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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Lobbyists (Statutory Register)

1. What recent discussions he has had on the timetable for consultation on the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists. (72854)

I have corresponded with a number of ministerial colleagues with a view to running a consultation process and introducing legislation in the second Session as part of the Government’s commitment to transparency, which has already resulted in our publishing details of ministerial meetings, Government procurement and a number of other items of public interest.

I am sure many of us would welcome that legislation. As the House is periodically reminded, all sorts of people can seek to market their ability to lobby, and even secure access to, decision makers. A voluntary register will attract only agencies seeking to uphold higher standards of practice. Will the Minister assure us that his proposed register will be comprehensive and include all those seeking to ply this trade?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I can confirm that when we publish our consultation it will be clear that we intend these proposals to be comprehensive. We will consult on them widely, which will give all those with an interest in transparency the opportunity to comment on them. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

I do not expect the Minister to prejudge any report by the Cabinet Secretary on the Defence Secretary this week, but does he agree that the type of situation the Defence Secretary has found himself in with Mr Werritty would be exposed very clearly if there were a full, transparent register of lobbyists, and does he also agree that that should be compulsory and introduced as a matter of urgency?

The right hon. Gentleman said he was going to try not to prejudge that report, but it sounded very much like he did. The Secretary of State for Defence was in the Chamber for an hour yesterday afternoon and gave a very good account of himself. [Interruption.] Yes, he did; I was present for Defence questions and his statement, and he gave a very good account of himself. As the Prime Minister has said, he is doing an excellent job as Defence Secretary. The Prime Minister has set up a review by the Cabinet Secretary which will deal with any remaining questions, and the right hon. Gentleman rightly said that he does not want to prejudge that.

Prisoner Voting

The European Court of Human Rights has granted an extension to the deadline for implementing prisoner voting rights that was set in the Greens and MT judgment against the UK. That is because the Court is considering an Italian prisoner voting rights case—Scoppola v. Italy. It is therefore right to consider the final Scoppola judgment and the wider legal context before setting out our next steps on prisoner voting. The Government will express their views on the principles raised in that case, and we will be arguing that it is for Parliament to decide the way forward on this issue.

The House has spoken overwhelmingly on one side of the argument on this issue: anyone serving a custodial sentence should not have a vote. I very much hope the Deputy Prime Minister will recognise this appropriately in any further dealings he has on the matter.

As I said to my hon. Friend, the first point of principle we are seeking to establish is precisely that it is this Parliament that should be able to determine matters such as this, and we will be arguing that in the Scoppola case that is before the Court now.

West Lothian Question

I refer my hon. Friends to the written ministerial statement I issued on 8 September. We plan to make further details, including the terms of reference and the time scale for the commission, available to the House in the very near future.

Does my hon. Friend accept that many people in England feel that at this time of economic difficulty fairness is more important than ever, and does he further accept that many hold the view that English-only issues should be more in the hands of English MPs and less in the hands of MPs representing devolved parts of the UK?

I very much agree. Many people who live in England express concern about this potential unfairness, which is why we are going to set up the commission to look carefully at how the procedures in this House can ensure that that situation is fairer as we pass legislation. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome that detailed announcement when it is made in due course.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the commission has enough time to report its findings and that Parliament has enough time to consider them before a referendum on Scottish independence, which the Scottish Government indicate will take place in 2014 or 2015?

I am confident that when my hon. Friend sees the terms of reference he will see that there will be time for the commission to examine this matter, make its proposals and enable there to be a full discussion with all the political parties in this House, and then for this House to take a decision on how it wants to move forward.

Does the Minister agree that the English are every bit as good as the French and the Germans, and can surely govern themselves without any help from the Scots? Surely the answer to the West Lothian question is very simple.

There is a very simple answer, and I know what the hon. Gentleman thinks it is. I do not agree with him, most Members of this House do not agree with him and we will do everything we can to make sure that this United Kingdom stays together.

Because we have asymmetrical devolution in the United Kingdom, the application of law, as agreed by this Parliament, is different in different parts of the United Kingdom. Given that complexity, does the Minister believe it is possible to have different MPs voting on different pieces of legislation without creating total legislative confusion?

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position? We had a number of conversations on these constitutional matters during the progress of the two previous pieces of legislation, and I look forward to more such conversations. As he rightly says, this is a complicated matter—I sometimes have to stress that to colleagues in this House who think it is simple—which is exactly why we have said that the commission will consist of experts who understand how this place works and can balance those complexities while making sure that we end up with a solution that is fairer to England as well as to the other parts of the United Kingdom.

