Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Before turning to the question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in echoing the tribute paid by you, Mr Speaker, to Alan Keen, the Member for Feltham and Heston, for his 19 years of service as a Member of this House.
We need to establish some facts about what is and what is not changing in electoral registration. At present, it is not an offence not to register to vote, and that will not change. It is an offence not to provide information when requested to give it, and that will not change either. The civic duty to register to vote, which everybody recognises, remains, and that will not change. There are suggestions, including from the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, to create a new offence—one that does not currently exist—of failing to apply to register to vote. Of course the Government will listen to that, but I would warn against thinking that the only solution is criminalising people, because only 144 people were prosecuted in the last year under the present offences. There are a whole lot of other things that we need to get on with to ensure that we transfer people on to the individual electoral registration system over the coming years, which is exactly what we plan to do.
A high level of voter registration is fundamental to our democracy. Credit companies are concerned that if the electoral register is reduced, it will be more difficult to carry out credit worthiness checks. Have the Government considered data sharing with the credit companies, which have excellent personal address information, to increase voter registration in our democracy?
I certainly agree with the principle that we should try to use data sets to compare the data that electoral registration officers hold with the data held by other people in easily accessible databases, and that is exactly what we are piloting at the moment. However, I do not think that I can do any better than to quote the Electoral Commission, which said:
“We would not want to see a move away from the current approach—where electoral registration, though not compulsory, is regarded as an important civic duty”.
That is precisely what we are doing.
As I said earlier, it is a civic duty, and that will not change, and the offence of not providing information when requested to provide it will remain as well. I just think we need to pause and reflect on whether we think it necessary, on top of that, to create a new criminal offence of failing to apply to register to vote. Those who feel that it should be up to individual citizens whether or not they vote, should pause and reflect on whether it is necessary to criminalise people to get them on the register in the first place. I am not sure, bluntly, whether that is the right way forward.
The Deputy Prime Minister has quoted the Electoral Commission, but when the Government publish their Bill on individual electoral registration will he take on board its advice and publish details on the implementation of IER and the necessary secondary legislation at the same time?
Of course we are considering that very carefully, and of course we will wish to prove to this House that we have thought through all the necessary steps, such that each and every voter is properly approached, initially through individual contacts or approaches to households. People will canvass door-to-door to ensure that those who have moved or not yet registered have the opportunity to do so. As we debated last time at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, the Electoral Commission had concerns about the opt-out system. That was its main concern, and I think we have provided satisfaction on it.
Succession to the Throne
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 28 October, the 16 Commonwealth realms have agreed in principle that we should modernise the Act of Settlement with regard to the rules of royal succession. That means that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a first-born daughter, she would eventually become Queen of our country. In addition, we will remove the barrier to those who marry Catholics retaining their position in the line of succession, thus repealing an explicit and unique discrimination against the Roman Catholic religion.
After many years of campaigning, I thank the Government most warmly for finally grasping the nettle and removing this unique discrimination against Catholics. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree, however, that this issue and the wider issues have now moved beyond statute? The fact is that the monarch gave up appointing Anglican bishops in the 18th century, and the Prime Minister has recently given up that power. In the future, can we ever prevent anyone from holding a post that they are born into, simply because of their religion or beliefs?
As I have explained, this is a significant step. I understand that there is a perfectly legitimate debate to be had about whether there should be other reforms, but all the Commonwealth realms must move as a convoy on this. We must all translate it into exactly the same legislation, which is what we will be working on in the months ahead. It is important to welcome this step, as my hon. Friend has done. It removes a unique discrimination against people of the Roman Catholic religion, and we must ensure that we implement it in full.
May I ask what discussions have taken place with the devolved Administrations on these changes, which affect all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? If the Deputy Prime Minister has not already held any such discussions, what plans does he have to do so?
I spoke to the First Minister shortly before the announcement was made at the Commonwealth meeting in Perth. He is also reflecting on whether there should be other, wider changes, but he welcomed this as a significant step, in and of itself.
May I express my delight that the coalition Government have at last ensured fairness and equality in succession to the throne? Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my disappointment, however, that although I and others raised this matter many times under the previous Government, they put it in into the “too difficult” box for 13 years?
I certainly think that most reasonable people would say that, in this day and age, it cannot be right to have rules that discriminate on the basis of gender or religion. This is clearly a sensitive area, however. I have always been explicit in my own view, which I have expressed publicly on several occasions over the years, that we needed to look at these rules. I am delighted that we have now been able to mobilise a consensus among all the Commonwealth realms, so that we can now put this into practice.
