House of Commons
Tuesday 13 September 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 11 October (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Department has received many representations about different aspects of implementing the reforms proposed by Lord Justice Jackson, which we are taking forward in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. I and my officials continue to have discussions with Government Departments and others on implementation generally, including with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Insolvency Service in relation to insolvency proceedings.
In June, the Minister said that he was discussing with HMRC and the Insolvency Service the specific implications of the Jackson reform for the punishment of dodgy directors of insolvent companies, with a view to reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Three months down the line, what conclusion has been reached?
Our current position is not to depart from Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations on recoverability, with the sole exception that we have outlined in the Bill. However, the Government are aware of the particular issues concerning the impact of abolishing conditional fee agreement recoverability in relation to insolvency and related proceedings. I and my officials will continue to assess and discuss the implications.
Prisoners (Work in Custody)
We have made clear our intention to make prisons places of work and industry. We are already making good progress towards longer prisoner working weeks at a number of prisons, including 13 early-adopter sites that are implementing regimes designed to facilitate increased working hours. We are continuing to develop a framework that will enable us to maximise this approach across the prison estate. To achieve this, we are looking at the experience of other countries and have established a business advisory group to help us to deliver prison industries that operate on a commercial basis so that much more work can be delivered at no cost to the taxpayer and can contribute to victims’ services while competing fairly in open markets.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There will be substantial benefits from bringing this policy to scale, which I am optimistic we can do. There will be benefits to victims from the resources generated by the work that prisoners do; to the taxpayer from relieving the cost of the regime; and to the stability of the prison regime, as she mentioned. However, there will also be a substantial rehabilitative benefit to prisoners who will leave prison with a CV that includes skills training in the work in which they have been involved as well as experience in the work itself.
We all agree that prison industry is good for rehabilitation, but how many additional prison officers does the Minister think will be needed to supervise movement around the estate and to ensure that prison industries are secure and properly delivered?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. If we are to change prisons from being simply places of security and of warehousing people, where work is wedged in when possible, there will be additional costs to the prison regime. The businesses that go into prisons will have to generate the resources to support that.
In strongly welcoming my hon. Friend’s initiative, I urge him to consider the position of young people on remand. As successive prison inspectors have said, it cannot be right to have young people, even though they have not been sentenced, sitting about not required even to undertake any education let alone work.
Again, my hon. Friend is right. Remand prisoners pose a particular challenge, in the youth estate as well as the adult estate, because of the speed with which they tend to turn over in those institutions. That makes getting work for them more difficult, but there needs to be a proper focus on programmes for all people in custody following a proper assessment of their rehabilitative requirements.
Corporate Harm (Overseas Victims)
Overseas victims of alleged corporate harm by UK international companies are, where appropriate, able to bring civil claims in the UK now, and that will continue to be the case following implementation of our reforms to civil litigation funding and costs. My officials and I are in contact with the Foreign and Colonial Office—[Laughter]—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as and when necessary to discuss the impact of our proposed reforms to legal costs in this class of case in this country, the Commonwealth or the colonies.
I thank the Secretary of State for that interesting reply. Notwithstanding his response, he will be aware that the United Nations Special Representative on Business and Human Rights has said that clauses 41 to 43 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will present a major barrier to justice for overseas victims of human rights abuses by UK multinationals, not least because of the significant increased cost burdens. Will he therefore withdraw those clauses from the Bill?
We are not changing the jurisdiction in this country, which certainly does entertain claims in personal injury cases and so on against multinational companies that have some footing in this country. All we are arguing about is how much is paid in legal costs. The reforms to the no win, no fee arrangements that we are proposing would ensure that the costs would be fairer, more balanced and not out of proportion to the claim. We are not making any change at all to the jurisdiction. Most of the cases against multinational companies are not human rights cases; they are personal injury cases. Many of those cases might be attracted here because our present system of rewarding lawyers is far more generous than can be found in any other jurisdiction in the world.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also criticised the reforms, which would remove access to justice for the victims of corporate abuse overseas. Does he not recognise that the reforms could result in there being no disincentive to environmental and other abuse? Will he not look at this again?
As I suggested a moment ago, I regard it as just a little disingenuous—I hate to say that about UN agencies—to suggest that we are in any way undermining the jurisdiction here for dealing with racial discrimination or serious personal injury cases involving British companies. What we are talking about is how much the lawyers are paid by way of success fees and other costs. The Trafigura case was a classic scandalous personal injury case involving a British company and an incident in Côte d’Ivoire, in which £30 million in compensation was awarded by the British courts to the plaintiffs and £100 million was paid in legal costs to those who brought the action. All we are doing is going back to where no win, no fee used to be—in getting the costs and the claims back in proportion to each other.
What we are talking about is whether such cases will get into court at all under the regime that the Government are proposing. It appears they will not listen to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on insolvency, or to Amnesty International, Oxfam or the United Nations on multinational cases. Now, Admiral, the leading specialist motor insurer, is saying that premiums will go up as a result of the proposals. Is it not time to think again, and to stop favouring insurance companies, crooks and multinationals over their victims?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to widen this argument, which is perfectly legitimate, to include a general proposition as well as multinational company cases, the questions must be: how much is proportionate to the claim when it comes to paying costs, and what effect does no win, no fee, since it was changed, have on the judgment on both sides? We do not want such cases to be such a high earner for the plaintiffs’ lawyers that they are prepared to bring more speculative cases, which is happening at the moment. Nor do we want pressure to be put on defendants who have a perfectly sound defence, forcing them to say, “We cannot defend ourselves, because it will cost us less to pay a nuisance fee by way of settlement.” Justice involves striking a balance between what the lawyers are paid and what the plaintiffs get by way of compensation.
Bail Decisions (Right of Appeal)
There is a right of appeal against bail decisions made by magistrates, but not against those made by the Crown court. This is not a straightforward matter; we are examining the issues very carefully to identify the best way to take this forward.
Jane Clough was stabbed to death outside Blackpool Victoria hospital by her former partner who had been freed on bail after being charged with nine counts of rape, and a similar case took place in the Blackpool area in the previous year. Jane Clough’s parents’ MP, the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, which commands wide support. I wrote to the Lord Chancellor this July, asking him to give families and the Crown Prosecution Service the chance to appeal against this judicial bail decision. Will the right hon. Gentleman and other Justice Ministers at least consider making this change to the bail law? After such horrific events have taken place, it is not good enough simply to wash their hands of this subject when they have the power to make the change.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of it, but along with my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), I have met Mr and Mrs Clough. This was an appalling case in which a young mother was tragically killed. No one could have failed to be moved by what the parents said. They made a powerful case and I have said that the Government are considering my hon. Friend’s proposal, but Crown court judges are judges of some seniority and we need to assess the issues with care.
Ministry of Justice figures show that more than 10% of all crimes and almost 20% of burglaries are committed by people on bail. Is it not time that the Government clamped down on the courts giving people bail and tightened the rules? Is it not self-evident that the more people are remanded in custody, the fewer the crimes will be committed and the fewer victims there will be?
I am afraid that the Chamber will be concerned about the complacency of the language used in the Minister’s response. I am sure he will agree that judges, like the rest of us, are not infallible and make mistakes. If he accepts that and the fact that it can lead to catastrophic effects, why not allow the CPS the right to appeal in limited circumstances against a decision of a Crown court judge to grant bail?
I have answered this question, and I thought I did so in very reasonable terms. I said that we all appreciated that the case was very serious and that the Government would consider the proposal. We have to be aware, however, that granting an appeal on a decision of a Crown court judge—a more senior member of the judiciary than a magistrate—raises serious issues, which need to be considered with care.
I am really sorry to raise the matter again, but a justice Bill is going through Parliament and it seems to the rest of us to provide the ideal opportunity to make the change required. The Minister will be aware that many colleagues—and not just those in the House—constituents up and down the country, victims of crime and experts working in the justice system all think that Ministers in the Justice Ministry are not fit for purpose. They were out of touch when it came to the issue of rape; they were out of touch when it came to providing a 50% reduction in sentence to those who pleaded guilty; and I am afraid they are out of touch on this issue. The Bill is in Committee, so will the Minister agree to support our amendment, which would allow the CPS in limited circumstances to appeal against a decision of a Crown court judge to grant bail?
I am not sure how many times I can repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that I have said that the Government are considering these matters. I am not going to announce policy on the hoof when very serious issues are raised. It is not proper to make a link between the provisions in the Bill and the case that arose because the restriction on custodial remands in the Bill applies only to magistrates courts and not to the Crown courts—so it would not have affected the case that gave rise to the question.
Office of the Chief Coroner
19. Whether his Department has undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of the implementation of the office of the chief coroner. (71326)
An impact assessment for part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was published by the Ministry of Justice in December 2008. It summarised the full costs and benefits of implementing the coroner provisions in the Act.
