Does not this show that the Lib Dems will do anything, and do deals with any party, to maintain their grip on power? (63507)

Order. First, the House must show some courtesy to the Deputy Prime Minister as he responds to questions. Secondly, I want to hear from Mr Gordon Henderson.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister understand the resentment felt by many taxpayers in my constituency when they see their taxes being used to help to provide a range of free services in Scotland that are not enjoyed by the English? When will the Government take action to bring that unfair subsidy to an end? (63506)

One of the reasons we are transferring a great deal of new fiscal freedom to the Scottish Administration through the Scotland Bill is to ensure not only that the Scottish Government enjoy greater freedom to raise and spend money but that they are held to account for it. That is exactly what we are seeking to achieve in the Scotland Bill.

T9. The Deputy Prime Minister has said on many occasions that if the House of Lords was reformed, this House would retain its primacy over the other place. In an article last week in The Times, his predecessor as leader of the Lib Dems, Lord Ashdown, said that if the House of Lords was reformed, it would have the right of veto over the decision to go to war. Who is right: the Deputy Prime Minister or his predecessor? (63510)

The House of Lords will clearly enjoy greater democratic legitimacy if it is wholly or largely elected, but that does not call into question the primacy of this House. Bicameral chambers all round the world manage this relationship perfectly adequately, with two directly elected chambers that have a relationship of subservience between the one and the other. That is precisely what will continue under the reforms that we have proposed.

T7. Later this week, I shall attend a meeting of Waveney youth council in my constituency. Given the declining proportion of young people voting at recent elections, I would welcome an update to pass on to the youth council on the steps that my right hon. Friend is taking to ensure the early registration of young people and their active engagement in the political process. (63508)

We hope that the process of individual electoral registration that we are pressing ahead with, and particularly the practice of comparing existing databases with the electoral register, will enable us to identify voters, old and young, who should be on the register but are not.

The finest databases in the country are run by Experian. I recently had a meeting with it to discuss the 3.5 million people who are not on the electoral register. It informed me that not 3.5 million but 6.5 million people are not on the electoral register. What steps is the Deputy Prime Minister taking to use the private sector—companies such as Experian and others—to increase the number of registered voters?

It is precisely to get to the bottom of exactly how many people who are not on the register but should be that we commissioned detailed research from the Electoral Commission to establish the facts. As I said earlier, we are running these projects so that we can have access to other publicly available databases to make sure that they are consistent with the electoral register.

T8. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that by delivering 103,000 more adult apprentices than were promised by the previous Government, this Government are delivering on their promise to rebuild the economy? (63509)

Yes, and I would add that those 103,000 apprenticeships are twice the target number that had originally been set for this year. In total, we will deliver 250,000 more apprenticeships during this Parliament than Labour would have delivered if they had been in power. We believe that apprenticeships are a tried, tested and successful way of getting people from full-time education into full-time work. That is what we are absolutely dedicated to deliver.

The recent referendum showed an enormous majority of the British people in favour of first past the post for British elections. May I suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that a return to first past the post for European elections would be equally popular and that the Government should legislate accordingly?

We have probably had enough referendums on electoral systems for one Parliament. I, for one, will not be rushing to return to that issue any time soon.

T10. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what plans are in place to inform voters of the proposed changes to the House of Lords, particularly regarding an election in 2015—and how much will that cost? (63511)

The costs will, of course, be dependent on the final shape of the reforms—on exactly how large the House of Lords is and what proportion of its Members will be elected, and so forth. We have made suggestions on these issues, but we have been entirely open about wanting to listen to alternative suggestions with an open mind. That is why the Joint Committee process, which brings people together from both Houses to look at this in greater detail, is immensely important not only for improving the proposals but for giving the public a chance to scrutinise the proposals, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

As police investigations into phone hacking have been going on for some considerable time, is there not now a strong case for having a public inquiry, as requested from the Front Bench by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), particularly in view of the latest information about the hacking of a murdered person’s phone. That is so disgraceful that a public inquiry is absolutely essential.

I totally understand the instinct for wanting something more to be done than the current police investigations. If we want the truth established, however, and if we want to turn allegations into facts and then to hold people to account and, where necessary and justified, to see prosecutions delivered, I strongly suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it is in his interest and that of all who want to see the truth properly exposed that we allow the police to get on with the investigation and ruthlessly pursue the facts and the evidence, wherever they might lead.

T11. With the whole country gripped by Southend mania, in the knowledge that it is the finest seaside resort with a pier in the world and entirely deserving of city status, will the Minister tell us when local residents in Southend can expect the crowning to take place? (63512)

I recognise the enthusiasm for the Southend bid, which I know is shared by many other Members who come from other places applying for city status. This will work its way through in the normal way, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be waiting for the results with bated breath.

