House of Commons
Wednesday 18 January 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The latest claimant count figures in Wales show some encouraging signs, but there is still much to do to ensure that the recession does not leave a legacy of worklessness in Wales. The Government remain committed to creating the right conditions for the private sector to grow and to create jobs in Wales.
Some 46% of the workers in my constituency and 45% of the workers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency work in the public sector. The coalition Government’s theory is that as they sack public sector workers, the number of private sector jobs will increase and those sacked workers will be taken on. How many private sector jobs were created in the Minister’s constituency in the past six months and in my constituency, the Vale of Clwyd?
The hon. Gentleman repeatedly raises the issue of public sector jobs in Wales, and he will know that it is generally agreed that Wales is over-dependent on the public sector and under-dependent on the private sector. The creation of private sector jobs is largely the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government, of which his party is in control.
The potential risk to jobs related to Peacocks is a worry to all in south Wales and well beyond, across the United Kingdom. What action can the Minister take with his colleagues here in Westminster and in co-ordination with the Welsh Government? Will he pledge to do everything possible to help them find a funder to secure those jobs over the longer term?
Yes, the issue of Peacocks is of great concern not just to Wales, but to the whole of the United Kingdom. Some 10,000 people are employed by Peacocks. Already my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been in communication with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss the issue. I understand that the Welsh Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science has also been in communication with the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk).
Figures published yesterday by the TUC, based on Office for Budget Responsibility figures, estimate that between now and 2017 a further 40,000 public sector jobs will be lost in Wales. What is the Minister’s Department doing to stem those losses, and generally, what is the Department doing to assist the economy of Wales?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. The OBR figures project a loss of public sector jobs. At the same time the OBR figures predict that there will be a gain of some 1.7 million private sector jobs during the same period. My Department is strongly engaged with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and working closely to do all we can to ensure that the private sector grows in Wales.
The Secretary of State and the Minister have heard the awful news about Peacocks. Surely billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was not pumped into the banks so that those same banks could now pull the plug on companies such as Peacocks. Will the Minister and his right hon. Friend do everything they can to save the company? It is important for the whole UK, but vital for jobs in Wales.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which is quite correct. He will understand, I am sure, that these are early days in this unfortunate saga. All I can do is assure him that our Department is liaising closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to do all we can to ensure that those jobs, if possible, can be saved.
I have had a range of meetings with Welsh Government Ministers and look forward to meeting the Welsh Government Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science on 6 February, when we plan to discuss, among other things, inward investment.
The right hon. Lady will know that RBS is blaming the lack of investors for its decision to pull the plug on a deal to save Peacocks, threatening thousands of jobs. My constituents cannot understand why they were expected to bail out RBS, but RBS is refusing to help them in their time of need, when their jobs are at risk. What is the right hon. Lady doing to talk to RBS about its responsibilities in this matter?
The moment I heard about Peacocks, I discussed it with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Welsh Assembly Business Minister has spoken to the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk). I have the greatest sympathy. I have shopped in Peacocks myself and I know how many jobs depend on it. It is important that we explore every possibility, but I am not going to stand at the Dispatch Box, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and make false promises. We will look at what we can do for Peacocks, but it will involve the Welsh Government, as he well knows.
Does the Secretary of State agree that inward investment played an important part in the Welsh economy and could do so again, but to have an impact Westminster and Cardiff must work together? Is it not disappointing that the Welsh Assembly seems to be very reluctant to talk with UK Trade & Investment about providing growth for the Welsh economy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was disappointed to see that in an interview on this very subject in an article in the Western Mail today no reference was made to working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and UKTI. I have always advocated team Wales and that we should be working together. I was delighted to see that my noble Friend Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, who is responsible for UKTI, has opened an invitation to every MP to get together with UKTI and host a seminar in the constituency, perhaps together with MPs from neighbouring constituencies. That is a great innovation where we can all work together, whether it is the Welsh Government, Assembly Members, MPs or Members of this House.
The worrying news about Peacocks hangs especially over the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) where the headquarters stand, and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) with its distribution centre at Nantgarw, but the ramifications are felt right across the country, including in my own constituency where many travel to work in those centres, but also in retail centres such as in Maesteg. Will the Secretary of State directly intervene and work to keep these 10,000 vital jobs, not least as the jobless number is now rising inexorably throughout the UK, the economy is flatlining and consumer confidence is plummeting?
The hon. Gentleman speaks powerfully, but he has been a Minister and knows that direct intervention would not be appropriate until more investigations have been made as to the reasons for this reported failure of Peacocks. Because so many jobs depend on this, if there are any redundancies or job losses, Jobcentre Plus will be there to provide individual support, as it has done in other instances. I assure him and all those beyond the Chamber whose jobs depend on Peacocks that this Government and the Welsh Government, and I am sure all of us together, will do what we can.
Given that up to now Assembly Ministers have been very slow off the mark to take action to help out with the terrible situation facing Peacocks, will the Secretary of State ensure that Ministers at both ends of the M4 pull together to try to put pressure on the banks to ensure that we can save this important Welsh company?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a very important company and there are many jobs to consider, as I have said before. I cannot say too often that we will look at doing all we can, but I cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and make false promises at this stage before we have further and better particulars and we know the outcome of the current negotiations that are taking place between Peacocks and the banks. She should be comforted by the fact that the Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science in the Welsh Government, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in our Government and I have all already been in contact on this matter.
Public consultation on the recommendations of the Sayce report has closed. The Government are analysing the responses and will consider the implications for Wales and across the country before publishing a statement on future policy.
Wrexham Remploy has made good progress in the last four years in providing jobs for disabled people in the Wrexham and north-east Wales area, but the Sayce review and its contents threaten Remploy, not just in Wrexham but throughout Wales. Unfortunately, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who has responsibility for disabled people, refuses to give me details of the financial position of Wrexham Remploy until the review is completed. Will the Minister please work with me to obtain those figures so that the 50 people who are employed in my constituency will know what their future is and know that the Government are not threatening them?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Sayce review made the commitment that existing employees in Remploy should be offered the opportunity of expert entrepreneurial and business support over a decent period of time to develop businesses, so the Sayce report shows commitment to Remploy. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about his communications with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and if he would care to write to me, I will certainly pursue the matter.
The way in which the Government propose to abolish disability living allowance will take £105 million a year away from disabled people in Wales, money they desperately need to help them cope with the extra costs of living with a disability, as the Secretary of State of all people should know. What meetings has she or the Minister had with disabled people in Wales on the Welfare Reform Bill, and how do they intend to address people’s very real fears about it?
The Government remain committed to supporting disabled people and determined that that support should be targeted at those most impacted by their health condition or disability. As the hon. Lady will know, the new personal independence payment will be objective, fair and strongly evidence-based and will enable accurate and consistent assessments of individuals to determine who will benefit most from additional support.
First Great Western
The Wales Office has regular discussions with the Department for Transport on a range of transport issues that affect Wales.
Does the Minister think that electrification of the First Great Western line will boost house prices along the route and, if so, would he advise my constituents in Bristol and the good people of Wales perhaps to wait a while before selling their homes?
The Minister will be aware that people in mid-Wales have campaigned for a long time for a direct route from Aberystwyth to London and an hourly service from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury. I encourage him to encourage others to take action on both fronts.
Some of the cross-border services on the franchise run on the Cardiff to Portsmouth line, which in places suffers from severe overcrowding, as experienced by my constituents in Bradford on Avon. Will the Wales Office support our call for greater capacity on that cross-border route under the new franchise?
Allocation of Funds
The autumn statement, and the subsequent written ministerial statement by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, confirmed that the Welsh Government will receive an extra £238 million in Barnett consequentials. This additional money is an opportunity for the Welsh Government to act in the areas they are responsible for to ensure that Wales has a bright future.
As a result of extra funding, the pupil deprivation fund, which was agreed to by the Welsh Government and Welsh Liberal Democrats, will mean that schools in Wales are better resourced, closing the education funding gap between England and Wales. For example, Maes-y-Dderwen school in my constituency will receive an extra £34,000 a year. Does the Secretary of State agree that this will help children and young people in Wales after 13 years of Labour underfunding in education?
I agree with my hon. Friend, because it was the extra funding from the Treasury to the Welsh Government that enabled the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the Assembly to negotiate the extra funding for the pupil deprivation fund. That merely follows what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has introduced in England. It is worth reflecting that after 13 years of Labour government the spending gap between England and Wales remained at around £600 per pupil.
The signature policy of the recent autumn statement was the capital investment programme, which included provision to raise £25 billion of finance from pension funds. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Government and the Treasury to put in place structures to ensure that Wales does not lose out?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the settlement on capital funding has been good for Wales. The additional moneys that were announced in the autumn financial statement have made a great difference to the way in which the Welsh Government are budgeting. I regularly meet Welsh Government Ministers and colleagues in the Treasury. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to know further and better particulars, I will ensure that we talk together from time to time about developments.