We have been having regular discussions with local authority registration officers and those involved in our electoral data-matching pilots and the smooth implementation of individual registration. Everyone in the House has a responsibility to encourage people to participate in elections. Mr Speaker, you will know that the Electoral Commission has a particular role to play in that work, which the Government find very valuable and which I am sure is supported by every Member of the House.
Surely the Minister realises that a party that seems to believe in the big society and in localism would want participation to increase. Local authorities are deeply unhappy about the effect that the changes that are being mooted will have on local participation. Is he aware that the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency—the wealthiest constituency in the north of England—could manage only a 73% turnout? What are we going to do about the others?
The hon. Gentleman is confusing two things. Clearly, the Government want to ensure that the electoral register is complete and accurate. As regards the turnout for elections, however, it is the responsibility of all of us in the House to ensure that we provide people with compelling reasons to vote. For example, we are taking the necessary steps to clear up the mess left for us by the Labour party.
How many allegations of fraud were there last year?
That measure was supported by all three parties in the House, despite what the hon. Lady might say from a sedentary position. The previous Government legislated to introduce individual registration in order to move away from the household-based system. In this way, we will have a register that is more complete and, importantly, more accurate.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that creating jobs in the economy is a vital objective of the coalition and that the private sector is indeed creating those jobs? Do the Government believe that the present system of tribunals to adjudicate on unfair dismissal is encouraging firms to take on new people or is it discouraging job creation in the economy?
As my hon. Friend will know, we are looking at all the measures that we think hinder growth and job creation. We have already announced a significant change in the tribunal system such that the qualifying period is extended from one year to two years. We have also announced that we will explore the establishment of what are called “protected conversations” so that employers and employees can talk, as the name implies, in a protected way about the performance of those employees, which employers have demanded for a long time. They have welcomed it because they think it will help them create more jobs.
The Deputy Prime Minister is appointing seven new special advisers. Some of his Conservative colleagues have described them as “spies”. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how those appointments match the coalition agreement’s proposal to limit the number of special advisers?
As with any new Government, both parties in the coalition Government—we have not had a coalition Government in a long time—have had to adjust the way in which they are supported in government to make sure that we deliver in full on the coalition agreement to which I referred.
The hon. Gentleman will know from listening to previous answers that we are taking a number of steps to ensure the completeness of the register, learning from the experience of the introduction of individual registration in Northern Ireland—including, for example, the carry forward of electors for a year—and looking at the data matching pilots to see whether they will be successful.
Individual voter registration is worth pursuing only if, as well as making the register more accurate, it makes it more complete. I warned the Minister about this more than a year ago. Does he not realise that by combining this measure with a voter suppression policy such as not requiring people to collaborate with the electoral register, he is basically participating in the Florida-isation of UK electoral registers?
That was not up to the hon. Gentleman’s usual standard—no, on reflection, I am afraid that it was. I made it clear from this Dispatch Box when I announced the policy that we are just as focused on completeness as on accuracy. As the Deputy Prime Minister set out, we are listening carefully to the responses to our consultation and to what was said by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and we will bring forward our proposals in due course.
The Minister will be aware that councils such as Cornwall are taking action to deal with multiple property owners being on the register in several places. I welcome the Government’s change of view on the 10% discount on council tax, but as that is one way of encouraging people to register their ownership of a second home, making it easier to cross-match data, has the Minister considered other ways in which councils could fulfil their duty of ensuring that the register is accurate?
I have not considered any proposals arising from our council tax moves. The hon. Gentleman and I have had conversations about this matter, and I know that his electoral registration office has been making sure that the law is applied fairly but firmly in registering people who reside in Cornwall, thus ensuring that it is indeed more accurate as well as more complete.
As I have explained, we believe that individual electoral registration is the right thing to do. Her party does as well, as it was in her party’s manifesto. Preparations were made under the previous Government to introduce it. We brought it forward slightly and, as the Minister and I have explained, we are taking meticulous steps to ensure that it does not lead to a decline in overall rates of registration.
The hon. Lady must be careful not to misrepresent what the Electoral Commissioner said. It did not say that this system will lead to a drop-off on that scale. [Interruption.] No, the Electoral Commissioner clarified the point in subsequent publications. The Electoral Commission said:
“We would not want to see a move away from the current approach—where electoral registration though not compulsory is regarded as an important civic duty”.