I am grateful for that answer. Baroness Finlay, working with the president of the Royal College of Pathologists, proposed a model with much lower running costs—just £300,000—than those that the Government are talking about. So will the Minister accept that the costs for the office he is proposing could be reduced?
I have met and discussed this point with Baroness Finlay on a number of occasions. The previous Government said that the set-up costs were going to be £10.9 million and the running costs would be £6.6 million a year. We looked at that those figures and we agree with them. The problem is that as we have to maintain the independence of the judiciary, the chief coroner—if there were to be one—could, unfortunately, not be based in the Ministry of Justice, as Baroness Finlay wanted.
We remain committed to fundamental reform of the coronial system. I know that there are particular issues to address in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and they are being dealt with. Implementing the office of the chief coroner would require new funding, which simply is not available in the current economic climate. Our proposals will allow us to deliver those reforms, but without those additional costs.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a much cheaper and more cost-effective way of raising professional standards and creating a head of the coronial profession? That would involve designating a serving coroner as chief coroner and giving just minimal assistance to support him in that role.
Unfortunately, the existing legislation would not allow that; the job would have to be done by a High Court judge or a circuit judge. The point of the matter is that we are putting in place a ministerial committee, which will answer to Parliament in a way that a chief coroner never could.
As the repatriation of fallen soldiers through RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett in my constituency comes to an end, I know that the Minister will wish to join me in paying tribute to the first-class work done by the Wiltshire coroner over some four or five years. Will the Minister also now work closely with the Royal British Legion to ensure that the maximum possible support is available for bereaved families as these inquests proceed?
I certainly congratulate the coroner on his work in tough circumstances. I also wish to tell my hon. Friend that I have met representatives of the RBL on a number of occasions. I believe that our reforms will improve the situation for the armed forces tremendously, through the national charter that we are providing and the ability to train coroners to military standards.
There is a long list of organisations that wish to see a chief coroner in post and just the Minister who thinks he knows better. The Government’s fragmented proposals for the coronial system contain no mechanism to improve the appeals and complaints process—that was to be a key function of the chief coroner’s office. Nobody really believes that the proposed coronial board, reporting to Ministers, will fulfil that role. Does he think it acceptable to expect families to have to continue to pursue expensive judicial reviews and litigation in respect of coronial decisions, at great cost also to the taxpayer, and have no way of holding to account those coroners who do not deliver for bereaved families?
As I have said, the Government are committed to urgent reform of the coronial service, and this is exactly what we are going to be doing. We are putting in place all the provisions under the 2009 Act, except the appeal process, which was going to cost £2.2 million a year. We feel that the existing processes are adequate.
Mesothelioma Sufferers (Access to Justice)
Legal aid for personal injury claims was abolished by the previous Administration in 1999, so I take the hon. Gentleman to be referring to the proposed reforms to civil litigation funding and costs, and will answer on that basis. I have received several letters from MPs and others about the potential impact on mesothelioma sufferers. The Government’s package of reforms includes a number of measures to help claimants. We believe that valid claims will still be brought under the new regime but will be resolved at more proportionate cost.
Mesothelioma victims are often in the last year of their life by the time they are diagnosed and many are already too ill to seek redress. The proposals to prevent their being able to recover afterwards from the insurance premiums will mean a big up-front cost for many people. Derbyshire asbestos support team is very concerned that they and their families will miss out on access to justice because of these proposals. What can the Minister do to ensure that those people, who are very ill and who do not have trivial claims, have access to justice?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We recognise that reducing the time from diagnosis of the disease to settlement of the claim without the need for litigation would be preferable. Proposals to introduce a scheme that will incorporate a fixed time scale and cost each stage of the claim so that only the most complex cases reach litigation are being considered.
As the House was informed on Friday 9 September in a written ministerial statement, the Government have decided to ban referral fees in personal injury cases as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. The ban complements our wider reforms to no win, no fee arrangements, which are being taken forward in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
May I first express an unequivocal welcome for the announcement that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), made on Friday not only in respect of motor insurance but more widely about implementing this central plank of Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations? Since the Justice Secretary used the word “ban”, which I think is the correct word, may I ask him whether he accepts that, given the level of malpractice we see across the legal and paralegal industry, the ban will have to be backed by the criminal law?
First, may I say that I am glad that my old friend the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and I are in complete agreement on this subject? It is not the first time. He got in first, really, because I waited for the opinion of the Legal Services Board, which I have not followed but which I had to consider, and he rightly prompted a decision. People who agree with us include not only Lord Justice Jackson but my noble Friend Lord Young in his report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”, the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Association of British Insurers. The main beneficiaries will be claimants who are genuinely referred to the best expert to act for them and the justice system in general. We are now considering the way in which to put this into practice, but it is likely to be in the form recommended.
Developing on that point, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we should consider not only criminal law but close liaison with professional bodies to ensure that strict disciplinary action is brought against individuals or bodies who seek to circumvent any ban by rebranding fees as other costs or, worse still, start an emerging black market in referrals?
My hon. Friend makes extremely sensible and welcome suggestions. We have not decided exactly what form the ban will take yet, so I will not predetermine its eventual form. As the professional bodies strongly support us, we look forward to their co-operation because they are in the best position of all to ensure that different types of abuse with the same bad consequences are not used to evade the ban.
Human Rights Act
We have established an independent commission to investigate the creation of a United Kingdom Bill of Rights. The commission is due to report no later than the end of next year and the Government look forward to receiving and considering its findings.
I am grateful for that answer. Does the Secretary of State support Liberty’s campaign, entitled “Common Values”, that seeks to separate the myths from the truths of the Human Rights Act, which has, for example, protected the victims of rape from being cross-examined in court by their assailants? Is this not the right way to tackle what the Prime Minister recently called the misrepresentation of human rights?
The best way to answer that is to say that I agree with the campaign, with the hon. Gentleman and with the Prime Minister. A perfectly serious debate has taken place about human rights legislation and I look forward to the commission’s advice. A lot of the difficulty comes when human rights are invoked by officials in excuse for bad decisions or in all kinds of cases that have nothing to do with any human rights legislation. We would have an altogether more sensible debate if people understood the real problems and difficulties—and that they are not all problems and difficulties.
For many, the perception of the application of human rights law is that the pendulum has swung too far away from responsibilities and duties. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the commission will present a good opportunity to extend the understanding that with rights go responsibilities?
I think the commission is a very helpful idea for getting some objective and balanced advice on the whole subject. Otherwise, I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no reason why human rights should interfere with the proper balance between the responsibilities and duties that one properly owes to society. Everybody in this country is in favour of basic human rights and everybody wants to have an orderly society. I think the commission will help to steer the debate in a more sensible direction.
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to assure us that any review of the Human Rights Act will not include withdrawal from the European convention on human rights or the European Court of Human Rights? Will he recognise that both those institutions have done a great deal of good to improve the human rights of minorities and ordinary citizens across Europe and that the convention is worth staying in?
The convention was largely drafted by British lawyers led by Lord Kilmuir. Successive British Governments have adhered to the convention and have put great value on it and the Court. Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war, the convention has acquired new importance in making sure that we support advancing standards in eastern and central Europe. There is not the faintest chance of the present Government withdrawing from the convention on human rights, and we are waiting for the commission to give us—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Have a look at our coalition agreement. Indeed, it is not just the coalition agreement—we have agreed to have a fresh look at this through the commission and we are not prejudging its findings.
Youth and adult custodial establishments have access to a range of accredited programmes that address offending behaviour, including gang-related issues. Programmes include engaging community and voluntary sector groups to help deliver solutions to gang-related issues, and the National Offender Management Service and the Youth Justice Board support this work. The Government are developing a cross-departmental programme of action to tackle gangs and gang violence. An inter-ministerial group will report to Parliament in October.
I thank the Minister for that answer, which goes part of the way to addressing these issues. However, when I visited the Warren Hill young offenders institution in my constituency last year after there had been a riot, one of the reasons cited for the riot was the growing emergence of gang culture and the fact that when people are placed in young offenders institutions, proximity takes priority over gang dispersal. I would like him to look at this policy again.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the interest she takes in Warren Hill. I have followed up the discussions that we have had and I assure her in relation to gang violence that there is no absolute, rigid rule that proximity should take precedence. When placing young people and adults into custodial establishments, both the YJB and NOMS take proper account of all the factors required and there is emerging good practice around identifying gang affiliations.
As the Minister knows from the evidence that has been received about the recent riots in London and other cities, a number of people involved in gangs were part of those riots. Will he ask his Department to deal with organisations such as User Voice, which consists of ex-offenders who were in gangs, which are willing to work with the Ministry of Justice and assist it in its projects?
Many of the foreign national prisoners in our jails are members of foreign national EU gangs that commit organised crime in this country. What is the Justice Department doing to tackle this aspect of gang culture in our cities and in our prisons?
