House of Commons
Tuesday 7 February 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Further consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Tuesday 21 February at Seven o’clock. (Standing Order No. 20).
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No.2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Readings opposed and deferred until Tuesday 21 February (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
House of Lords Reform
One of the many things that would be included in a package of reform of the other place would be precisely an ironing out of some of those anomalies, so that those who had broken the law, who would not normally be entitled to continue to serve in this House, would not be able to do so in the other, reformed House either.
The Deputy Prime Minister rightly said in his new year message that Britain faced great challenges in 2012 if it was to avoid some of the economic problems of our European neighbours. How, then, can the Government justify consuming so much parliamentary time to push forward House of Lords reform at the expense of more pressing legislation?
I would caution my hon. Friend a little on this point. After all, we are going to invest a considerable amount of time on individual electoral registration, as we have in this Session on the plans for boundary changes—things about which he and his colleagues on the Government Benches feel equally strongly. I think it is perfectly possible to do more than one thing at once in government.
When the Deputy Prime Minister talks to the bishops and the archbishops about their futures, will he gently remind them that the overwhelming majority in Parliament, in the country and in the Church of England want women to be able to become bishops, and that it might not be in the interests of the House of bishops to try to amend or water down the current measure before Synod this week?
I welcome the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) to his place as the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. As a fellow south Londoner, I wish him well in his new job.
Since May 2010, 117 unelected peers have been appointed to the House of Lords, at an additional cost to the taxpayer of £63 million during the course of this Parliament. We know that a new House of Lords reform Bill will be the centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech. The Deputy Prime Minister believes that all parliamentarians should be democratically elected and he also believes in cutting public expenditure. Will he therefore confirm that as long as his proposals on Lords reform are in train, there will be no more peers appointed to the House of Lords?
No, clearly—[Interruption.] We have been open in the coalition agreement that, pending wholesale reform of the other place, we will continue to make appointments to the House of Lords in the time-honoured fashion in proportion to the share of the vote won by the parties at the last general election. As with so many issues where the Labour party has become terrifically pious in opposition, this is not something to which the right hon. Gentleman’s party adhered when in government.
The Government are committed to limiting donations and reforming party funding. This is best achieved, as far as possible, by consensus. To this end, I will write to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition later this week, asking them to nominate representatives to take part in preliminary cross-party discussions.
Last year, when Christopher Kelly’s committee published a report containing its ideas for a package of reforms of party funding, all parties made clear that it was inconceivable that any of us would advocate an increase in overall state funding at this time. I will therefore stipulate in my letter to the leaders of the other main parties that such an increase is not on the agenda for now. However, that does not mean we could not make progress on many other areas of party funding reform on what I hope would be a cross-party basis.
11. As Members know, if one of our constituents buys a car in all good faith and it subsequently turns out to have been stolen, he or she must hand it back. Will the Deputy Prime Minister’s examination of political funding explain why his party is insisting on holding on to the £2.5 million that it was given by the convicted criminal Michael Brown? Will the right hon. Gentleman give it back, or, at the very least, spare us the usual sanctimonious holier-than-thou sermon? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] (93691)
They liked that one.
As we have explained before, the Electoral Commission has made crystal clear that, given the knowledge and information available to the Liberal Democrat party at the time—well before my time as leader—the money was received in entirely good faith.
I certainly think that there would be a significant reputational risk if that party were to table amendments and ask parliamentary questions written for it by that donor, as we learnt had been done last year. If that were the practice in any other party, members of the party concerned would be crying foul.
Individual Voter Registration
We will indeed be publishing an implementation timeline with our response to the Select Committee’s report. In it, we will consider implementing individual registration from the point of view of the elector, the administrators and the Government.
The truth is that this is one of the most anti-democratic Governments of modern Britain. They are having the longest parliamentary term in the world outside Rwanda, and their rushed plans for voter registration now threaten to disfranchise Britain. As well as committing himself to publishing an implementation plan, will the Deputy Prime Minister commit himself to a phased introduction of voter registration, an end to the opt-out clause, and a full household canvass in 2014?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman received the memo from his Front Benchers, who took a much more sensible position during the debate the other day. The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said:
“I welcome the process that the Government have adopted and how they are acting on this matter. We have had a draft Bill and a White Paper with pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Deputy Prime Minister has said twice on the Floor of the House that the Government are willing to listen to concerns”.—[Official Report, 16 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 475.]
I think that the hon. Gentleman ought to check what his party’s position is.
I have been in touch with my hon. Friend and neighbour about the case of my constituent Mr Brian Hudson following his removal from the electoral register in Weymouth and Portland borough council simply because he had a second home. He had been on the list for three years. Does my hon. Friend think it right that anyone can be arbitrarily removed from an electoral register on the grounds that he does not have a “proper” second home?