I find that reply astonishing. The right hon. Lady is Secretary of State for Wales. She has a duty, as has the whole of the Wales Office and as did her predecessors, to advance the interests of Wales. Is it not the truth that she failed to make the funding case for Wales on HS2 and we lost a great opportunity? Is it not the truth that she has spent the past 18 months demanding expensive funding concessions for her Buckinghamshire constituents, rather than advancing Wales’s funding interests? Is it not the case that she has been more concerned with stopping trains, building tunnels and selling houses in her constituency than with supporting investment, growth and jobs to benefit Wales?
I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman, because in all the years that he was Secretary of State for Wales, he did not achieve the electrification of one single inch, whereas we in the Wales Office have already announced the electrification of the line to Cardiff. Electrification of the line to Swansea is still open and that is unfinished business. As he well knows, we are now working on the electrification of the valleys line. I hope that I will have his support for that as well. [Interruption.]
The Secretary of State met the anti-human trafficking co-ordinator for Wales in December. Combating human trafficking is a key priority for the Government and we fully recognise the importance of tackling the issue in Wales.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Of course, Bob Tooby is the tsar for human trafficking in Wales. He has warned of the problem of internal trafficking, both into Wales and out of Wales. Can this House learn something from Wales? Will the Minister recommend to the Prime Minister that we have a similar tsar for the rest of the United Kingdom?
The Government are very supportive of the Welsh Government’s introduction of the anti-human trafficking co-ordinator for Wales. He works closely with the UK Human Trafficking Centre and I am sure that he will make his own strong representations in that regard.
Does the Minister accept that there has long been concern about the staffing levels at Holyhead, which is the premier port between Ireland and Wales, and between Ireland and the UK? Will he assure the House that immigration and security staffing levels will be maintained at a proper level?
Apprentices (Wales Office)
I am delighted to say that despite having a small Department of about 60 staff, two apprentices were recruited to the Wales Office last year. Both are doing very well and their teams are already impressed by their professional attitude and level of competence, as am I.
Will my right hon. Friend support the parliamentary apprentice school that I founded with the charity, New Deal of the Mind? Will she also consider encouraging suppliers to the Wales Office to hire apprentices? The Department for Work and Pensions is already doing that with great success and helping to reduce youth unemployment.
I know of the great work that my hon. Friend has been doing on apprenticeships. Although we are a small Department, which relies on the Ministry of Justice for many of our services, I will do what I can to ensure that our suppliers are encouraged to adopt similar practices. My hon. Friend might be pleased to know that the Welsh Government recruited 24 new apprentices in 2010 and 66 in 2011. I will write to them to ask whether they can ensure that their suppliers do what he suggests.
Although I greatly I admire the work of my close comrade, the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), is not there a danger that apprenticeships that are essentially relabelled job creation and job experience schemes or internships, without a job, skill or indentures at the end, are likely to increase the cynicism and disillusionment among young people?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, for example, all the apprentices at the Welsh Government undertake business administration NVQs and are recruited through fair and open competition via their website, with support from Careers Wales and Jobcentre Plus. That shows that the apprentice programmes are equipping young people to take up jobs in the future. [Interruption.]
Public Sector Employment
A forecast of public sector job losses was published last November by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. It was based on UK-wide macro-economic data and no regional breakdown is available.
As we have heard this morning, it is not only public sector jobs that are at risk in Wales. Does the Under-Secretary agree that the Peacocks jobs in jeopardy in my constituency and throughout the country are at risk largely because of the Government’s economic decisions to choke off consumer demand and raise VAT?
Of course, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the plight of Peacocks. However, so far as I can see from the reports that I have had to date, it is nothing to do with the Government’s economic policy, but everything to do with Peacocks’ banking arrangements. The Wales Office is intensely concerned about the matter and will continue to express concern.
9. What support and advice her Department provides to small businesses in Wales affected by non-payment for work undertaken. (89240)
I understand the effect that non-payment for work undertaken can have on small businesses in Wales. The Government are determined to challenge the long-standing culture of late payment that persists across all sectors of the economy and across businesses of all sizes.
The Secretary of State will know about several sub-contractors working on the Pembroke power station who have not been paid because of a dispute between the main contractors, Alstom and SOMI Impianti. Will she help me to put pressure on those companies to resolve their differences and get the sub-contractors paid?
I greatly sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents. I have always supported the rights of businesses on late payment of commercial debt. Back in 1994, I signed an early-day motion to that effect, so I have been consistent in my support for a long time. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to see whether there is anything I can do.
My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on issues affecting Wales.
The Under-Secretary will know that the English regions and Wales lose out because the block grant allocation is based not on need but on Barnett. In the case of Wales, the loss is about £300 million a year. What indication can the Government give us that there will be reform?
Governments of all political complexions have recognised for many years the need for some parts of the UK to be funded differently from others. Concerns have, of course, been expressed about the Barnett formula, but the priority now is to reduce the deficit, and any changes to the system must happen once the public finances have been stabilised.
The Welsh Assembly has funded the initial development of a motorsport complex in Blaenau Gwent. Will the Minister please ensure that the Government give every funding support possible to get that project off the drawing board and on to the track?
The Prime Minister was asked—
The Prime Minister will be aware of the very strong uptake of academy status by schools in Gloucestershire, but is he aware of the enormous difference in funding that puts those schools at the bottom of the league table in terms of LACSEG—local authority central spend equivalent grant—funding? I welcome the Government’s move towards a national funding formula but, in the meantime, will he look at the serious situation of those schools in Gloucestershire?
My hon. Friend is quite right. We need to sort out this problem even before looking at a national funding formula. We inherited the funding formula that he describes, and I believe it is flawed, which is why we are reforming it. The Secretary of State for Education has met academy heads in my hon. Friend’s constituency and will happily discuss with him how we can deal with this problem. The growing evidence is that academy schools are not just good for the pupils who go to them, but by raising standards in those areas, they are actually raising standards of all schools at the same time.
The Government take absolute responsibility for everything that happens in our economy, and I take responsibility for that. Any increase in unemployment is disappointing, and it is obviously a tragedy for the person who becomes unemployed and can lead to real difficulty for that family. That is why we are taking so much action to try and help people to get back into work. Although the increase in unemployment is hugely unwelcome, it is noteworthy that the figures today show that there is still an increase in the number of people employed—another 18,000 are in work. That shows that we need more private sector employment. We need to move further and faster on that agenda.
It is also noteworthy that there is a small decrease in long-term unemployment. I hope that shows that schemes such as the Work programme that the Government are introducing are beginning to have an effect, but again, we need them to go further and faster. There is not one ounce of complacency in this Government. We will do everything we can to get people back to work.
Does the Prime Minister not understand that when he boasts about rising employment, it just shows how out of touch he is? In some parts of London, 100 people are chasing three vacancies. That is the situation people are facing. Can he confirm that under his policies, far from things getting better over the coming year, he expects things to get worse and unemployment to rise to 2.8 million?
Forecasts are no longer set out by the Government; they are set out by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. Unlike in the right hon. Gentleman’s day, these forecasts are not fixed and fiddled by Ministers, but set out by independent economists. The Government’s responsibility is to do everything we can to help people into work. That is why we have the Work programme, which is helping 3 million people; why we have the youth contract, which will get subsidised, private sector jobs for 160,000 young people; and why we have work experience for 250,000 young people. Half those are off benefits within two months, which is 20 times better value than the future jobs fund.
As I have said, there is no boasting about anything. What we have here is growth in the private sector and contraction in the public sector, but we need to get our economy moving. Key to that is having the low interest rates that the right hon. Gentleman’s plans would put at risk.
The Prime Minister does not seem to understand. The reason why the OBR figures matter is that they show that over the next year, unemployment will get worse, not better, under his policies. Nothing that he can say can deny that. That long list of policies, according to the independent OBR, will make no difference.
Let us talk about young people. Can the Prime Minister confirm that in the past year, we now have 147,000 young people out of work for more than six months? That is double what it was a year ago—an increase of 102%. Why has he allowed it to happen?
Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. Over the past year, unemployment among young people, measured by the independent labour organisation—the proper way of measuring the figures—is up by 7%. That is far too high. It is not the 40% increase that we had under Labour, but it is far too high. What we need to do is help those young people into work, and that is exactly what our programmes are doing.
Let me just make this point, because I think it is important. There is a fundamental difference between the way this Government measure youth unemployment and the way the last Government did. That is important, because the right hon. Gentleman’s Government counted young people who were on jobseeker’s allowance and in any form of scheme as not unemployed. This Government say that until they get a permanent job, we will measure them as unemployed. That is right. It is not complacent, it is frank, straightforward and what we never got from Labour.
It really is back to the 1980s—a Tory Government blaming unemployment on the figures. No wonder the Prime Minister has rehired Lord Young, the Employment Secretary in the 1980s.