Of course, where evidence and intelligence of that kind are received, they will be acted on to make sure that those gangs cannot operate within the prison estate and that gang members are properly dispersed by the placement decisions taken by NOMS. We will also want, as we do with all foreign national prisoners, to try to make sure that those people go home to serve their sentences.
Since the summer of 2008, the prison population has been increasing much less quickly than had been the case for a number of years. The public disorder in early August has, however, resulted in a sharp rise in the number of prisoners in recent weeks, with the prison population reaching 86,842 on Friday 9 September. Despite this unprecedented rise, sufficient capacity has been maintained in the prison estate to accommodate the prison population effectively.
Like any decent, reasonable human being, I am grateful for that answer from the Secretary of State. Could I ask him to give credit to the prison officers who have participated in this expansion, and the people working within the prison estate? It cannot have been easy for them. An additional 500 operational usable places have appeared in the last few weeks. Where from?
First, I agree strongly with the praise that the hon. Gentleman gives to the prison officers. The system did respond—the criminal justice system responded very well to the totally unexpected pressure of the riots. Partly it proved that our criminal justice system does work well in such circumstances. Secondly, it was entirely because of the public-spiritedness and good will of prison officers, probation officers, policemen and court staff, all of whom responded to the events with horror, as did every decent member of society, and decided to put the public interest first.
We always carry a cushion in the prison estate, because we do not know what number of prisoners will come. I know the consequences, which some of my predecessors have encountered, of running out of places in the prisons, and for that reason, I am glad to say, we were able to cope—there is still sufficient capacity—and it is very important that we continue to do so.
Has the Secretary of State had time to consider the Make Justice Work report, “Community or Custody?” which sets out clearly how much more effective properly managed community sentences are than short-term prison sentences, and the potential for greater use of community sentences to push down the prison population?
We have to have all forms of punishment available, because no two cases are the same. What is likely to be most effective with one offender may not be with another. We do have to punish, and then we have to see what we can do to rehabilitate and prevent people from reoffending. But I quite agree: for some prisoners, the best effect from the public point of view—returning them to an honest life—can be achieved by non-custodial sentences, and the Government hope to make them more credible to magistrates and to strengthen them, so they can be used effectively in suitable cases.
The Secretary of State has, on a number of occasions, said and written that he intends to reduce the prison population significantly over this Parliament. As he has confirmed, 16 months into the Parliament, the prison population is at a record high. It was also at a very high level before the riots. As he is aware, the prison estate is struggling to cope. Prison officers and probation officers are increasingly stretched, and prisoners are spending even longer times idling in their cells rather than engaged in productive activities such as work. In the light of that, is he still committed to reducing the prison population significantly, and if so, how will he do it in a way that puts public protection first?
I do not think I have ever said that. I have made it quite clear that the prison population responds to demand. I did not anticipate the riots, but we have to have a prison population that can cope with the judgment of judges and magistrates who send us a number of people who have to be dealt with and punished in that way. I have said that I expect to have a more stable system, but I cannot understand why everything possible was done under the last Government to push up the total number of prisoners but to let them all out earlier, so that the system looked tough but actually turned into something of a shambles. I am also hoping that prison can be made somewhat more effective, and that it might be better at putting people to work, getting them off drugs, tackling their mental health problems and getting fewer of them to go on to commit more crimes—
Special Immigration Appeals Commission
The operation of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission is kept under regular review. There are no present plans to change current arrangements.
Parliament has on previous occasions decided against the ousting of the High Court’s judicial review jurisdiction. The Supreme Court recently indicated that it considered it would not be appropriate for the Government to take that route. However, improvements are being made. The legal aid reforms currently before Parliament seek to remove legal aid from repeat applications for judicial review in immigration and asylum cases.
Payment by results is gathering pace. We are piloting a number of different approaches to see what works best. Two prison pilots have been put in place at Her Majesty’s prisons Peterborough and Doncaster.
Pilots also will begin in public sector prisons next year. Six justice reinvestment pilots have been put in place through memorandums of understanding with either local authority chief executives or local police chiefs in Manchester and London.
In 2012 two community pilots will commence to rehabilitate offenders while serving sentences in the community, in addition to one or more provider-led innovation pilots. We are also working with the Department for Work and Pensions through the Work programme and with the Department of Health on drug and alcohol recovery to look more widely at payment by results mechanisms which fully—
I thank the Minister for that careful reply. He will be aware of the Justice Committee’s recommendation that contracts should follow the offender through the criminal justice system, rather than attach themselves to the various institutions through which he or she might pass. What progress has the Department made in considering those proposals?
My hon. Friend will have realised, given the number of pilots we are conducting—I am sorry, Mr Speaker, that the list was too long for me to deliver satisfactorily—that we are testing the different elements of the system to identify the best and most effective way to deliver payment by results. I hope that, in the end, we can deliver the offender-centric process on which my hon. Friend relies, once we have identified which part of the system makes offenders best respond to effective rehabilitation measures.
Housing—having a home to go to—is plainly a key crime desistance factor, but an awful lot of other key factors, such as work and drug addiction, are well-documented. We want to get out of the business of identifying exactly what inputs people must deliver to offenders, but make all sorts of institutions responsible for focusing on the outputs and let them take the decisions about which are the appropriate desistance factors to address for the offenders whom they are treating.
Victims of Overseas Terrorism
Compensation for victims of terrorism overseas is being considered alongside the Government’s review of victims’ services and compensation in this country, at the conclusion of which we will publish a consultation document. We plan to make an announcement on the victims of terrorism overseas at the same time as we launch the consultation.
I thank the Minister, but the families of the victims of overseas terrorism and the survivors were promised on 28 June that an announcement would be made “in the coming weeks”. Some two and a half months have now passed with no announcement. How much longer should the victims and their families expect to wait?
I have to confess that the hon. Lady has a valid point on the timing, but the fact is that it makes sense to consider the victim support that we give, the present criminal injuries compensation scheme and the support that the Foreign Office gives overseas alongside the proposed terrorism compensation scheme. This has always been a great difficulty over the years. We can all recall that, probably over the past 20 years, people’s aspirations to help victims here and abroad have run rather ahead of the arrangements made to finance them. I assure the hon. Lady that we are having to look at this again. I realise that we are slipping behind the timetable that we announced, but we will proceed as quickly as we can.
Public Disorder (Courts)
The courts responded swiftly, fairly and properly during the recent public disorder and continue to process cases as soon as they are brought by the prosecution. Although it is too early to make a final assessment of the courts response to the disorder, my Department is reviewing all aspects of the response to find out whether opportunities for continued improvement in public service can be identified.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. One of the lessons of the riots was that those who were responsible were arrested, held on remand and processed through the courts and, if found guilty, began their sentences almost immediately, thus protecting the public and acting as a significant deterrent to others. Surely, that should be the norm, rather than the exception.
First, I have already praised the staff of all the services involved for the service that they delivered, and I think that we have all noticed that it was possible to handle certainly the straightforward cases much more quickly than we have become too used to regarding as the norm elsewhere. Obviously, we realise that we cannot expect such extraordinary efforts to be made all the time and in all normal circumstances, but efficiency can be improved. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is taking a particular interest in improving the efficiency of the system and learning the best lessons that we can from our welcome experience of the riots.
It seems that in the immediate aftermath of the riots, in many cases, courts completely dispensed with asking for pre-sentence reports. One of the consequences was that parents of young children received custodial sentences, and no regard at all was paid to what would happen to those children. Does the Secretary of State agree that when parents are sentenced to custody, there ought to be automatic checks on what happens to the children?
My colleagues and I have just been checking with each other, and we all think—well, we all know—that pre-sentence reports were provided. One cannot proceed to swift justice without getting the necessary information about the circumstances of the client and their family. I am sure that pre-sentence reports were, in fact, required by courts, and they can certainly be obtained at adequate length in the time available if one is moving briskly. Of course, all the sentences are open to appeal, and the situation and the consequences can all be looked at in the normal way that always follows a sentence involving someone with family responsibilities.
Criminal Justice System
We are taking forward a programme of work to tackle inefficiency, including by streamlining the administration of cases, extending digital working, and making greater use of video links. We will in due course bring to the House further proposals that will build on the effective response of the criminal justice system to recent public disorder.
Yes, I do, and we are looking to do precisely that, so my hon. Friend is right. It is noticeable, for instance, that more than half of defendants in either-way cases sentenced in the Crown court receive a sentence that could have been imposed by magistrates. The Government understand that the Sentencing Council is developing draft allocation guidelines to support magistrates in determining where cases should be heard, and we will consult on the draft guidelines in the autumn.
In considering the efficiency of the criminal justice system, does the Minister know whether there has been any discussion in Cabinet about what the appropriate punishment is for drug-related offences involving class A substances, such as cocaine?