Electoral Register

There has been a lot of misleading coverage recently about the effects of individual electoral registration, so may I take a minute to explain this? This Government will do everything they can to maintain the completeness of the electoral register. That includes phasing in the move to individual registration over two years, so that people on the register who do not apply under the new system do not lose their vote at the next general election. Every eligible elector will be asked in 2014 to register under the new system. That will include: personal invites to people on the register; inquiries to households where no one is registered or people have moved; reminder letters; and face-to-face doorstep canvassing. We are also testing data matching, to identify people missing from the register, and looking at how we can increase the choices that people have about how to register. I am looking forward to the conclusions of the pre-legislative scrutiny and of the consultation, which closes this Friday, but I do, however, have sympathy with the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission and others about the opt-out proposal, and I am minded to change these provisions when we bring forward the final legislation.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply. It is important that we make sure that people who do not exist or who are not eligible to vote do not get on to the electoral register. Equally, it is important that those who are eligible to vote are registered. Will he please assure the House that this will happen?

That is precisely the purpose of individual electoral registration: it seeks to bear down on fraud in the system. Of course, the previous Government were committed to doing this in any event in a few years’ time but, as on so many matters now, they seem to shun any responsibility for their failure to act while they were in government. We are finally here to do the job that they failed to do.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider bringing forward from 2014 to 2013 the mandatory requirement for new applications to join the register to include the national insurance number?

We are bringing it forward in any event. Under the previous Government’s plans it would have been introduced only after the next general election, but we are bringing it forward in this Parliament. Of course, we are trying to get the balance right. We need to proceed with this thoroughly, which is why we are doing it carefully but in a way that means it is fully delivered by the end of this Parliament.

There will be no change at all to the civic duty—[Interruption.] I am quite honoured; that is the response that Opposition Members normally give to their former party leaders. If they listen to the answer, they might quieten down a bit. The civic duty remains exactly as it is. The proposal we have made is that the opt-out should be introduced. The Electoral Commission and others have raised concerns about the possible effect of such an opt-out and, as I confirmed in my earlier answer, I consider that concern sympathetically. That is the whole point of a consultation and we will wait to see the final outcome of the consultation, which ends at the end of this week, but I am minded to change the final legislation to reflect those concerns.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that people on both sides of the House share concerns about the electoral register, and that is why before the last general election there was cross-party support for an agreed timetable to move towards individual voter registration. He refers to the Electoral Commission, which is concerned not simply about the opt-out but about the speeded-up timetable and the removal of the fines for failing to register that, in its words, will lead from a register of 92% to one of about 65% in many parts of the country, meaning that millions of voters will fall off the register. That will lead not only to the skewing of future boundary changes but to skewed jury panels. Will he do what we did and work with all parties and the Select Committee to try to reach a proper resolution for the biggest change in the way that people are registered since the introduction of the universal franchise?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is simply plain wrong about certain facts. For instance, the offence in law to sanction those who do not pass on information as part of the registration process as households will remain. There will be no change to that at all. The civic duty will remain, too. The only thing we are considering, as I said earlier, is what the possible effects of an opt-out would be. We proposed the opt-out for a very good reason of principle. Under the existing system, registration takes place per household. If, however, we make that a duty on individuals, the question becomes whether it is right or wrong to give an individual the right to opt out. We have proposed that the opt-out should exist for individuals but others have raised concerns about it. I have listened sympathetically to those concerns and I have already said that I am minded to change the provisions in the final legislation. That seems to me to be an example of a Government who are prepared to listen and to hold a sincere consultation process, which will come to an end at the end of this week.

Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the absence of 1.5 million people from the electoral register: those who are aged 16 and 17? When can we look forward to a time when those people, who can raise a family and get married, who can pay taxes and who can serve in our armed forces, can vote, too?

As my hon. Friend knows, I personally have a great deal of sympathy with that view, but it is not reflected in the coalition agreement or shared across government. Clearly, it is a debate that we will continue to have on both sides of the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. On the issue of compulsion, the Electoral Commission has already said that to move to individual electoral registration without compulsion will see the registers fall from more than 90%—this is what the Electoral Commission says, and the Deputy Prime Minister is nodding his head—to 65% coverage. Ethnic minorities, young people and the urban poor will be disfranchised. Apart from gerrymandering the constituency boundaries, fixing the election timetable and now letting millions of people fall off the register, what else is he doing to let the Tories stay in power for a generation?

Instead of lurching towards ludicrous conspiracy theories, the hon. Gentleman should look at the facts. The Electoral Commission did not say what he—[Interruption.] No, the Electoral Commission raised a specific concern about the opt-out. Its specific proposal was that the opt-out should be retained but should be made more difficult. We will now consider either the Electoral Commission’s variant or getting rid of the opt-out altogether. That is what I am saying, in a spirit of openness, that we are reflecting on, and that will be reflected in the final version of the legislation.

Size of the Executive

The Government have been clear that they recognise the principle that there is link between the size of the legislature and the Executive, so we have said that we will consider how to address the issue in the future.