On long-term youth unemployment, the Prime Minister is wrong on the facts. Long-term youth unemployment, which has a scarring effect on our young people who are out of work and have been out of work for more than six months, has doubled in the past year. However much he twists and turns about the figures, can he confirm that central fact—that it is up by 102% in the past year?
I have explained the figures. If we look at the number of young people who have been out of work for longer than 12 months, we see that it has started to go down. That is not nearly enough, and far more needs to be done, but that is what the Work programme is all about. That is what the right hon. Gentleman needs to understand.
There is a context to all this. If we want to get unemployment down, we have got to keep interest rates down, and we have had a reminder in recent days of what happens if you do not have a plan to get on top of your deficit, get on top of your debts and get your economy moving. That is what the right hon. Gentleman does not understand.
What we have is a Government who are absolutely clear about their plans and an Opposition who have absolutely no idea. Last year the right hon. Gentleman marched against the cuts, now he tells us that he accepts the cuts, yet today he is telling us that he wants to spend more and borrow more. He is so incompetent that he cannot even do a U-turn properly.
I know that the Prime Minister does not want to talk about the young people out of work in this country, because he is embarrassed by his record on what is happening, but he owes it to them to tell the facts as they are about what is happening to them. I come back to this point: the Prime Minister said in his answer that long-term unemployment among young people is going down. It is not going down; it is going up.
The Prime Minister mentions the Work programme, which he introduced with a great fanfare in June. What has happened to long-term youth unemployment since he introduced his Work programme?
Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. [Interruption.] I will give him the figures exactly. There are far too many young people who are long-term unemployed. There are 246,000 young people who have been unemployed for more than a year, but that is down 11,000 on the last quarter. That is not enough, and we want to do more, but it is because we have the Work programme, the youth contract, 400,000 apprenticeships and 250,000 people going into work experience that we are making a difference. Why does he not come up with something constructive instead of just knocking everybody down?
I will tell him what he should do: he should change course. It is his policy. Why is unemployment rising? It is rising because he is cutting too far and too fast. It is his record. However much he twists and turns, it is his record. That is why unemployment is rising. Unemployment among women is the highest since the last time there was a Tory Government; youth unemployment is the highest since the last time there was a Tory Government; and unemployment is higher than the last time there was a Tory Government. Is not the defining characteristic of this Government that they stand aside and do nothing as thousands of people find themselves unemployed?
To be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, he changes course every day; he is an expert at changing course. Labour’s shadow Chancellor said two days ago:
“My starting point is…we are going to have to keep all these cuts.”
Then Labour’s deputy leader said yesterday that
“we’re not accepting the Government’s…cuts, we are totally opposing them and we’re fighting them.”
The right hon. Gentleman is flip-flopping on a daily basis. It is no wonder that the founder of Labour’s business forum had this to say:
“At a time when the nation needs strong political leadership, Labour offers nothing…the pro-business, pragmatic approach to wealth and enterprise”
have all gone.
“Instead there is a vision and leadership vacuum.”
What total adequate testimony to what stands opposite!
Q2. My right hon. Friend will be aware that I recently raised the case of my late constituent, Mr Martin Pratt, with the Armed Forces Minister. He will also be aware of the excellent “Fighting Fit” report, written by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans. Owing to the stigma often attached to mental illness, many veterans wait years before seeking appropriate help, and I hope that my right hon. Friend can tell the House what plans the Government have in this area, so that those who need help can seek it at the appropriate moment. (90162)
My hon. and learned Friend is entirely right to raise this issue. The mental scars that people who serve this country often receive can be every bit as deep as the physical scars. It is not something that we have always accepted and understood properly, which is why the report, “Fighting Fit”, by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), is so important. He has real experience and understanding of this matter. We have accepted and implemented almost all its recommendations—we have launched the 24-hour combat stress support health line, we are introducing the advanced mental health assessments for service personnel and we hope to get the veterans information service up and running in April this year.
With the tragic accident involving the cruise ship Costa Concordia and the 50-plus liners of the same size or bigger that will visit Greenock dock on the Clyde in the coming months and year ahead, does the Prime Minister still think that it was the correct decision to close the Clyde coastguard station?
First, the case in Italy is clearly a tragic one, and our hearts should go out to the people who have lost loved ones—people from countries right across the world. We need to wait and see what the exact cause of the accident was before we jump to conclusions about any changes to regulations or other things. However, if changes need to be made, including on the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, of course we will make them.
Q3. The Prime Minister has kindly undertaken to introduce a comprehensive water Bill early in the next parliamentary Session. Will he end the uncertainty for water customers and the industry alike by publishing the draft Bill now, so that we can have proper parliamentary scrutiny? (90163)
We will publish a draft water Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in the coming months. As my hon. Friend knows, there are many important parts to the water Bill. One that stands out is the promise that we have made and the funding that we have supplied to help cut water bills in the south-west of our country by £50 from April 2013. That addresses a historical unfairness: people in the south-west feel that they have paid unfair charges to provide clean beaches for many of us who do not live in the south-west. I am delighted that we can make progress on this issue.
Q4. In America, six directors from the bailed-out Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae companies have been taken to court for gross mismanagement. In this country, the Financial Services Authority says that it cannot bring enforcement action against Royal Bank of Scotland because of the ongoing legal tender. Will the Prime Minister consider introducing a legal sanction of strict liability into his draft Financial Services Bill so that those responsible for the banking crisis will be taken to task? After all, we are in this together. (90164)
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The whole point about overhauling our financial services regulation is that it gives us the opportunity to look around the rest of the world, see who has tougher penalties and work out whether we can introduce them to our system. That is why we will be introducing this Bill, with a major overhaul of how the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England work, and dealing with the regulatory system that was not working properly.
A year ago the Prime Minister told me that the reason for the, at the time, new Health and Social Care Bill was
“simply that this country now has European levels of health spending but does not have European levels of success”.—[Official Report, 19 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 831.]
Now that we know that that is not the case, will the Prime Minister shelve this disruptive and destructive Bill, which is struggling in another place, go back to the coalition agreement and build from there?
I have great respect for my hon. Friend, but I do not agree with him on this one. With the Health and Social Care Bill, a huge exercise was undertaken, in which the Deputy Prime Minister and I both played quite a large role, of actually listening to health professionals—to doctors, nurses and associated health professionals—to understand what they most wanted to see in the NHS reform Bill, and that is what we are delivering. My hon. Friend says that it is not the case that we have outcomes that are less than some parts of Europe; I am afraid it is the case. In some cases we could be doing a lot better. To argue just that the NHS simply needs money and not reform, I do not believe is right.
Q5. In the north-east, unemployment among women is rising at twice the rate as that among men. Where does the Prime Minister think a woman’s place is: in the home, in the workplace or in the jobcentre? (90165)
I want many more women to have the opportunity to be in the workplace. What we have seen in the figures is this. Of course there is a disappointing increase in unemployment among women, but if we look since the election, there are 59,000 more women in work today than at the time of the last election. However, I am not satisfied with that. That is why we are boosting child care for two-year-olds, three-year-olds and four-year-olds to help women into work. We are introducing, through universal credit, support with child care for all women who work, not just those who work over 16 hours. Lifting more than 1 million people out of tax, the majority of whom are women, obviously also helps women into the work force. That is what I want to see.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Let me say this about the benefit cap. We owe it to people who work hard, do the right thing and pay their taxes to make sure there are some limits on welfare. What we are saying with the benefit cap is that a family can get up to £26,000 in benefit. You would have to earn £35,000 in order to achieve that standard of living, so I believe that the benefit is fair, and that is why we are going to introduce one.
Does the Prime Minister feel any shame at all that some of the most vulnerable people in our society—certainly cancer and heart patients—will undoubtedly be financially penalised as a result of the measures going through the Lords? Is it any wonder that people say that it is the same old Tories and that the Tories are the nasty party?
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The whole point about employment and support allowance is that there are two groups. There are those who cannot work who need help, in the support group. Many people will go straight into that group and will be able to receive that benefit for as long as they need it. If he looks at what we have said, and looks at the report by Professor Harrington, he will see that there are going to be more cancer sufferers getting benefits and, actually, fewer people facing the face-to-face interview. He shakes his head; he should look at the evidence before asking the question.
Q7. I was shocked to discover that mainstream terrestrial television carries adverts for online bingo at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and that 31 hours and 55 minutes each week is dedicated to live casino betting and gaming, which has been classified as teleshopping since 2009. At a time when there is £1.45 trillion of personal debt in this country and when we are encouraging people to be moderate in their expectations and behaviour, will the Prime Minister please protect consumers, children and the vulnerable from this kind of activity by asking for a review by Ofcom— (90167)
The hon. Lady raises an important issue about gambling advertisement on television. I am all in favour of deregulation and trying to allow businesses to get on and succeed. Gambling programmes and betting advertising were not permitted until the last Government allowed them in 2007 and they are strictly regulated by Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority. It is not just a question of regulation, as it is also a question of responsibility by the companies concerned. Anyone who enjoys watching a football match will see quite aggressive advertisements on the television, and I think companies have to ask themselves whether they are behaving responsibly when they do that.
