House of Commons
Tuesday 15 November 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
business before questions
London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Consideration of Bill opposed and deferred until Tuesday 22 November (Standing Order No. 20)
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Readings opposed and deferred until Tuesday 22 November (Standing Order No. 20)
Oral Answers to Questions
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.
Border Control Scheme
(Urgent Question): To ask for an urgent statement on border control this summer, covering private flights.
Let me apologise for the fact that the Home Secretary cannot be here; she is attending an important meeting of the National Security Council.
It is simply not true that immigration and customs checks for all private flights were abandoned under this Government. In fact, the controls against high-risk private flights were strengthened, and that is entirely consistent with our overall approach to border security of using more intelligence-led checks against high-risk passengers and journeys. Far from weakening our border controls, those measures were aimed at strengthening our border.
Under the previous Government, it was clear that the UK Border Agency’s procedures for private flights meant that some high-risk flights were missed, and this left our country open to the risk of drug smuggling, illegal immigration and gun running. In fact, the previous Government did not even have agreed definitions of high-risk, medium-risk or low-risk private flights, and there were no standard operational procedures: flights landing in one part of the country might be met by a UKBA team; the exact same flight landing somewhere else might not.
Indeed, under the previous Government, Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, called private aviation the UK’s “soft underbelly”. To get a grip on that chaotic situation, in January the UKBA developed a new strategy for private flights, with the aim of meeting 100% of all high-risk flights through the use of better intelligence and increased compliance, the greater use of the warnings index and a standardised risk-assessment procedure. It gave us for the first time a consistent national system for dealing with private aviation, and it drew on the resources of the police and other agencies to make sure that all high-risk flights were met.
The strategy makes use of the legal requirement for pilots to submit records of their passengers. Those are checked against the warnings index, and a full, standardised risk assessment is carried out. The UKBA will deploy officers to meet any flight on which police or other intelligence causes concern, or on which there is a warnings index hit. Local UKBA teams, field intelligence officers and the police then work to ensure a high level of compliance with these procedures, which are, for the first time, consistent across the country. In the view of UKBA senior management, the new strategy is finally getting on top of the risk from private aviation.
Everything that Ministers in this Government have authorised has been done to strengthen our borders: resources focused on high-risk passengers and journeys, a new strategy to sort out private aviation, a new National Crime Agency with a border policing command, e-Borders to check passengers in and out of the country, and tough enforcement. Some 400,000 visas were rejected last year and 68,000 people with the wrong documents were prevented from coming to Britain in the first place.
These particular operational changes were made to address a problem that had existed for years and had been identified but not acted on by the Government of whom the shadow Home Secretary was a member. The border is safer now than it was two years ago. I commend this statement to the House.
Last week, the Home Secretary told the House:
“the only incident of which I am aware when passengers were waved through passport control without any checks at all did not occur during my pilot. It happened in 2004”.—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 324.]
Yesterday, I was shown e-mails from the border agency from June 2011, which show that immigrations and customs checks were stopped on arrivals of private flights, in accordance with a new national general aviation strategy. That and the answer the Minister for Immigration has just given contradict the information given by the Home Secretary last week.
Why, then, does the Home Secretary not feel that she should come to this House to answer the growing number of questions about this borders fiasco? She has refused to come to the House and she has refused to do interviews for nearly two weeks. One e-mail from 14 June refers to the instruction not to see passengers arriving on private charter flights for either immigrations or customs purposes and states:
“we are not allowed to physically see the passengers”.
Does the Minister for Immigration agree that the Home Secretary was wrong to say that no passengers had been, as she put it, “waved through” on arrival? Will he now correct that?
According to Treasury figures, there are 80,000 to 90,000 private flights a year. Will the Minister tell the House how many of those flights went through with no checks on arrival and what the security and immigration implications are of not even checking whether the number of people getting off the plane is the same as had been advised? If there was a new general aviation strategy, why did the Home Secretary not refer to it last week? Did she even know it existed? Was it in the weekly updates we now know went to the Minister for Immigration? How does that strategy relate to the so-called pilot?
There are far more questions than answers in this continuing borders fiasco. How on earth can we have any confidence in what the Home Secretary says is happening at our borders? She will not come and answer the questions. She said that no one was waved through, but it is clear that many passengers were. She said that Brodie Clark went further than she authorised and admitted he had done so, but this morning Brodie Clark has said categorically that he did not. She said that the performance of the border agency improved this summer, but this morning the head of the statistics agency described that as a highly selective use of statistics that may, indeed, be in breach of the ministerial code. Did the Home Secretary knowingly provide wrong information or did she just not have a clue what was going on at Britain’s borders? She cannot keep running away. She must come to this House herself and answer these vital questions about what was happening at the border agency this summer.