Last year the Deputy Prime Minister said that he wanted to reduce the size of the Government to 73. Actually, the payroll vote has gone up to 140 in this House, which is 43% of the way to a majority. Has he not increased the size of the payroll vote so that he can get through this House many of his broken promises?

The issue of principle is whether there is a link between the size of the Executive and the size of the legislature, and I think that there is. Clearly there is. The size of the legislature will be reduced from 2015, so clearly there is a question for the next Parliament, and indeed the next Government, about what the size of the Executive—

The size of the legislature has not been reduced right now, so it is not something that we need to do right now. We have accepted the principle. It is now 2011; we have four years until 2015. We will reflect on this and we will act.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister agree to extend the link to the shadow Administration, and does he share the concern of Government Members about the growing number of those serving in the shadow Administration?

I have lost count of who is doing what in the shadow Administration, as my hon. Friend calls it, except for the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who has an increasingly long list of responsibilities to her name. The serious point is the relationship between the legislature and the Executive of the day, and the point that I seek to make is that there is an absolute link in principle between the size of one and the other, and that is something that we will act on in the years ahead.

Topical Questions

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

Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s role in using constitutional reform to restore trust in politics, is he satisfied that the Secretary of State for Defence made a full and frank declaration of interests in relation to his links to Adam Werritty and his security company?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence came before the House for an hour yesterday. He was open in acknowledging and apologising for what he concedes was a blurring of the professional, the political and the personal. Clearly, that raises serious issues, as he acknowledges, and those are now being examined by the most senior civil servant in government. Until we know what that report says, I suggest that it is unwise to prejudge exactly what happened.

T2. The Government propose individual voter registration, which I fully support, but will the Government at the same time review the use of postal votes?


I certainly think that, as a matter of principle, we should give enough resources to electoral officers to check, in theory, every single postal vote, because it is an area where there has been some concern about fraud in the past, and we are absolutely determined to make sure that those resources are available.

The Deputy Prime Minister has always lectured us on high standards in public office, but while the Defence Secretary, by his own admission, has fallen short of those standards, the Government have failed to refer him to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, Sir Philip Mawer. Does that not show that they are prepared to sacrifice high standards in public office to protect the Secretary of State?

I am sure that the right hon. and learned Lady would agree with me that it is also important to respect high standards of due process and fair play. The Cabinet Secretary is looking into this, as, by the way, requested by her and her party until they changed their tune just a day or two ago. He is now doing that work. He is doing that report, and until it has been delivered to the Prime Minister there is no point trying to provide a running commentary on a series of facts that are not yet revealed in that report.

No, that is not good enough. The ministerial code of conduct says:

“It is not the role of the Cabinet Secretary or other officials to enforce the Code.”

The Prime Minister has admitted that the Defence Secretary has made serious mistakes and there is clearly a need for investigation, not least into whether Mr Werritty profited by his association with the Secretary of State. Why are they blocking the proper investigation? This goes to the heart of trust in Government.

The first point is this: has the Secretary of State apologised and admitted that something was amiss. Yes, he has. Secondly, has the Prime Minister made it clear that this is something he takes very seriously? Yes, he has. Thirdly, is it being properly investigated? Yes, it is. [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Lady now says no, but until quite recently this was precisely what she was urging the Government to do. Rather than constantly chopping and changing who does the investigation and produces the report, let us allow the Cabinet Secretary to do the work he has been asked to do so that the full facts can be made available to the Prime Minister and decisions can then be made.

T4. According to the Local Government Association, only 31% of local councillors are women, and in my local authority Hastings borough council—sadly Labour-run—that number is 22%. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we as politicians must do all we can locally to ensure that as many women as possible put themselves forward as councillors so that local politicians do not also remain pale and male? (72872)

Yes, I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. One of the ways we can do that, of course, is by seeking to set an example in this place. I freely admit that that is not something my party has been particularly successful in. It is one of the things I will be seeking to change as quickly as possible.

T3. Given the open warfare we saw at the Conservative party conference between Front-Bench spokespeople about the Human Rights Act, will the Deputy Prime Minister use his position to explain the benefits of the legislation and put right misinformation? (72871)

As the hon. Lady knows, the Human Rights Act simply translates into domestic law a convention to which—I think everyone agrees—we will always remain signatories, so in a sense it prevents British citizens seeking justice in European courts when it can be delivered in British courts. As she knows, the coalition Government, as set out in the coalition agreement, are committed to setting up a commission, which we have established, to look at the case for creating a British Bill of Rights that will build on and incorporate all existing rights and responsibilities.