Sentencing (Human Trafficking and Drugs Offences)
Between 2006 and 2010, 109 people were sentenced for human trafficking offences, with an average determinate custodial sentence length of 50 months, and 254,980 people were sentenced for drug-related offences, with an average determinate custodial sentence length of 32 months. The average determinate custodial sentence length for trafficking for sexual exploitation was 50 months; in the case of trafficking for forced labour, it was 51 months, and in the case of drug trafficking, it was 73.5 months.
I think that the House will agree that there is a bit of difference between the figures for human trafficking and for drug-related offences, yet the two crimes—human trafficking and drug offences—are very difficult for the victims. We should surely rebalance the criminal justice system to ensure that more traffickers are caught. I know that the Government have produced their human trafficking strategy, but there is a terrible imbalance at the moment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I thank him for his energetic chairmanship of the all-party group on human trafficking, and for continuing to bring the issues to my attention. Trafficking drugs and people are both extremely serious offences, and when people are caught—obviously, we want to make sure that they are, on every conceivable occasion—they should serve an appropriately serious tariff.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (71331)
I begin by making a topical statement, Mr Speaker, controlling my breathing carefully as I do. Last week, as well as announcing plans to allow cameras into courts, I outlined plans to open up the justice system by publishing unprecedented local data. We will publish data on court performance, sentencing and reoffending, and provide information on what happens next following a crime, alongside street-level crime data. That will allow people to see how the criminal justice system operates in their area. We will also encourage consistent publication of the names of offenders unlawfully at large; that will help in apprehending them and returning them to custody. Those measures will place the crime and justice sector at the forefront of the Government’s policy on transparency.
We have seen real success across Sunderland in reducing reoffending year on year. Of course, more needs to be done to tackle that, but it has been put at risk by cuts to the local probation trust. Does the Lord Chancellor think that reoffending rates will be higher or lower by the end of this Parliament?
Criminal statistics are more reliable than they used to be, but I still do not have total confidence in them, and I would certainly never make forecasts with them because crime trends are very difficult to predict. However, I am glad that success has been achieved in Sunderland on reoffending, which we propose to make the prime focus of our policy: punish offenders effectively and, at the same time, try to stop them offending again.
T2. In Worcestershire, we have had persistent problems with Travellers who refuse to respect the law. My fellow MPs in the county have recently written to the Justice Secretary with some suggestions about that, and I know that he is considering them. Does he agree that we should help Travellers to preserve their way of life—their travelling way of life—by moving them on? (71332)
This is a difficult subject, and it certainly needs to be looked at all the time. I agree: my experience in my part of the world is that many Travellers do not travel as frequently as they are supposed to, and they are fond of occupying vacant land and building houses on it, while still describing themselves as Travellers. The subject is more complex than that, and if we can make any improvements to the law that protect the legitimate interests of society as a whole, we will certainly do so.
Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), defended the Government’s narrow definition of domestic violence in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill with these words:
“We are concerned that to include admission to a refuge in the criteria would be to rely on self-reporting…We are not persuaded that medical professionals would be best placed to assess whether domestic violence has occurred. Although they may witness injuries…nor would the fact of a police investigation without more evidence provide sufficient evidence”.––[Official Report, Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Public Bill Committee, 6 September 2011; c. 359-60.]
Women in this country will be appalled by those remarks. Would the Under-Secretary like to take them back, and also change his definition in the Bill?
It is not a question of taking them back; it is a question of making them in a very transparent way in our consultation. Having looked at the consultation, we came back and reassessed the definition of domestic violence, broadened what is included, and we are prepared to debate it in Committee. That is the process that is under way, and the Government stand by that.
T4. I fully support the plans to introduce television cameras in courts to improve transparency. What plans are there to improve transparency in the Prison Service so that we can see exactly what work and activity have been undertaken in each prison so that justice can be seen to be done? (71334)
We intend to apply exactly the same policy in all sensible ways to the prison system generally as far as is practicable. We publish more figures all the time about reoffending rates and we will certainly be open about our success in extending the policy of providing more worthwhile working opportunities for prisoners, because getting them back into the habit of work is one way of getting them to live as responsible citizens in a normal society.
T3. Using a restricted definition of domestic violence, as discussed a moment ago, will penalise victims of domestic violence, many of whom suffer for long periods before they begin to report incidents to the police. Will the Minister, given that he appears to be in some difficulty over this, consider meeting organisations working on domestic violence to work out how to make that definition work? (71333)
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Some 55% of those entering prison have been reported to have a serious drug problem, and 64% in a recent survey had used drugs in the previous month, which gives a sense of the scale of the problem. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must use all means possible, in a multi-faceted way, to address the problem, and provide safe places in prison, at the very least, for those attempting to recover from drug addiction, which is why we are beginning to develop drug recovery wings.
T5. There are 66 people in Bolton and more than 10,000 across the UK who are still driving with more than 12 points on their driving licence. Many are repeat offenders of the offences of speeding and driving without insurance and have more than 20 points. Is there a problem with the legislation or are judges being too lenient? Will the Secretary of State investigate? (71335)
I think the answer is that we will investigate. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the figures. They sound astonishing, so I look forward to her providing me with sufficient details for myself and my ministerial team to find out what lies behind them.
T9. The building that formerly housed Wisbech magistrates court is owned by the Ministry of Justice and is in a prime site next to the historic port in Wisbech and a couple of yards from a conference centre. Will my hon. Friend the Minister meet me to discuss how we best use the site for regeneration so that it does not get locked in the stalemate that there has been with the police service locally? (71339)
I will meet my hon. Friend. The court closed in April this year and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is progressing the disposal of the courthouse. As part of that process it is due to meet officials from both Cambridgeshire district council and Fenland district council later this month.
T7. In the aftermath of the riots that so rocked the country last month, what lessons does the Justice Secretary think can be learned about the need to respond swiftly to public outrage at the actions of a lawless minority, balanced with the need to deliver justice? (71337)
We obviously have to study the events closely, looking for any lessons we can learn from recent experience. More and more facts will come to light, upon which we can base firm conclusions. The question that the hon. Lady raises about the rapidity of the response in the early days to the first threats to public order and to citizens is not primarily for my Department, but I know that the Home Office is taking it extremely seriously. It is easy with hindsight to criticise operational decisions. What is important is looking to see how we can improve the response in the future.
Is it not bizarre that many Travellers originate in Ireland? The Irish Government changed their law, so now the Travellers have moved to England. In his review, will the Justice Secretary learn from how the Human Rights Act in Ireland does not prevent Travellers from being moved on?
I agree that there is a problem. Let us be clear. Travellers, like anybody else, are entitled to the protection of the law and are also subject to the law. We have to deal with Travellers on the basis of how they behave, not start going against them as a class. But we have to look at how the operation of the law at present is enabling people to lead a somewhat odd way of life which is totally at variance with that which is led by the rest of the population, and to seek to disregard laws to which everybody else is subject. I am not sure that the Human Rights Act and human rights legislation generally is terribly relevant, but if it gets drawn in, we will look and see what it can do to help with the case.
T8. The Government cancelled the building of the Maghull prison after work had already started. Will the Lord Chancellor take this opportunity to tell my constituents what plans he has for the site, to allay their concerns about the Maghull prison site and nearby greenfield projects, which developers are eyeing up? (71338)
It depends on what they have done for which they have to be punished. I do not think that prison is the right place for people who pose no risk to the public, but if they have done something heinous, they have to be punished in a way that the public regard as proportionate to the crime. We are paying considerable attention to the problem of women in prisons. There are too many. The combination of problems is sometimes quite specific, and in many cases there are multiple problems. Anything that can sensibly be done to improve the way we handle women prisoners, with proper regard to punishment and the protection of the public, we will do.
T10. Further to the question raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), without legal aid or Government financial backing for the fee arrangements, how can we ensure that overseas victims of alleged human rights abuses by UK multinational companies get justice? (71340)
They have the jurisdiction. Britain entertains these personal injuries cases, these actions in tort, against multinational companies that have an adequate presence here in a perfectly open way, but it is still necessary for the costs of a case to be proportionate to the claim. We do not want people coming here and bringing their cases in British courts because the costs available to the lawyers greatly exceed those which could be attained by bringing similar cases in other jurisdictions.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to do more to curb the compensation culture in this country and that one way of doing so would be to ensure that plaintiffs incur some form of financial risk in bringing their case so that they focus their minds on the merits of their case?
The Secretary of State has stated his commitment to rehabilitation as a priority. Probation officers are key to this. They often need highly developed skills, particularly when working with violent offenders and sex offenders. Is he committed not only to maintaining levels of funding for probation officers, but increasing it in order to continue the downward trend in crime that continued under a Labour Government?