It is a shame that the shadow Home Secretary wrote that rant before she listened to what I said in response to her first question. To say that the Home Secretary has not been visible in this House is palpably absurd. She was here twice last week—[Hon. Members: “ Where is she?”] She is attending a meeting of the National Security Council. I am sorry that the shadow Home Secretary does not seem to think that that is an important part of the Home Secretary’s responsibilities. I am sure that the House thinks it is an important part of the Home Secretary’s responsibilities. The right hon. Lady’s basic accusation that the Home Secretary has in any way not answered these questions is, as I say, palpably absurd.
The second question the right hon. Lady asked—indeed, the only substantive one in her rather scatter-gun approach —was about how many people were coming through without being checked. The answer, now, is that every private flight is checked against the warnings index. [Interruption.] I commend Opposition Front Benchers for saying that it is a bit late now. Yes, it is—for 13 years, nothing happened; the right hon. Lady has put her finger on it. There was a shambles in the immigration system, and private aviation was part of it. That was identified by the Government’s own counter-terrorism adviser, but they did nothing about it. We now have done something about it, and that means that every flight is checked against the warnings index and every high-risk flight is met. If there have been changes, as there have been this year, they have been for the better and they have made our borders safer.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement on private flights and the need for consistency across the country with every flight checked, as he confirmed. Does he agree that the border force is responsible for allowing only legitimate entry and exit, and that that is what our constituents expect?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. He makes a good point about the border force. The men and women at the border are doing a very good job. All our changes are designed to ensure a more risk-based approach to immigration control—an approach that I was glad to hear commended by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), on the radio this morning—and to make the border safer, precisely by using the expertise of the men and women in the border force who check people coming through the border. Using their expertise more intelligently, and not just having a one-size-fits-all border security system will make, and already is making, our border safer. I think that underneath their bluster, the Opposition agree with that.
Is it not a fact that what the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister said in this House last Wednesday has been completely undermined by the latest revelations, which demonstrate that either they did know what was going on but would not tell the House or they did not know what was going on and could not tell the House? Is it not a fact that our borders are now less secure under this Government, with people coming in who are not even seen by the border agency? This Government have let the country down, and it is about time the Home Secretary went.
Does the Minister agree that it is this coalition Government who are going to have to clear up the mess left by Labour, reform a Department deemed not fit for purpose, and secure our borders so that our debate on immigration can be about the skills that the UK economy and the public sector need, rather than about border controls?
My right hon. Friend is right. I am sorry that the Opposition cannot elevate the tone of the debate. As I say, it is interesting that when Labour Home Secretaries cease to be Home Secretaries and become former Home Secretaries, they commend the degree of consensus about using a risk-based approach to security control and immigration control. That would be a sensible way for this debate to go forward, because it is perfectly clear that the long-term solution to the many challenges at our border is to use our resources as intelligently as possible and to use the very good people we have at the border to cope with and combat the highest risks. That is what the general aviation policy was meant to do, as was our pilot over the summer, and the early signs are that they are indeed successful. The Opposition can argue about the details, but I would genuinely welcome some common sense and support for these principles from the shadow Home Secretary. That would be a more sensible approach that the one she has taken until now.
Given that the Home Secretary’s policy was consistent across the country, will the Minister confirm that a number of private planes were allowed to land at Manchester airport this summer without proper customs and immigration checks? If that is the case, will he tell me how many?
The point of the pilot and of the private jets policy was to improve checks. The idea that there were no immigration checks is simply wrong. It is wrong in relation to Manchester airport and wrong in relation to other airports. The right hon. Gentleman asked how many flights arrived without immigration checks. The answer is none.
What used to happen under the previous Government was that flights were designated as high, medium or low risk, but there were no criteria by which anyone could judge whether flights were high, medium or low risk. All the very good people at the border therefore took a view on an individual basis. The result was complete inconsistency between different parts of the country. I cannot think that anyone addressing this matter in a fair-minded way would say that having a decent set of national criteria about what is a high or a medium-risk flight is less sensible than the chaos that existed before.