T5. How will the Government ensure that the views of local residents are heard loud and clear when local authorities seek planning permission for authorised Gypsy and Traveller sites, as is currently happening in Crewe in my constituency? (72873)

As I hope my hon. Friend is aware, the Localism Bill gives a raft of new rights to local communities and local people to make their views known on a whole range of issues, from local planning decisions to increases in council tax. In my view the Bill represents one of the biggest transfers of power not only from Westminster to the town hall, but onward from the town hall to all the local communities we represent.

T7. The Deputy Prime Minister has conceded that the Defence Secretary’s conduct fell below the standards expected, so why is he still resisting putting the case to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, which would allow due process so that the matter could be properly examined? (72875)

As I explained earlier, we have asked the Cabinet Secretary, in a way that is wholly familiar and traditional and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, was done countless times by previous Governments, and as has been demanded by his party, to look into this, complete an investigation and produce a report, which is exactly what he is now doing.

T6. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that prolonged uncertainty over the referendum on Scottish independence risks undermining investor confidence in the Scottish economy? (72874)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. As long as the First Minister plays cat and mouse—I probably should not mention cats—with the Scottish people, it is extremely confusing for people, very unsettling for the business community and I do not think that it does the Scottish economy any good. He believes in independence. I think he should have the courage of his convictions by coming forward and putting that proposition before the Scottish people: does he want to yank Scotland out of the United Kingdom, yes or no? Instead, he now seems to be presenting a series of increasingly confusing multiple-choice questions to the Scottish people. He should have the courage of his convictions and ask the Scottish people as quickly as possible whether they believe in full independence, yes or no?

As the hon. Lady knows, the electoral register currently has about 92% coverage, and we are doing everything we can, through data matching, the transitional arrangements I have described and some of the debates we have had here on whether or not to have opt-outs, to ensure that that level does not decrease significantly. It is a high level of registration compared with similar exercises in other parts of the democratic world and I hope that we keep those high standards.

T8. The economic news from Europe is very troubling. Will the Deputy Prime Minister set out what he and his Government are doing to ensure that swift and decisive action is taken in relation to the eurozone crisis? (72876)

The Prime Minister, the Chancellor, I and others are of course in constant contact with Governments elsewhere—in the eurozone and, indeed, in other parts of the European Union. We have been quite clear that it is not our role to seek somehow to dictate what should happen, other than to say that the solution needs to be developed urgently; to be comprehensive and decisive; to deal with the Greek situation decisively; to create the means by which contagion can be stopped spreading from Greece to elsewhere in the eurozone; and to create binding rules so that fiscal disciplines in the eurozone are respected and banks are recapitalised. Further, and something on which Britain could really lead, we should work as 27, not as a fractured European Union, in order to increase competitiveness and to further liberalisation within the single market, because that is the way we will increase the European Union’s welfare in the future.

The country watched in amazement yesterday afternoon and evening as, one by one, apologists for the Secretary of State for Defence explained that the ministerial code was not written in stone. Indeed, it is not; it is written in black and white, so why are the coalition Government trying to rewrite at least the spirit of the ministerial code, if not the letter?

We are not. We are very clear that the ministerial code—[Interruption.] I am very clear, of course, that everybody in this Government should abide by the very highest available standards and by the ministerial code, both the spirit and the letter, and that is exactly what the Cabinet Secretary has been asked to look into and to adjudicate on in his report.

T9. In view of the continued pressures on small businesses in terms of securing bank lending, will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in urging that any reform of banking structure produces bankers in the sector who fully understand the needs, requirements and priorities of small businesses? (72877)

I strongly agree. The relationship between our banks and small and medium-sized businesses is possibly the most important issue for the country’s long-term prosperity, and one of the many virtues of the Vickers report, which, we have been very clear, in principle we are going to implement, is precisely that it will create a firewall in the banking system, so that there is a real vocation in the banking industry to support traditional customers, such as small and medium-sized businesses, in a way that has slightly withered on the vine in recent years.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the Supreme Court should continue to have a UK-wide role, even at a time when there are stronger devolved Administrations?

Yes. I think that, in keeping with all judicial systems in all countries that have a high degree of devolution, as we do, it is right that at the apex of the judicial system there should be a highest court, a supreme court, which is able to oversee the jurisdiction of all nations of the United Kingdom.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, given the really difficult economic situation that the Government inherited and the really difficult economic situation that we are grappling with at home and abroad, those in the public sector and, particularly, the private sector who have had high or obscene salaries and bonuses will be dealt with so that, in the days ahead, those with the broadest shoulders bear the burden of getting us out of this mess and those with the lowest incomes are best protected? (72878)

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that all executives and shareholders in the private sector have to bear in mind the fact that they have a wider social responsibility. They are not somehow exempt from social norms, and, at a time when millions and millions of people on low and ordinary incomes are really feeling the strain, it is right that they should exercise some restraint in how they remunerate themselves. It is also why it is so important that we do exactly what this Government are doing, which is to give tax breaks first to those on low and medium incomes, and not to rush to do so for those on the highest incomes.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister indicate what discussions have been held with the authorities in Northern Ireland, where there actually now is individual voter registration? If such discussions have been held, what lessons have been learned?