What comparison has been made between the system of individual electoral registration operating in Northern Ireland and the one that operates in the rest of the United Kingdom?

We have learned all the lessons about the flaws in the electoral register here. That is exactly what we are seeking to address, not least by looking at the experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

T12. I wish to place on record my admiration for the ambition shown by the Deputy Prime Minister, but does he not agree that if he sticks to his present programme and allows the first elections to the House of Lords to be held in 2015, it is over-ambitious—even according to his own test—to hold them in the same month and year as the next rural district elections and the next general election? (63513)

“Ambition” was clearly intended as faint praise, and I will take it in that spirit. I think we have shown in past elections that the problems involved in the principle of combined elections can be overcome, as long as there is a clear distinction between the mandates for the bodies that are being elected on the same day.

As the Deputy Prime Minister’s right hon. Friend the Business Secretary felt that there were clear grounds for a full referral of the BSkyB takeover to the competition authorities on the basis of plurality, will he tell the Prime Minister, in the light of the latest shocking developments, that it would be totally unacceptable to wave through that takeover, and that he should put a stop to the dirty deal being hatched by the Culture Secretary with News Corp?

The right hon. Gentleman will know, as he has followed events very closely, that the competition aspect was determined by the European Commission. It cleared the transaction on competition grounds. The decision will be made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, acting in a quasi-judicial manner. He will not consult me, the Prime Minister or any other member of the Government while reaching his decision, and he is meticulously following the advice supplied to him by Ofcom and other regulators.

The coalition agreement committed the Government to setting up a fund to support people with disabilities who wish to stand for election—a move that was also recommended by the cross-party Speaker’s Conference. Following the conclusion of the Government’s consultation on the matter, will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the progress being made towards that goal?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has taken a great interest in this matter and has been remorseless in asking the Government when they will deliver on their commitments. We are determined to do so. As my hon. Friend said, the consultation ended recently, and we are keen to make progress as soon as we can.

In a leaked letter, Nico Heslop wrote:

“we are worried about the impact…to build social housing for families”

to rent, and added:

“23,000 could be lost…disproportionately impacting on families and…children.”

Why was that information not shared with Parliament? What else is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government holding back, and why should anyone ever again believe anything that this Government say about housing and benefits?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the manifesto on which he fought the election last year advocated a housing benefit cap. I assume that, like us, he advocated the cap because it is fair to those who do not receive benefits that those who do receive them cannot do so to the tune that would require someone in work to earn £35,000 or more. It is a fair proposal. Notwithstanding the contents of that leaked letter—which, in any case, was written six months ago; things have moved on since then—we have made it clear that when people, especially large families, need help they will be given that help, and that we will introduce transitional arrangements to provide it.

On 5 April the Deputy Prime Minister said there was “a need to ensure” that reform of the other place did not “overlap” with the establishment of the West Lothian commission. Given that reform of the other place may take some time, can the Deputy Prime Minister reassure us that the West Lothian commission will be in place by the time of the Report stage and Third Reading of my private Member’s Bill on 9 September?

I can confirm that the commission that will look into the West Lothian question will be established this year.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport that the “fit and proper persons” test is irrelevant in the case of the merger between BSkyB and News International?

As I said earlier, the Culture Secretary is acting in a quasi-judicial role, he is doing so in line with advice that he has received from Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading, and he is reflecting the legal position as it currently is. The hon. Lady may shake her head and wish that the law were different; she may wish that competition provisions could somehow be applied here, although the European Commission cleared the transaction on in competition grounds—but that is the legal position as we currently find it.

Sex discrimination and religious discrimination should have no place in our society, so I am pleased that the Government are bringing forward measures to reform the succession to the Crown. However, the discussions with other Commonwealth Governments do seem to be dragging on for a long time. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that those discussions come to a speedy and successful conclusion?

As my hon. Friend knows, both the Prime Minister and I have made it clear that we think there is a strong case for looking at the rules of the succession, as they clearly need updating in this day and age, but it is not quite as simple as that, because this is subject to consultation with all Commonwealth Governments. Discussions at official level are taking place between this Government and Commonwealth Governments. I acknowledge that that is not a very rapid process, but it is right that we should deal with this sensitive topic as collaboratively as possible with other Commonwealth Governments.

At the recent British-Irish Council, which I understand the Deputy Prime Minister chaired, was there any discussion of the economic impact of different levels of aviation taxes, given that for a long-haul flight from the UK that is currently levied at £85 a head, whereas from Ireland the tax is just €3?