The Labour party, predictably, has passed the information on to newspapers, so we know what it has. [Interruption.] I do know about that. I will not stand here and condemn people for using leaked information. I merely point out to the shadow Home Secretary that it is rather more effective when one produces documents that show that Ministers have done something wrong. Throughout this affair, she has so far signally failed to do that.
Will the Minister please tell the House how many of our border operations he has visited in the past 18 months?
All the big ones. I have been to all the major airports and all the major UKBA centres, as well as to several of the biggest overseas visa operations. The hon. Lady is quite right to suggest that Ministers should get out and talk to people who are actually doing the job. I do that as often as I can.
As somebody who has spent their fair share of time with wailing infants in long immigration queues, I think that families across the country would welcome a more rational, risk-based approach to delivering results with scarce resources. Does the Minister agree that the fake outrage from the Labour party sits badly with its track record of 2.2 million people coming to this country, half a million asylum seeker claims and an open border—
The public know that this is a shambles. We are getting the facts today only because of an urgent question from my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary. Will the Minister put on the record the times that he has met Brodie Clark to discuss the pilot and the change in aviation strategy so that we can get the truth? The only way we are getting the truth at the moment is by forcing Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. He said some disobliging things about me in the debate last week, which was sad because I have always got on with him. He has given me the opportunity to say that in the year that he spent as shadow Immigration Minister he did not put down one written question on immigration. I am therefore entitled to doubt his deep interest in this subject. The answer to his question is that there are investigations going on. Clearly, all the facts are being put to the investigators. John Vine will publish his investigation in due course. He is an independent investigator and he will decide what to publish.
I have been contacted in the past hour by a constituent who is a photographer, who carried metal boxes full of photographic equipment on private flights and took them through Stansted, with no checks, in the years up to 2002. The problem has therefore existed for years, including when the Labour party was in power, and it is plain wrong for the Opposition to raise the issue in the manner in which they have.
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the shambles that was in place before, but as you pointed out, Mr Speaker, that is not my responsibility. I am very grateful for that. What I am responsible for is what happens now, and my hon. Friend makes a good point. That is precisely why we are making the changes that we are across the borders system. As I have said, using risk-based and intelligence-based measures will give us safer borders in the long run. Stansted is one of the airports where there have already been significant changes to plug some of the loopholes that existed. There is certainly more to be done at Stansted, Manchester and other airports, and I am not saying that the system is now perfect, but it is getting better.
Part of Durham Tees Valley airport is in my constituency, and today we are getting conflicting information from officials there, one claiming that security is very much compromised, particularly in the case of private flights, and another claiming in today’s Evening Gazette that the airport is 100% secure. Will the Minister please tell the House who is right, and at least try to reassure the people of Teesside and beyond that their airport has taken the necessary steps to protect them and our borders?
The hon. Gentleman actually makes a very deep and important point. Different people working at the front line, presumably alongside each other, can genuinely have different perceptions of how good the system is. I would not go as far as the optimistic one of his constituents who says that it is 100% secure all the time—it would be foolish for any Immigration Minister to say at any time that every part of our border is 100% secure. However, I can absolutely reassure him, his constituents and the workers at the airport that we are doing our best to set up systems that make it more secure, and that we will keep doing so.
For years there has been contamination of people arriving at entry points on domestic and international flights. Can the Minister assure us that such contamination will come to an end, and that there will be segregation of incoming passengers?
May I push the Minister for a little further clarification on the issue of flight warnings? There are 80,000 to 90,000 flights entering the United Kingdom. Can he assure us that the new checks that he mentioned will apply to flights that land in Northern Ireland, that there is no loophole for entry into the United Kingdom without those checks and that devolution does not have an impact on this aspect of the matter?
Any overseas flight that arrives in Northern Ireland from outside the common travel area will be treated like any other flight. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that there are complications and issues to consider with the common travel area, and as part of the list of things on which we are now acting, I am considering how to strengthen it so that we properly address the various problems that I know he and his colleagues from Northern Ireland have identified.
Does the Minister agree that the previous Government’s reckless open-door immigration policy resulted in problems in community cohesion in many of our towns, and that we should not be taking lectures from individuals on the Opposition Benches?
The pilot is still being evaluated, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already said that the initial reported information suggests that it led to more interception of illegal immigrants, fraudulent documents, drugs and guns. The initial signs from the management information that we have suggest that the pilot was extremely positive, but there will be a full evaluation and then we will decide what is best to do for the future.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) about Durham Tees Valley airport, will the Minister say exactly how many private flights arrived and were not checked? If he does not have that information to hand today, will he publish it?