I understand that there have been numerous discussions at an official level precisely to learn the lessons of how individual voter registration has been introduced in Northern Ireland. We are seeking to reflect those lessons in the final legislation, which we will bring forward fairly shortly.

T11. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to individual voter registration. What assurances can he give the House that the change will not have a negative impact on the enrolment of students in halls of residence? Traditionally, university landlords have auto-enrolled all residents. (72879)

One of the virtues of individual voter registration—the reason, I assume, why the previous Government were keen to introduce it as well—is precisely that there will be an individual responsibility on voters in the future, including students, to make sure that they are properly registered. As long as we make sure that there is still, as I said there will be, face-to-face household canvassing, there is no reason why this experiment and this introduction of individual voter registration should not lead to an increase in the registration of students.

Police commissioners’ pay is still to be finalised, but the key thing is that the elections, which will be held next autumn, will give people a real sense of accountability over policing in their local areas.

T12. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure my constituents that their representations, particularly from Hempstead and Wigmore, will be fully considered by the Boundary Commission for England and that real consideration will be given to preserving community ties? (72880)

As my hon. Friend will know from the legislation, the boundary commissions will be listening to all representations. They have a fair amount of latitude under the legislation to listen to representations, including those that relate to community links in each and every area.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister support the release of all unredacted and uncensored Government documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster?

Yes, I very much do. It is very important that we get to see all the relevant papers. I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who did a great deal in the first place to create the panel that will receive these papers. The only point that I would make, however, is that it seems to me that we should allow the families, who are still grieving their losses from that terrible tragedy, to look at those papers first before they are fully published by the panel.

T13. Sixteen-year-olds are not allowed to buy alcohol, not allowed to buy cigarettes, not allowed to join the Army without parental permission, not allowed to serve on the front line even if they have that permission and not allowed to get married without parental permission. Why are all those who wish to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 putting about these spurious myths? (72882)

This issue clearly divides opinion—within parties, I suspect, as well as across them. I am personally persuaded that, in this day and age, if an 18-year-old can vote there is no reason in principle why a 16-year-old cannot. My hon. Friend has marshalled some of the arguments and examples about why he would argue the counter-case. The issue is not in the coalition agreement; it is not a Government policy as such, and no doubt we will continue to debate it.

Given his earlier answers, what does the Deputy Prime Minister think the independent adviser on ministerial standards is for?

The adviser’s duties are clearly set out. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that asking the most senior civil servant in Whitehall to conduct a thorough investigation and produce a report is something that his previous Government did on numerous occasions and is entirely in keeping with a proper response to the very serious concerns that have been raised.

T14. My right hon. Friend has spoken about the need for infrastructure investment for economic growth. What is he doing to support investment in green infrastructure and the infrastructure needed to support the high-tech industry? (72883)

We are doing a number of things. We have retained the previous Government’s capital spending plans; in fact, capital spending will go up slightly by the end of this Parliament. We have done much more than that. We have also introduced innovative ways in which we can marry public and private capital to invest in our transport, energy and communications infrastructures—notably the green investment bank, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. That will use £3 billion of public money to leverage in about £15 billion of private investment in the green technologies that are absolutely crucial to our economic future.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister understand the concern of many Liberal Democrat Members in the House of Lords and elsewhere who remain dissatisfied with the Health and Social Care Bill? Why is this measure going through when there is so much concern, certainly among the public, as well as among his own colleagues in the House of Lords?

We will see how my colleagues in the other place vote. In fact, the more people have looked at the Bill, the more reassured they are that its purposes are fully in line with many of the reforms to the health service that the previous Government introduced, with less centralisation, less bureaucracy, more control by clinicians and GPs, and a more patient-centred health service, all the while enshrining and protecting the founding principles of the NHS—free at the point of use, and based on need, not on the ability to pay. The hon. Gentleman may feel that the NHS is in no need of reform at all; anyone who knows anything about the NHS and realises that it faces increasing costs accepts that it must be reformed, but of course reformed in the right way.

Those of us who favour reform of the upper House are concerned that there should be no slippage to the timetable. Will Ministers confirm that the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill will indeed report by the end of February?

I am absolutely delighted to see that I have an ally on this issue on the Government Benches, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will communicate his enthusiasm for reform of the other place to all those on the Benches behind and on either side of him. The Committee has indeed been asked to report by the end of February next year; that will allow us then to present the legislation in a timely way. I very much hope that the Committee will be able to meet that timeline.

