House of Commons
Wednesday 7 September 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioner for England (Answer to Address)
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House a message from Her Majesty, as follows:
I have received your Humble Address praying that I should appoint Dame Julie Mellor to the offices of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioner for England. I will comply with your request.
Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Wednesday 14 September (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Big Society Bank
I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that we are making excellent progress in establishing the big society bank. I am equally delighted to be able to tell him that it will be called the Big Society Capital group.
Big Society Capital announced appointments to the management and board in July. It is now securing Financial Services Authority and state-aid approval, and we expect it to be open for business in the spring.
My hon. Friend is a noted, effective and passionate advocate of his constituency. It is of course for Big Society Capital itself to decide exactly where it places its investment funds, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will want to prioritise social intermediaries who focus on those families who are most vulnerable, and on those individuals and families who are most in need of help.
Community groups, including not-for-profit organisations, have difficulty establishing community projects because of the complexity of the system to secure funding. Will the big society bank have a dedicated officer to help and assist them, so that small projects in deprived communities have a level playing field?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very real problem, which Big Society Capital has recognised. Right from the beginning of the scheme’s design, Sir Ronald Cohen has insisted, and Ministers have agreed, that it should not directly invest in social enterprises but act as a provider of finance to social intermediaries—whether they are lending banks such as Triodos or other more exotic and interesting new social intermediaries—that already have a retail function and can deal, and know how to deal, with the small groups that need to deal with them.
We have established Contracts Finder as a one-stop shop, which enables suppliers to find procurement opportunities, tender documents and contracts online and free of charge. We are also piloting a simple method, which I think is called a dynamic market, for suppliers to register online for public sector contracts below £100,000. That will enable small and medium-sized enterprises to compete at minimal cost alongside large suppliers.
Does the Minister agree that, although large companies often find it easy to tender competitively for those contracts, there is a real benefit economically from spending time and effort on encouraging small and medium-sized businesses to bid for such tenders?
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. There is a temptation to think that it does not matter who provides a public service contract, big or small, but we all have an enormous interest in encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to engage in the process, because we all have a huge incentive and reason for believing that innovation in public service can lead to more productivity. It is very often the small, innovative companies that engage in innovation, and therefore we need to ensure that we encourage their participation right the way through the process.
SME information technology companies are reporting back from the Government tendering process that project aims and budgets remain unspecified and that forms are still the size of telephone directories. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that those concerns will be taken on board, so that this Government can deliver real value from IT projects—something that the previous Government failed to do?
My hon. Friend has actively and aggressively pursued several Government Departments about these issues and I hope that he will continue to do so. He is absolutely right that too much of this still goes on. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who has taken the lead on the issue and deserves great credit for that, has not tried to keep the issue secret—on the contrary, he has tried to open it up.
We have introduced a “mystery shopper” scheme, which allows suppliers to challenge Government procurers when they see overly bureaucratic processes. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that during the first three months of the scheme, 23 cases of things such as huge telephone-book-sized contracts were investigated and 11 have led to immediate reductions in tedious bureaucracy. All the information about the scheme has been published on the Cabinet Office website.
Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the Public Administration Committee report “Government and IT—‘A Recipe For Rip-Offs’ ”? It points out that we cannot rely on the large systems integrators to involve small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government themselves have to employ people from that sector so that the Government can engage with it directly. That is the only way in which we will get SMEs involved in Government procurement.
As with every product of the Select Committee in which my hon. Friend is so notably involved, we do indeed pay enormous attention to that report. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has already taken that set of steps and is already intending to ensure that we have the expertise to do exactly as my hon. Friend recommends. It is absolutely crucial that we get to grips with every large project, and some of them are central to the Government’s policy agenda—in welfare, for example.
Public Bodies Bill
The Government are committed to reviewing non-departmental public bodies every three years. The reviews will provide a much needed, robust challenge for the continuing need of individual bodies and ensure that the body is complying with recognised principles of good corporate governance.
Will the Minister remind the House how much money he anticipates will be saved as a result of the Bill? Given the spending on so many quangos, much of which is so wasteful, are we not being slightly modest in our ambitions? Is there not even greater scope in future years to save yet more money?
My hon. Friend is entirely right—he should be nudging us to be more ambitious. We have placed on record what we think is a conservative estimate of cumulative administrative savings from reforms already identified of at least £2.6 billion over the spending review period, but we expect that to be a start rather than a finish.
Is the Minister concerned that some of the public bodies may be being abolished with a little too much haste, particularly given the riots in the summer? The Youth Justice Board was very successful in reducing youth offending by around 34%. Does the Minister not worry that we will get rid of some of the bodies in too much of a hurry?
The Youth Justice Board still exists. What we have set up with the Public Bodies Bill is a framework and mechanism for enabling reform. Each Department has to come to the House with a case for reform, which needs to be debated and processed through secondary legislation. That is what we have set up, so Parliament will have plenty of opportunity to scrutinise and debate.
In 2009, it was agreed that the office of the chief coroner would be established to improve support for bereaved families. The decision was taken with support from both sides of the House. In the passage of the Public Bodies Bill, the Government have signalled that they intend to abolish the office of the chief coroner before it has even been established. Which organisations are in favour of its abolition?
The right hon. Lady knows from our Second Reading debates that there are strong opinions on this subject. I refer her to what I said before; the mechanism that we have set out is for a genuine debate on the proposed reforms. That is what the Bill enables, and she and I, or appropriate colleagues, will have that debate in Committee in forthcoming weeks and months.
Efficiency and Reform Group
The Government saved £3.75 billion in their first 10 months after taking office by stopping unnecessary and wasteful spending. We saved £800 million by renegotiating with the biggest suppliers to Government. We cut spending on consultants by 70% and on advertising by 80%. This is just the beginning; there is much more to be done.
I thank the Minister and welcome the initial savings of the Efficiency and Reform Group. He will be aware, however, of the £1 billion of additional savings that my own research has identified. Will he agree that I could meet the chair of the Efficiency and Reform Group to discuss these savings further?
The chair of the Efficiency and Reform Group is me, so I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who, when he was leader of Barnet council, showed how much can be done. We do, absolutely, have a huge amount to learn from what is being done best in local government, particularly the sort of savings that can be made by much better use of office accommodation. It is such a pity that when the current Leader of the Opposition was Minister for the Cabinet Office he did not do this stuff himself. The country would be in less of a mess and the public finances would be in better shape if he had done his job properly.
Of course everybody welcomes cuts to wasteful expenditure. However, will the Minister explain why the Cabinet Office website indicates that in January a contractor charged the taxpayer £5,867.66 for flying flags? Will he explain why the Government paid a single taxi fare of £324.14, which would almost get me from here to Yorkshire and back again? Finally, will he explain why the taxpayer paid £181 for a single individual’s eye test? What a waste of money.
Proxima, a small software company in my constituency, has the potential to offer real efficiency savings in the use of Government software. Its initial discussions with the Department have been positive, but they have now stalled. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and my constituents to see how we can save the Government millions by better use of their resources?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and I will be very glad to meet him to discuss it. There is a huge amount we can do to use IT resources much, much better. Far too often in the past, the Government were reinventing the wheel by buying new systems and not reusing what they had already spent money on. That will now cease.