On the subject of gambling, Hackney has 90 bookies—three times the national average. Will the Prime Minister listen to the debate that took place yesterday and take action this Friday and instruct his Ministers to support the private Member’s Bill that will be before the House and will give local authorities more planning powers over bookies?
Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that in this the 30-year anniversary of the Falklands war the actions of the Argentine Government are wholly deplorable? Will he remind Argentina that it lost the Falklands war and that it is up to the Falklanders to determine their own future? (90168)
First of all, it is very important that we commemorate the Falklands war this year—the 30th anniversary—and remember all those who served and fought so hard and some who gave their lives and did not come home. We should remember all those people this year. The absolutely vital point is that we are clear that the future of the Falkland islands is a matter for the people themselves. As long as they want to remain part of the United Kingdom and be British, they should be able to do so. That is absolutely key. I am determined to make sure that our defences and everything else are in order, which is why the National Security Council discussed the issue yesterday. The key point is that we support the Falkland islanders’ right to self-determination. I would argue that what the Argentinians have said recently is far more like colonialism, as these people want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else.
The forecast is set out by the Office for Budget Responsibility and it is for it to make the forecasts—and it expects unemployment to be lower at the end of this Parliament than at the start, and employment to be higher. The Government’s job is to try to do everything they can to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents into work—via the Work programme, the youth contract, the apprenticeship schemes and work experience, but above all, by keeping interest rates low, so our economy can grow and we do not fall into the mistakes that others in Europe have.
European Working Time Directive
My hon. Friend raises an important issue about the working time directive and its effect on the NHS. Nobody wants to go back to the time when junior doctors were working 80 or 90 hours a week, but I think we all see in our constituencies that the working time directive has sometimes had a bad effect on the NHS, particularly on training programmes for junior doctors. That is why the Government are discussing this issue with the Royal Colleges and others to make sure that we can have flexibility in this vital area.
I thank the Prime Minister for his answer. Does he share the widespread concern coming largely from the medical professions themselves that while we wait for lengthy EU processes to reconsider the directive across Europe—and it has not even been decided what it is that they are going to discuss—we are seeing a critical undermining of junior doctors, as they often say themselves, an erosion of the future professionalism of the NHS and, dare I say it, we are putting patient care and patient lives at risk? What steps can the Prime Minister take to ensure that we sort this out quickly?
I think my hon. Friend is right. Frankly, this has nothing to do with the single market; it is to do with how we run our health service. In particular, as I have said, it affects our training programmes for junior doctors, often in rural areas where we do not have such large hospitals. What can we do to sort this out? The Health and Business Secretaries are committed to revising the directive at EU level to give the NHS the flexibility it needs to deliver the best and safest service to patients. We will work urgently to bring that about.
Is the Prime Minister aware that, since I have been an MP, every single medical problem at a hospital in my constituency is related to weekend working by exhausted junior doctors. Far from being a problem, the directive is a solution: we have had far too many exhausted doctors in charge of patients.
I do not doubt—in fact, I do doubt what the right hon. Gentleman says. I cannot believe that every problem in his hospital is down to this one issue. All I can say is that the local hospital that serves my constituents in Chipping Norton was threatened with massive downgrading partly because, under the working time directive, it could not supply the training modules for junior doctors. That seemed a classic example of the cart being put in front of the horse. We ought to determine what hospitals we want, and then think about the training modules, but the EU working time directive was getting in the way.
Q11. I welcome this week’s announcement of closer co-operation between financial centres in Hong Kong and London, which will help to make the City a hub for the Chinese renminbi currency market. Does the Prime Minister agree that that helps to highlight the opportunities for trade in Asia and the importance of promoting this country’s commitment to free trade, and shows that this country is open for business? (90171)
My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Clearly, the markets in Europe are going to be difficult: 50% of our exports go to the EU, and we are seeing a freezing effect across the European Union. The rest of the world economy, however, is growing, and we need to get out there and sell to those markets. I am pleased to say that exports to China were up by 20% last year. The arrangement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has come to, which will make London one of the great renminbi trading centres, is an important breakthrough, but we need many more like that.
Q12. Will the Prime Minister clarify the position of the coalition Government on inheritance tax? My constituency recently received correspondence from the junior partner in the coalition Government, stating:“If the Tories were governing alone, they would be cutting inheritance tax for millionaires and they would pay for it by reducing public spending even more.”Is that true? (90172)
Q13. Last week, on the Syrian border, I met Syrian army deserters who had refused to kill their fellow citizens, and a small child wounded by that regime. If things there are to get better, not worse, the world must stop selling arms to Syria. What evidence does the Prime Minister have of countries shipping arms to that regime? (90173)
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Britain needs to lead the way in making sure that we tighten the sanctions, travel bans and asset freezes on Syria. On who is helping the Syrian Government to oppress their people, there is growing evidence that Iran is providing a huge amount of support. Some shipment interceptions by Turkey are particularly interesting in that regard. People should also know that Hezbollah is also an organisation that is standing up and supporting the wretched tyrant who is killing so many of his own people.
The Prime Minister will no doubt be aware of a report from international aid agencies this morning saying how the crisis in the horn of Africa was made worse by the delay in the international community responding. It warned that a similar crisis is threatening in west Africa. What will the Government do to try to ensure a speedier international response?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will study the report carefully. My understanding is that the British aid effort was swift at getting aid into the horn of Africa and was leading the pack, both in the extent—the money committed—and speed of the response. Clearly, the horn of Africa is a very difficult place to deliver aid to, not least because of the control al-Shabaab—in effect, a terrorist organisation—has in large parts of Somalia. I will look carefully at what he says about west Africa, and I will ensure that we learn any available lessons.
Q14. On 26 October, I raised the case of my constituent, 14-year-old Lillian Groves, who was killed outside her home by a driver under the influence of drugs. The Prime Minister kindly met her family to talk about the case, which I believe has support across the House, for changing the law to deal with the menace of drug-driving. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress? (90174)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on this issue. It is important that we take seriously the issue of drug-driving. As he knows, we are committed to making the drug-testing equipment available for use in police stations as soon as possible. The case that he is making, which is that we need an equivalent law to that for drink-driving, has great strength. The Government are examining that case closely. Clearly, we need to look at whether there will be an opportunity in the second legislative Session to take forward the measure, which I know he will be campaigning for hard.
Does the Prime Minister share my concern at yesterday’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Abu Qatada cannot be deported? If so, will the right hon. Gentleman agree to initiate all-party discussions focused not on rhetoric about ripping up the Human Rights Act but on how, in practice, the Court could operate more proportionately, so that rights are respected but the safety of the public is always paramount?
I agree wholeheartedly with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I think that the judgment is difficult to understand, because British Governments—both the present Government and the one in which the right hon. Gentleman served—have gone to huge efforts to establish a “deportation with assurances” agreement with Jordan to ensure that people are not mistreated. In this case, the European Court of Human Rights found that Abu Qatada was not going to be tortured but was worried about the process of the court case in Jordan. It is immensely frustrating.
I think that a country such as Britain, which has such a long tradition of human rights, should be able to deport people who mean us harm. That principle is vitally important, and we are not just going to have strong rhetoric about it. I am going to Strasbourg next week to argue that as we are chairing the Council of Europe, this is a good time to make reforms to the ECHR and ensure that it acts in a more proportionate way.
Q15. On 26 March 2010, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy named Jobe Felton was kidnapped from his home in Cannock Chase and taken to Thailand by his mother. Six months later, his father finally tracked him down in a remote village. He found that his son could not speak, had had his teeth broken, and had bruises all over his body. He believes that had he not got him back then, Jobe would have been sold. Each year in the United Kingdom, more than 500 children are kidnapped in similar circumstances. Will the Prime Minister meet me and Jobe’s father, Sean Felton—who has set up a charity called Abducted Angels, and who is in the Gallery today—to discuss what the Government can do to help parents of abducted children like Jobe? (90175)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that case. It is a simply appalling case, and any parent cannot help being chilled to the bone about what happened to that poor boy.
I think it is vital for us to put in place the best possible arrangements. As my hon. Friend knows, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is to be part of the National Crime Agency. I very much hope that we shall be able to legislate for the agency and ensure that it is properly resourced, because—as my hon. Friend says—it is vitally important that when these appalling acts happen, we get on top of them right away. Early effort is absolutely vital to saving these children.
When does the Prime Minister expect to be cross-examined by the Leveson inquiry? Does he not agree that the British people deserve an answer to the question of why he appointed one of Murdoch’s top lieutenants, Andy Coulson, to the heart of the British Government?
I shall be delighted to appear before the Leveson inquiry whenever I am invited, and I am sure that other politicians will have exactly the same view. I shall answer all the questions when that happens.
It is good to see the hon. Gentleman on such good form. I often say to my children, “There is no need to go to the National History museum to see a dinosaur; come to the House of Commons at about half past twelve.”