As I have said several times, every private flight is checked against the warnings index. [Interruption.] The shadow Home Secretary, characteristically chuntering from a sedentary position, as she does throughout, is talking about that happening when flights arrive. It is actually safer to check them before they arrive, and that is what the warnings index is for. All private flights are checked against the warnings index before they arrive, and I tell the right hon. Lady—[Interruption.] I will tell her, if she will stop talking for a second and listen, that it is safer to check them before they arrive. That was why her Government and the current Government spent hundreds of millions of pounds on the e-Borders project—so that we could get the information before people came to this country. That was how we managed to prevent 68,000 people from even getting on planes to come here. If the Opposition Front Benchers cannot understand that stopping people before they arrive here is a better system, I fear that they do not understand the first thing about immigration control.
For understandable reasons I have not been following what Brodie Clark has been saying over the past hour. I think it would injudicious of me to comment on anything that was said at a Select Committee hearing this morning when I was concentrating on the urgent question.
Durham Tees Valley airport is in my constituency. How secure can the people of Teesside and Durham be if people arriving at the airport are not checked, not passed through immigration—not even waved through—and not even seen, because they have arrived on a private jet?
The definition is a flight that is not a scheduled flight. The number of airports that they fly into is in the hundreds, because frankly anyone who puts up a windsock in a field can have a private airport, but the number regularly used for private flights is between 100 and 150. The biggest usage of private flights is into our biggest airports, because most of them tend to be business flights.
The Minister keeps reassuring us that the system he has put in place is now safer, but UKBA staff are clearly not reassured of that, because one e-mail from them states:
“we are not allowed to physically see the passengers…we have no way of checking whether the handling agent information is correct or even if the number of people arriving…matches the number we have been advised.”
How, in that case, can the Minister tell us that he knows who is arriving and exactly how many people are on the incoming planes?
There are two separate issues here, both of which need addressing. One is the vast number of people who arrived legally under the previous Government’s conscious policy of increasing immigration to unsustainable levels. Secondly, there is what we are discussing this morning—the fact that our borders were not sufficiently secure. Just as important as bringing down the legal numbers is making our borders more secure by a number of methods, such as the use of technology, the pilots that we operated in the summer and changing how we look at private flights. The various actions that we are taking are all designed to make the border safer.
The question has been asked several times, and I know that the Minister is frustrated, but I wonder whether he will give an answer. Does he think it acceptable that on his watch the UKBA could not even check passengers coming off private flights? Any chance of an answer?
I am tempted to revive that old parliamentary chestnut: “I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.” As I keep saying, it is better to do it overseas, which is what we do. It is also safer, and all the experts agree it is safer—and frankly, if the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) were still sitting on the Government Benches, she would be saying that it was safer as well.
Metal Theft (Prevention)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a licensing scheme for scrap metal dealers; to enable magistrates’ courts to add restrictions to licences to deal in scrap metal; to require that financial transactions in trade in scrap metals be restricted to cashless payments; to give police officers powers to search properties owned by scrap metal dealerships; to provide that scrap metal proven to have been obtained through theft may be classified as criminal assets; to introduce criminal charges for theft of scrap metal which take into account aspects of the crime other than the value of the scrap metal stolen; and for connected purposes.
The crime of metal theft is reaching a crisis point in this country. According to the Energy Networks Association, metal theft from electricity networks rose by some 700% between June 2009 and June 2011. Organised crime has been involved in scaling the tallest electricity pylons and cutting down heavy tensile cable from the top of 275,000 V towers. The Association of Chief Police Officers has conservatively put the national cost of metal theft at £770 million. Figures from the British Transport police show that theft of overhead power cables has risen by 70% over the last year, with 2,712 cable-theft-related crimes registered in 2010-11. There are eight thefts or attempted thefts of railway cable every day, which has so far caused 240,000 minutes of delays to rail passengers this year and cost Network Rail £43 million over the last two years.