We are maintaining that civic duty; we are maintaining the offence of failing to provide that information when asked for it; and we are seeking to address the Electoral Commission’s specific concern about the opt-out system.
Political Party Funding
I consider reform of party funding to be very important in and of itself, and we made a clear commitment to it in the coalition agreement. I look forward to the contribution of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to the debate when it publishes its report shortly. It is immensely important for us to clear this up, because it has affected all political parties negatively, but it would not be right to ask our hard-pressed taxpayers to pay more to political parties at a time when they are having to deal with so many cuts and savings elsewhere. I should like to proceed with as much cross-party consensus as possible, and I am keen to work towards that aim, but I repeat that no one should doubt the determination of this coalition Government to deliver reform in this area.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that interesting answer. Does he agree that it is time for the Labour party to be honest about the privileged influence that some of its larger donors have had on legislation that is debated in the House, and will the Liberal Democrats join the Conservatives—
Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat.
Questions to Ministers should be about the responsibility of office-holders for public policies. It is no good the hon. Gentleman nodding at me; his question was out of order, and it is about time that he learned that fact.
The Deputy Prime Minister has previously endorsed the long-held convention that issues of party funding should—as he has just said—be resolved by cross-party agreement when that is possible. He has told us that the Committee on Standards in Public Life will report shortly: in fact, it will report next week. Is he concerned about the objections from the chairman of the Conservative party to the £10,000 cap proposed in the draft report, and is he worried about the possibility of a situation similar to that which arose in 2007 when the Conservatives walked away from the opportunity to secure a cross-party agreement? [Interruption.]
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman’s question was written by the GMB, because I hear that Opposition Front Benchers have got into the habit of asking their union paymasters what questions they should ask and what amendments they should table. If that happened in any other political party, Labour Members would say that it was an absolute scandal. We know that the trade unions can speak for themselves; it is time that we knew whether the Labour party can think for itself.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (80670)
I am sorry, Mr Speaker. I enjoyed the last answer so much that I temporarily forgot where I was.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a range of Government policies and initiatives, and, within Government, I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
I am pleased to note that the Deputy Prime Minister remembers what his Department actually does.
One of the main topics of interest to people in my constituency is the commission that will consider the West Lothian question. Can the Deputy Prime Minister give us a firm timetable for consultation, and can he name all the parties that will be consulted, including the Labour party, the new Labour party leadership in Scotland and the trade unions, which are a fundamental part of the fabric of the Scottish people?
T3. Will my right hon. Friend elaborate on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) about industrial tribunals? If there is to be any reform, will he give us a timetable, and may I respectfully ask whether I may help out, given my experience in this regard? (80672)
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is keen to proceed with the reforms that I mentioned earlier: the change in the timetable from one year to two, and the idea of protected conversations. I am sure that he would be delighted to benefit from my hon. Friend’s expertise.
T2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister support the many charities and advice agencies—including most recently Scope—his party conference resolution and his Justice spokesman by opposing the complete removal of welfare benefits and the majority of social welfare laws from the scope of legal aid, even when the problems involved are interrelated and complex? (80671)
If we consider the recent massive expansion in legal aid and the budget for it, and the types of dispute brought within its scope, I think any reasonable person would agree that it is worth trying to put the budget on a more sustainable footing and that where there are alternatives to court—such as tribunals, mediation and citizens advice bureaux—they should be explored first, rather than immediately decanting people and disputes into the court system.
T4. In Cumbria we are very proud of having close business and cultural ties with Scotland, but does my right hon. Friend share my concern that business confidence on both sides of the border is being badly affected by the uncertainty caused by the Scottish Government’s obsession with separatism? (80673)
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. At a time of huge economic uncertainties in Europe and the world that are, understandably, creating anxiety among many families in this country, the last thing families in Scotland need is this constant guessing game—the First Minister’s cat-and-mouse game on the future of the Scottish people. What people want is certainty, because certainty is what delivers prosperity, jobs and growth.
May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his tribute to our colleague, Alan Keen? He was proud to represent a London constituency, but he never lost his fierce, passionate commitment to social justice, which he brought with him from his roots in the north. We will miss him greatly, and our sympathies are extended to Ann and his family.