Civil Service (Voluntary Severance)
6. What estimate he has made of the number of civil servants who will leave the civil service on voluntary severance terms in 2010-11. (69986)
We aim to minimise compulsory redundancy. We reformed the civil service compensation scheme so that, for the first time, voluntary redundancy was more attractive than compulsory redundancy, which was impossibly expensive under the scheme left in place by the previous Government. We estimate that in early 2010-11 11,200 civil servants left the civil service on the new terms.[Official Report, 8 September 2011, Vol. 532, c. 3MC.]
I thank the Minister for that answer. Let me place on record the fact that he will share the objective that all severance packages are voluntary. Nevertheless, I am receiving from civil servants who work in my constituency evidence that they have been dissuaded from volunteering for a redundancy package because parts of their accrued service do not count for the final compensation package. Will the Minister ensure that maximum flexibility is deployed in order to allow us to reach the goal of all departures being voluntary?
I can confirm that staff in the Crown Agents have always been outside the civil service compensation scheme. In April, I used the powers available to me under the scheme rules to allow service in the Crown Agents to count for compensation purposes for the voluntary schemes currently being run by the Department for International Development. I am aware that there are a few cases in which questions have arisen around service before joining the Crown Agents. My officials are actively engaged in clarifying what commitments were made at that time to these staff.
Public Disorder (Financial Cost)
Since the riots, we have remained in close contact with our strategic partners, who are feeding in information about the impact of the riots on community groups. I have a meeting next week with community groups and sector representatives to discuss that impact and the way forward.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. At the height of the disturbances that hit Leicester, the Age Concern ambulance bus was torched. Despite what the Prime Minister indicated to me in his statement of 11 August, Age Concern is not eligible for the compensation schemes. Will the Minister look urgently at setting up a compensation scheme for charities so that Age Concern in my constituency can replace its ambulance bus as quickly as possible?
I was as shocked as anyone by the torching of the Age Concern ambulance. My understanding is that under these circumstances, damages are recoverable from the high street support scheme. I have been informed that officials have sent that information through. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives of Age Concern if there are continued problems with this issue.
Does my hon. Friend agree that voluntary organisations are the backbone of our local communities and that any damage to their property or organisation diminishes their opportunity to assist the individuals and groups that are most in need?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, which is why I am meeting many sector representatives and community groups next week to discuss the impact and the way forward. He knows as well as I do that we are doing a huge amount to support community organisations through deregulation and by making it easier for them to access finance.
How much money does the Minister think he will have to put into the national citizen service to prevent future riots? How will he ensure that that is not done at the cost of general voluntary and community services that support young people, especially given that they are incurring additional costs in helping communities to rebuild after the riots and are subject to Government cuts?
We are hugely enthusiastic about the national citizen service; much more, apparently, than the Opposition Front Bench. The experience from this summer is that it has been a fantastic experience for young people, connecting them with a chance to do something really positive in their communities. We are piloting it, but have to proceed cautiously because a lot of taxpayers’ money is involved. As the Prime Minister has made quite clear, we are keen to expand it as fast as we can.
National Citizen Service
8. What recent progress he has made on the national citizen service pilots. (69988)
We are absolutely delighted with the progress of the national citizen service. About 8,500 young people enjoyed an extremely positive experience this summer. The feedback has been fantastically positive and we will publish an evaluation report shortly on this year’s pilots.
I share my hon. Friend’s high regard for the YMCA and lots of other youth organisations across the country. As I said, we are ambitious to expand the national citizen service and are looking to commission up to 30,000 places next year. We are actively reviewing a list of applications and bids from a great diversity of suppliers. We will announce the results of that shortly.
I know that the Minister is still working out the fine details of the scheme, but may I urge him not to reinvent the wheel, but to make the best use of the Prince’s Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, of which I am a gold member? As well as not reinventing the wheel, I urge him not to break the spokes in the wheel by shattering youth service provision throughout the country as very good schemes go to the wall under this Administration.
I should make it clear that we are deliberately offering 16-year-olds in this country something new and distinctive. If the hon. Gentleman listens to the kids on the programme this year, he will hear that they see it as being very different from the Duke of Edinburgh’s award and the Prince’s Trust. It is set up to be different, and that is why we are piloting it. As I said, we are extremely enthusiastic about the feedback.
As Minister for the Cabinet Office, I am responsible for the public sector Efficiency and Reform Group, civil service issues, industrial relations, strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, the civil society and cyber-security.
Okehampton, in my constituency, has recently seen unemployment treble virtually overnight, although the figure has now decreased dramatically due to local action. It is holding a very important event this week, “Okehampton Works”, bringing together public, private and voluntary organisations to focus on employment, which is an important step towards the big society locally. Will my right hon. Friend join me in visiting Okehampton to meet, and learn from, those who have pioneered that important initiative?
I should be delighted for either myself or the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), to join my hon. Friend in Okehampton to discuss those very issues. There is a huge amount that can be done.
One quango that has done a really good job since it was brought in by the Labour Government is the Security Industry Authority, which licenses bouncers outside pubs. One role that it has not yet been given is the licensing of private investigators. We have seen over the past year that some private investigators are very good people, but some of them are the scum of the earth. Should we not be licensing them and giving that power to the authority?
T2. In the light of the excellent work in Lincoln this summer of the pilot national citizen service managed by the Lincolnshire and Rutland Education Business Partnership, can my hon. Friend assure me that careful consideration has been given to the EBP’s bid for next year, which I wholeheartedly support, so that it can be the deliverer of the NCS for the whole of Lincolnshire in 2012? (69955)
I am grateful to Lincolnshire and Rutland Education Business Partnership for the excellent work that it has done this summer, which is a really good example of communities working together to support the NCS. As I have said before, we are giving careful consideration to all bids received to run the 2012 pilots and will be making an announcement very shortly. [Interruption.]
I was in Belfast just a few weeks ago, at Hillsborough castle, talking about just that to a section of community organisations and social enterprises that were fascinated by the big society bank. We made it very clear that it was open for business in Northern Ireland.
T4. I enjoyed a very rewarding week of volunteering in my constituency during the summer with Mencap, the National Trust, Kirkwood hospice, the Forget Me Not Trust and many more. Does the Minister agree that volunteering should be a key component of the national citizen service? (69957)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the sterling example that he has set others. Of course, one of the purposes of the national citizen service is to connect young people with their power to make a positive difference in their communities. If he had visited some of the pilots that I did, he would have been absolutely inspired by the enthusiasm with which they undertook that task.
In opening access to public data on the performance of our publicly subsidised railways, does the Minister recognise that real-time running information would be even more powerful in driving innovation that would aid the travelling public? Will he get train operators to be more open with such public data?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. These are services that rely on public subsidy, and that information is incredibly valuable and capable of providing enormous benefit to the users of public transport. It can drive more passengers on to public transport, which we all want, so it is in not only the public interest but the operators’ interest to make such data available.
At this stage we are concentrating on simply reducing the footprint of the Government’s property estate, which was allowed to grow massively out of control under the last Government because there were no controls whatever. Rather than looking to relocate, at this stage we are simply looking to reduce what the Government occupy. I know that Croydon, which my hon. Friend represents vigorously, is a very good location out of central London for Government services to operate from.