Yesterday, representatives of South West Trains told me of an incident involving a train travelling at peak hours from London. Metal thieves cut and removed a signalling cable and then, while Network Rail repaired it, cut a further section. The live shock could have seriously injured or killed Network Rail staff, while packed commuter trains were left at a standstill. Delayed and besieged passengers began exiting trains by climbing the embankments, crossing the live third rail. The result was an even greater section of the rail network having to be switched off for safety reasons—and this seven months before the Olympic games. In Burnley last week, something as simple as the theft of seven £75 brass padlocks left electricity substations exposed to inquisitive children. The past year has also seen six fatalities and 50 serious injuries, and I am sure that everyone in the House has been shocked by the increasingly numerous stories of thefts from war memorials. War memorials are being stolen, sold and scrapped because the regulatory framework surrounding metal recycling is so ineffective. In combination with the soaring international price of metal, there are effectively incentives to steal.
Metal recycling is a valuable industry. It is a sustainable means of reusing an important and increasingly expensive commodity. However, the soft regulatory framework undermines that logic by encouraging thieves to take materials that are still in use. The problem lies precisely in the fact that it is stolen metal that is being recycled. My Bill will go some way to removing the incentives to steal created by weak regulation in the industry. This is not red tape; the intention is to reduce the costs to businesses and the public purse incurred through damage to the nation’s infrastructure. Such regulation would allow legitimate, law-abiding and socially responsible scrap metal dealers to flourish. Indeed, a few scrap metal dealers already perform much of the requirements of the Bill in best practice.
Yesterday I met with representatives of SITA UK, a company that recently entered the metal recycling industry. They told me that they were shocked and appalled by the level of malpractice in the sector. The chief executive of SITA UK gave his full backing for the six elements of the Bill. So far, there has been no opposition from the affected industries to any of my six proposals. In fact, quite the reverse: they have received almost universal backing, with the concern now being that if we do not go far enough now, the problem will continue to escalate. The consensus in the industry is that the six measures in my Bill are vital if anything is to be done to stop the escalating crime. I now turn to those six provisions.
First, the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 must be amended so that the current registration regime can be replaced by a robust licensing regime that is funded by a licence fee paid by scrap metal dealers. That is the first step towards something resembling a regulated industry. Secondly, property obtained through theft should be regarded as criminal assets. Classifying stolen metal as criminal assets would allow the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to apply. Crucially, that will impact on those who think that they can evade any regulatory regime. Thirdly, police authorities should be given the power to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers suspected of dealing in stolen property, as well as the power to close scrap metal dealers where criminally obtained metals are discovered.
Fourthly—there is a great deal of consensus in the affected industries on this point—trade in scrap metals must be restricted to cashless payments, with a concurrent requirement that scrap metal not be sold or processed until payments have cleared. Ministers may think that onerous, but such a system has been successfully implemented in France, Belgium and much of the United States. Alongside that, dealers should operate CCTV and require photo identification of sellers. Those measures would remove the anonymity of the seller and require honesty of the dealer. I have been informed by the industry that scrap metal is a £5 billion industry, with an incredible £1 billion estimated to be exchanged in cash payments. That amount of cash usage is unseen in any comparable, legitimate industry, and should also interest the Serious Organised Crime Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, if for no other reason than to verify its legality.
Fifthly, magistrates should be given the power to add restrictions to licences to deal in scrap metal, should they feel it necessary. Local knowledge is indispensible in addressing such crimes. Finally, the Theft Act 1968 should be amended so that sentencing is proportionate to the consequences of the crime, not the value of the metal stolen. A tougher sanctions regime is central to combating metal theft. That is important, because there has to be a realisation that we cannot police Britain’s metal estate. We have to accept the reality that there will always be an opportunity to steal metal and get away with it. We must adjust the deterrent sentence accordingly. The tariff must also reflect the fact that the theft of scrap metal worth £20 may cause £500,000 of damage or risk lives.
There is widespread support for the Bill in its current form. Yesterday I held a meeting in Parliament attended by representatives of BT, Network Rail, the Energy Networks Association, the Local Government Association, South West Trains, E.ON, Arqiva, Ecclesiastical Insurance and SITA UK, among others. They fully support the Bill in its entirety. In addition, I have received vocal support from the Country Land and Business Association and Lancashire constabulary. It is now time for the UK to prevent this epidemic plague. Supporting the Bill is an important step in demonstrating that this House not only takes seriously the theft of our heritage, public art and vital infrastructure, and the protection of churches and war memorials against desecration, but is willing to support tough measures. Therefore, I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Graham Jones, Margot James, Mr John Spellar, Steve Rotheram, Mr Tom Watson, Bill Esterson, Pat Glass, Mr Alan Campbell, Martin Caton, Chris Kelly, Kate Green and Andrew Percy present the Bill.