Further to Question 7, is the Deputy Prime Minister seriously arguing that the removal of compulsion to register will increase the number of voters in Britain? We all know that he is not the sharpest tool in the box, but that is a pretty bizarre conclusion.

I do not know how many times I need to say this: there is no removal of compulsion. The offence regarding whether households give information on registration remains on the statute book and will not change. The only concern that has been raised—I know that the hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues have chosen to misinterpret this utterly—was about the proposed opt-out. The Electoral Commission raised concerns about that, not about compulsion. I have been very open in saying that we have listened to those concerns, we are sympathetic to those concerns, and we will reflect them in the final legislation. He may choose, if he wishes, to grab the wrong end of the stick time and time again; we are trying to do the right thing.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Magistrates’ Sentencing Powers

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on magistrates’ sentencing powers. (72844)

I meet the Justice Secretary regularly, when we discuss a range of criminal justice issues, including magistrates’ sentencing powers.

It is clear that the Attorney-General and the Justice Secretary do not see eye to eye on magistrates’ sentencing powers. Will the Attorney-General clarify whether he disagrees with any other aspects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently going through Committee, such as the likely increase in the number of people forced to represent themselves in family law cases?

To stick to the point that arises from the question that was initially asked, I can assure the hon. Lady that there is no difference of view between my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and myself on this matter. As she will be aware, in 2003, the previous Government introduced the power for magistrates to increase sentences as part of custody plus, but were never able to implement it because, I think, they were concerned about the rise in the prison population. There remains an issue of debate about the value of increasing those powers. It would undoubtedly put more cases into the magistrates courts, but at the same time it would run the risk of increasing the prison population. The problems remain much as they were under the previous Government. My right hon. and learned Friend has therefore taken the decision that it is best to keep this power in reserve, even though the way it is expressed at the moment is by no means perfect—it is linked to custody plus in the Criminal Justice Act 2003—and to consult thereafter on whether it could be brought into operation profitably to improve the working of the criminal justice system or might have to be replaced by a similar provision that was not linked or worded in the way that it is at present.

Is it correct that, on average, magistrates have imposed significantly longer sentences for offences committed in the context of the riots? If it is correct, does my right hon. and learned Friend welcome that, as I do, and will he confirm that magistrates are absolutely right to take the context in which certain offences are committed into consideration when determining sentences?

The courts always take the context in which an offence is committed into consideration in determining the appropriate sentence. Few people would disagree with the principle that it is a serious aggravating feature if an offence is committed in the midst of riotous assembly and general mayhem. As usual, if for any reason the courts have passed a sentence that is excessive or inappropriate in any way, it can be reviewed by the Court of Appeal. I am afraid that I cannot help my hon. Friend on the precise statistics. Quite apart from anything else, many cases are still coming into the courts in respect of behaviour and crime committed during the riots, and it is far too early to make a final assessment.

The Attorney-General assured the Justice Committee that he had given no guidance whatever to judges or magistrates on sentencing policy after the riots. Nevertheless, is he not concerned about the apparently disproportionate sentences that have been handed down to a lot of young people, which may of course be changed on appeal? Is he prepared to undertake a study so that we can see what has happened and find out how many young people who naively got involved in things that they should not have been involved in have been given wholly disproportionate sentences?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I repeat what I said to the Justice Committee, which is that it is none of my business. It would be improper of me to express a view on individual cases and the sentencing done by judges. There are occasions when serious offences come to my office under the unduly lenient sentences referral scheme, which may be referred to the Court of Appeal. However, that does not really come into the picture in the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises. I have no doubt that how sentences have been passed in the post-riot period will be the subject of study in due course, as such things usually are. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), many cases are still coming into the courts. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that there are currently cases before the Court of Appeal in respect of the riots, and it will doubtless be able to provide some guidelines.

In his discussions with the Secretary of State for Justice, has the Attorney-General looked at magistrates using restorative justice as part of their sentencing powers?

The Lord Chancellor is certainly committed to using restorative justice as part of his programme of reducing reoffending through the rehabilitation of offenders. Powers are available to magistrates in that area. As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, further changes to the law are a matter for the Lord Chancellor and his Department, rather than for me.

Female Genital Mutilation

2. What representations he has received on the updated guidelines issued to prosecutors by the Crown Prosecution Service on the offence of female genital mutilation. (72845)

I have received no representations regarding the new legal guidance on female genital mutilation published by the Crown Prosecution Service on 7 September 2011.

It is well known that European countries such as France and Sweden have brought successful prosecutions on this matter, but it may surprise the House that many African countries such as Liberia, Ghana, Kenya and Burkina Faso have also brought such prosecutions. However, in the 25 years since the UK legislated on this matter, we have brought no prosecutions for this terrible crime. Does the Attorney-General feel that the new guidelines will bring that possibility closer, and will he urge prosecutors to use the expertise built up in child sexual abuse cases to bring prosecutions closer?