T7. Small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency warmly welcome the steps that the Government are taking to make it easier for them to win Government contracts, but they also need better access to finance to win such contracts. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help with that? (69960)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that without the finance, SMEs cannot take part. I am delighted to be able to tell him that in the first half of the year, SME lending has almost lived up to the target set in the Merlin agreement for SMEs—it is within £1 billion—which is a major achievement.
T8. Does my hon. Friend agree that the promotion of youth organisations such as the Passion youth centre in Shepshed, which are often set up by churches, should be a cornerstone of the Government’s response to the riots over the summer? (69961)
I should certainly like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Passion youth centre and the local churches that support it. That seems to be an excellent example of the community pulling together to make better use of an old facility, which is exactly the type of thing that we are trying to encourage through the Localism Bill, Big Society Capital and the Community First grant programme.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to those who have fallen in Afghanistan since we last met for Prime Minister’s questions: Lance Corporal Paul Watkins, from 9th/12th Royal Lancers; Corporal Mark Palin, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Marine James Wright, from Juliet Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; Lieutenant Daniel Clack, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; and Sergeant Barry Weston, from Kilo Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines. We should also remember Senior Aircraftman James Smart, from No. 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron, RAF Wittering, who died in a road traffic accident in Italy on 20 July while supporting operations in Libya. I pay tribute to their outstanding courage and selflessness. They have each given their lives serving our country and making our world more safe and secure. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies should be with their families, their friends and their colleagues.
This week, we also reach the 10th anniversary of the terrible atrocities of 11 September 2001, so we should remember all those who lost their lives that day, and all those who have died in pursuit of a safer future throughout the last decade.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The whole House will agree with the tributes that the Prime Minister has just made to members of the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our country.
Earlier this week, the Government pushed through legislation that says that terror suspects must be given access to mobile phones and the internet and that ends relocation orders, so that such suspects cannot be kept out of London in the run-up to the Olympics or the Queen’s jubilee without emergency legislation. Will not decent, law-abiding people out there be shocked to discover that the Prime Minister is weakening protection for them while pushing through what many people will think is a charter of rights for would-be terrorists?
I do not agree with that. We consulted very carefully with the police and the security services in order to try to get to a better position, because frankly, control orders did not have the confidence of the public and did not work in far too many cases. The arrangements that we have put in place will keep this country safe and have greater public confidence.
May I thank the House and all my Hexham constituents for their messages of support while I was temporarily in hospital? I am now fully recovered, thanks to the outstanding care of the NHS and its hard-working doctors and nurses. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, as many doctors and nurses did, that it must be our mission to improve and reform the NHS, so that the service that we so cherish will improve with the challenges ahead?
May I say how good it is to see my hon. Friend back in his place and fully recovered? He is right: the point of our health reforms is to put doctors in charge, give patients greater choice, and heal the divide between health and social care. I believe that they will lead to a stronger NHS and better outcomes for patients.
May I begin by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our brave servicemen who have given their lives over the summer: Lance Corporal Paul Watkins, from 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales’s); Corporal Mark Palin, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Marine James Wright, from Juliet Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; Lieutenant Daniel Clack, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Sergeant Barry Weston, from Kilo Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; and Senior Aircraftman James Smart, from No. 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron, RAF Wittering. All of them demonstrated tremendous bravery and courage in the line of duty, and we send our deepest condolences to their families and friends.
Let me also join the Prime Minister in remembering all those who died in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. We all said at the time that we would never forget, and it is right that we pay particular attention on this the 10th anniversary of 11 September, so that for the victims and their families we show that we are true to the words that we spoke in the aftermath of those terrible attacks.
As the House returns from the recess, I also thank all our policemen and policewomen who did such a tremendous job in the riots over the summer, and it is on the subject of policing that I want to start my questions to the Prime Minister. We learned last night that the Prime Minister now wants to hold his elections for police commissioners not alongside local elections, as originally intended, but in November next year. How much extra money does he expect that to cost?
So the Prime Minister is making a bad policy worse by wasting money. If he wanted to postpone the elections, he could easily have decided to hold them in May 2013; and, indeed, subsequent elections will be held in May 2016. Will he tell us why he has decided to waste his money in this way?
It is important to get the policy right, and to make sure that it works. Let us be clear. First of all, why are the Opposition so frightened of an election? What have they to fear?
The right hon. Gentleman called this bad policy. Let me tell him what was said by his own shadow Policing Minister. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said that
“only direct election, based on geographic constituencies, will deliver the strong connection to the public which is critical”.
Why is the right hon. Gentleman so frightened of an election and proper police accountability?
We know what the public up and down this country know: this is the wrong priority for the country. What did we see during the riots? We saw visible, effective policing. Now the Prime Minister tells us that the country cannot afford the current police budgets, and that we must cut the number of police officers by 16,000. However, he tells the country that it can afford £100 million and more as a result of his decision to waste money on 42 elected politicians earning more than £120,000 a year. That could pay for 2,000 extra police officers. Is not the truth that this is the wrong priority at the wrong time for the country?
As ever, the right hon. Gentleman has got his figures completely wrong. The police authorities of whom only 6% of the country have actually heard will be abolished, and that will save money.
Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman again. Why is he frightened of direct elections that will make the police accountable? He was responsible for the last Labour manifesto, and this is what the last Labour Prime Minister said:
“the Home Secretary will bring forward proposals for directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing”.—[Official Report, 14 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1388.]
Why the U-turn?
We know that the Prime Minister has got the wrong priorities on the police and that he is refusing to back down. However, he has got the wrong priorities not just on the police, but on the health service as well. Can he tell us why the number of people who have had to wait longer than six months for an operation has gone up by more than 60% since he came to office?
I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to change the subject, because on policing he was having his collar felt as he has done a complete U-turn on the policy he used to be committed to.
As I said some moments ago, in our health service we are seeing more cancer patients get treatment, more doctors in our NHS, fewer bureaucrats, a reduction in mixed-sex—[Interruption.] I know Labour Members do not like hearing—[Interruption.]
That was a complete non-answer; the Prime Minister cannot even answer the questions. We are talking about people up and down this country who have been waiting longer for their operations. [Interruption.] The Government Chief Whip shouts from a sedentary position; he should care about these people who have been waiting longer for their operations. Let me tell the Government Chief Whip and the whole Government Front Bench what we are talking about. Between June 2010 and June 2011, the number of people waiting more than six months for an operation was up by 42% for those waiting for a heart operation, up by 62% for those waiting for orthopaedic operations, and up by 72% for those waiting for eye surgery. The country and I are just asking for a simple explanation from the Prime Minister: why has it happened?
The explanation is that the amount of time that people are waiting for an outpatient operation has actually gone down; that is what has happened. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have targets for 90% of people to get their treatment within 18 weeks, and those targets are being met. He may not like the truth, but that is the truth, and I have to say to him that that is why we now see the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing all supporting our health reforms. We even see Lord Darzi, the former Health Minister, supporting our health reforms. Labour has got itself into a position of opposing all reform to the NHS and opposing the extra money into the NHS; that is its position.