Graham Jones accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January, and to be printed (Bill 249).
[35th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House considers that the Common Fisheries Policy has failed to achieve its key objective of producing a sustainable European fishery; welcomes the review of the policy by the European Commission; and urges Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that a revised Common Fisheries Policy makes particular provision for—
(a) a move away from a centralised management system to a system of regional management of fisheries involving all stakeholders and strengthening of the local management of the 12-mile limit;
(b) a manageable and practical scheme to eliminate the problem of discarded fish; and
(c) the replacement of the current system of annual quotas with a multi-annual system of management focused on conserving fish stocks within a sustainable fishing industry, in particular to protect the viability of low impact fishing.
Before I address the issues in the motion, I want the House to remember the bravery of our fishermen, and the incredibly difficult and dangerous work that they do. Fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in this country, and we remember them for their brave work and send our condolences to the families of those who have died. I remember in particular the tragic circumstances in which the husband of the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) died in a shocking accident recently. We send our condolences to her in particular.
The common fisheries policy was established in 1970, before Britain joined the then European Community. Many people believe that the industry was traded as part of wider negotiations on access to the community. That is certainly the view of many in the fishing industry today, and it has coloured their opinion of the CFP ever since. Whatever the circumstances, the British fishing industry changed for ever when this country acceded to the common market in 1973.
Experience tells us that the CFP has failed in its objectives. Its primary objective was the
“rational and sustainable exploitation of fish stocks”,
but, over the life of the CFP, fish stocks have deteriorated considerably, as has our fishing fleet. The system is broken in several places. Decision making is centralised in Brussels, and it is far too complicated. The management style is far too top-down. Decision making is short term, and there is a one-size-fits-all culture. There are also serious issues with the science, but the science determines at least the direction of Council decisions on quotas. We have a system that operates on the basis that management measures and plans for EU stocks can all be created centrally by the Commission, that member states will enforce those rules, and that fishermen will obey them. To put it mildly, that does not reflect the reality of the fishing industry in Europe.
I should like to focus on two issues. The first is the problem of discards, which is high on the agenda. We are all opposed to the principle of good, saleable fish being thrown back into the sea. Television programmes, celebrities and many others outside and inside the fishing industry tell us that that is a bad thing, and of course it is a very bad thing. It is offensive to most of us, it is wasteful, it affects the viability and sustainability of fish stocks, and it distorts the science and scientific advice. It also deeply affects our fishermen, who are forced to throw perfectly good fish back into the sea to rot. The discard of fish is a direct consequence of the one-size-fits-all management approach by the European Commission and its strict adherence to a system of quotas applied to single species over the past 28 years.
The principle of the total allowable catch—TAC—system is questionable in itself, but the refusal to recognise that many fisheries are multi-species and require a much more sophisticated response is a significant sign of the inability of the present system to meet the needs of the fishing industry. Despite the huge improvements made by fishermen, particularly in Scotland, to use more sophisticated gear and other methods to avoid by-catch, it is still a major problem that the Commission has failed to address.
Then there is the even more difficult subject of black fish. From the earliest days of the UK’s membership of the CFP, that has been a problem, not just in the UK but across Europe. Until relatively recently, the subject was ignored by successive Governments. In the1970s, it was estimated that over 20% of the haddock caught in the North sea was illegally caught. Recent inquiries set up by Grampian police, Northern police and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have resulted in a number of convictions of fishermen and fish-processing companies.
One statistic from a report published in July by KPMG gives a good idea of the scale of the fraud that has been uncovered. The report looked at crime in the corporate world in the first six months of this year, and it showed that, in Scotland, company fraud rose from £2.8 million last year to £94.1 million this year, of which £91 million related to prosecutions for illegal fishing. The sums involved are huge. Everyone in the fishing industry knew that it was going on, and that goes right up to Ministers and their officials.
The fraud has had a number of consequences. One has been a serious distortion of the science, much of which is based on the recording of the details of individual landings. It is clear that, for many years, the recorded landings have been wrong. There have also been serious consequences for many of the businesses that refused to become involved in the black fish trade. Most of them lost trade, and many went bust because their customers could get cheaper fish on the black market. I wish to discuss the related issues in more detail with the Minister, and I will contact him later with a view to arranging a meeting.