As the hon. Lady very well knows, we are having to manage a 23% reduction in our budget over the next four years in order to make the Ministry of Justice’s contribution to rescuing the nation’s finances. Sadly, probation services, like other elements, are not exempt from this. However, for the reasons she has given, they have been relatively protected under the spending review. We will of course continue to look for all available efficiency savings wherever we can, but the output of probation is very important.
An appeal to the special educational needs and disability tribunal listed today will not be heard until late February 2012. Does the Minister agree that that is wholly unacceptable and that a much quicker process is needed in order to resolve some of the cases relating to special needs?
Can the Secretary of State inform the House what efforts he is making to ensure that sentencing policy and practice is consistent across all parts of the United Kingdom for rioters, and that rioters in Rasharkin and Belfast who try to kill police officers and damage property will face the same swift, certain and good judgment faced by rioters in England?
I realise that our fellow citizens in Ulster have unfortunately had just as much experience of rioting as some of our British cities have. Among the many things that we must look at when we get the full facts about the very good response of our courts and criminal justice system to the recent English riots is how it compares with the experience in Northern Ireland. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be some general consistency of approach, with swift and firm justice, particularly when rioting is taking place, because it stops people imitating it and lessens the likelihood that the disorder will spread.
On the subject of payment by results, what guarantee can Ministers give that small providers will win some contracts and that small and large providers will have to make information about their performance publicly available?
Of course, anyone who is going to deliver payment by results would be crazy not to engage the voluntary and charitable sector as part of their delivery mechanism. Some of those charities will not have the resources to be able to underwrite payment-by-results schemes, but the prime provider would be mad not to engage those services.
The Government are currently consulting on the criminalisation of squatting. Has the Secretary of State seen the report “The Hidden Truth about Homelessness”, produced by the housing charity Crisis, which reveals that 39% of vulnerable homeless people have at some stage resorted to squatting to find a roof over their heads, and has he made an assessment of how the proposals he is putting forward will affect homeless people?
The Secretary of State was good enough to accept on Second Reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that people who served indeterminate sentences for public protection had a very low reoffending rate, despite the fact that 29% of them have more than 15 convictions. Given that people with indeterminate sentences are in prison for manslaughter, other homicide, rape, robbery, arson and other violent crimes, why does he want to let them out?
I made some cautious remarks a little earlier about criminal justice statistics. There is a very small number of people on indeterminate sentences who have ever been released, and I am very glad that there has been a low level of reoffending.
We are committed to ending that system. We have 3,500 people who have finished their normal sentence—that is, the tariff—and are unable to satisfy the Parole Board that they can be released, but we are looking at all those cases to find the best possible way of ensuring that the bulk of them do not reoffend. Some of them always will, however, and we cannot avoid that.
Order. I do apologise to colleagues whom I have not been able to accommodate. I could listen to the Secretary of State all day—and indeed all night for that matter. An additional session should be put on precisely perhaps for that purpose, but today I am afraid that we must move on.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not sure whether I concur with your last remarks, but I am sure that since noon on Monday you have been considering your own boundary recommendations, as indeed have many other English Members of Parliament. Unfortunately, at the moment it is impossible to go to the Vote Office and get copies of the boundary recommendations for the whole United Kingdom. In fact, in the House of Lords they are not available at all. Can I suggest to you that it might be a good idea if the draft recommendations were available in the Vote Office, so that the whole of this House might consider them, come to a firm view—and, I hope, reject them?
The hon. Gentleman asks whether he can suggest that. He can, he has done. I do listen, I have listened on this occasion, and he is proving himself, as ever, the candid friend. I will make inquiries into the matter and try to ensure that satisfaction is provided. That would be a very happy state of affairs.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Government have now made a number of misleading statements about their increasingly chaotic planning reforms. Last week the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) told Parliament that the previous Government’s successful “brownfield first” policy, whereby previously developed land was to be prioritised before building on greenfield land was considered, had been retained. The Government’s own impact assessment in the national planning policy framework, however, makes it clear that the brownfield first presumption has been abolished. In addition, the Minister has been describing the policy as a “national ban”, when he knows that it is nothing of the kind. Has the right hon. Gentleman indicated his intention to come before the House to put right his misleading statements, and to explain to the House why priority is not once again being given to using brownfield land, of which there is enough to build 1.2 million homes on?
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but the Minister in question has given no such indication. That said, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) for notice of his point of order. I am always concerned that the House should be given accurate information. I hope that he and the House will understand that it is not really for the Speaker to compare the accuracy of remarks inside the House with that of those made outside, let alone to offer an assessment of the relative merits or accuracy of comments that might appear on websites. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is nothing if not the proverbial woodpecker in these matters, will seek advice from the Table Office on the ways in which he can pursue his concerns.
If there are no further points of order, we come to the ten-minute rule Bill, for which the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has been patiently waiting.
Motor Insurance Regulation
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 reform the regulation and operation of the market in motor insurance; and specifically, to ban the payment of referral fees; to establish new standards relating to the evidence required and damages payable for whiplash; to reform the Pre-Action Protocol for Personal Injury Claims in Road Traffic Accidents; to set requirements in respect of risk pricing for personal injury claims; and for connected purposes.
The last time I had a ten-minute rule Bill was as a young and callow Back Bencher—
That was in April 1980, with my Police Authorities (Powers) Bill. Successive Home Secretaries were unpersuaded by the merits of my proposals until a new Home Secretary took over 17 years later, in May 1997, and progressively implemented most of the Bill.
The contrast between the fate of that first Bill and the fate of the Bill before the House today could not be more stark. Even before I had had this opportunity to move it, the Government announced last Friday that they were accepting one of the fundamental propositions of the Bill—the abolition of referral fees. The problems in the insurance market are, let me say, not of this Government’s making. As I have already expressed during Question Time, I am very grateful to the Justice Secretary and his Ministers for recognising the need for change, and to the backers of this Bill from across the House in giving momentum to the campaign that I have been mounting. Although there has been that welcome announcement by the Government, which will implement a key recommendation of the Jackson report, there are other necessary reforms that my Bill covers and which I hope the Government will also adopt.
First, let me spell out the concerns that exist in all parties about the wholly unacceptable state of the motor insurance market. In the past year alone there has been a 40% increase in the average premiums paid by Britain’s motorists to insure their cars. Young drivers face premiums of £2,500 or more, even if they can find underwriters to cover their risk. Older drivers with impeccable records who live in certain urban areas have been especially hard hit.
The principal factor behind these rocketing premiums has been an extraordinary increase in the number and value of claims for personal injuries—but this increase in personal injury claims has in no sense been caused by any commensurate increase in the number of accidents leading to such injuries. Indeed, the number of accidents has been going down, not up. Britain’s roads, long among the safest in the world, have been getting safer still, with fewer accidents and, where accidents do occur, fewer serious injuries. Those improvements have been paralleled by a dramatic drop in the number of thefts of and from vehicles.
Instead, the increase in claims has been artificially generated by a new industry, unheard of 20 years ago—a “claims industry”—with, I am afraid, the complicity of the insurance companies themselves. Claims management companies, personal injury lawyers, credit hire companies and repair and recovery firms have built a lucrative and self-serving merry-go-round in which the personal information of anyone involved in any collision with another vehicle, no matter how trivial its effects, is traded like a commodity, typically for £600 to £800 a shot, with the aim of pursuing a claim—any claim—provided that it brings rich rewards to all those involved in this industry.
Some police and NHS employees have been unlawfully engaged in this trade. Some police authorities have officially been charging recovery firms to pass on information about drivers and vehicles involved in accidents; one such made over £1.3 million in two years. I can also tell the House that some NHS acute trusts have been making money from this so-called industry, charging ambulance-chasing lawyers to advertise their services to patients waiting in accident and emergency departments. I have here data which show that since 2006, in aggregate, 70 NHS acute trusts have received £2 million in this way. As the Information Commissioner, Mr Christopher Graham, told the Justice Committee this morning, data protection and telecommunication laws are routinely broken by this claims industry as firms cold call, harass and browbeat individuals whose details they have purchased into pursuing claims.
Often such claims are for whiplash, which is not so much an injury, more a profitable invention of the human imagination—undiagnosable except by third-rate doctors in the pay of the claims management companies or personal injury lawyers. Whiplash now accounts for 80% of all personal injury claims, adding about £66 to every premium. Latest figures suggest that 1,200 claims for whiplash are now made in the United Kingdom each day. The bait of £3,500 in compensation for no discernible injury and sometimes for no accident at all, which features so prominently in the text messages, telephone calls and high-pressure advertising, characterises this extensive and grubby industry.
Driving out the parasitic practitioners and cleaning up the motor insurance system will be complex and will take time. I suggest to the House that my Bill would make an important start. Clause 1 would make it unlawful to solicit, offer or pay a referral fee relating to a personal injury road traffic claim, although I would like to see that extended across the piece. Breach would be a criminal offence. That, in my view, is the only way to stamp out this unethical and unwholesome practice. I was pleased to hear earlier from the Lord Chancellor that he accepts that view.