I think the Prime Minister has convinced the country that he is on another planet from them. He had his holidays interrupted—fair play to him—but he took time off from his holiday to tell the Western Morning News what he has just repeated: that the
“whole health profession is on board for what is now being done.”
I have to ask: does he read the newspapers, because only on Tuesday of this week the British Medical Association, the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Midwives all rejected his Bill? And that was only this week. The truth is that under this Government we are seeing two reckless and needless reorganisations of our public services: police numbers down and waiting lists up. Under Labour, we saw police officers up and waiting lists down. Why does he not do the right thing for the future of our public services, and scrap both of these disruptive and dangerous plans?
Is it not interesting that he does not dare in six questions to mention the economy? On our health reforms, let me quote what the man his Government plucked from the NHS to run the Department of Health, Lord Darzi, says:
“The proposals from the NHS Future Forum, and supported by the Government, have recast the reforms in”
“direction and are to be welcomed.”
So now we have the Royal College of GPs, the physicians, the nurses and people working in the health service supporting the changes we are making, and Labour wanting to cut the money and also cut the reform. Isn’t it no surprise that the shadow Health Secretary—it is traditional to quote the shadow Health Secretary on these occasions—said this:
“It’s a tough fact of life…that what Labour says matters less than what almost anyone else says”?
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is important and I am sure that there will be all-party agreement on it. As well as having a tough response from the criminal justice system to the riots—we have seen that tough response, with some exemplary sentences handed out very rapidly by the courts system; I praise all those who have been involved in speeding up the justice system—at the same time we need to do more to strengthen communities, to strengthen families, to increase discipline in schools and to make sure that our welfare system supports responsible behaviour rather than irresponsible behaviour. We will be bringing forward proposals along those lines and I hope that they will have support from everyone in this House.
Q2. Before the summer, the Prime Minister took part in a TV documentary that highlighted fears of crime and antisocial behaviour on the Saffron Lane estate in my constituency. Does he expect crime and antisocial behaviour on that estate, and across Leicester, to increase or decrease when he cuts 200 police officers from the Leicestershire force? (69965)
I want to see crime and antisocial behaviour go down. Let me just remind the hon. Gentleman that today only 12% of police officers——only one in 10—are on the beat at any one time. There are 25,000 police officers in back-office jobs, not on the front line. We all have a responsibility to try to get our budget deficit under control. His party is committed to a £1 billion cut in the police. What we have to do is recognise that this is about getting officers on to the front line—that is the debate we should be engaged in.
Q3. In the wake of the riots, may I commend the Government’s and Mayor of London’s support for high streets, such as those in Enfield, which were badly hit? Is this not a good time to support the forthcoming global day of prayer, which in London will be taking place at Wembley? (69966)
I certainly pay tribute to what the Mayor has done and what the Department for Communities and Local Government has done to make sure that there is money available for rebuilding our communities. The good thing about the £20 million high street support scheme, which my hon. Friend mentions, is that 29 local authorities have already registered for it. I hope that we will see the money being spent quickly to help rebuild our high streets.
It is up to chief constables to work out how best to police their areas, but what I am finding from talking to police constables up and down the country is that they want to put their resources into visible policing on the streets. They have got the support of a Government who are cutting the paperwork, reforming the pay and reforming the pensions—taking the difficult decisions that will make sure that we have more police on our streets than we ever would under Labour.
Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending a very clear message to the Travellers at the illegal Dale Farm site: we all hope that they move off peacefully in order to avoid a forced eviction but if they do not do so, they should be in no doubt that the Government fully support Basildon council and Essex police in reclaiming this green belt land on behalf of the law-abiding majority? (69967)
I certainly give my support to Essex police and to all the county and district councils that have been involved, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the very hard work he has put in on this issue. What I would say is that it is a basic issue of fairness: everyone in this country has to obey the law, including the law about planning permission and about building on green belt land. Where this has been done without permission it is an illegal development and so those people should move away. I completely agree with the way in which he put his question.
Q5. The Prime Minister opposed Labour’s anti-gang laws, but then the riots occurred and he decided to strengthen them. Now he wants to weaken anti-terror laws by scrapping relocation powers. What will have to happen before he is prepared to admit that the mess he is replacing them with is putting national security at risk? (69968)
I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. In our review of control orders, we listened extremely carefully to MI5, the security services, the Metropolitan police and all those involved. There was a full review process to make sure that we could have a system that is legal—that is vital because the courts unpicked so many of the last Government’s changes—that the public can have confidence in and that will keep us safe.
On the day when 200 people from Bombardier in Derby are here to hear whether we can change the arrangements for the Thameslink contract, can the Prime Minister give us some hope about future contracts and about changing the tender arrangements—the mess that we were left in by the previous Government?
I certainly want to do everything I can to help Bombardier, which is an excellent company that employs people in Derbyshire and has done a brilliant job as an engineering business in this country for so many years. Before people from the Labour party start shouting, let me remind them that this procurement process was designed and initiated by the previous Government. It is no good their trying to shuffle off their responsibility—it is their responsibility.
Q7. With the Future Jobs Fund and education maintenance allowance having been scrapped, the number of young people not in education, unemployment and training is at a record high of 18.4% on the Prime Minister’s watch. When will things get better for our young people? (69970)
Clearly, we face a difficult situation in terms of youth unemployment. Let us be clear that the situation was getting worse during the economic good times, and there was a 40% increase in youth unemployment over the time of the previous Government. What we are seeing today is a disturbing increase in the number of those not in employment, education and training over the age of 18, but under the age of 18 that number is coming down. The steps that we are taking are to improve schooling, to raise the participation age to 18 and massively to increase the level of apprenticeships to 360,000 starts this year. We are also introducing the Work programme, which is the biggest back-to-work programme that has taken place in this country since the 1930s and it will also be made available to young people who are in danger of being left out of employment, education and training.
Q8. I have been working with local businesses, my councils and other organisations to help promote, expand and grow the Carlisle economy. Clearly, given the economic background, it is imperative that we grow both the local and national economy. Will the Prime Minister tell us what new measures the Government will introduce to help promote such growth? (69971)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I enjoyed seeing at first hand what is happening in Cumbria to try get the local economy moving. The action we are taking obviously includes the cuts in corporation tax, and the regional growth fund and the enterprise zones. Specifically for Cumbria, the money we are investing for superfast broadband will really help that county, particularly the most rural and far-flung parts, and will ensure that small businesses can benefit throughout the county.
Q9. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister comes to consider next week’s Vickers report on the banks, which have been rescued with fantastic amounts of taxpayers’ money, will he have no truck with the banks’ argument that they cannot be reformed to prevent another crisis because they are having such a struggle coping with the crisis they have already created? Surely never again should British taxpayers have to bail out banks that are too big to fail. (69972)
My right hon. Friend is entirely right that the Government must take action to reform the banks, and that is what we are doing. We have already set out how we are getting rid of the tripartite structure that failed so badly under the previous Government, how we are putting the Bank of England back in charge, and how we are making sure that, as he put it, we cannot have in the future these catastrophic bank failures that cost the taxpayer so dear. We are looking forward to receiving Professor Vickers’ report. It seems to me there are two vital things we have to secure—a safe and secure banking system for the future, but also proper bank lending, including to small businesses, right now in our economy. That is what Government policy will be aiming for.