Order. We now come to the statement by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Secretary Clarke. Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman begins his statement, I appeal to Members who, unaccountably, are leaving the Chamber—who, for some reason, do not wish or are not available to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman—to do so quickly and quietly, so that the rest of us can listen to the statement.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement.
This Government stand firmly against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. We do not condone it, nor do we ask others to do it on our behalf. In July 2010, the Prime Minister announced a package of measures to this House designed to deal with allegations about British involvement in the mistreatment of detainees held by other states overseas. As he told the House then, those allegations are not proven, but their consequences are serious. In his words:
“Our reputation as a country that believes in human rights, justice, fairness and the rule of law—indeed, much of what the services exist to protect—risks being tarnished. Public confidence is being eroded, with people doubting the ability of our services to protect us and questioning the rules under which they operate.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 175.]
No one should be in any doubt about the vital nature of the work that our security and intelligence agencies perform on our behalf or the debt that they are owed by all of us. Without public recognition, the men and women of the services take the gravest personal risks to protect the security of our country. So in his statement 18 months ago the Prime Minister set out a package of measures designed to ensure not just that we can get to the bottom of allegations of mistreatment, but that we learn any lessons, improve the framework for litigation where sensitive material is involved, and enable our security and intelligence services to get on with their vital job.
Since July 2010 the Government have taken a number of steps to fulfil this commitment. We have published for the first time the consolidated guidance for intelligence officers and service personnel on dealing with foreign liaison services regarding detainees held in their custody, to make clear the basis on which our security and intelligence services operate. We have also secured a mediated settlement of the Guantanamo Bay civil damages cases, about which I made a statement to this House on 16 November 2010. I also made a statement to this House on 19 October 2011 on the publication of the Government’s Green Paper on justice and security, which aims to improve our courts’ ability to handle intelligence and other sensitive material and to strengthen the parliamentary and independent bodies that oversee the security and intelligence services. We will set out our response to the consultation on the Green Paper in due course.
We also established an inquiry under Sir Peter Gibson to examine whether, and if so to what extent, the British Government and their intelligence agencies were involved in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries in counter-terrorism operations overseas, or were aware of improper treatment of detainees in operations in which the United Kingdom was involved. Since then, the Gibson inquiry has been in a preparatory phase, with the panel focusing on a review of key underlying material. The inquiry has had the full co-operation of Departments and agencies during its preparations and has received a large volume of material in response to its requests for information, which it is in the process of considering. We have always been clear, however, that the detainee inquiry would not be able to start formally until all related police investigations had been concluded.
Last week, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Metropolitan Police Service made a joint statement that they would not charge any named individuals in the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service in relation to the investigations in Operations Hinton and Iden. However, they also announced that allegations made in two specific cases concerning the alleged rendition of named individuals to Libya and their alleged ill-treatment there were so serious that it was in the public interest for them to be investigated now rather than at the conclusion of the Gibson detainee inquiry. I made a written ministerial statement on Monday this week explaining that the Government were considering the implications for the detainee inquiry of these new police investigations.
The Government will continue to co-operate fully with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in their investigations, and we remain committed to drawing a line under these issues. As part of this process, the agencies will continue to review their records, and we will ensure that this process is thorough and comprehensive. We and the agencies are absolutely clear that where there are any questions about knowledge of improper treatment of detainees, they must be fully examined and, where necessary, investigated. Looking to the future, we will carefully review the responses to the Green Paper about the oversight of the agencies.
However, these further police investigations into the Libyan allegations may take some considerable time to conclude. The Government fully intend to hold a judge-led inquiry into these issues, once it is possible to do so and all related police investigations have been concluded. But there now appears no prospect of the Gibson inquiry being able to start in the foreseeable future. So, following consultation with Sir Peter Gibson, the chair of the inquiry, we have decided to bring the work of his inquiry to a conclusion. We have agreed with Sir Peter that the inquiry should provide the Government with a report on its preparatory work to date, highlighting particular themes or issues which might be the subject of further examination. The Government are clear that as much of this report as possible will be made public. We will continue to keep Parliament fully informed of progress. The Government fully intend to hold an independent, judge-led inquiry, once all police investigations have concluded, to establish the full facts and draw a line under these issues. Meanwhile, however, the police inquiries that have now commenced must obviously continue. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. The whole House unequivocally condemns torture, and inhumane, cruel and degrading forms of punishment. We must not condone it or ask others to do so on our behalf. One of the marks of a civilised society is that we will do everything in our power to champion human rights, both at home and abroad, and that we will properly investigate, prosecute and punish those alleged to have committed such crimes in this country or on behalf of this country elsewhere across the globe. So, allegations that members of our security and intelligence services may be involved in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries, with acts that contravene these basic levels of human decency that we hold so dear as a nation, need proper and full investigation.
The investigations in Operations Hinton and Iden relate to serious and highly sensitive matters involving, as they do, allegations about members of the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service. Operation Hinton followed a referral from the former Attorney-General, my right hon. and learned Friend Baroness Scotland, in November 2008 and Operation Iden followed a referral, also by the former Attorney-General, in June 2009. These independent investigations concluded on 12 January this year, as has been said, with a decision not to charge any named individuals in relation to the investigations in Operations Hinton and Iden.
Our security and intelligence agencies perform vital work on our behalf and we owe them a debt. Without public recognition, the men and women of these services take the gravest personal risks to protect the security of our country. But it is clearly right that, in the light of the further, specific allegations of ill-treatment made recently, the Metropolitan Police Service and the Crown Prosecution Service investigate these thoroughly. Although it was also right that the inquiry led by Sir Peter Gibson was put on hold while investigations into criminal proceedings were ongoing, I would ask the Justice Secretary why he has decided not to have a further hold in Sir Peter Gibson’s inquiry while these further investigations are carried out. It is also important that the pause is used as an opportunity to ensure that the former detainees and the human rights and campaign groups who chose not to engage in the Sir Peter Gibson inquiry are brought back into the fold.
May I ask the Justice Secretary what his views are on the representations made by those acting on behalf of the detainees, non-governmental organisations and others that an inquiry conducted with the current terms of reference and protocol does not comply with articles 3 and 6 of the European convention on human rights? It is clearly important that any inquiry has legitimacy, and I invite the Justice Secretary to use the period while the allegations are being investigated by the police to work with ourselves, NGOs and other experts to ensure that the new inquiry has as much legitimacy as is possible. I also ask the Secretary of State when and how he intends the work of Sir Peter Gibson, or as much as is realistically possible, to be published.
The key point is that we must get to the bottom of what happened. We are firmly of the view that there must be an independent inquiry as the quicker these questions are answered, the quicker we will be able to draw a line under these issues.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his broad support for the aims we are pursuing. I agree with everything he said about the security services and I think we owe it to them, as well as to the reputation of this country, to draw a line under these matters as quickly as possible, which involves investigating them all properly and making the position clear as well as considering matters such as the supervision of the services in future.
The right hon. Gentleman asked why we did not have just another pause in the Gibson inquiry, as we were previously just waiting for the outcome of the police inquiries into the Guantanamo Bay cases. With great respect, it is not even fair to the team to keep things going on in that way. I had hoped to be able to come to the House and say, if anyone asked me, that the Gibson inquiry was now under way, that it was starting its proceedings and that all was going smoothly. We now have to wait for an as yet unknown period of time while the Libyan investigations are carried out and while we see where they go. The Metropolitan police took three years to look into the Guantanamo Bay cases and I think everybody is anxious that we should be quicker than that as we look at the Libyan cases, but we have no idea how long it will take.
Sir Peter and his colleagues have done some work and the sensible thing is to publish the outcome of their preparatory work now, wait to see what happens to the investigations and to set up an independent judge-led inquiry as soon as it is feasible, which might require a fresh team of people to carry it out. We have the terms of reference for Gibson because we think the Gibson inquiry itself should not take too long and I have discussed the terms of reference with NGOs, representatives of former detainees and so on. I will quite happily continue those conversations and I have been trying to persuade them that the Gibson inquiry meets their needs and that they should actively participate and engage in the process. I will continue that and I will listen to their views, too, about the nature of the inquiry. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and those outside the House who have an interest that the Government will hold an independent judge-led inquiry. We are where we are, and the Gibson proposals are our proposals.
As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, may I endorse the observations made by my right hon. and learned Friend and by the shadow Justice Secretary about the contribution that the security services make to the security of the nation? When the Gibson inquiry was first conceived, the hope was expressed that it might complete its work within one year. As events have subsequently proved, that prognosis was rather optimistic. May I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I think that he has inevitably had to bow to the changed circumstances and that his announcement today is entirely sensible and will preserve all the issues that would otherwise have been dealt with by the Gibson inquiry?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The point that lies behind the debate I have been having with NGOs and detainee representatives about the terms of reference is that our aim would be that the judge-led inquiry might conclude within a year. We do not want an inquiry that takes years and years and becomes too legalistic. We are still open to discussions about that, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman obviously shares my view that it would be much better if we were able to get things under way and hold this inquiry. I am grateful for his support for the inevitability of holding fire and getting Sir Peter to produce what he has done so far.