Clause 2 deals with whiplash. Some jurisdictions abroad restrict the payment of damages for whiplash to claims where there is clear objective evidence that real injury has been suffered. Clause 2 provides for the need for such objective evidence. No one who has genuinely suffered an injury would be in any way disadvantaged by the provisions in the Bill.
In my Blackburn constituency, and in many other constituencies, there are law firms with banners outside their offices promising £650 in cash in return for any new personal injury claim. They can make those promises and pay out because the flat fee that insurers pay the lawyers for claims below £10,000 has been set too high. Such claims are now processed through an electronic portal, which costs the law firm no more than £100 in staff time to operate. The flat fee is £1,200, so even if a firm pays a £650 introduction fee it can make exorbitant profits. Clause 3 would cut the fee in half.
I will now deal with the fourth provision in the Bill. Honest law-abiding drivers in my constituency, and in many similar urban areas, especially in the north and the midlands, have faced even higher increases in premiums than most drivers, despite their impeccable driving records and inherent low risk of a future claim. That is because of postcode discrimination by insurers. Such practices do not harm those involved in the rackets, but they do harm entirely innocent people. Clause 4 would prohibit insurers from isolating the level of risk arising from personal injury claims in an area smaller than Wales, or a standard English region.
There are other measures that need to be taken alongside this Bill. There is already provision on the statute book for tougher custodial sentences for selling and trading in data contrary to section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998. Those provisions, in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, should be brought into force without delay. The prosecuting authorities should consider whether criminal proceedings under the Bribery Act 2010 should be instituted against some of the worst abuses, as the Bar Council has suggested. All the regulators—not just the Information Commissioner who, commendably, is seeking to do so—must toughen up their approach.
The changes in my Bill would make a significant difference for Britain’s hard-pressed motorists. The insurance companies would have to start stabilising their premiums and, as their costs came down, would have to reduce their premiums. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Jack Straw, Sir Alan Beith, Sir Peter Bottomley, Steve McCabe, Graham Jones, Penny Mordaunt and Mr David Ward present the Bill.
Mr Jack Straw accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2012, and to be printed (Bill 229).
[20th Allotted Day]
Opportunities for the Next Generation
I beg to move,
That this House believes that young people face a more uncertain future which may not offer the increased opportunities and prosperity enjoyed by their parents and their grandparents; notes that, following the Government’s decision to cut public spending too far and too fast, it has targeted young people with cuts, resulting in nearly one million young people not in education, employment or training; further notes with concern that there were no university places for around 100,000 applicants this year, that tuition fees are trebling, university places will be cut next year and many universities will lose popular courses; highlights that the proportion of apprenticeship places for 16 to 18 year olds has decreased by 11 per cent., new apprenticeships are providing mainly short-term training for older workers, the Future Jobs Fund has been scrapped, the apprenticeship guarantee abandoned, Education Maintenance Allowance ended, homelessness has risen and homebuilding is at a 90-year low; believes the Government must take action to secure business growth to create opportunities for young people; resolves that the Government should repeat the bank bonus levy to create over 100,000 jobs through a youth jobs fund, to build 25,000 affordable homes and to support business through increased funding for the Regional Growth Fund; calls on the Government to expand apprenticeships for young people and to ensure that public sector contractors offer apprenticeships; and further calls on the Government to enact a temporary VAT cut to boost consumer spending, business confidence and support the UK’s high streets.
The motion is in my name and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and others. I thank the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who has given his apologies for his absence this afternoon, which is for understandable reasons. I see that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is not here to answer the debate; he seems to be curiously reluctant to answer when I introduce Opposition day debates, but no doubt he is trying to work out how to be selected as the coalition candidate for Richmond at the next election.
We British people have always been confident that each new generation will do better than their parents and their grandparents. There have been wars and economic crises, and individual families have had their ups and downs, but what my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party calls “the promise of Britain” has held true. Parents have been able to say, “Our children have had more opportunities, a better education and a higher standard of living than we had.”
However, Members on both sides of the House will know that confidence in that British promise has never been more shaky, knowing that the average age of a first-time buyer is approaching 40, and that there are 1 million young people not in employment, education or training. At the same time, we have all heard young people asking whether the cost of a degree is worth it, and what the alternative would be. We have all heard parents asking how this country will pay its way in a fiercely competitive world, and what young people will do. Only a quarter of parents and grandparents questioned by YouGov believed that their young would be better off than they were.
Today, the Opposition are asking the House to focus on things that the Government should and should not have done, but let us be clear: the challenges did not suddenly emerge from a blue sky at the last election. The Minister for Universities and Science advocates the view that over decades, the older generation has in some way stolen the future from young people, and that we have so rigged the rules of the game throughout our lives that the young have only half a chance—I apologise if I paraphrase cruelly. We hear similar views across the political spectrum. Whether or not we share them—I have very strong reservations—it is clear that the generation now in power has a huge responsibility to young people, and that the changes that are needed in our economy and society are profound. Those changes will take leadership, which Labour will offer, over many years.
However, I would not be doing young people any favours if I pretended that it was only in the past year that everything had gone wrong.
In his motion, the right hon. Gentleman states that one problem is that the Government have cut
“too far and too fast”,
but in their first year they increased spending by 5.3%, or £32 billion, and every extra pound that they spent was, of course, borrowed. How much extra would he have wanted to spend?
We know that the Government aim to cut sufficiently fast to eliminate the deficit in four years. Our judgment was that the right balance between dealing with the deficit and sustaining jobs and growth would be to halve the deficit over a similar period. That allows us to say not that there would never be any cuts in public expenditure, but that there would be a very different trajectory to public spending. For reasons that I will give, that difference of choice would have made a big difference to the young people of this country.
I have acknowledged that some of the problems are deep-seated and long-term, but today’s Opposition day debates focus critical attention on the Government’s actions. The charge is clear: the Government’s economic policy has directly made the lives and prospects of young people worse. They have not hit young people along with everyone else; they have chosen—I think “chosen” is the right word—to single out young people and to make their lives and prospects worse.
Yesterday the shadow Chancellor came to the House and, for the first time in 15 months, apologised for Labour’s mistakes. Are we going to have an apology from the right hon. Gentleman today for the fact that social mobility has fallen and attainment in schools has declined by international standards? By just about every measure, young people suffered under the Labour Government.
We will have the opportunity in a few moments to see whether that last claim is accurate, although I think that the hon. Gentleman might be disappointed. On the question of apologies, though, we did not hear yesterday an apology from the Conservative party for urging the Labour Government to deregulate further and faster in the financial services sector. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) was one of those producing Conservative party policy documents in that vein. I think that we should hear a little honesty from the governing party.
As the right hon. Gentleman should know by now, the report that I co-authored stated clearly that the Government needed to regulate the cash and capital of the banks more strongly than they did. Had they done that, they would have been in a much better place.
But the problem did not come from the cash or the capital; it came from the complex financial instruments that were not being properly regulated, as we discussed yesterday. However, I am trying your patience, Mr Speaker, so perhaps I should make some progress.
The Government have chosen to single out young people and make their lives and prospects worse. In June I visited the Bombardier factory in Derby and talked to three young apprentices. I asked them how they saw their future in the company. “To go as far as we can,” said one. Mr Colin Walton, the chief executive officer, used to be an apprentice. That is what the promise of Britain was all about: if someone wanted to get on, they could. We all know what happened, though. The Government missed the chance to reopen the Thameslink contract, despite the many changed circumstances. It was a disastrous failure of will and responsibility, and the dreams of those apprentices now hang by a thread.
The decision to tackle the deficit by cutting spending too far and too fast has had predictable results. The economy was growing a year ago, but today it is choking.
I will if I get an opportunity to speak later, Mr Speaker. I always listen to the right hon. Gentleman with great interest, but he is rewriting the history of the Labour Government of which he was a member. The present Government have increased the number of apprenticeships dramatically. I would like to refresh his memory: in May 1997 there were 664,000 unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds, but that had increased to 924,000 by May 2010. Is that not an indictment of the failure of the Labour Government of which he was a member to manage affairs and to help young people and apprentices to get the jobs that they needed?
I will deal directly with both those issues in due course, if the hon. Gentleman will have patience.
Every family is suffering, but young people are paying a particularly heavy price. Young people in Britain today are not accidental victims of the cuts; what is happening to them is not some collateral damage of Treasury policy. When the Government drew up plans to cut spending too far and too fast, they decided to target young people, and they did it recklessly and without thought or heeding the evidence. They ended education maintenance awards without understanding how important they were. As the Education Committee wrote:
“The Government should have done more to acknowledge the combined impact on students' participation, attainment and retention, particularly amongst disadvantaged sub-groups, before determining how to restructure financial support.”