As I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, the Crown Prosecution Service has cases referred to it by the police, and if cases of female genital mutilation are referred, I can absolutely assure her that every effort will be made to prosecute them successfully if the evidential base on which to proceed is present. I understand that, in 2010-11, only one case was considered for prosecution by the CPS, and it resulted in no further action being taken because it did not meet the evidential criteria.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that if we are to prosecute such cases successfully, we need to create a climate in which victims can come forward. Of course, in many cases people will have become victims when very young, and that is one problem that besets the matter. I simply say, finally, that the fact that there have not been prosecutions does not necessarily mean that the legislation is not succeeding at least in providing some deterrent effect on individuals engaging in this appalling behaviour.

I strongly support the thrust of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). Would it not perhaps be sensible to monitor unexplained absences from school among young girls from certain communities, to try to build up some evidence to pursue prosecutions?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I certainly know anecdotally, and indeed from visits to a school in my constituency, of concerns being expressed by teachers about the absence of pupils who appeared to have been sent abroad. In that context his idea is very sensible, but as he will appreciate, it will require co-ordination. The Crown Prosecution Service will not be able to do it on its own.

Crown Prosecution Service (Staffing Costs)

4. What proportion of savings to be made by the Crown Prosecution Service over the comprehensive spending review period will be made through a reduction in staffing costs. (72847)

A reduction in staffing costs will account for an estimated 60% of the total savings to be made by the Crown Prosecution Service over the spending review period.

Given that the CPS’s own submission to the spending review said that a 25% budget cut would bring considerable risk to service delivery, what steps is the Attorney-General taking to ensure that Government cuts do not damage its ability to prosecute crime?

When these savings were first outlined, the Director of Public Prosecutions and I gave very careful consideration to whether they could be achieved without reducing front-line services. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the plans centre principally on reductions in staff numbers at headquarters, recruitment freezes and the streamlining of services, particularly savings in IT services and elsewhere. For that reason, the CPS and the DPP remain of the view that it is possible to implement the budget reductions without affecting front-line services.

The concerns about the cuts to the capability of the CPS are matched by concerns about the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office, whose job is to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic and overseas corruption. Given those concerns, has the SFO been able to brief the Attorney-General on the case of 3M v. Boulter in Washington, which is a case of blackmail that allegedly involves the attempted dishonest settlement of a dispute between an American company and a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence? Some may be aware that the case has arisen of a meeting at the five-star Shangri-La hotel in Dubai between Porton Capital’s chief executive Harvey Boulter, the Secretary of State for Defence and the latter’s friend Adam Werritty, at which it has been alleged that there was a conversation about $30 million and the taking away of a knighthood. Will the Attorney-General assure the House that the advice that he receives, and the action that is to be taken, will not be affected by cuts to the prosecuting departments?

May I first welcome the hon. Lady to her new post? I look forward to many opportunities to debate matters with her, and I congratulate her on her appointment. So far as the matter that she has raised is concerned, I simply make a couple of points. The SFO will examine cases that are referred to it, and as she will be aware, in any case that might have any degree of political sensitivity, by convention, proper steps are taken to ensure that the Law Officers’ role is kept to a minimum.

Domestic and Sexual Violence

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic or sexual violence. (72848)

I have not had a recent discussion with the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to domestic and sexual violence. However, I support the continuing work of the Crown Prosecution Service to improve prosecutions in that area and to support victims of crime.

Last month, I met Change, a user-led organisation of people with learning disabilities, which highlighted the extent of domestic abuse against people with learning disabilities. Will the Attorney-General tell me what steps the Government are taking to ensure that such victims are properly catered for in criminal proceedings, and what discussions he is having with colleagues across the Government to ensure that such vulnerable victims are properly looked after?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight this matter. A great deal is done by the CPS in multi-agency working at a national level to try to ensure that there is good support for victims who come forward in such a setting. If the hon. Lady wishes me to write to her with further details on the specific instances that she raises, I will be most happy to do so. However, from my discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions, I have been left with a sense of confidence that there is a full understanding of the difficulties raised by such cases, that the CPS will do its utmost to ensure that justice is done and that prosecutions are brought wherever possible, and that the victim is supported during the process.

One in four girls are hit by their boyfriends—some are as young as 14 and 13. What action will the Attorney-General take to deal with that?

My hon. Friend highlights an area of undoubted concern—violent behaviour by younger teenagers—but as she will appreciate, that is first a matter for the police. Secondly, if such cases come to the attention of the CPS, consideration must be given as to whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. Each case will turn on its own facts, and prosecutorial discretion may have to be exercised in such circumstances.