Sir Peter Gibson is a retired senior judge of the highest integrity and skill and I am personally quite certain that had he had the opportunity to continue this inquiry, he and his colleagues on the panel would have been able to do a most thorough job and would have gained the confidence of the NGOs and others in the course of that inquiry in exactly the same way as Sir William Macpherson, who was faced with a high degree of scepticism when he first began the Lawrence inquiry, was able to assuage the concerns of many of those involved in the course of the proceedings. May I also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I believe that he is absolutely right to do what he has and that in practice he has had no alternative?
I am grateful for that view and for the right hon. Gentleman’s support because I keep trying to assure people that there is no conspiracy here. The Government actually want these things to be properly investigated and want the full facts to be shared with the general public so far as they sensibly can be, consistent with the interests of national security.
It was widely held that the Gibson inquiry’s approach to the investigation set out in the protocol and in the interpretation of the terms of reference was defective in a number of important respects. I have brought those to the attention of the Government already and have discussed them in correspondence with the Prime Minister, as my right hon. and learned Friend will know. In particular, there was no intention to cover detainee transfer in theatre and no intention to appoint an investigator or even to try to investigate all the cases of credible allegations brought forward. Will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake to review fully all these aspects of the Gibson inquiry’s proposed work so that we can rectify these defects when an inquiry reconvenes?
I will continue the conversations I have been having with my hon. Friend and others about the basis on which the Gibson inquiry is proceeding. I have been trying to persuade people to be more co-operative with the Gibson inquiry, but I am also quite happy to listen to points that people make to me about why they have reservations. The Government wanted to proceed with the Gibson inquiry on the present terms of reference and would have done so if we had not had this final delay. We have more time to consider the matter, although we did not want more time, and I am happy to discuss these matters with my hon. Friend and others again.
Our intelligence agencies do a hugely important job for this country, but it is essential that they operate and are seen to operate within the highest standards of human rights ethics and a proper legal framework. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential in the current circumstances to take forward his proposals in the Green Paper on justice and security to strengthen the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee so that we can have the legal powers and the necessary resources to be able to scrutinise fully the work of our intelligence agencies?
I assure the right hon. Lady that there is no delay to that aspect of our policy. We will shortly be responding to the consultations on our Green Paper, the first of which concerned the basis on which courts and other proceedings can handle intelligence material in a way that improves their ability to try cases without jeopardising national security. The second concerned the important matter that she raises of the supervision by this House and elsewhere of the security services.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s approach to this matter. Does it remain his hope that at the end of this process we can avoid the situation that arose in the previous Parliament when my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) and others were reassured over and again on the Floor of the House that there was no United Kingdom involvement in any respect with any extraordinary rendition, which subsequently turned out not to be the case?
Like my hon. Friend, I was a member of the all-party group on extraordinary rendition being led by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), so I was as anxious to see the outcome of the police and other inquiries as everybody else. The whole point is to dispel all this because we must have an effective national security system and effective agencies. People who work in those agencies do very brave work that is essential to this country. We must draw a line under all this and investigate fully this legacy of allegations in order to find out exactly what happened and work out how to proceed and how to scrutinise the services in future.
The Justice Secretary clearly has the support of both sides of the House in the decision he has taken today. Could he clarify whether this was his decision or whether Sir Peter came to him and asked to be relinquished of his responsibilities in view of the fresh investigations? I know that the Justice Secretary cannot give us a timetable, but does he envisage this lasting for months or years?
It was discussed with Sir Peter Gibson and he agrees that this is the way to proceed. I did not personally have the conversation, but in the light of last week’s inquiry it was decided that it was sensible to discuss this with Sir Peter and he agrees with the decision we have taken to proceed in this way. I wish I knew how long the Metropolitan police investigations will take. I hope that they will not take as long as the Guantanamo Bay cases, but there is absolutely no basis on which I can properly intervene with the police. We want these matters to be investigated thoroughly so we will wait and see.
It looks increasingly clear that this is going to take years rather than months. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that in the intervening time he will take particular care in defining the terms of reference on the Libyan dimension, which in my opinion is much wider than just rendition? What about, for example, the training of Libyan forces at the defence academy at Shrivenham? We need to narrow down the issues when it comes to Libya so that we can avoid the pitfalls that have beset the Gibson process thus far.
The intention was that the Gibson inquiry would cover that aspect of the Libyan allegations, particularly the two allegations of rendition, that fitted with the terms of reference the inquiry already had for the Guantanamo Bay cases, but a lot of issues have been thrown up by the Libyan allegations and we will consider how best to handle them. Unfortunately, the Metropolitan police are bound to take months at least, I should have thought, so we have time to consider how best to handle these matters.
I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that the Justice Secretary has made today, but how can we ensure that the security and intelligence agents who do such sterling work on our behalf are protected against false allegations against them?
I have never been able to protect anybody against false allegations but the easiest way of handling such allegations is to investigate them quickly and dismiss them. I have no doubt that allegations that turn out to be false will be quickly dismissed by Sir Peter Gibson and I hope that any future inquiry will get rid of malicious or politically motivated allegations, to which people who work in this field are bound to be exposed. However, that is not a description of the things now being looked at. The questions being raised here are serious and this issue calls for some explanation. We want the Libyan cases to be investigated very thoroughly and we look forward to the police conclusion and the results of a judge-led inquiry on the whole matter.
Last July, my right hon. and learned Friend confirmed to me at the time of his statement on the Gibson inquiry that he wanted Shaker Aamer, the last British resident detained in Guantanamo Bay, to be available to give evidence to it. Does not this pause give a fresh opportunity to press the case that he should be released and be available to give evidence to any new inquiry?
My hon. Friend is probably right. That is another good reason why we would like Shaker Aamer to be released and I will bring her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We keep making representations and trying to get him released and brought back.
When some of us were calling for a public inquiry led by a judge into phone hacking at the News of the World, we cited the Gibson inquiry as one that had been set up even while criminal investigations were ongoing, and the Secretary of State said that it was important that Gibson was able to secure whatever evidence there was that might in other cases be destroyed. I hope that he can still make that assertion today.
We must get to the bottom of the allegations of mistreatment as soon as possible. The credibility of the intelligence services depends on it. To that end, how soon after police investigations are concluded does the Secretary of State expect a successor detainee inquiry to be established? In the interim, is there an enhanced role for the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation that might require him to have a salary and an office outside the Home Office to review these matters independently and effectively?
We have not taken any decisions yet about the exact point at which we will start constituting a new judge-led inquiry or approaching a judge and people who might wish to serve on the inquiry. What we did this time was to set up the Gibson inquiry in the belief that we were about to start imminently—going into the full formal stage after a few months of preparation. Presumably, we will try to repeat that, but at this stage it is impossible to know when we will be in a position to do that. At the moment, we want to review the facts of these cases so I do not feel the need to create a new appointment to review the legislation in this area; indeed, I would argue, subject to what emerges, that the law in this area is reasonably clear. It is the facts that we hope to investigate, and then the application of the law to those facts.
Is not the real lesson of Gibson that important inquiries such as this cannot proceed properly without the full confidence of all interests and participants? What is the Justice Secretary doing to ensure that any future inquiries will have the full confidence of all human rights groups and all lawyers involved in such cases?
I have met a very wide range NGOs, human rights groups and those with an interest, and I have been trying to persuade them that the Gibson inquiry is something that they should get engaged with. I very much hope still to see them doing that. I am still having meetings about the Green Paper on security and justice and of course on the supervision of the security services. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was here earlier; we will continue to engage. I agree that it would be very much better if we could get the NGOs and others to accept that this is the way to proceed. We will continue to listen to their arguments about why they feel that they cannot, and we will do our best.
I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend believes that. I think that is right. The problem of letting the inquiry go ahead while the police are carrying out the investigations is obviously that one could hopelessly compromise the other. We cannot have witnesses giving evidence about events when the police are in the middle of inquiries into the self-same events. [Interruption.] Well, that was the basis upon which we started, and everybody accepted that Gibson could not start until the police investigations had finished. There are sensible reasons, as my hon. Friend says, why we are in that situation.
Our country has a reputation around the world as one which protects human rights. When allegations of extraordinary rendition were made, it tarnished that image. I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s inquiry into the whole issue and the support given by the shadow Secretary of State for Justice. I ask the Lord Chancellor to take on board the points that the shadow Secretary of State for Justice mentioned.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. It is extremely important that we maintain this essentially cross-party approach to these matters and that the House gives its full support to our attempts to get to the bottom of these matters. As she says, it is in the interests of this country and of the Security Service that we do so.
For quite a long time, together with the security services and the police, I was responsible for detainees and for interviewing them. In all that time we took huge care to comply with instructions, particularly about human rights, when interviewing detainees. It is very difficult and sometimes dangerous work for the officers concerned. I hope—I know—the Secretary of State will agree that instances of poor practice are few and far between and are very sad indeed.