The law makes clear that it is a question of where people reside, not necessarily a question of where they simply own property. It is up to the electoral registration officer to make a judgment about whether people actually reside in an area. If my hon. Friend’s constituent thinks that he has been hard done by, he should go back to the ERO with some evidence about his residence, and take the matter from there. There is an established independent appeals mechanism.
The Government have said that they accept that registering to vote is a civic duty. They have also indicated that they do not believe that the threat of a criminal conviction is appropriate when an individual fails to complete a registration form. In line with those positions, will they now commit themselves to a system of civil penalties in cases in which a person has been wilfully unco-operative with an electoral registration officer?
We are going to consider that, as the hon. Gentleman will know from the debates that we have had. We have made clear that we do not think criminalising millions of people is very sensible, and I am glad that he welcomes that view. We will think about civil penalties, which have been recommended by the administrators in the Electoral Commission, and will say more when we respond to the Select Committee shortly.
West Lothian Question
The independent commission that we have set up will be able to take evidence from anybody who wants to give it, within its terms of reference. I am therefore sure it will be willing to take evidence from Members of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, but that is a matter for the commission.
I am not sure that those two matters are connected at all. The commission’s terms of reference are specifically to consider the effects and consequences for the House of Commons of the devolution arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady will know that we have appointed experts to the commission. They will come back to the Government with their recommendations, and I have committed then to talk to all parties in this House about how we might proceed further.
Will the commission be able to consider what is really the Berwick-upon-Tweed question: how has it come about over so many years that Scotland seems to have had more money for schools and roads, and a great deal of say in the affairs of England?
Specifically, we have made it clear that the commission will not be able to look at the financial questions. The Government have committed to resolving them, but we have made it clear that the deficit must be dealt with first, and then those other matters will be taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
In order to deliver a more complete and accurate electoral register, we will introduce our proposals for individual registration, the principle of which is supported on both sides of the House. We have published our proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny and we will respond to the Select Committee shortly. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome these changes.
I welcome the Government’s initiative on individual voter registration, especially the provision to deny the postal vote to people who are unable to provide national insurance details. Does my hon. Friend agree that we might expand that principle by considering the option of requiring individual voter ID from people voting at polling stations?
The Government do not have any plans to introduce a requirement for voters to present ID when they vote. We think the current arrangements get the balance right between accessibility and security. We keep these matters under review, however. My hon. Friend will know that there is such a requirement in Northern Ireland, which has a different history in this regard, but it is not in the Government’s plans at present.
The number of unregistered voters increased from 6 million in December 2010 to 8.5 million in April 2011, so there has been a huge 2.5 million extra unregistered voters in the space of four months. Will that devastatingly high figure increase still further as a consequence of the rapid introduction of individual electoral registration?
The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that the research that the Electoral Commission carried out—and which was funded and conducted at the initiative of the Government so that we could see the state of the existing registers—should shake any Members who had a sense of complacency, and who thought the existing system was perfect, out of that complacency. These findings show that there is an urgent need to move to a more accurate and complete system. If the hon. Gentleman waits for the response that we will give to the Select Committee report, he will learn that we have acknowledged some of those concerns, and I think he will be pleasantly surprised by our response.
13. Following the data-matching pilots, what assurances can the Minister give that information and data held by the Department for Work and Pensions will be compatible with the current systems used by electoral registration officers throughout the country? (93694)
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The initial response to the data-matching pilots has been very positive. The Electoral Commission will publish its own independent assessment in March, and we will be saying a little more about that in our response to the Select Committee. Data matching opens up ways of ensuring that the register is more complete and accurate and requires voters to do less work.
Will the Minister assure me that he and his colleagues will carefully examine the implementation of the individual electoral registration which has already taken place in Northern Ireland, that any lessons will be learned and that any necessary changes will be made to enhance the situation?
I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We have already set out some of the lessons we have learned, such as on implementing a carry-forward from the beginning. I have visited Northern Ireland, talked to the chief electoral officer there, looked at some of the very exciting outreach work that people there are doing to get younger voters registered and talked to people about how data matching works. We have learned lessons already and we will continue to work with people in Northern Ireland.
West Lothian Question
Treasury figures show that every English household pays £420 in tax to subsidise Scottish services, which means that Harlow families from my constituency are sending £16 million a year to Scotland. Is it not time to redress the balance and have English votes for English laws?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to take the opportunity to make his views known to the commission. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has just explained, the commission is of course focused on procedures in this House, as they are affected by the process of devolution. I am not sure whether the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) will be directly relevant to the commission’s central terms of reference.
The recent debate on Scottish independence has shown that, unfortunately, a significant proportion of English people believe that Britain would be better off without Scotland, so may I press the Deputy Prime Minister a little further on English votes for English laws? Does he think that such a change will help to restore English faith in the Union?