They got that wrong, and young people who want to stay on will suffer.
Advice and guidance to young people is essential. The Government are wrecking the careers services—but that is the subject of the second debate today. Labour’s future jobs fund had a simple aim: to prevent a destructive rise in long-term youth unemployment during the recession. All unemployment hurts, but long-term youth unemployment has the longest, most corrosive effect on its victims. And the future jobs fund worked. When it started, the number of those not in employment, education or training fell by more than 200,000. The current Prime Minister praised it when in opposition, but after the election it was scrapped, and nothing effective has taken its place. In the past year, the number of NEETs rose by more than 100,000, with 119,000 19 to 24-year-olds not doing anything productive.
Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, although there were 90,000 starts under the future jobs fund between October 2009 and January 2011, the analysis of the Department for Work and Pensions from March this year shows that half the young people involved were back on the dole just seven months later?
I am proud of the effectiveness of my Government’s policies in tackling long-term youth unemployment. The experience of having nothing to do has a lasting effect on people’s careers, incomes and aspirations up to 20 years after the event, and we succeeded in tackling that throughout our period in office from 1997. The reality is that that this Government have scrapped the future jobs fund and, far from introducing anything better, have put nothing effective in its place. The effects of that on young people are all too clear.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s contempt for young people is illustrated by the fact that the Work and Pensions Select Committee has pointed out the lack of evidence for the decision to scrap the future jobs fund and called into question the value for money of the decision? The Government did not know what they were doing to our young people.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The truth is that it was more important for this arrogant Government to scrap something because it was a Labour scheme than to look at whether it was working not. But it is not the Labour party that has paid the price; it is young people up and down the country.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, the apprenticeships fund and the future jobs fund is having a more pronounced effect in the regions of the United Kingdom? In my constituency, for example, 19,000 young people aged 16 and above do not have employment. Does he accept that this loss of benefits and opportunities is having a much more pronounced effect there than it is having even here in England?
The hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority about his constituency.
It is a tragedy that the importance that was attached to young people and to avoiding long-term unemployment, from the new deal onwards, has disappeared under this Government. Too many people are being pushed to the edges of the labour market, where there are too few opportunities for them. Many parents, and young people, want apprenticeships. Labour rescued and rebuilt apprenticeships. There were fewer than 70,000 a year when we took office, but the figure had increased to nearly 280,000 in the last year of the Labour Government, and those apprenticeships were more credible and successful than those that had gone before. Again, however, the new Government were keener to rubbish our record than to get their own plans right.
I have to say that, on paper, it is hard to fault the ambitions that the new Government set out: now, however, the truth is coming through. The great growth in apprenticeships has turned out to involve short-term training courses for adults. There is nothing wrong with training adults, but it is certainly not what most people think of as an apprenticeship, and it certainly does not provide new opportunities for young people. The proportion of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds has actually fallen. We need, but are not getting, longer apprenticeships in high-end technical subjects that are necessary to spur growth; we need electrical, mechanical and construction apprenticeships.
I visited a forging business in Cradley Heath in my constituency on Friday. For the first time in five years, it has taken on an apprentice from a local college. It is offering a high-quality, high-tech apprenticeship to that young person, who will be able to develop the skills to get a high value-added job in the future. That is what is happening as a result of Government policy.
I applaud that company and those apprenticeships. That is a story that is being repeated in my constituency, but it was being repeated three or four years ago as well. The myth is that the situation has been transformed overnight. We are presented with some impressive headline statistics, but close analysis suggests that we are not getting an expansion of the high-quality opportunities that our young people and the economy need.
If the Government really had confidence in what they were doing, they would not have scrapped Labour’s guarantee of an apprenticeship for every qualified school leaver. They have also refused to require Government contractors to provide apprenticeships. In the past, that guarantee meant that investment in social housing also involved investment in training young construction workers. The Minister for Housing and Local Government described that policy as “ridiculous” and “counter-productive”, while the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that it “wouldn’t be appropriate”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key choice in cutting the deficit is the balance between growth and cuts? If the cuts reduce our capacity to grow, as do the cuts to the future jobs fund and in proper apprenticeships, they will be completely counter-productive and economically illiterate.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but there is a further point. The refusal to link Government procurement to the provision of apprenticeships has nothing to do with the deficit. It is wrong policy. The Government could take that action whatever their deficit reduction strategy, but they refuse to do so. It is not just about the deficit; it is about missed opportunities.
I am pleased to say that after what could be called a cock-up—I hope it is not an unparliamentary term—by the Government Whips, Labour’s call for green apprenticeships is now in the Energy Bill, and it looks as though it will stay there. One bit of Government will be doing the right thing, thanks to Labour, but more than £200 billion of public procurement—taxpayers’ money—could be working harder by providing apprenticeships.
The shadow Chancellor apologised yesterday for some aspects of Labour policy, so will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to apologise for the previous Government reckless immigration policy, whereby people were imported into low-skill and low-wage jobs, pushing many thousands of unskilled youngsters into welfare dependency?
I was very pleased that we ended unskilled immigration from outside the EU and introduced a points-based migration system. I think the real issue now is the damage being done in higher and further education, for example, to the country’s economic prospects by restricting universities’ ability to offer courses that attract high-paying overseas students.
The point I was making a few moments ago was that the failures in apprenticeship policy have nothing to do with deficit reduction. They were calculated decisions that harmed young people, as, indeed, did the decision to let fees treble. That is why too many students and parents are now asking whether it is still worth going to university. That policy was not required by deficit reduction. If higher education had been cut in line with other public services, fees would have risen to less than £4,000 a year. This summer, more than 100,000 determined, hard-working and qualified students could not get a university place. The first action of the new Government was to stop 10,000 new places Labour had planned for last September. Another 10,000 places will go next year. Teaching and nursing places, too, will be cut. If the students who missed out this year get a place next year, they will pay a £15,000 lifetime penalty for having missed out this year.
All this has happened because the Government lost control of fees, with most universities wanting to charge £9,000, so they are now introducing a bizarre auction to cut fees at the expense of quality. Those students who apply next year will find not only that they are paying higher fees and that fewer places are available, but that many of the popular courses they thought about getting on to this year do not even exist. Over the next three years, 60,000 places will be taken from popular courses and popular universities and given to cheaper providers—irrespective of whether students want to study them.
A degree is a good thing to get, but recent reports have highlighted the difficulties too many graduates experience in getting a job, particularly one that rewards their effort in today’s sluggish economy. That is not because we have too many graduates, but because the economy is creating too few challenging, demanding and high-value posts. Instead of being plunged into the chaos of the last year and next, universities should have been given one priority—to play their full role in creating growth, getting their knowledge, research and skills into the businesses and companies of the future. That is what a Government with a single-minded focus on jobs and growth would have done, but it is where the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, too, is failing young people and the country as a whole.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is perverse that, at the very time a generation of students are about to go to university and pay huge tuition fees, setting themselves up for decades of debt, they see people who made that choice three or four years ago leaving university with a degree, but no opportunities to move into?
There is a huge responsibility on the Government to respond to my hon. Friend’s challenge—to take the measures necessary, get growth going, create jobs and reshape our economy so that we can pay our way in the world in the future and make the full use of the talents of young people and, indeed, older people in this country. I say that because there will not be opportunities for young people unless we build an economy that can compete with the best in the world.
The truth is that we had to wait a year for a growth plan and it was so weak and useless that it is already being rewritten for October. When every taxpayer’s pound needs to work as hard as it can to build a new economy for Britain, the Government’s decision on Bombardier means that taxpayers’ money will needlessly be spent abroad. When every pound of taxpayer’s money needs to work hard to build the new economy, the Government are refusing to ensure that public sector contractors provide apprenticeships. When there is £200 billion-worth of infrastructure for the new economy that needs investment, the Government are dragging their feet. To see that, we need only look at the way they are doing broadband: slowly, in inefficient penny-package projects.
When we need the Government to be working with business to build the new economy, all we get is the tired mantra, “The less government does, the better.” If we are to be the very best at the things we are good at—advanced manufacturing, creative industries, business services, pharmaceuticals and renewables—government has to work in partnership with business. It must do so: to understand what technologies and skills we need in the future, so that companies have confidence to invest; to set clear priorities and stick to them, so that companies have the certainty they need to invest; to look at what government buys and how we buy it, so that innovative companies can grow; to must make sure that good regulation lets good companies win new markets; and to build, in every region and nation, the universities, the skills, the banking services and the leadership in cities and regions that will let companies grow and create jobs.