May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about the shocking increase in the number of young people out of work for more than six months? In London, the increase has been 93%, in Warrington there has been a 200% increase since May, and the situation is even worse in many places. Because of this Government’s actions, the economy is too weak, and the Deputy Prime Minister’s programmes to help the young unemployed are too small. Will he admit that he urgently needs to take further action to help the young unemployed?
I accept that we need to take more action; it would be a real dereliction of duty if we did not do more to try to make sure that young people are given a real pathway into training, further and higher education or the labour market. As the right hon. and learned Lady will know, youth unemployment has increased pretty remorselessly since 2004, so it increased during the second part of the Labour Government’s time in office. Indeed, it increased by about 40% under Labour. There are some very big structural problems in the labour market that we need to address. I am leading some work on that in government, and we hope to make announcements on it very shortly, before the autumn statement. The right hon. and learned Lady was right to raise this subject.
But long-term youth unemployment was going down, and, before the recession, was at its lowest level. As rising unemployment makes it harder to pay down the deficit, why have the Government cut work programmes by a third, and why are they closing jobcentres, including in my constituency of Camberwell? We expect it from the Tories—youth unemployment is a price worth paying—but how on earth can the Liberal Democrats be prepared to go along with this?
The right hon. and learned Lady should not be quite so pleased with herself. Under Labour the number of NEETs—young people not in education, employment or training—increased by 50%. Is that a record she is proud of? I think it is a good thing that we have delivered more apprenticeships than her Government ever did. We will deliver a quarter of a million more apprenticeships than were planned under Labour, and we are also creating a new network of university technical colleges to give young people the skills to get into work and rolling out a new Work programme aimed at supporting young people. As I acknowledged earlier, yes there is more work to do, and we must do more to support young people, particularly those aged about 18 or 19 who are making the difficult transition from full-time education to trying to find their feet on the first rung of the jobs ladder. We will do more—we need to do more—but the right hon. and learned Lady should not be quite so complacent about her Government’s record.
T6. I am concerned about the possible role that the EU foreign service had in recently deposing the elected Heads of two sovereign Governments. Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that he has sought assurances that EU officials based in this country do not abuse their positions here? (80675)
I do not think that there is any remote possibility of a coup being engineered from the European Commission office just around the corner. The whole world is looking at what is happening in Italy and Greece with growing alarm, and only Labour Members take it as a role model for their own behaviour. There is a big dividing line in British politics now between those on the Government Benches who believe that Governments should be in charge of their own economic destiny and those on the Opposition Benches who think that bond traders should be in charge of the economy.
T5. We are just two weeks away from world AIDS day, in this the 30th year of the HIV epidemic. We now have scientific evidence to show that new HIV treatments are 96% effective at preventing the spread of HIV. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Prime Minister should support the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and make the HIV generation a priority for the British Government in order to maintain our commitments to the millennium development goals? (80674)
As the hon. Lady may know, that is already one of the key priorities in our aid budget and programme. As she will also know, that budget is increasing substantially, even though we have such huge pressures on the public purse elsewhere, in order to meet the UN target of 0.7%. I know that a great deal of discussion is going on with the American Administration and others who are trying to work collectively. I am more than happy to look into the details of her question if she feels that there is more we should do on this front.
T7. I strongly support the principle of fairness in constituency size, which is behind the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, but does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that the Boundary Commission’s proposal to relocate Gloucester’s entire city centre into the Forest of Dean constituency seriously damages the link between the Member of Parliament and the city, and the accountability of the MP for Gloucester’s regeneration? Does he agree that the Boundary Commission could split a ward? Will he confirm that that is in order? (80677)
I feel in a slightly invidious position having to answer that question while the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is sitting next to me, because I know that he has an adjacent constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) knows, this is simply not a matter for Ministers. We have legislated—[Interruption.] I know that the idea of an independent Boundary Commission is alien to the Labour party, but that is what is going to happen.
T8. When a warning about the penalty was included on a letter to constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) in Rhyl West, the poorest ward in Wales, voter registration in that ward increased by 40%. If the Deputy Prime Minister really is a democrat, will he consider that startling statistic and make sure that there is not only a civic duty but a requirement for people to register to vote? (80678)
Only the hon. Gentleman thinks that you are a democrat by criminalising lots of people. Only the Labour party thinks that the solution to everything is to put more crimes on to the statute book. As I explained to him, the civic duty remains. It is not an offence at the moment not to register; it is an offence not to provide information where requested to do so.
Order. The House must come to order. Members must not keep shouting at the Deputy Prime Minister simply because they do not like what he is saying. It is called democratic exchange, and the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) should be used to it.