My hon. Friend speaks with much greater authority than I on the subject and puts forward an opinion with which I wholeheartedly agree. That is why it is in the interests of the vast majority of those brave men and women who serve in those services, often in very dangerous situations, that we tackle these allegations of malpractice. I am sure the allegations are against a tiny number of officers and it may be that they will turn out to be unfounded. The sooner we can clear this up and draw a line under it, the better.
Will the Justice Secretary accept that the allegation that British security officials handed over suspects to places abroad where they were tortured is a matter of great concern for Britain’s reputation? I said “allegation”, but in the case last week of the two Libyans, the letter which was found from the MI6 officer confirms that that was not merely an allegation. The two were sent over to Libya and were tortured. As we know, one of them, who holds a high position now in post-Gaddafi Libya, is accordingly bringing legal action against the UK Government.
Those are the serious allegations which need to be investigated and are being investigated by the police. On the principle of the matter, which the hon. Gentleman underlines, this Government are absolutely clear that we do not engage in torture, we do not condone torture, we do not get engaged in torture in any way, and we are not remotely going to get involved in the cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees in any way. The sooner we investigate the serious allegations that have emerged from Tripoli, the better.
The Secretary of State said that in pursuit of the Libyan allegations “the agencies”, which I presume are the security agencies, “will continue to review their records”, and that the Government will ensure that the process is “thorough and comprehensive.” Is there any room for independent oversight of that review by the agencies of their records and of any lack of records that might be identified? How exactly can he assure the House that that process will be thorough and comprehensive, as it seems that the subsequent police investigation will be entirely dependent upon it?
One must adopt a sensible approach to this. We did not expect the Libyan revelations to appear until they emerged from that office in Tripoli. For that reason a most thorough review of records is being undertaken and will continue. To bring in fresh people to review the review—one gets carried away. I have no reason to doubt that at present the most thorough review is taking place to make sure that we know where we are and we can put an end to the matter by having it properly and independently investigated, eventually by a judge-led inquiry.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) to describe Dudley as ugly? Why should a place which boasts the UK’s first national geological nature reserve, a fantastic castle, a beautiful town centre which traces its roots back to mediaeval Britain, and the award-winning Black Country living museum be sneered at by somebody like him? Should he not come to Dudley and see these gems for himself? Would you like to come to Dudley, Mr Speaker, so that you can see how wrong he was?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman not only for the content of his point of order, but for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of it. I remind him that a wise person said that there is no point in arguing about taste. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I am sure Dudley is beautiful to its own Member of Parliament. That the hon. Gentleman is a doughty and articulate exponent of that perceived beauty is no surprise to me, as this year marks 30 years since he and I first made each other’s acquaintance at the university of Essex. I am afraid that on the matter of the beauty or otherwise of Dudley, I have not yet had an opportunity to form my own judgment, but I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s prospective invitation and I would, of course, be inclined to accept it. I do not think expressions of aesthetic opinion fall within the rules of order unless those expressions of opinion concern another Member of the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and on a point of order. You will be aware that excessive pay and rewards for failure in the City and in boardrooms round the country are a matter of huge public interest. The Government have let it be known that they will announce what they plan to do about the issue on Tuesday next week. Our strong view is that the Business Secretary should do so in an oral statement to the House. He is giving a speech to the Social Market Foundation at 12.30 pm on Tuesday, before the House sits. Can you advise the House whether you have been given notice that he intends to come first to the House on Monday to give an oral statement on what the Government are to do about the matter, and whether you would expect him to do so?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, of the content of which I did not have advance notice. I would certainly expect that if a significant policy announcement is to be made, a statement in one form or another—there are different forms of statement, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware—would first be made to the House. I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand if I say that more widely than that I would be reluctant to go. I would want to observe how the Government conduct themselves and judge matters accordingly, but both the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House are aware of the premium that I attach not on my account, but on behalf of the House, to the House hearing and, preferably on very important matters, having the opportunity first to question Ministers. It is desirable that the House hears first, rather than audiences outside.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. One of the areas of parliamentary life—the manners of this Chamber—that has improved in recent years is that it is now completely unacceptable for one Member to criticise another Member on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity or disability. The most under-represented group in this Parliament is the septuagenarians. Today we heard what I believe many of us thought was a gratuitous and entirely offensive insult to a greatly respected hon. Member, made entirely because of his age. Is it not right that ageist discriminatory remarks should be outlawed in the same way that other discriminatory remarks are?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not also the case that “Erskine May” makes it very clear that no Member of Parliament should criticise another and call them a name that relates to an animal? In those circumstances, is it not only right that the Prime Minister should come back to the House and apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner)?
I am always in favour of humour, but just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, humour is a matter of subjective judgment. Sometimes people are funny, sometimes they think they are funny, sometimes they think they are funny deliberately when they are not, sometimes they do not realise they are funny when they are. There are all sorts of different permutations. It would be unwise for me to offer a view as to the category into which the matter of current discussion happens to fall, but I have never had any doubt about the hon. Gentleman’s well-developed and furnished sense of humour.
I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) that septuagenarians should not become a persecuted minority. The hon. Gentleman is sometimes in a minority, and a principled minority, on a range of matters, and has been throughout his long parliamentary career. All I would say is that I do not think that the hon. Gentleman himself is persecuted, certainly not by me, and anybody trying to persecute the hon. Gentleman should frankly give up the unequal struggle, because that person will not get anywhere with the hon. Gentleman.
With regard to the point of order from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe), I think that I am right in saying that “Erskine May” no longer contains the prohibition to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I think that, certainly at one time or another, there has been a prohibition on, or presumption against, reference to an existing animal.
With regard to the point of order of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), it is very difficult for me to interpret the mindset of another hon. or right hon. Member, be that a newly arrived Member, or a very senior Member, or the most senior Member of the Government. Sometimes an observation might be made with reference to perhaps a past attitude, style or conduct, and I do not think that I want to get into the issue of what was said today. I might want to reflect on it. All I would say is that I share the hon. Gentleman’s absolute disapproval of sexism, racism, ageism and other forms of discrimination. The hon. Gentleman’s track record on that matter speaks for itself over a very long period.
Keeping of Primates As Pets (Prohibition)
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 prohibit the keeping of primates as pets in the United Kingdom and the breeding, sale and purchase of primates; to introduce breed-specific codes of practice for the keeping of primates in animal sanctuaries and for species conservation; and for connected purposes.
I present this Bill to the House today on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. I refer to non-human primates, most commonly referred to as monkeys. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Wild Futures estimate that between 2,500 and 7,500 primates are kept as pets in England, Wales and Scotland, but others suggest the number might be as high as 15,000 to 20,000. Owing to the lack of registered breeders and the unregulated nature of selling monkeys to private buyers, it is very difficult to come up with an exact figure. I will explain to the House how monkeys suffer by being kept as household pets, and why there is such a strong case for banning primates as pets.
More than 360 highly regarded primatologists and other respected professionals support the call for a restriction on primate keeping to genuine specialists, and only for the purposes of sanctuary or conservation. There are many countries that have already banned keeping primates as pets, including Israel, Mexico, Honduras, India, Brazil, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. I will explain to the House why it is entirely necessary to follow the lead of these countries and introduce a ban on keeping primates as pets in the UK.
As some hon. Members may know, the Monkey Sanctuary in Looe is in the heart of my constituency of South East Cornwall, and some may even remember the tale of Donkey the monkey, whom I spoke about in another debate. I would like to report that he is keeping very well. It is telling that none of the monkeys re-homed at the Monkey Sanctuary was free of behavioural problems on arrival, and most showed multiple neuroses. Primates show evidence of self-awareness and intelligence, and have sophisticated cognitive capacities and complex patterns of behaviour. They also form intricate social relationships and are keen problem solvers. It is well known that non-human primate intelligence is on a par with that of humans.
However, the RSPCA has confirmed that 61% of incidents involved primates being housed alone. The effects of a lack of socialisation are profound. These include high levels of abnormal behaviours such as self-mutilation and difficulties socialising. Furthermore, cutting off the period in which young primates are dependent on their mothers is known to have long-lasting negative psychological and physiological effects. The Monkey Sanctuary informed me that common repetitive behaviours are classic in ex-pets. Examples include pacing, head twisting, teeth grinding, rocking and overeating. Primates also require a high level of specialist care to provide for their complex needs.
Commercially available primate foods do not account for specific dietary requirements. Inappropriate diet can increase susceptibility to diseases of human origin, including respiratory, gastro-intestinal, skin and viral disorders. Primates have been found to have been fed seriously inappropriate items, such as coffee, tobacco and marijuana.
Furthermore, RSPCA records show that over a quarter of cages were judged to be ridiculously small—in some instances, monkeys were found housed in parrot cages. For those who do not think that it could get worse for those monkeys, here is another fact: they are mostly kept indoors. That leads to a lack of sunlight, which means that the necessary vitamin D levels are rarely met. Bone disease in primates kept as pets is a recurrent problem.