Q10. The Prime Minister will be aware that his Government are consulting on their changes to housing benefit claims under the criteria of under-occupancy. This will adversely affect 450,000 disabled people, including 33,000 in the north-east alone, who stand to lose on average £676 a year. A substantial number will be affected in my constituency. How does this policy meet his Government’s fairness test? (69973)
We are making a specific exclusion to deal with people who have carers living in the home, but we do have to reform housing benefit. I think the whole House knows, frankly, that housing benefit was one of those budget items that was completely out of control. In some parts of London, we had families claiming £60,000, £70,000 and £80,000 in housing benefit just for one family, so this does need to be reformed. It is no good for the Labour party—
That is an ingenious way of putting the question. As I explained yesterday, I want us to be influential in Europe about the things that matter to our national interest—promoting the single market, pushing forward for growth and making sure that we get lower energy prices. Those are the things that we will be fighting for, but I do not see the case for an in/out referendum on Europe. We are in Europe and we have got to make it work for us.
Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Housing Minister that due to the economic policies of the Government, we now have a growth crisis? When he does a U-turn, will he choose to cut VAT, which is Labour’s policy, or to give tax cuts to the rich? (69974)
The hon. Gentleman obviously has not had time to read this great tome, which points out that increasing VAT was Labour’s policy at the last election. What he should focus on is the fact that the person responsible for Labour’s economic policy at the last election has said it had no credible policy whatever. The problem for Labour is that absolutely nothing has changed.
Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Members from both sides of the House and in both Houses on their generosity in responding to the letter from Mr Speaker and the Lords’ Speaker in supporting a gift for Her Majesty the Queen for her forthcoming diamond jubilee from this Parliament?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in praising everyone who contributed to this very imaginative and sensible gift for Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. Perhaps I could pay particular tribute to him because he has worked so hard to make this work. I think it will be a fitting tribute and it is something that the country should focus on. To have a diamond jubilee is an extraordinary thing for us to be able to celebrate in our lifetimes.
Q12. With electricity and gas bills going up by 20%, and with 6 million families in this country now facing fuel poverty, does the Prime Minister still think it was right to cut the winter fuel payment to pensioners by £100? (69975)
Let us be clear: we are going ahead with the winter fuel payment set out by the previous Labour Government in their Budget. At the same time, we are increasing the cold weather payments on a permanent basis, so this Government are being more generous than the previous Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Let me just point out two things that we have done that are totally in line with that, one of which is to lift 1 million people out of income tax altogether—that is a coalition commitment that we have been delivering on. The second thing, when it comes to tax credits, is that we have increased, over two years, by £290 the tax credits that go to the poorest families in our country. That is why we have managed to take difficult decisions—everyone knows we have had to take difficult decisions—without an increase in child poverty. In better economic times, under the previous Government, child poverty actually went up.
Q13. Bringing Siemens, manufacturing wind turbines, to the Humber is vital for jobs and a breakthrough on renewables, which will hopefully increase the UK industry in this area. Local councils and businesses are doing everything they can to attract Siemens to the area, but we face very strong foreign competition. Will this Government do what the last Government did and back this bid? Will the Prime Minister do everything he can to secure Siemens coming to Hull? (69976)
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady for raising this issue. I think it is vital for the future of our economy and the future of the area that she represents. I met Members of Parliament from Humberside to discuss the issue. I have myself spoken to the head of Siemens about the importance of this investment going ahead. We are continuing the extra money going into ports to help the development of this industry and we back it all the way.
At a meeting this morning with organisations working in the horn of Africa, representatives expressed their gratitude for the fact that the British public have been so generous and the Department for International Development has provided such leadership. That famine is continuing to become more severe. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government continue to provide international leadership to help the people in east Africa?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The response of the British public has been remarkable. These are difficult economic times, but they have shown an incredible generosity and led the world in the contributions that they have made. And because this Government, again in difficult economic times, have made the decision to fulfil our pledge of reaching the level of 0.7% of national income going into aid, we are also leading the world in the amount of money that we are putting into the horn of Africa to vaccinate children, to save lives and to recognise that this is an ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Q14. Does the Prime Minister agree that his Housing Minister is an absolute star? In the face of declining planning permissions for new build homes, in the face of fewer new homes being built in the previous 12 months than in any year of Labour’s programme of administration for house building, his Minister’s great idea is to urge councils to build more moorings for houseboats. Fantastic. (69977)
I thought the hon. Gentleman was doing so well till he got all political. I think there should be agreement across the House that house building is too low in this country, and it is a shocking statistic that the typical first-time buyer is now in their mid-30s. So we do need change, we do need more houses to be built, and I think my Housing Minister is doing a first-class job.
While much attention is being paid to the military activities occurring in Libya over the summer, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Captain Steve Norris and the crew of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Wave Ruler in the work they are doing combating drugs in the Caribbean? Not only did they intercept £50 million of cocaine over the summer, but they have also been helping humanitarian efforts in the Overseas Territories following Hurricane Irene.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. While we obviously should focus on and praise the incredible work that our services have done in Libya and Afghanistan, there are the ongoing tasks. He talks about drug interdiction in the West Indies. There is also the task of protecting the Falkland Islands. There is the work that we are doing to prevent piracy off the horn of Africa. In all these tasks people are giving a huge amount of time and effort, and we should praise and thank them for what they do.
Point of Order
Questions 1 and 3 on the original future day listings for oral questions to the Minister for the Cabinet Office concerned proposals to abolish the Youth Justice Board and the office of the chief coroner—vital bodies scheduled to be removed under the Public Bodies Bill. The Government transferred the questions to other Government Departments. Do you, Mr Speaker, not agree that the Opposition should be able to hold the Minister for the Cabinet Office to account on these specific and unpopular proposals?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her point of order. I certainly agree that Ministers should be held to account. The House will know that transfers are matters for the Department concerned, not for the Speaker, although I am concerned that such transfers should be made in good time. The right hon. Lady’s point will have been heard and noted on the Treasury Bench.
European Union Act 2011 (Amendment) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr William Cash, supported by Mr Bernard Jenkin, Mr John Whittingdale, Mr John Redwood, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mr Greg Knight, Mr Graham Stuart, Mr Richard Shepherd, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Chris Heaton-Harris, Zac Goldsmith, Mr Peter Bone, presented a Bill to apply the terms of the European Union Act 2011 such as to require approval by Act of Parliament and by referendum of provisions for creating a fiscal union or economic governance within the Eurozone.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 October, and to be printed (Bill 228).
Magna Carta Anniversary (Bank Holiday)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to designate Monday 15 June 2015 as a bank holiday in the United Kingdom to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta; and for connected purposes.
On 15 June 1215, the foundations of our democracy were laid when King John met his barons at Runnymede and sealed the historic document that has become known as Magna Carta. The effect of the Bill, which I now bring before the House, would be to celebrate appropriately the 800th anniversary of that momentous occasion. The concept of celebrating Magna Carta has widespread support. Indeed, Mr Speaker, we are grateful to you for having hosted in the Speaker’s House in June this year the inaugural meeting of the all-party parliamentary Magna Carta group, many of whose members are present this afternoon.