T10. The Deputy Prime Minister will be well aware that Cornwall is a distinctive region within the UK, with its own unique language and history, and that it has modest ambitions for devolution, not to cut itself off, but to cut itself into the celebration of diversity. Will he meet a delegation from Cornwall so that we can explore how Cornwall can help the Government to make better and more efficient decisions there? (80681)
I would be more than happy to meet a delegation such as my hon. Friend suggests. As he knows, this Government are pursuing a radical agenda of devolution, not just to the devolved Administrations within the UK, but to the regions and communities within England.
T9. As a result of his Government’s economic policies, youth unemployment in Nottingham is back up to the level it reached the last time the Tories were in power. The Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire chamber of commerce is calling on Ministers to reprioritise their spending plans to promote growth, investment and exports. The Deputy Prime Minister would not listen to our concerns on police cuts. Is he going to listen to our concerns on growth and jobs? (80680)
As I have said, I accept that we need to do more. I do not believe that the generation born in the boom should suffer most in the bust, but I remind the hon. Lady that this is quite a complex issue. Youth unemployment has been increasing steadily since 2004; it increased by 40% during the Labour Government’s time in office. I am leading some work on this in Government and I hope to make an announcement soon, particularly in relation to youngsters who are trying to make the transition from education into work. If she has any ideas on this I am very keen to listen to her.
T11. May I relay to the Deputy Prime Minister the frustration, concern and anger of my constituents in Kettering that he is acting against the national interests by using his position to block the repatriation of powers from Europe and by preventing the scrapping of the Human Rights Act? (80682)
No Front Bencher in the coalition is talking about the unilateral repatriation of powers from the European Union. Why? Because it simply is not possible—it does not work like that. We have to seek agreement with 26 other countries to get that repatriation. The idea that one could simply get on to the Eurostar, go over to Brussels and come back with a bag load of powers simply is not feasible. Yes, let us examine the balance of powers, as we committed to do in the coalition agreement. I am a pro-European, but I believe in reforming the European Union. I do not believe the status quo is right, but I also believe that we need to act smart and move sensibly.
Last year, the Deputy Prime Minister, speaking in a professional capacity, set out how he would end child detention by May. It is now November. Does he still believe this practice is immoral and does he still plan to keep his promise? If so, will he tell the House when?
Compared with the previous Government’s record of thousands of young people being detained—yes, immorally—behind bars when they were entirely innocent, the new arrangements are a complete, humane, liberal revolution, of which I am very proud indeed.
T13. Currently, the new electoral register is published on 1 December each year. Will there be any change to this system in 2012 to allow the most up-to-date information possible to be available for the police commissioner elections due to be held on 15 November? (80684)
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned the issue of Rhyl West. I put down a parliamentary question asking the Minister to look at the specifics of that case. To go from 2,500 to 3,500 registered voters in one year in the poorest ward in Wales, which has 900 houses in multiple occupation, is a fantastic achievement. If the Minister is serious about registration, he needs to look at best practice, so will he look at the issue of Rhyl West?
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and I are more than happy to look at that example. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform has recommended that a new offence should be created and of course we will look at that—it is always right to look at suggestions from such a distinguished Committee. Under the current offences, only 144 people were prosecuted out of the millions of people on the electoral register last year. That suggests that some of the other things we are doing, such as data matching and making sure that everybody is approached in 2014 to get them on to the register, might be a higher priority than once again creating more new criminal offences on the statute book.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that he has the opportunity in this Parliament to continue the work that was started a century ago by his predecessor, Asquith, and reform the House of Lords? Does he agree that the absolute bare minimum of progress would be the removal of the remaining hereditary peers and the Church of England bishops?
As my hon. Friend knows, our proposals are now subject to extensive scrutiny in a Committee that I hope will report in the early months of next year. I have always believed, as do many hon. Members on both sides of the House, that those who make the laws of the land should in some way or another be accountable to those who have to obey the laws of the land. That founding democratic principle, which is respected in legislatures all around the democratic world, is one that I should like to see installed in the other place as well.
Now that the Deputy Prime Minister has displayed a high state of excitement about party political donations, will he do the decent thing as leader of the Liberal Democrats and instruct them to surrender their ill-gotten gains of more than £2 million from that jailbird Michael Brown?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that matter was independently examined; the Liberal Democrat party was entirely within its rights, and it was entirely reasonable, to accept the money at the time, even though, of course, we would not have done so if we had known then what we subsequently knew. Given that his colleagues on the Front Bench are tabling amendments and deciding how to vote according to what their paymasters in the trade unions say, we need to know whether he and other Labour MPs are voting for what they think is right, or what they think is right for the trade unions.