I am aware that the Treasury is undertaking a consultation on that subject, but it did not come up in discussions at the British-Irish Council.

Pursuant to the answer that the Deputy Prime Minister has just given to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), does the Deputy Prime Minister not understand that his constant answer that negotiations with Commonwealth countries about reforming the Act of Settlement are ongoing sounds rather like an excuse for inaction, given that no Commonwealth country has shown anything but respect, reverence and adoration for our female monarch for the past half century?

We cannot just do something about it. [Hon. Members: “He didn’t!”] No, the hon. Gentleman did not, for 13 years.

I totally accept—I have spoken publicly about this—that it seems a little anachronistic that we have rules of succession that appear to discriminate against women, and that clearly should be looked at, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) rightly pointed out, this affects many other Governments as well, and it would be wrong of us to act in haste when we need to act in a way that is open and following discussions—not negotiations, but discussions—between ourselves and other Commonwealth Governments.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Child Trafficking

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on prosecution rates for cases involving allegations of trafficking of children. (63517)

None recently, but I can assure the hon. Lady that the DPP, the Law Officers, the Home Office—which I believe she shadows—and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office take the crime of human trafficking extremely seriously.

Can the Solicitor-General explain to me exactly how merging the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre into the national crime agency, against the advice of all the specialists in the field, will improve prosecution rates and the support given to victims of trafficking?

If Parliament permits its creation, the national crime agency will not come into operation until at least 2012-13. Meanwhile, CEOP and the other necessary agencies are working together to ensure that the crime of human trafficking, which the hon. Lady takes as seriously as we do, is properly borne down upon, and I can assure her that nothing will be done to impede the efforts of the prosecuting authorities in that regard.

Does the Solicitor-General agree that one way to improve prosecution rates would be to ensure that all resources are used to prosecute traffickers, rather than sometimes prosecuting the trafficked children?

Of course I do, and it is imperative that trafficked children, who are the victims of this hideous crime, are not prosecuted but are treated as victims. Equally, it is imperative that adults under such duress, too, are not prosecuted but treated as victims. The Crown Prosecution Service recently published a public policy statement, which I am sure my hon. Friend has read, and the Home Office will shortly publish a human trafficking strategy that will deal very much with the points that he has made.

Rape Cases

We have no such plans at the moment, but I assure my hon. Friend that the CPS and I take the prosecution of rape very seriously indeed, and that it is constantly under review.

Does the Solicitor-General have any idea about the level of prosecution of rape cases in Scotland compared with that in England? Will he undertake to remove all barriers to prosecution? In particular, will he facilitate the reporting of rape cases, which will speed up the prosecution rate in due course?

I am sure that what is similar in Scotland and in this jurisdiction is not only that rape is taken extremely seriously by the prosecuting authorities and the police, but that prosecution requires evidence. It is essential that victims of rape and sexual assault are enabled to give their evidence and to withstand the hideous stress that necessarily follows from being a witness in a rape or sexual assault case. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Director of Public Prosecutions has personally overseen the drive to improve the approach of the CPS to rape prosecutions.

That is a decision not only for the DPP but for the chief Crown prosecutors in the various areas throughout the jurisdiction. This will depend on business need, but I assure the hon. Lady that rape prosecutions will be pursued with the same vigour both now and in the future.

Human Trafficking

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support victims of human trafficking to participate in criminal proceedings. (63519)

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support victims of human trafficking to participate in criminal proceedings. (63520)

The CPS is taking a number of steps to encourage victims of human trafficking to support criminal proceedings, including the publication of a new public policy statement setting out its prosecution policy and how it will support victims. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) a moment ago, the Home Secretary will shortly publish her Department’s human trafficking strategy. The CPS is also working with non-governmental organisations to develop further measures to assist and support victims.

I am very heartened by the general replies and that specific reply from the Solicitor-General on this question, but we are aware of reported cases of magistrates saying to a 14-year-old girl who had been trafficked and found in a cannabis factory that she had clearly made a lifestyle choice. Did the Attorney-General give any evidence, or a submission, to the Home Secretary in the upcoming review? If not, why not? If so, will he place a copy of his contribution in the Library for us all to read?

It would not be sensible for me to comment on unattributable, or unattributed, remarks by unidentified magistrates. If what the hon. Gentleman suggests was said in that case was said, it was clearly unwise. The Law Officers’ Department did make a contribution to the thinking behind the Home Secretary’s human trafficking strategy. The hon. Gentleman will be able to read the strategy in full when it is published next week, and it will doubtless refer to all sorts of sources.