What better way to celebrate freedom than by having a day’s holiday? I appreciate, of course, how difficult it is for businesses, service providers and schools to deal with the consequences of a day’s holiday, and I am not suggesting that 15 June should be an extra day’s holiday, but, given the current discussions about moving the May bank holiday, the perfect replacement for the first Monday in May would be 15 June: Magna Carta day.
There is something unique and very special about celebrating Magna Carta. Its significance goes far beyond these shores. Upon it are based not only our own constitutional freedoms, but those of the United States of America, most of the Commonwealth and much of the European Union. Even in Scotland, where Magna Carta never had any force, its value as a constitutional document is still appreciated.
The committee set up by the Magna Carta Trust, ably led by the inimitable Sir Robert Worcester, is proposing a Magna Carta day to the American Congress, to the Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Trinidadian, Indian, South African and all Commonwealth Parliaments and to the legislatures of all countries that hold our values and suggesting that they observe the 800th anniversary and declare their Magna Carta day to share with ours.
The German ambassador, when asked recently about the salience of Magna Carta, responded, “Magna Carta is known to everyone in Germany as the foundation of democracy—it is in the school syllabus.” What a pity it is not in our school syllabus.
Winston Churchill was, of course, absolutely right, as ever, when he said that Magna Carta was
“the foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dreamed.”
Magna Carta established the very idea of the rule of law. It was the first formal document to insist that no one is above the law, however high his or her status. It also established that Executive power must proceed by recognised legal process, never unlawfully, when action is taken against an individual.
In the 800 years since the principle of the rule of law was thus set down, every aspect of our country’s development has been influenced by it. This is not just dry, legal doctrine; it is our dependence on the belief in this fundamental freedom that has shaped our nation’s character, fostering belief and pride in our basic liberty and giving us the confidence to question authority. What began as an agreement to give people freedom from royal interference has developed over eight centuries into a range of fundamental liberties. Now it is not the monarch who tries to interfere in the lives of our people; it is the state.
As we—Parliament—battle daily to keep the people we represent as free as possible from state interference, the principles of Magna Carta are every bit as important as they were 800 years ago. British people know that they have an inalienable right to freedom and to challenge the authority of Government. We have fought for that right through the ages—not only for ourselves, but for others right across the world.
Looking at the events of the so-called Arab spring over the past few months, we see how much still has to be done in trying to win those precious rights for those who still do not have them. As President Obama said when he addressed our Parliament in May:
“Centuries ago, when kings, emperors and warlords reigned over much of the world, it was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man in the Magna Carta… through the struggles of slaves and immigrants, women and ethnic minorities, former colonies and persecuted religions, we have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western—it is universal, and it beats in every heart.”
Magna Carta is a rare piece of legislation, perhaps unique, that has not just endured but evolved over the centuries. Although many of its provisions have been repealed, and rightly so, by later legislation, its principles none the less echo throughout the ages and across the globe today. Today, we need to rein in the power of an overbearing nanny state just as much as our forebears of the 13th century had to restrain the power of the king.
I am not asking that we declare a bank holiday to mark the signing of some dusty old piece of 13th century paper or, indeed, the actions of an unpopular monarch some 800 years ago. We need a special holiday so that the British people can celebrate today’s freedoms on 15 June 2015—Magna Carta day. Our constitution, our civil liberties, our individual rights, the rule of law and the bedrock of our democracy are all too often taken for granted. However, we must never forget that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, so let us cherish and appreciate our freedom, and let us celebrate it.
I urge the House to support the Bill to give the people a holiday to celebrate Magna Carta and all that it still stands for.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mrs Eleanor Laing, Mr Graham Allen, Helen Goodman, Robert Halfon, Oliver Heald, Mr Bernard Jenkin, Mr Peter Lilley, Mrs Anne Main, Stephen Metcalfe, Mr David Ruffley, Iain Stewart and Mr Jack Straw present the Bill.
Mrs Eleanor Laing accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November, and to be printed (Bill 227).
Health and Social Care (Re-committed) Bill
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Duties of consortia as to commissioning certain health services
I beg to move amendment 1, page 6, line 8, at end insert—
‘(c) after paragraph (f) insert a new paragraph as follows—
“(g) independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting termination of pregnancy to the extent that the clinical commissioning group considers they will choose to use them.”.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, page 6, line 8, at end insert—
‘(2A) After subsection (1) insert a new subsection as follows—
(1A) In this section, information, advice and counselling is independent where it is provided by either—
(i) a private body that does not itself provide for the termination of pregnancies; or
(ii) a statutory body.”.’.
Amendment 1221, in clause 14, page 9, line 37, at end insert—
‘( ) After paragraph 8 insert—
“Provision of independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting a termination of pregnancy
8A (1) A local authority must make available to women requesting termination of pregnancy from any clinical commissioning group the option of receiving independent information, advice and counselling.
(2) In this paragraph, information, advice and counselling are independent where they are provided by either—
(a) a private body that does not itself refer, provide or have any financial interest in providing for the termination of pregnancies; or
(b) a statutory body.’.
Amendment 1252, page 9, line 37, at end insert—
‘( ) After paragraph 8 insert—
“Provision of advice relating to unplanned pregnancy
8A The Secretary of State must ensure that all organisations offering information or advice in relation to unplanned pregnancy choices must follow current evidence-based guidance produced by a professional medical organisation specified by the Secretary of State.”.’.
Amendment 1180, in clause 240, page 226, line 31, at end insert—
‘(1) Regulations must require NICE to make recommendations with regard to the care of women seeking an induced termination of pregnancy, including the option of receiving independent information, advice and counselling about the procedure, its potential health implications and alternatives, including adoption.
(2) The regulations must require health or social care bodies or any private body that provides for the termination of pregnancies to comply with the recommendations made by NICE under subsection (1).’.
Four weeks ago I was not sure whether I would get to the point where I could speak in the Chamber today. This has been a long and hot-under-the-collar summer. Following my announcement of my intention to table the amendment, I have been threatened with being throttled, car-bombed, burned alive and a host of other distasteful and unpleasant ways in which I would meet my end.
I shall not go into detail about any of these responses to my amendment. Needless to say, some of them involved bodily functions to a graphic degree, and some of the scatological messages were unbelievable. I will not repeat the bile that has poured into my inbox every day. I do not think there is anything that I or my staff could be threatened with, or that we could read or be told now, that would elicit any shock from us. There is nothing worse that we could hear.
Before I go into the detail of the amendment, I shall talk about a significant and substantial shift as a result of the amendment. It has always been the tradition of the House that abortion issues have been discussed and debated in the Chamber and the media have commented on what happened, usually in a reasonable way. But the amendment has changed the game for ever. All Members in all parts of the House know, particularly from the 2008 debate, that we debate with passion. I would say that the 2008 debate was one of the best debates of the previous Parliament. However, we all remain courteous and friendly with each other following the debates. The usual parliamentary knock-about and the usual games take place—I shall say more about that in relation to the amendment in a moment—but the debate usually takes place here and the media comment on what happens here as it happens.
I have no greater opponent in the House on this issue than the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). In 2008 she was the whipper-in and the mover behind what happened in that debate, but I have no greater respect for almost any other woman in the House than I do for her. I hugely respect what she has achieved for women and humanity, and I know that she approaches the issue honourably, as I hope I do. It is incredibly sad, therefore, that my summer has been made so difficult not by Opposition Members, who have all been incredibly quiet, but by the nastiness and the response of the left-wing media and union-funded organisations.