There are concerns that the net effect of the Government’s changes will be under-registration in England and Wales. Has the Deputy Prime Minister appraised the impact of that on the distribution of seats to the territorial boundary commissions under the Sainte-Laguë formula?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do not agree that moving to individual elector registration in the way we are—in the way advocated by the previous Government, too—will necessarily lead to the outcome he suggests. That is why we are putting so much time into data matching, making sure that there is a period of grace so that people can re-register on the other side of an election, and ensuring that people go from home to home to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be individually registered.
The Deputy Prime Minister told the House that he is responsible for constitutional and political reform. If the ambitious programme that he has set himself proves too ambitious, will he allow a little bit of slippage in reform of the Lords and the equalisation of boundaries?
It is important to be clear about our ambitions, and we have been, right from the outset, when the coalition Government were formed. We have five years to deliver the changes. Yes, they are major changes, but as we saw with the reforms to the Act of Settlement, even the most intractable issues that people believe are not susceptible to reform can be reformed if there is sufficient debate, and sufficient consensus in all parts of the House that reform is desirable. Most people believe, for instance, that reform of the House of Lords is long overdue; it is 100 years since it was first debated.
The Attorney-General was asked—
Does the Attorney-General recall saying, in 2009, when in opposition,
“Our extradition laws are a mess. They’re one-sided. A Conservative government will re-write them”?
Will they? Or is this another example of this Government’s signature policy of promising miracles in opposition and delivering nothing in government?
The first thing the coalition Government decided to do on taking office was ask Lord Justice Scott Baker to preside over a report; of course, he was helped by others in that. We have now had that report. I will consider the recommendations that are specific to the Law Officers in conjunction with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office. That involves discussions with devolved jurisdictions. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consult on the recommendations that touch on her responsibilities, together with other members of the Government who can provide some input.
What consideration has the Attorney-General given to implementing a forum bar to give judges more discretion in deciding whether it is in the interests of justice for cases to be tried in the UK, such as the case involving Gary McKinnon, or where the offence was committed in the UK and it is difficult for the defence to bring witnesses and evidence to a foreign jurisdiction?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is touched on in Lord Justice Scott Baker’s report, and will have to be taken into account in the Government response. He will be aware that Lord Justice Scott Baker’s proposals are guidelines, rather than an implementation of the forum bar. That is something that the Government will have to consider.
I have the misfortune to disagree with Lord Justice Scott Baker’s conclusion in relation to the standard of proof. May we have an assurance from the Attorney-General that in determining these matters proper account will be taken of the principle of reciprocity, and that it will be ensured that British citizens are not at a constitutional disadvantage in comparison with their American counterparts?
Mr right hon. and learned Friend makes another important point. Again, that is one reason why we asked for that matter to be looked into by Lord Justice Scott Baker and those who served with him. We are going to have to take account of his proposals, and I hope very much that my right hon. and learned Friend will make a contribution to that discussion.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give the House the reaction, if any, from international counter-parties to the Baker report?
I am afraid that I cannot comment on the reaction from international counterparts. There is interest in the matter—indeed, I have been made aware of that by a number of sources, particularly in respect of people connected with the United States. Outside that, however, I cannot comment formally, and I think it is likely that any formal response would go to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
Bribery and Corruption
I hold monthly meetings with the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss all aspects of the SFO’s work, including what it is doing to counter bribery and corruption. The Bribery Act 2010 came into force on 1 July 2011, and the SFO was well prepared for that. The SFO website provides detailed information, including joint prosecution guidance from the director of the SFO and the Director of Public Prosecutions.
I have no evidence that there is any need for a change in the law. As and when matters are brought to the attention of the police or the SFO that require investigation and that may be linked to the global collapse, they will be investigated and inquired into. She will appreciate that I am not in a position to comment on individual cases in the House for obvious reasons.
Is the Attorney-General not a little complacent, because the Bribery Act is a new measure that came into force in 2011? There is concern around the world about the way in which global markets have operated, so the SFO should at least have a look at changes that might need to be made to the law.