The US State Department’s 2011 “Trafficking in Persons Report” contains many things about the UK that hon. Members would find alarming, including the following quotation:

“Some potential and confirmed trafficking victims, including children, were prosecuted and imprisoned for committing offenses as a direct result of being trafficked.”

What does the Solicitor-General propose to do to stop that happening?

As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), and in connection with an earlier question, the Crown Prosecution Service public policy statement makes it clear that those who are trafficked—those who are victims of the trafficking—should not be prosecuted.

We are having rather lovely weather at the moment, and this spring seems to be going on for a very long time. Did the Solicitor-General let it slip that spring was going to end next week, and are we actually going to see the trafficking policy next week? If so, can he confirm that an oral statement will be given, rather than a written one?

Paying for sex with a trafficked woman is a criminal offence under section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that section 14 is fully used by the police and Crown Prosecution Service? Will the Solicitor-General confirm that he is considering a pause in issuing CPS guidance, which could be a wasted opportunity at this stage?

The Crown Prosecution Service assesses the evidence given to it by the police. If that evidence passes the evidential test and it is in the public interest to prosecute, those who commit such crimes will be prosecuted. Beyond that, I am not sure that I can usefully help the hon. Gentleman other than by repeating myself.

Domestic and Sexual Violence

5. What recent assessment he has made of the role of specialist domestic and sexual violence services in supporting prosecutions in cases involving allegations of such offences. (63521)

The evaluations of specialist domestic violence courts conducted between 2005 and 2008 demonstrated that specialist domestic violence support services contributed to improving prosecution rates as well as to the safety of domestic violence victims. More recent analysis, conducted on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service, has also shown a significant reduction in domestic violence against supported victims. There has been no formal assessment of sexual violence services.

The Swansea sexual assault referral centre, or SARC, is one of four across Wales run by the New Pathways organisation. I have been informed that the centre receives no statutory funding for any work that it undertakes with children and young people, who often suffer the worst types of sexual abuse and violence. The majority of its referrals come from the statutory sector. Will the Solicitor-General promise me that he will look at the issue and at the gap in the funding that the centre receives?

I can certainly promise to look into that. This Government, including my Department, value the work that such agencies perform. As the hon. Lady will know, in her part of Wales there are two SDVCs—or specialist domestic violence courts—one in Neath and one in Swansea, as well as other necessary advisory services. I appreciate that we are in a time of great economic constraint, but we will do our best with the resources that we can make available to them.

One of the main challenges facing vulnerable complainants and their families is the sometimes lengthy time gap between the making of their complaint and their appearance in court. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the work of women’s refuges, such as the one in my constituency, and of police family liaison officers is vital if we are to maintain the confidence we need in complainants in order for them to follow their complaints through the criminal justice process?

I know that that is true not only in my hon. Friend’s constituency but throughout the rest of the country. It is important that the advisory services and family liaison staff are there to help those affected by such crimes of violence, whether they involve sexual or non-sexual assault, so that they can bring their evidence to court and the perpetrators can be convicted.

Arrest Warrants (War Crimes)

6. Whether the Government plan to make additional resources available to the Director of Public Prosecutions to enable him to discharge the new responsibilities contained in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill to consider arrest warrants in war crimes cases. (63523)

The Crown Prosecution Service currently anticipates that any additional responsibilities will be absorbed within current resources.

The Solicitor-General will have read the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on this issue, which finds that the Government have not made their case and that they should think again. I find it particularly ironic that we are prepared to change the law to protect one Israeli opposition leader when another opposition leader, the Palestinian Sheikh Salah, comes here and is put straight in jail. Where is the justice in that?

I appreciate the right hon. Lady’s interest in this aspect of public policy, and I also appreciate that she has firm opinions on the matter. She is fully entitled to those opinions. In short, the law was changed not in order to solve the problems of one individual but to deal with a public policy problem. She knows that really.

On 11 January, in this House, a Justice Minister assured me that allegations under universal jurisdiction offences would be accorded the highest priority. Does the Solicitor-General accept the need for an out-of-hours response so that we can be confident that those suspected of such serious crimes will not evade arrest?

The criminal justice system, as the hon. Gentleman knows, never rests. If someone is arrested or brought into custody, he will have available to him, or should have, not only the benefit of the attention of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service but also of his own defence lawyers.