That is why I believe that the commission is important; if we can get the balance right in this House, such that the changes brought about by devolution are properly reflected in our procedures here—in how matters are dealt with and votes are cast—that will, I hope, address some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend’s constituents. It will also allow us all to make the argument that the vast majority of us in the House believe that Scotland is stronger as a strong part of a strong United Kingdom.
Given that all successful constitutional change in this country post war has taken place on the basis of cross-party consensus, does the Deputy Prime Minister not consider it a serious error not to have sought cross-party meetings or discussions in order to obtain agreement on the terms of reference for the inquiry?
Needless to say, once the commission, which is entirely independent of any party and of the Government, produces its report, we will be keen to enter into cross-party discussions. But at the moment we do not know what the commission is recommending, and it is very difficult to have a proper cross-party discussion without knowing what the recommendations will be.
If the English regions can give evidence to the commission, what will be the appropriate body to do so from Yorkshire and Humber, which has a larger population than Scotland, as we no longer have a regional development agency and we have nothing that represents or gives focus to any strategic thinking for our region?
For a start, it would be a good thing if Members of Parliament from Yorkshire and Humber—I am a Yorkshire MP—were to give evidence where we have strong views on how the procedures of this House should be changed to reflect devolution. The commission has been established and its membership has been selected precisely to reflect the expertise we need on how this House works and how its procedures might need to be reformed.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives, and within government I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of increasing calls to change the law on the close of polls and that in Scotland it has indeed been changed. Although I welcome operational changes, does he accept that it is important that there can be circumstances where a lot of people turn up to vote towards the end of the poll and that to guarantee their right to cast their vote the law should now be changed?
The hon. Lady has raised this issue before and I understand that she feels strongly about it, but much of the evidence suggests that with proper organisation and administration the problems should not have arisen in the first place. She knows as well as I do the areas in Sheffield where a number of people, particularly young people, were disfranchised and were not able to vote, which was an absolute scandal. However, I think we need to be a little cautious about immediately resorting to the statute book to fix a problem that could be fixed by improved organisation and better performance from electoral officers.
T3. May I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on the excellent and distinguished wise men and one wise woman he has appointed to the West Lothian commission? Will he extend the terms of reference so that they will look at the potential consequences of devo-max on this Parliament? (93699)
The commission is to focus on the procedures and practices of this House as they are affected by devolution as we know it right now. The case for further devolution to Scotland, which I happen to believe in as the leader of a party that believes in home rule, can be made but not until we know whether Scotland is going to be part of the United Kingdom in the first place. That can and should be resolved only by a decisive, clear, fair and legally binding vote in a referendum.
There is widespread concern that the NHS Bill lifts the cap for private patients from what is now typically 2% to up to 50%. That means half of all NHS beds and services being given over to private patients and half of all NHS doctors and nurses caring for private patients, which means that NHS patients will be put to the back of the queue. Will the right hon. Gentleman oppose raising the cap?
It is important that the right hon. and learned Lady does not provide a misrepresentation of the current situation. She will know that some London hospitals, such as the Royal Marsden, have a cap of around 30%, which is not nearly as low as she implies. We are saying that no NHS hospital should be able to earn 50% or more of its income through private practice—it should be less than half—and that every penny and every pound raised should be ploughed back into improving services for NHS patients. The alternative is to condemn a number of hospitals into outright financial crisis. How would that benefit families or the thousands of NHS patients who would otherwise have benefited from the extra income coming into the NHS?
It is clear that yet again the Deputy Prime Minister is simply going along with the Tories. Giving half the NHS to private patients is not reforming the NHS—it is destroying it. Is not this an abject betrayal of everything the Lib Dems claim they ever stood for? Will he now drop the Bill?
What would be an abject betrayal of the NHS would be our condemning hospitals to possible closure because we were preventing them from raising money for the benefit of NHS patients. We are not—I repeat, not—suggesting that any NHS hospital should be able to earn private income as half or more of its total income. What is wrong with allowing hospitals that already do private work doing so in a manner that can only benefit NHS patients?
T4. Will my right hon. Friend give heart to the Protect Stapeley campaign in my constituency, which is rightly campaigning against a plan for 1,500 homes, largely on green-belt land, without any obvious concern for the unacceptable pressure it will put on local services and infrastructure? (93700)
I am sure that my hon. Friend is working tirelessly as he always does for his constituents on what sounds like quite a controversial planning application in his area. I cannot comment on the specific application but, as he will know, the draft national planning guidance is very clear that we will always continue to cherish and protect the green belt and that any incursions on it can take place only for very exceptional and special reasons.