The law on bribery and corruption has been looked at extensively by the House, and new legislation has been enacted. I believe—and I think that this view is shared across the House—that the legislation is fit for purpose. It has been applied in one case domestically, and no doubt it will be applied in cases concerning global finance, too. As I said in response to the previous question, unfortunately, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I have seen nothing in my routine business meetings with the Serious Fraud Office to make me think that this is an area—I understand that it is of concern to the House—that has in some way been overlooked.
Following the two questions that I put to the Prime Minister on this subject, will the Attorney-General liaise with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to widen the scope of liability for criminal action against financial institutions, as in the recently passed Dodd-Frank Act in the United States, so that the concept of the presiding mind can be introduced into British law, thus greatly facilitating the prosecution of top bankers who in future behave in a disgraceful way?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010 already goes some way in the direction of what he suggests. In addition to that, I know that the Law Commission is carrying out research into this area, and I look forward to seeing its conclusions on what changes to the law might be required.
The Attorney-General will recall that he once said about a case of bribery in Saudi Arabia that decisions balancing the national interest and the need to prosecute should lie with the director of the Serious Fraud Office alone. Indeed, as he has already said, there was cross-party support for Labour’s Bribery Act which enshrined that in law. If this is still his view, will he be instructing the Serious Fraud Office to proceed with a full investigation into the allegations by whistleblower Lieutenant Colonel Foxley of £11.5 million in kickbacks paid to senior Saudi officials? When does he expect to make a decision on the case of GPT? If he decides to stop the case, will he come to the House and explain why?
May I make two points to the hon. Lady? First, a decision on whether to investigate any matter—I am afraid I cannot comment on an individual case—is a matter for the director of the Serious Fraud Office and the Serious Fraud Office itself. Secondly, if, in the course of such an investigation, issues concerning the public interest were to come to light that required my being consulted and any decision being made, I can assure the hon. Lady that I would come to inform the House of any decision that I took, particularly if any such decision at any time were in any way to override a decision of the director of the Serious Fraud Office, or if there was a public interest matter which led to the case coming to a conclusion other than that which one might have expected.
5. What discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on progress in issuing gang injunctions. (80649)
None, is the short answer. The Crown Prosecution Service does not have a formal role in applying for or issuing gang injunctions. Those are a civil law tool applied for by the police and local authorities and ordered by the court. A failure to comply with the terms of an injunction is not of itself a criminal offence. That said, the CPS has an interest with other agencies in tackling illegal gang activity. The hon. Lady has been at the forefront in her own constituency and in the House in helping to deal with gangs, and I commend her for that.
I am pleased that in a letter to me the Attorney-General indicated that he would be willing to look at having specialist prosecutors from the CPS to deal with gang injunctions, and I hope that we may see that happen in my own borough, Hackney. What progress has been made on the transfer between courts of ASBO applications so that they can be dealt with alongside other crimes, where that is appropriate? We have seen some problems with the reorganisation of courts in our area, which may be contributing to the delay.
From her knowledge of the subject, the hon. Lady will appreciate that there is a difference between ASBOs, which are a post-conviction instrument, and injunctions, which are anticipatory. I am not up to speed on the organisation of courts, which is a matter for HM Courts Service and the Ministry of Justice. None the less, the hon. Lady is right to point out that there is a need for co-ordination. The borough Crown prosecutor in her own constituency is now the central reporting point as far as she is concerned. I hope more progress can be made, and I am happy to discuss this further with her.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions recently issued their report on the subject. Of course it requires a great deal of co-operation, diversion and the input of the criminal justice agencies, but we are doing our very best to ensure that this is dealt with.
European Court of Human Rights
As the Minister responsible for conduct of litigation before the European Court of Human Rights, I have been involved in the discussions on the United Kingdom’s priorities for the chairmanship, which the Minister for Europe announced to the House on 26 October.
But does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, despite the adoption of protocol 14, with 150,000 cases still outstanding at the ECHR, equating to a backlog lasting 40 years, further reform of the system of application is clearly needed, particularly with regard to the right of individual petition?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the backlog is now nearly 160,000 cases. It results in long delays for applicants, including many victims of serious violations, and effectively threatens to deny them access to justice. The Government are determined to try during our chairmanship to secure agreement to a set of efficiency measures that will help the Court deal with the backlog. In particular, we want to develop practical measures to strengthen subsidiarity. Primary responsibility for implementing the convention falls on national authorities in the Council of Europe’s member states, and the Court’s role should properly be to act as a safeguard for cases where a national authority fails to implement the convention properly. I think that that can be done without removing the right of individual petition, which is an important safeguard in countries that are members of the Council but where the human rights record is not good.