The past four weeks have been incredibly difficult. The campaign against the amendment has been co-ordinated by an organisation known as Abortion Rights, which is funded by Unison and a number of other small unions. It also received membership contributions, but, as I was told in a meeting with the organisation, it is largely funded by the unions and Unison is the biggest contributor. [Interruption.] I am not saying that every penny is not accountable; I am just informing the House that the campaign has been funded by the unions. I do not think that there is a problem with that.
I will tell the hon. Lady exactly who funds my campaign—nobody. Neither I nor my office has received a single penny. Here, to me, is the disadvantage of the amendment. The unions can contact Members’ constituents and ask them to e-mail individual MPs, but I cannot afford to promote the amendment in that way. The press barons, whom the unions have fed with their response to the amendment, can pour what they want into the newspapers, but I cannot. What we have seen is an absolute divide.
I absolutely will—that is why I am here—but it is important to explain the context and the background to some of misinformation that Members have received in their inboxes. This is my opportunity to correct the misinformation MPs have been fed about the amendment.
The amendment has created a divide that was not present before, including in 2008. The Guardian and The Times and the union-funded Abortion Rights have mounted a campaign against the amendment. I must say that the core Conservative vote newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and so on, have been supportive, so this chasm and the politicisation of abortion has begun as a result of the amendment and as a result of the unions and the left-wing media.
There are lots of comments being made from a sedentary position, Mr Speaker, but The Times has actually fed that divide directly and repeated much of the information it has been given. I want to answer some of the accusations made about me in response to the amendment. I do not have the press barons’ money to mount and fund a campaign. I have not received a penny. In fact, I am broke. My office has not received a penny in funding.
I have also been accused of being a religious fundamentalist. Like 73% of the country, I am a member of the Church of England and have Christian beliefs, but I am not sure when that became a crime and prevented me from having an opinion. On Saturday, The Guardian printed a flow chart showing the conservative Christians who are supposed to be mounting a sphere of influence with the amendment. I did not know who 95% of the people mentioned were or the organisation they represent. If I followed Islam or Judaism, I wonder what the response would have been to such a flow chart in The Guardian. I found the chart absolutely reprehensible and disgusting.
I absolutely will not.
I want to mention some of the other lies that have been printed about me. I have been accused of wanting to reduce the number of abortions by introducing the amendment. That is absolutely not the objective. However, if any individual in the street was asked about the amendment and told that it might bring down the number of abortions, would they say, “Well, that’s a good thing,” or would they say, “We’re proud of the fact that 200,000 abortions a year are performed in the UK”? That is the highest number in western Europe. Would the individual in the street say that that is a good thing? No, they would say that it probably would be a good idea if something could help to bring that number down. I do not want to restrict access to abortion. The amendment is not about restricting access. I do not want to return to the days of Vera Drake-style back-street abortionists. That is not what the amendment is about. I am pro-choice, although I am presented as pro-life in every newspaper. The pro-life organisations are in fact e-mailing pro-life MPs to tell them not to vote for the amendment. I am pro-choice. Abortion is here to stay.
It is absolutely ridiculous that the amendment has been portrayed as something that would restrict access to abortion. The amendment is about medical practitioners making to a woman who presents at their surgery or organisation an offer of independent counselling, not compulsory counselling. Every single day I have read a headline stating that the amendment is intended to drive women into the arms of religious fundamentalists via compulsory counselling. That is absolutely not true. Any Member who rose and claimed that the amendment would make counselling compulsory would be being untruthful. It is nothing more than an offer. It is an offer made to some women who, when presenting at a GP’s practice, may have doubts, may be confused and may feel that they would like to accept. That is all it is—an offer. I find it very difficult to understand how anyone can object to a vulnerable woman being made an offer of counselling when she is suffering from a crisis pregnancy.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I commend her courage and perseverance. Does she share the concern of many in this House and outside about the businesslike and commercial decisions that are taken in relation to abortion and feel that, because one hour of counselling a week for everyone is not enough, it is wrong that a commercial industry has been made out of abortion? Does she agree that when abortion becomes a business, the feelings of people have been lost?
Well, that comment is probably the most fatuous we will hear in the debate, and probably the most disrespectful to women. I would like to know what the hon. Gentleman thinks about the report published last week in the British Journal of Psychiatry that women who have an abortion are twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems. Of course, I realise that the report he quotes from was probably written by men. I realise that the women who go through abortion and suffer as a result do not go back to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to give feedback.
My hon. Friend was right to introduce her remarks to the House and highlight the unacceptable personal attacks that have been made against her, which denigrate an issue of vital importance and interest to the whole House. The House needs to rise above that in today’s debate. With regard to evidence of change, could she indicate what research she has done on how much face-to-face counselling takes place in organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, for example?
Another piece of misinformation that has been put about is the idea that the amendment would prevent or delay the abortion process. Again, that is incredibly untrue. Counselling would be delivered within 24 to 48 hours, and the abortion process would take seven to 14 days to arrange. This amendment, this offer of counselling, is not for women who have made up their mind and—fantastic for them—want to go straight to the abortion clinic; it is for women who may be in distress. The counselling would be delivered within 24 to 48 hours, so there would be no delay whatever to the abortion process. In fact, many women who accepted the offer of counselling and proceeded to an abortion would proceed empowered, because they would have had the opportunity to talk through their situation with someone totally impartial—
I want to finish this point, and then I will give way.
The counsellor would be completely impartial, give no advice or direction and be entirely independent, so if the woman had been through the process and then continued to abortion, she would do so knowing that she had talked through her options with somebody.
I have spoken to organisations that provide counselling and have 80,000 registered counsellors throughout the UK. [Hon. Members: “Who?”] The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. I asked, “If somebody required counselling, was at a GP’s practice and a telephone call was made, how long would it take to get a counsellor to a particular woman?” The answer was that counselling could be delivered in the GP’s practice, at another venue or in the woman’s home, and that it could be anything from immediate to within 48 hours.
Registered counsellors, who have e-mailed me regularly since the amendment was tabled, say that they would love to work—counselling is a growing industry—and to have the opportunity to work with women in that situation. Unfortunately, however, counselling is available on the NHS only via the abortion provider or via the hospital.
I am grateful to my courageous and honourable Friend for giving way. As 147 babies were terminated after 24 weeks in the past year—a 29% increase on the previous year—does she agree that such counselling should also include the fact that many of those terminated babies, who had minor disabilities such as cleft lips, cleft palates, half an ear or having only one ear, could have been dealt with through modern cosmetic reconstructive surgery?
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. That is a different debate, but he highlights an important issue, and it is abhorrent that 147 babies were aborted for cleft palate, hare lip and minor cosmetic issues. I have a godson who had a club foot, and he was a wonderful young boy and is a wonderful young man. I find it quite amazing that anybody would choose to abort a baby because they had a club foot, but that is an issue for another day. The amendment does not cover it, but it is an important point.