It is extremely important to stress that illegal fishing is not unique to the UK, and that it happens in many other countries. Following new regulations introduced in Scotland in 2004 requiring the registration of fish sales companies, the problem of black fish seems to have been almost eradicated. However, black fish and discards are two areas in which the Fisheries Commission has been blind to the impact of its policies. The policies in both areas have been immensely damaging to the fishing industry, not just here in the UK but across Europe, and of course both practices distort the science on which the whole quota system is based.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and on the motion. Having identified some of the crucial failings of the common fisheries policy, the motion also identifies one of the key solutions—namely, regional management. That would involve those with a stake in the fishing having a say in the policy. In that way, they would know what was going on and have a vested interest in ensuring that the policy was successful.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the key needs of the fishing industry is to remove the top-down system of management and to involve the whole industry, right down to the level of the fisherman on the fishing boat. I will address that issue in a minute.
We are now promised a radical review. The Fisheries Council seems to recognise some of the issues on management. For example—picking up on the hon. Gentleman’s point—the possibility of devolved decision making is explored in the consideration of the transfer of responsibility away from the centre to the regional seas level and of the inclusion of the fishing industry. There is a strong view in the industry that decentralisation is essential for the future of the UK fishing industry, but it must be decentralisation that is meaningful and that works.
Industry leaders are worried about the lack of detail in the proposals and also about the model put forward by the Commission, as it will require member states with an interest in the various regional seas to co-operate. This has led to fears that regionalisation will simply result in a further layer of bureaucracy and cost. There is concern that the European Parliament, having recently been given new powers, might be reluctant to give them up. There is a history of that happening.
The industry would like to see member states with an interest in regional seas co-operating with regional advisory councils at regional sea basin level to prepare comprehensive management multi-annual plans. The regional advisory councils have been incredibly successful, particularly here in the UK and in other European countries. They must play a vital part in any proposals.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend and his colleagues on tabling this motion. It has broad support across the House, not just across the parties but among those who sometimes have differing points of view on EU-related issues. Does knowing that the House is united not give the Government strength going into the negotiations to take the opportunity of what appears to be some movement with the Fisheries Commissioner to get the solution that has been demanded by our constituents and communities for so long?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a habit in fisheries debates in sending the Minister off to Brussels with all our support and help. This is not a party political issue; there might be many issues we disagree on, but this is certainly not one of them. The hopefully full support of the House expressed in this motion today is important.
The consultation also proposes a complete ban on discards. Commissioner Damanaki suggests a gradual approach, starting with a limited number of fish species in the ban. The starting point will be in the pelagic fisheries, moving on later to the demersal fisheries. Of course we all want to see a ban on discards, but any proposal to ban them must take account of the reality of fishing. The proposal suggests that the Commission will not budge from its current policy of a species-by-species approach, which ignores the reality of mixed fisheries. Our current science is inadequate and is unable to deal under the current rules with mixed fisheries. A large amount of discards come from those fisheries; what is needed is an ecosystem approach that recognises that many different species of fish—
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that much of the problem of discards comes from the EU rules themselves, particularly the catch composition rules, which mean that the seven target species are not caught to a certain degree, but so many other kinds have to be dumped as a result that it amounts to absolute madness from the EU?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are many reasons for the high level of discards, and what he suggests is certainly a major one.
What we need is much greater emphasis on the science and particularly on making the science fit the management purpose. We have had more than two centuries of fisheries science, but in the present condition I understand that there is no analytical assessment of around 60% of the stocks in our waters. The science needs to improve, it needs to consider the specific problems associated with mixed fisheries and it needs to inform a sustainable policy. Of course, the Fisheries Commissioner’s proposals will work with some fish stocks, but it will fail—and fail miserably—if the same rules are applied to mixed fisheries.
In that case, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the practice of taking scientists on fishing vessels should be extended throughout the industry, because it will help to provide the best possible data for the future management of fisheries, especially in circumstances where we cannot distinguish between the intentional and unintentional over-catching of certain species, particularly in the mixed fisheries?
One major problem with the science is that there is not a close enough relationship between the science and the fishermen. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Other countries such as Ireland do that, and I do not see why we cannot have scientists on our boats and secure much more co-ordination with them. As I say, the science needs to improve, it needs to consider the specific problems associated with mixed fisheries and it needs to inform a sustainable policy. Of course the Fisheries Commissioner’s proposals will work, but not in the mixed fisheries.