In view of the Attorney-General’s last answer, what pressure will Britain bring to bear during its chairmanship on eastern European countries where the treatment of Travellers, Gypsies and Roma people is so appalling and where many of them are unable to access local courts, never mind national ones, so that what happens in the European Court of Human Rights is completely beyond them? Does he not accept the need to pressurise those national Governments who are signatories to the European convention?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that all 47 members of the Council of Europe need to observe the terms of the convention. If there were no violations of the convention, no successful cases would be brought before the Court. There are mechanisms—the Committee of Ministers is one—for enforcing judgments that have been handed down and preventing clone cases from coming back again and again and cluttering up the Court. Individual countries can try to take a lead, as I am sure the United Kingdom can, and of course the Human Rights Commissioner is central in trying to improve standards. It is worth bearing it in mind that, despite the hiccups and difficulties, standards are improving overall, which is a measure of the extent to which the convention has been a great success.
Does the Attorney-General recognise that, in seeking support from member states for necessary reforms of the Court, it would be helpful to make it clear that Britain is seeking not to abandon or leave the European convention, but to have a Court that can effectively safeguard against serious breaches of human rights?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. That point is made repeatedly by Ministers. I represented the UK two weeks ago in the European Court of Human Rights on the intervention in the case of Skoppola. I took the opportunity to get that message across very clearly in subsequent meetings with a number of people connected with the Court and the Council of Europe.
Crown Prosecution Service
The two key priorities of the Crown Prosecution Service over the spending review period are quality and efficiency. The CPS strategy is to protect front-line delivery. Savings were sought in the first instance from back-office functions. Savings made from the front line will be achieved through greater productivity and by maximising the gains from improved criminal justice system efficiency and better use of technology.
Under the POD system operating in the Crown courts, only the most serious cases are now allocated to an individual dedicated prosecutor. Can the Solicitor-General tell the House how many cases under that system have been dropped or delayed because evidence was not prepared in time?
No, I cannot, because the CPS deals with hundreds of thousands of cases every year. The POD system is actually in the CPS’s offices, not the Crown courts, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. The point of the POD system is to enable more people to have ownership of cases so that they are dealt with more efficiently.
Under the Labour Government the CPS made great progress in prosecuting domestic violence, thanks in large part to the domestic violence training given to prosecutors and the use of dedicated domestic violence prosecutors. Does the Solicitor-General agree that the cuts to the CPS have placed a huge pressure on prosecutors, with the result that dedicated domestic violence prosecutors are now too overloaded with other work to give domestic violence cases the attention they need and deserve?
I agree that the previous Government were particularly adept in dealing with domestic violence policy, and it is an area that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I have taken up with alacrity. I have appeared in the Court of Appeal to deal with unduly lenient sentences relating to violence against women, particularly sexual assaults. I broadly agree with her, but I do not accept that the system is under any strain in the prosecution of domestic violence cases. There are some really dedicated and hard-working lawyers and administrative staff in the CPS working to ensure that women are safe in their homes.
We will endeavour to ensure that all appropriate orders and sentences are applied for and handed out. I am clearly not going to give a running commentary from the Dispatch Box on any particular case, but I agree with my hon. Friend’s broad point.
I have not made any recent assessment of the effectiveness of multi-agency risk assessment conferences in improving domestic violence prosecutions. The most recent assessment, which the Home Office published in July, found that such conferences had the potential to improve victim safety and to reduce repeat victimisation, but that a more robust evaluation would be required. We see multi-agency working as a key component of the Crown Prosecution Service’s work to improve prosecutions in that area and to support victims, and we will continue to work with the Home Office on the matter.
Earlier this year the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General visited Gwent police’s Onyx unit, which they declared to be one of the best in the country at delivering substantial change in the conviction rates for domestic violence and rape. The Attorney-General has repeatedly acknowledged the role that those services play, but can he confirm that he and the CPS are actively monitoring the impact of the cuts on them?
Yes, I can confirm that the CPS has very much in mind whether any areas of savings that may be made might have an adverse impact on the service that is provided to victims of violence against women and of domestic violence. My information is that the CPS does not believe that its own work has been in any way undermined or lessened by such measures. That service remains one of its high priorities, and it is a high priority for us as Law Officers as well.