Let me tell the story of Joey, a capuchin monkey who is now residing at the Monkey Sanctuary in Looe—Members who wish to see a photo of Joey can see me after the debate. He was kept in a small cage in a London apartment for nine years. A lack of natural light and proper diet led to nutritional bone disease. He has extensive bone deformation, including bowed limb bones and poor bone density. He cannot climb or eat easily and is permanently disabled. He also displays the stereotypical rocking behaviour that is classic for ex-pets. His owner was away most of the time and, other than a friend who spent about an hour with him every day, Joey had no social companionship. It appears that the local council granted a licence for Joey under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 for at least the first year, but at some point it was not renewed and the council never followed up the case. That means that the council seems to approve of the conditions in which Joey was kept, conditions that led to serious physical deformities and behavioural abnormalities.
Another case only last month concerned a ring-tailed lemur found on Tooting common. He had collapsed in sub-zero temperatures and was diagnosed with hypothermia, severe dehydration and shock. Named King Julien by the staff at the Blue Cross animal hospital in Victoria, he was cold, scared and did not want to eat. Happily, the lemur is now on the road to recovery and strong enough to leave the charity’s care. He has been transferred to Specialist Wildlife Services. I would like to thank those at the Blue Cross hospital for everything they did for King Julien and for doing all they can to re-accommodate him in a suitable environment.
Another recent case did not have such a happy ending. A west-midlands couple who owned a crippled baby marmoset monkey sold him in a fish and chip shop car park for £650 in June, rather than take him to a vet. An RSPCA primatologist said that Mikey had advanced bone disease and seven fractures. His tail, which is used for balancing, was broken. His injuries were deemed so severe that he had to be put down. The couple were convicted of animal cruelty and banned from keeping pets for life.
I argue that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 has not been an effective tool in protecting primates that are kept as household pets. The Act states that local authorities are meant to inspect the primate’s living conditions and assess whether it has a safe environment. Monkeys are let down by the fact that many local authorities lack primate expertise. They do not have the working knowledge required to assess correctly whether a primate is in a healthy environment. This leads to cases such as that of Joey, who ended up being re-homed at the Monkey Sanctuary but with severe physical and psychological problems, and monkeys like Mikey inevitably having to be put down.
The RSPCA has also confirmed that, proportionately, complaints reported to it were four to 12 times more frequent for primates than for typical pet species. I cannot fault the premise of the 2006 Act, but evidently it is not accomplishing what it set out to do, which is to protect these animals. The only effective means of adequately safeguarding pet primate welfare is banning the keeping of primates as pets. I therefore urge all hon. Members to support the Bill, which would free these monkeys who cannot help themselves.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sheryll Murray, Oliver Colvile, Zac Goldsmith, Bob Stewart, Mark Pritchard, Caroline Nokes, Stephen Gilbert, Katy Clark, Mark Lazarowicz, Neil Parish, Peter Aldous and Joan Walley present the Bill.
Sheryll Murray accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 March, and to be printed (Bill 273).
Local Government Finance Bill
[1st Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Local retention of non-domestic rates
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 21, in clause 2, page 2, line 19, leave out ‘2013’ and insert ‘2014’.
Amendment 22, in clause 3, page 3, line 21, leave out ‘2013’ and insert ‘2014’.
Amendment 23, in clause 4, page 3, line 35, leave out ‘2013’ and insert ‘2014’.
Amendment 24, in clause 5, page 4, line 5, leave out ‘2013’ and insert ‘2014’.
Amendment 25, in clause 6, page 4, line 22, leave out ‘2013’ and insert ‘2014’.
We have tabled these amendments because we are concerned about the way the Bill is being rushed through the House and, should it be enacted, the short time allowed for its implementation. Understandably, the Bill deals with difficult questions. It is not easy when dealing with local government finance to resolve exactly where the line should be drawn between central and local government, how far services should be uniform and how far we are prepared to tolerate variations in them. I accept that the Government carried out a consultation before bringing in the Bill, but the problem is that the Bill seems to reflect little of that consultation.
In addition, the Bill is being taken through the House at a break-neck pace. It was published on 19 December, just before the Christmas recess, and had its Second Reading on 10 January, which was the first day the House returned and only two sitting days later. Instead of sending the Bill upstairs to Committee, where we could have taken evidence, which we cannot do on the Floor of the House—that is the important thing about Public Bill Committees—the Government insisted that the Bill should be considered in Committee of the whole House in three days, and I think that it was originally meant to be two days.
Why are the Government so worried about taking evidence upstairs in Committee? They might be a little worried about what they could hear, because the truth is that local councils, having started to look at the Bill in detail, are particularly concerned about the speed of implementation for its provisions and are struck by the number of powers being given to the Secretary of State.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another possible motive for considering the Bill on the Floor of the House is the coalition Government’s botched programming of business for this Session and the fact that, were it not being considered here, there would be little to be heard in the Chamber?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, which I will come to in a moment.
If the Bill comes into force, one extremely complex system will be removed and replaced with another extremely complex system, without time for local authorities to prepare for it.
Before my hon. Friend moves on from the question of evidence, I do not want her to overlook the value of such evidence. Does she agree that democracy works better when a wide range of organisations has an opportunity to contribute effectively to our discussions? Evidence sessions in a Public Bill Committee give organisations that represent people with a wide range of interests the chance to assess, analyse and propose amendments to improve legislation. That stage will be sorely missed because of the way in which the Government are handling the Bill.
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. Since I have entered this House, I have learned that the best way to improve legislation is to scrutinise it effectively and listen to those who will have to deal with it when it comes in. If the Government chose to take evidence, they would have ample opportunity to table amendments to the Bill in Committee or on Report.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. Although he is correct in saying that many of us have been local councillors, I point out to him, with all due deference because this applies to me as well, that many of us were local councillors some time ago and that the system of local government has altered in the time since. It would be beneficial for the House to hear from those who are running local councils now. I sincerely regret that we have not had time to do so.
Well, a lot more complicated. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) agree that the last time a Conservative Government had a major reorganisation of local government finance, they ended up putting VAT up for ever and costing the country £20 billion per year?
My hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former leader of a local authority, makes a valid point. I agree with him on one thing: local government finance is exceedingly complicated. For that reason, it might well have been useful to hear in Committee from people such as finance officers in local authorities who will have to deal with this procedure from day to day. They might well have been able to suggest technical amendments that would have been beneficial to the Committee and which, if we are honest, are beyond the expertise of most hon. Members.
The hon. Gentleman should recognise that it is not much use having a consultation unless it informs the legislation. [Interruption.] Local authorities say that it has not. A second process, which many Members have found useful, is to allow people to give evidence on the exact wording and form of the Bill once it has been published. I believe that if we are serious about the legislation that we introduce in this House, it is right and proper to give people the opportunity to do that. People have not had time to do so with this Bill because we are not having evidence sessions in Committee. The House introduced such evidence sessions because it was believed that they would improve legislation. It is a pity that the Government have decided to miss them out.
Is it not very clear to my hon. Friend and to Government Members that there is something slightly odd about a Bill that is supposed to give benefits to local government arousing considerable anxiety and concern in local government, as we have seen in the briefings that we have received? Is that not clear evidence of the need for further thought and attention to the detail to ensure that we do not end up with a disaster that is problematic for local government, rather than a measure that gives greater discretion and benefits to local government?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. In delivering local services, we are meant to be partners with local government. It is right and proper that the House has an opportunity to take on board the views of local government on the legislation.
As my right hon. Friend is a London Member, perhaps I may read out what London Councils says:
“The retention scheme as written is extremely complex and does not, in our view, incorporate adequate reward and incentive for local authorities. London Councils believes that the Government needs to urgently rethink the business rate retention scheme that it has set out in the Bill.”
If we had had a proper Committee stage upstairs, we could have taken evidence on that matter, considered technical amendments and debated them properly. It is a shame that we are not doing so.
I agree with my hon. Friend completely. We are only doing things in this way because the Government do not have enough to fill our days. Since we have the innovation of the whole Committee stage on the Floor of the House, could we not have another innovation of having witnesses before us? There is a special place for them at the Bar of the House. We could devote one day, or perhaps additional days, to hearing exactly what those in local government think about the legislation.
Before my hon. Friend moves off the question of procedure, does she agree that it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that the introduction of evidence sessions as part of the Public Bill Committee process, as opposed to the Standing Committee process, was one of the good reforms of the previous Parliament? The hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) is right that there is useful expertise across the House from Members with a background in local government. However, unlike the previous consultation and the public statements of Ministers, evidence sessions would give members of the Committee and Members who are following the legislation time and help in getting to grips with the content of the Bill. It serves our purpose, as well as the wider purpose of better legislation, to have those evidence sessions and not to put them to one side, as the Government are doing in this case.