That said, if my hon. Friend feels that that is a growing difficulty, the multi-agency approach that we were talking about in a different setting a moment ago will probably be the only way to tackle it. At the end of the day, prosecutors can take only one of two decisions—to prosecute or not—but prevention must come from other agencies.

Human Trafficking

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of human trafficking or slavery. (72849)

I have had no recent discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving human trafficking or slavery. However, the Crown Prosecution Service is working with law enforcement agencies and others, both in the UK and in source countries, to improve the investigation and prosecution of those involved in human trafficking. The CPS is also encouraging victims of human trafficking to support criminal proceedings.

Having worked with the remarkable children caught up in this appalling trade over many years, I can tell the Minister that the most effective way to increase the number of prosecutions is to provide support for victims. Will he mark anti-slavery day by announcing a formal system of child guardianship, so that we no longer have the appalling spectacle of children as young as five having to instruct their own lawyers, simply because there is no one else to do so?

The specific matter that the hon. Lady raises is, I am afraid, outside my immediate remit in terms of my responsibilities for the CPS. As she will be aware, the Government announced the decision to opt in to the EU directive on human trafficking in March 2011. We are now working closely with the Commission on its implementation, which includes the review of our domestic legislation to ensure that it complies with the provisions, and that it does not inhibit our ability to bring successful prosecutions. The Government, the CPS and I will continue to give human trafficking a high priority. For those reasons, I hope that the hon. Lady’s point will be given consideration at the same time.

I read with interest the CPS report on prosecuting human trafficking cases, and I cannot understand how the Minister can say that the matter is not within his remit, because it quite clearly talks about vulnerable children, the need for adequate support and safeguarding. It is difficult to get prosecutions if those children flee, and we do not know how many are in care or how many are missing. Surely the obvious thing to do would be to have a scheme of guardianship, in which the children are looked after individually. They could then be supported through the process of going to court, so that we can get prosecutions for this heinous crime.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, and for the reasons that I gave in answer to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I can see that it has considerable force, but I do not think that it is the specific responsibility of the CPS to deliver on this. It would require work with other agencies to achieve it and, for those reasons, it is something that I am happy to see taken forward, but it is not something that the CPS on its own can deliver.

The Attorney-General is right that the issue of guardianship is for other parts of the Government. However, he is responsible for sentencing. The Government, in their human trafficking strategy, promised a review by December. Will he update us on how that review is going and congratulate the Prime Minister on marking anti-slavery day by having a reception in Downing street on 19 October?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Prime Minister on properly commemorating anti-slavery day. I am afraid, however, that I am not in a position to give my hon. Friend an update. There is a timetable for this report to come out. If I have any further information on the matter, I shall write to him.

Human trafficking is a crime that crosses borders. What discussions have been held with Europol and Eurojust to try and catch the real perpetrators of this terrible crime?

I know that there are frequent discussions between police services and the CPS and its counterparts about co-operation. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the EU directive on human trafficking is designed to provide a measure of co-ordination in this area. I have to say again to him that I would be happy to arrange a briefing for him from either the police or the CPS, if that would be of assistance to him in understanding the details of how that work is carried out. However, I am confident from what I know of the work being done that a high level of co-operation is achieved with our partner countries.

The original question was about how the Attorney-General will increase the number of prosecutions. According to an answer that I received not long ago, there have been only six prosecutions for holding someone in slavery since the introduction of that specific offence 17 months ago. What will he do to increase the number of successful prosecutions for holding people in servitude?

There has been at least one reference by my office to the Court of Appeal of an unduly lenient sentence in which that sentence has been increased. In addition, I think that the CPS acknowledges that trafficking for forced labour is a particularly difficult area in which to get people to come forward and give evidence. The CPS will therefore continue to work with other agencies, including the police, to try to provide an environment in which that can better happen.

Forensic Science Service

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the effect on prosecutions of the closure of the Forensic Science Service. (72852)

I have met the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who has responsibility for crime and security, twice since April 2011 to discuss issues and progress around the closure of the Forensic Science Service. Furthermore, representatives from my office and the CPS attend regular Home Office-led FSS transition board meetings and participate in key groups leading the FSS closure process.

Will the Attorney-General clarify whether he and the CPS were consulted before the announcement of the FSS closure? If so, what was his response and that of the CPS?

Yes, we were consulted, and our response was that, on the basis of our understanding of how the closure was to be carried out, the Director of Public Prosecutions was satisfied that the quality of forensic science available to the CPS would be maintained.

In view of that intervention, I would simply add that the current position is that the closure process has been monitored and the DPP remains satisfied at present that in no case has the closure of the FSS had any impact on his ability to carry out prosecutions within the CPS.

I am immensely grateful to the Attorney-General, whom no one could ever accuse of excluding from his comprehensive answers any fact that he judges to be material. We are most grateful to him.