Let me say a brief word about the December Fisheries Council meeting. I know that other colleagues will enter the debate on various aspects of the Commission’s proposals, but this is the only opportunity we will have to say something to the Minister about the Fisheries Council in December. As usual, there are many issues on the agenda; let me run through them very quickly. As far as the industry is concerned, the major problems are the pre-programmed effort and total allowable catch reductions required by the cod recovery plan, the mismatch between the science and the Commission’s proposals for 2012 TACs, and the continuing saga surrounding Iceland, the Faroes and the pelagic stocks. I hope that the Minister will deal with all those issues in the meeting.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the success of this debate and the House’s attitude will be measured largely in December at the Council meeting? If the Council is allowed to ram through another 25% reduction in our total allowable catch, it will effectively put more fishermen out of business and completely ignore the wishes of this place?
I have two quick points for the hon. Gentleman. The Commission says that it will follow the ethos and philosophy of the recommendations in the consultation document. Yes, there is a mismatch between the science and what the Commission is proposing.
I was about to say that, in the 20 years of my attendance at fisheries debates in this place, I cannot remember a single good word being said about the common fisheries policy. I think that that reflects the views of most of my colleagues here. For a number of years the former Prime Minister, Ted Heath, attended these debates—not to support the fishing industry in Bexley or even to defend the CFP, but to defend his decision as Prime Minister to sign up to the CFP when the UK joined the then European Community. He put up with a lot of abuse and many attacks over the issue, particularly from his own side, but he stood his ground and maintained that the decision he made was in the best interests of the country. The current CFP review gives us an opportunity to argue for a much more radical change to the CFP—one that recognises the past failures of the system and puts in place a CFP that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.
The three issues set out in the motion—regional management, a practicable scheme to end discards and a multi-annual system of management—are a good starting point and we look forward to a positive outcome from the negotiations. In the meantime, there is work to be done at the December Council, and I wish the Minister well.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and my hon. Friends, especially my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), on securing this timely debate? The Select Committee, which I have the honour to chair, hopes that we might return to debate the work it is currently undertaking on this very subject. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and others will follow the direction of travel of the current EU negotiations, which seems very positive indeed. These are ground breaking and should command the support of all member states. The challenge to the Minister who will be leading these negotiations for the whole of the United Kingdom is to ensure that it is not just the northern member states that support these ground-breaking proposals from the Commission, as it is important for the southern member states to do so as well.
At the outset, I draw the House’s attention to the Select Committee’s initial report, “Implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy: Domestic Fisheries Management”, which was adopted on 18 May. We urge the Government to continue the work to find a market for less popular fish. I am delighted to see that that is part of Commissioner Damanaki’s current thinking. It is also important to implement the excellent work done under the previous and the present Government on “Project 50%”. Fantastic work was done in a short period of time to reduce discards by employing more selective gear. We would like to see that project pushed out widely across English fisheries.
We press for a reduction in discards as a key element in the current common fisheries policy negotiations and we want to ensure that the interests of the under 10 metre fleet are represented in them. There is common ground in what the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said about the eye-watering lack of scientific evidence. We must have the means to improve the scientific evidence before we agree any further round of reform.
I would like to sound a note of caution to the Minister—in a personal capacity, if I may. I think it is misleading for the UK to talk about under 10 metre boats when the European Union talks about under 12 metre boats. Will the Minister address the issue of whether we are disadvantaging our own fishermen in that regard?
In representing the six families who fish out of Filey Coble Landing and all who fish the Yorkshire coast from Scarborough, Whitby and Bridlington, I urge the Minister to reflect very carefully indeed before contemplating for the UK any introduction of a quota for lobster, crab and shellfish. I believe that the Minister is going forward in absolutely the right way by looking at pilot schemes. It has been put to me by the local fishermen that they are excluded at the moment from the cod and other quotas and that they are doing very nicely on a sustainable basis from lobster, crab and shellfish, so they do not wish to see their incomes penalised or jeopardised in any way.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Aberdeen North that we have not seen enough flesh on the bones of the Commission’s proposals. That is causing great anxiety. We need to know how the European fisheries fund will be replaced, and in particular how it will apply to active fishermen and coastal communities. I should like to know how the Minister thinks that we will navigate around the legal base, and how regionalisation will work.
This is the first occasion on which co-decision will rule the operation of these ground-breaking negotiations, so let me end my speech on a positive note. I hope for a maximum sustainable yield, an end to discards, and regionalisation of the industry.