Does my hon. Friend share my incredulity at those Opposition Members who maintain that an organisation such as BPAS—the British Pregnancy Advisory Service—can be independent in its counselling, when in its March 2011 report and financial statement it notes that
“an increase in procedures of 13 per cent against the background of falling national trends in 2010-11”
“a significant achievement”?
How can the opponents of the amendment maintain that there is no fiscal link and no conflict of interest?
That is precisely the next point in my speech; my hon. Friend must have been looking over my shoulder!
I now turn to the counselling provision available to women today. Many women do not want or need counselling. They find out that they are pregnant and know exactly what they want to do, but those are frequently the women who are supported—who have partners, family and friends who will support them through that awful situation. No woman wants to have an abortion, but many know that they have to, for various reasons, and this amendment is not about them. A mystery shopper, however, recently approached several abortion clinics posing as a young woman who was pregnant and unsure of what to do. Every time I mention BPAS there is a howl from Opposition Members, but I am going to mention it in this instance, because this is irrefutable evidence.
The individual posed at a central London clinic as a 26-year-old pregnant woman who did not know what to do, and she asked for counselling. I shall come on to the difference between counselling and consultation, but she said that she did not know what to do, because she had been given the immediate consultation, was not sure whether to go through with the pregnancy, and therefore wanted an abortion. She was told that, at that very busy clinic in central London, one hour of counselling was available at one set time per week. I believe that when she revealed her identity she was offered another hour.
In fairness to BPAS, it says that it has flexibility in the system and can offer more hours. Why did it not do so? If it has flexibility, how much is there?
I am very grateful—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says something from a sedentary position. I wholly deprecate the fact that she has had threats made, but it is inappropriate to bring forward this amendment to this Bill, because if we are going to consider abortion we should be considering the whole issue in the round, not just appending something to this kind of Bill. As she knows, I disagree with her, but she will also know that the whole point of counselling, in any circumstance, is to allow a person to come to the right decision for themselves. That is precisely what BPAS, Marie Stopes and others provide, because any counsellor who does not do that is not worth their salt.
I would love to hear how the hon. Gentleman knows that that is what happens in Marie Stopes and BPAS. He always speaks on such issues as someone with huge experience, but I am highlighting at this moment what happens. If he thinks that one hour per week, at a set time at a busy London clinic, for the entire throughput of women having abortions, is enough counselling, so be it; that is his opinion.
I should like to make this point before I take any more interventions, because I also want to defend BPAS. I do not want it to look as if I am attacking the organisation, because it and, probably more so, Marie Stopes, do what they do—the clinical procedure of carrying out abortion—incredibly well. The service that they provide for the NHS is absolutely vital, and I do not want to see Marie Stopes or BPAS disappear or to diminish their roles. They have a job to do, and they do it well. Their job is the provision of clinical abortions, and I want that to continue.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is still safe for those of us who do not have concerns about the counselling that BPAS and Marie Stopes offer to support her amendment, because it does not prevent BPAS and Marie Stopes from offering counselling? I, for one, have no such concerns, yet I am prepared to vote for her amendment, because it does not prevent those organisations from offering advice. Will she confirm that?
My hon. Friend is not totally correct, because the whole purpose of the amendment is to separate out the financial situation. I shall come on to that in a moment. I disagree with my hon. Friend, and if she listens to the rest of the debate she will understand why. I do not believe that the place where an abortion was carried out is the right place for someone suffering from post-abortion distress to receive their counselling—a situation that many women suffering from post-abortion distress have told me about.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour. May I for a second take the debate from the general to the particular? I think that she is on to something. I mentioned a 23-year-old constituent of mine who, having been to an abortion clinic, then went to a clinic such as my hon. Friend advocates. It was then her decision: she decided to change her mind, and today has a beautiful three-month-old daughter. She is pleased that she had the opportunity for that counselling, which no one forced her to take. That is why I think my hon. Friend is on to something.
Marie Stopes International said in the briefing that it sent to all MPs that only 2% to 2.5% of women who go through the abortion counselling process opt to keep the child. Does my hon. Friend agree that that may indicate an incredibly poor success rate among counselling services?
I will give way in a minute.
There is a huge disparity between the figures that show both where a woman received her counselling and her decision. In 2008, BPAS announced that the proportion of women who came to it and decided not to proceed with an abortion was as high as 20%. Unfortunately, freedom of information requests asking for the figures and the contracts with PCTs show that that is not true: the real figure is 8%, and sometimes even lower in some PCTs. I am not sure why an abortion organisation would say that its figures for women who do not proceed to an abortion are higher than they actually are.
I want to finish this point, and then I will give way. I know that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) wants to intervene, and I will take an intervention from the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) first, in a moment.
There is a huge disparity in the figures, and the freedom of information request shows an even bigger disparity. Marie Stopes had told me—I hope I get this right—that the proportion of women who go to the organisation and do not proceed to termination is about 15%, although I do not know what freedom of information requests would show about those figures. The fact is that abortion providers are saying that 20% or 15% of women do not proceed to abortion, although freedom of information requests show that the figure is 8%, as was shown in the press this week. I have no idea why there is that disparity, or why they would say that the figure is 20% when it is not.
The hon. Lady has rightly probed the relationship between counselling and abortion on behalf of those of us who feel uncomfortable about that relationship. However, does she agree that 90 minutes does not seem like a long time for us to debate the implications of what is going on? The Bill is substantively about the nature of the NHS, and not about abortion provision. In that light, I urge her to consider whether it is appropriate to divide the House on this issue.
I am not going to take any interventions for a few minutes. I would like to go back to the fact that only one hour of counselling is available in a busy London clinic. I ask Members, just for a moment, to put themselves in the shoes of a 16-year-old girl who turns up at that clinic and does not know what to do. She is pregnant and panicking. Some of her friends tell her to have an abortion and some tell her not to. She does not want to tell her parents because she is scared of doing so. Her boyfriend is saying to her, “You’ve got to have an abortion and get rid of it.” That is a mish-mash of the four or five stories a day that we hear in my office.
The girl starts vomiting in the morning and carries on all day. She feels sick and ill and cannot think straight. She is not sleeping because she is scared stiff. She has not gone to school for more than a week because she thinks that people there will be able to tell that she is pregnant. She is out of her mind with worry. She turns up at a clinic and is told, “Sorry, that one appointment’s been taken. You’ll have to go to Richmond.” The girl does not even know where Richmond is, and she has never even been to hospital without having her mum with her.
I would like hon. Members to think about what it is like for that 16-year-old girl, and what they have against a GP or somebody else offering that girl an hour’s counselling so that she can talk through the issues and reach the right conclusion for her, non-advised.
As I said, I do not want to look as if I am knocking abortion providers. As a nurse, I assisted with many terminations. I do not want to look as if I feel that there is no place for abortion provision. I am pro-choice and do not want to return to those other days.
The central point of disagreement for many people is the implication in the amendment that the abortion providers—BPAS has a presence in my constituency—are incapable of providing impartial independent counselling to those who come to them. The manager and staff at the centre in my constituency have said that they find insulting the idea that when they are giving counselling they are somehow seeking to persuade those who come to them to have an abortion, when that is not the case. In fact, when I visited BPAS recently a couple of young ladies had come to the centre intending to go through with an abortion but subsequently decided not to because of the counselling that they received.