Female Genital Mutilation

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to bring prosecutions under the provisions of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003; and if he will make a statement. (63524)

The Crown Prosecution Service is due to publish new legal guidance on female genital mutilation—FGM—later this summer as part of its commitment to the cross-Government strategy on the prevention of violence against women and girls. I know that the hon. Lady has done a good deal to draw attention to the issue of FGM in Bristol, not least through her work with the Bristol safeguarding children board, which has raised awareness of FGM among midwives and other health professionals, the police and social workers.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that response. He made reference to the safeguarding children board, which estimates that up to 2,000 girls in Bristol are at risk. Obviously, the summer holidays are a particular problem period. May I urge the hon. and learned Gentleman to do all he can to work with teachers in schools and through his colleagues at the Department for Education to make sure that girls at risk are identified and steps are taken to prevent FGM, rather than just prosecuting people when the offence has been committed?

Yes, and I can tell the hon. Lady that the Home Office, the Metropolitan police and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office launched a DVD on the subject on 4 July—yesterday. It was produced by young people for young people, and seeks to raise awareness of FGM among potential victims. It will be distributed to all schools by September 2011, so I hope the hon. Lady is reassured by that.

Contempt of Court

8. Whether he plans to take steps to reduce the likelihood of any future prosecutions for contempt of court arising from the use of social media. (63525)

As guardians of the public interest, the Law Officers bring contempt of court proceedings when it is appropriate to do so. I did so in the case of Fraill and Sewart in the divisional court, in which the Lord Chief Justice presided on 14 and 16 June. It is for the trial court judge to warn parties, and the public, not to publish prejudicial reports, and when appropriate to impose reporting restrictions. Juries in particular are warned repeatedly by the court not to use the internet to research cases in which they are involved.

I do not know whether the Solicitor-General is on Twitter, but I am concerned that not only he, but UK law, appears to be on the back foot when facing what is not even new technology. Twitter is five years old next month. Is it not time we demonstrated that UK law is as at home online as on the streets?

Let me confess: I do not tweet, nor do I have a Facebook account; perhaps the hon. Lady is not terribly surprised by that. In the relationship between social media and the law of contempt, the principle and the issues are exactly the same. The means of communicating may have evolved, but the principles we need to apply to ensure that the due administration of justice is not impeded or prejudiced remain the same for talking over the garden fence as for exchanging information through modern internet and social media.

Would the Solicitor-General confirm that judges always give strict directions to juries that they must not access any form of internet or other information sources when considering their deliberations in a criminal trial?

Yes they do, and I have done it myself when sitting as a judge. What one cannot guarantee, of course, is that members of juries will obey those instructions and directions when they get home—but we have to rely on the good sense and public duty of citizens whose public duty it is to serve on juries.

Public concern about the misuse of modern communication technology, including social media, is growing, particularly about its impact on the pursuit of justice. That was most recently highlighted by the truly sickening allegations of phone hacking in the Milly Dowler case. The CPS announced a review of hacking evidence almost six months ago. When will the public and victims receive an update? Will further criminal prosecutions be brought, and will the Solicitor-General confirm whether any criminal investigations may have been jeopardised by the behaviour of the press and the rest of the media?

With the greatest respect, I think that if the hon. Lady had thought about it a little more, she would understand that I am not going to give a running commentary either on the police investigations or on the likely consequences of any police investigations. She may rest assured that investigations will continue, and they will continue to follow the evidence wherever it may be—and if the evidence warrants prosecutions, they will be brought. That is work that we need to do in future; it is not something that I need to make announcements about here in the absence of any direct or relevant information immediately to hand.

Legal Advice (Declaration of War)

9. What steps he is taking to ensure transparency in the arrangements for the provision of legal advice to the Cabinet on a declaration of war. (63526)

The hon. Gentleman’s Political and Constitutional Reform Committee reported in May on Parliament’s role in conflict decisions, and the Government will respond to his report shortly. The Foreign Secretary told the House on 21 March in the Libya debate that the Cabinet had the Attorney-General’s advice before it when the decision was made to take action in Libya. A Government note on the legal basis was placed in the Library that day, and was available to right hon. and hon. Members for that debate.

The Solicitor-General knows better than most of us that there is a separation of powers, at least theoretically, in our constitution, and that the problems that we had over legal advice in relation to the Iraq war centred on the legal advice given to the Government by their own Attorney-General. Will he also take into account that Parliament has no right whatever to consult and get its own legal advice? Will he discuss with the House authorities putting that right, so that on future occasions when there is a conflict, Members can get their own advice rather than relying on trying to wheedle the Attorney-General’s advice out of Government?

It is not for me to stop Members of Parliament getting whatever advice they think it appropriate to have, but the decision that has to be considered and accounted for to Parliament is that of the Prime Minister and the Government. That can be debated here, irrespective of one’s access to legal advice.