Does my right hon. Friend think that the Secretary of State is absent from this debate because he realises that, despite his many university qualifications, he is about to lose his job because of the democracy reduction Bill that the Government have imposed and the fact that his constituency is about to disappear? Is it not symbolic that this Government reduce by 50 the number of MPs and in every sector of the economy they are reducing employment as we speak? Sadly, the Secretary of State himself is included in that, but he did vote for it, so what one reaps, one sows.
I have already made a passing remark about the Secretary of State’s role, but let me just say that I have tried to set out briefly the sort of lead we should be getting from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Active, intelligent government working with business is what we need to transform the shape of our economy, but all we are getting is the same dogmatic argument: “Government should do less. It should do less in the regions, less in investment, less in research, less in working with business.” Our young people will pay a heavy price for that.
The right hon. Gentleman is leaving the House with the impression that the Labour Government left this country with a golden legacy in dealing with businesses. Let me remind him that his party was talking about putting up corporation tax and was imposing such a level of regulation on businesses that they just could not cope, and that we were left with the most complex tax system in the world. Is that what he calls “government working with business”?
We must remember the situation at the end of the previous Labour Government. It is no part of my case that we were a flawless Government with no imperfections. Indeed, I am one of those who has acknowledged already in this debate the need for change, and the Labour party will undertake that. Let me just tell the hon. Gentleman three things. First, there were 1.1 million more small businesses thriving in this country at the end of the Labour Government than there were at the beginning. Secondly, the OECD reckoned that this country was third in the world for ease of setting up a new business. Thirdly, almost alone of the western European countries, we enjoyed net foreign direct investment, because businesses around the world had the confidence to invest in Britain. Not everything was perfect, but that was not a bad record to show that we worked well with business.
What we need today is a plan B for the economy and a plan B for young people to begin to restore the promise of Britain. The Government must see that cutting too far and too fast means sacrificing the growth and jobs that make it easier to reduce the deficit. We need a temporary reduction in VAT until growth is re-established to put money in families’ pockets and to boost shopping centres and jobs.
Yesterday, we saw long-term plans to restructure the banks, whose irresponsibility around the world caused so much harm, but nothing to tackle the immediate problems facing Britain. The Government should repeat the banking levy, raising £2 billion, and with the money they could reduce the damage done by ending the future jobs fund by establishing a £600 million youth jobs fund. The Government could get young people back to work by building 25,000 affordable houses. We could boost opportunities by investing in high-growth small businesses. When every taxpayer’s pound needs to work as hard as it can, the Government should grasp the nettle and require public sector contractors to provide apprenticeships for young people.
For too long, this Conservative-led Government have blamed everything bad that has happened in this country on the unavoidable effects of deficit reduction. They are not just wrong about the pace of deficit reduction, however. Deficit reduction cannot be used as a systematic excuse for, in plain and simple terms, bad policy and missed opportunities. It will take more than this Government to restore the promise of Britain, but in the meantime they could at least stop making things worse.
Of course, the Government oppose the motion. I regret that we are depleted as a result of efficiency savings, but I should explain that the Secretary of State is battling for Britain and representing British business in Paris and, sadly, our colleague the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning is recovering from a minor operation in hospital. I hope that satisfies the House on our position.
I assure the shadow Secretary of State that despite our disagreement with many of the assertions in his motion, we very much agree with the underlying principle of which he reminds us. There is an obligation on all our generation to ensure that the younger generation has better opportunities in life. One of people’s most fundamental concerns is that opportunities for social mobility, getting started on the housing ladder and getting a good education should be at least as good for our kids as they have been for us. That is a principle that we absolutely endorse.
Opposition Members might be used to having rather embarrassing books passed under their noses—such as the memoirs of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling)—but I have with me a book that need cause them no embarrassment: my book, “The Pinch”, which is on precisely this subject. I strongly recommend it to the entire Opposition Front Bench team and they should each buy a copy—they are not allowed to share it.
We support the principle of which the motion reminds us and it is a challenge to which successive Governments have had to rise. No Government can claim that they have been able fully to rise to that challenge, and the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) is right to challenge the Government in the House today to recognise it, which we do, and to ask us what we are doing about it. Let me try to explain what we are doing.
My right hon. Friend is introducing our side of the argument with great generosity of spirit, but does he not agree that the tone of the motion encourages an extremely unhealthy sense of victimhood among our young people? I will not pre-empt his speech by giving a long list of all that the Government are doing for young people, but we are doing a great deal and I trust that the Minister will give full voice to all that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The debate is an opportunity for me and all Government Members to set out very clearly what we are trying to do with more apprenticeship places, 80,000 work experience places, and a funding system for universities—however controversial—that has been set up on a reliable basis for the future that will enable us to maintain the number of places to students. That adds up to more education and training places in total for young people than ever before. We are also making bold reforms on schools through free schools and the pupil premium, which will help children from low-income families, as well as through the spread of the academies programme and the arrival of university technical colleges. Going beyond education, we are also making bold reforms on housing with the new affordable homes programme bringing 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015. That all adds up to a programme that is absolutely aimed at ensuring that young people get a fair deal.
I want to make a tiny bit more progress.
Although we are doing those very important things on higher education, skills, schools and houses, the most important single way in which we can help the younger generation is by reducing the burden of Government debt that they will have to pay for. That is at the heart of our programme. Every time the previous Government introduced some unaffordable expenditure programme paid for not out of taxes but by issuing Government bonds lasting for 25 years, they were paying for public expenditure out of burdens being placed on tomorrow’s younger generations. That is the fundamental moral failure behind the levels of debt that we inherited from the previous Labour Government.
I am pleased to hear the Minister talk about the importance of debt levels. Will he comment on the figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility that show that directly as a result of the Government’s plans an extra £10,000 of personal debt has been loaded on to our hard-pressed households already in the past year?
Given what happened to personal debt under the previous Labour Government, about which my colleague the Secretary of State has been absolutely eloquent, I do not think that Labour can be taken seriously on this subject. We are still waiting for Labour to learn from its fundamental mistake of having uncosted public expenditure programmes and irresponsible and unfunded tax reductions, but it has not learned that lesson as we can see from the motion, which is an absolute example of that. It is full of extra public expenditure promises, it has a tax cut in it and, once again, as always with Labour, the figures do not add up.
The Browne review estimated that if all new students from 2012 paid Labour’s favoured 3% graduate tax, it would not provide sufficient revenue to fund higher education until the tax year 2041-42. Will the Minister estimate how much that would add to the record budget deficit left behind by the Labour party?
Will the Minister confirm that the Chancellor’s own Office for Budget Responsibility has stated that the borrowing requirement will have to increase by £46 billion and that unemployment figures will increase by 200,000 as a result of the Chancellor’s economic strategy?
I do not know which specific OBR forecast the hon. Gentleman refers to, but the OBR work I have seen makes it clear that although there are reductions in public sector employment, they are more than offset by increases in private sector employment. That is one of the many ways in which we are rebalancing the economy. We are now hearing claims to fiscal rectitude from the party that left us the largest structural deficit in the G7 and the largest level of borrowing in the developed world. Unless the Labour party gets serious about the importance of prudent management of the public finances, we simply will not take seriously its commitment to caring about the interests of future generations.
My right hon. Friend, as always, is correct in saying that it is essential to repair the economy to ensure a good future for all our young people, and that if we had an economy like the one left by the last Labour Government, that future would be bleak. The Wolf report on vocational education said that a significant proportion of the 14 to 19 cohort are being offered a less effective path into employment than their predecessors. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Government’s policies, particularly in respect of training and apprenticeships, will help to address that serious problem?
Does the Secretary of State agree that sovereign debt in Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Italy, Portugal and so on is much worse than that of Britain, and the reason is that Labour left 2 million more people in jobs in Britain than we inherited in 1997? The future of keeping deficits down is jobs and growth—not stupid cuts, like those he is pushing forward with.
The crucial difference between our economy and those that the hon. Gentleman listed is that our economy has the benefit of a credible package for bringing down the public deficit, as a result of which the markets have retained confidence in us. It is because of this Government’s economic policies that we are not facing the same risks.
That is a very important point; indeed, I understand that with its latest debt issue the Bank of England has secured historically low—almost unprecedentedly low—interest rates, which is further evidence of the confidence that people have in our seriousness about tackling the deficit that we inherited from the previous Government.
I now want to make progress on some of the specific points in the motion that the shadow Secretary of State put before us. First, let me focus briefly on youth unemployment and those not in education, employment or training. Youth unemployment is a serious problem; it does need to be tackled, and of course we regret the fact that it now stands at 949,000, having been at 924,000 when we took office. However, as we have heard, when Labour took office it was at 664,000, and the rise in youth unemployment began long before the economic crisis hit.
The really serious question that parties on both sides of the House need to address is why, even during Labour’s boom years, was youth unemployment already starting to rise. That tells us that it is a deep-seated trend, which tells us that something has gone seriously wrong with our education and training system—it was not meeting employers’ needs.