T2. I understand that at this morning’s Cabinet meeting the Culture Secretary gave the Deputy Prime Minister for Dickens day a copy of “Oliver Twist”. Did his Tory Cabinet colleagues then burst into a chorus of, “Consider yourself one of us”? (93698)
T7. This May, 11 English cities, including Sheffield, will be holding mayoral referendums. There is considerable evidence that elected city mayors lead to better local leadership and wider political participation, so will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in urging people to vote yes? (93703)
It would be wrong to start taking sides on referendums that are taking place across the country in different cities. The key thing is to make sure that the referendums are held in a way that allows the debate to be played out. I suspect some areas will opt for mayors and others will not; that is the great virtue of all this—it will be entirely dependent on people’s decisions in each local area.
T8. The right hon. Gentleman has said:“For too long, internships have been the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected.” Twenty-five per cent. of the internships currently advertised on the Government’s graduate talent pool website are for unpaid vacancies. What practical steps are the Government taking to provide more paid internships so that people from poorer backgrounds can get those opportunities? (93704)
As the right hon. Lady knows, we have made considerable progress on the internships that operate in Whitehall. When we entered government just over 18 months ago, I was astonished by quite how informal and laid-back the procedures were. We have now put them on a much more open and meritocratic basis, but of course I will look into the cases the right hon. Lady has drawn to my attention.
I am sorry the party that introduced fees feels the need to shout about it.
We stood on a commitment to lift the income tax threshold to £10,000 and that has started to happen, but we need to go further and faster so that we can help more people across the country. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Conservatives in the Government to try to take that forward?
We included in the coalition agreement our commitment to raising the income tax allowance as the No. 1 priority in our tax reforms for a very good reason: it is an extremely effective way of making the tax system more progressive. Let us remember that we inherited a tax system from Labour that scandalously imposed heavier tax on the wages of a cleaner than on the earnings of a banker. That is why we have increased capital gains tax by a full 10% and why this April, for the first time, we shall be taking more than 1 million people on low incomes out of paying any income tax altogether. I want to go further and faster and that is exactly the kind of thing we shall be debating in the weeks and months ahead.
T9. The Royal College of General Practitioners has condemned the health Bill and the Prime Minister is widely reported as suggesting an unpleasant end for the Health Secretary. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with his Cabinet colleagues about that unpleasant end? (93705)
Order. First of all, Members should not shout their heads off at the Deputy Prime Minister; it is deeply discourteous. Secondly, I say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) that if he had yelled like that when practising in the law courts, the judge would have kicked him out. We cannot have it.
It would be so much easier to take the Labour party members seriously on the NHS if they committed to actually spending more money on it. They will not. In their manifesto at the last election, they said they believed in “bold reform” of the NHS, yet they will not tell us what that is. It was under the Labour Government that £250 million of taxpayers’ money was wasted on rigged private sector contracts which never ever delivered a single thing for a single NHS patient. It is this Government who are making it illegal to provide the sweetheart deals for the private sector that occurred under Labour.
Clearly, we strive at all times to deliver value for money for the taxpayer. For instance, the proposals to reform the House of Lords are based on a radical reduction in the size of the House of Lords, which over a period of time will of course represent significant savings.
T10. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister was rather disappointed to be described yesterday as the Government’s whipping boy by one of his high-profile celebrity backers. One way in which he could cast off that awful image is by demanding that his Tory masters drop this disastrous and unwanted Health and Social Care Bill. Will he do so, and does he actually think that the Health Secretary is doing a good job? (93706)
I think that the hon. Lady was referring to Harry Potter. I suppose that the Labour party and Harry Potter have something in common—they both believe in magic. How else can we explain the Labour party’s economic policies and its complete, collective amnesia about its responsibility for failing to run the national health service effectively so that, as in so many other areas, we have to clear up the mess that it left behind?
One of the most important things is to intervene as early as possible. I pay tribute to some distinguished members of the Opposition who have provided important thinking on early intervention. That is one reason why, under this Government, hundreds and thousands of two-year-olds from deprived families will receive, for the first time ever, free pre-school support. Every single three and four-year-old from every family in this country will receive 15 hours of free pre-school support, and then they will benefit from the pupil premium: £2.5 billion of extra money targeted specifically on helping children at school. The evidence is clear: if we want youngsters to do well as they grow up, we have to help them in those crucial, early, formative years.
The announcement from Lloyds will be of immense concern to the employees involved, and it is important that Jobcentre Plus and other resources are made available to react in those areas that are affected. Of course there is huge concern in all parts of the House and across the country about bonuses, particularly in our state-owned banks. Again, it would be much easier to take the hon. Gentleman’s party seriously if it had taken action on bank bonuses and not let them rip in the first place over the past 13 years.
T14. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is a moral and ethical case for going faster and further in raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 in the next Budget, mainly because that will help the least well-off who, unlike the wealthy who can save, have to spend every single penny that they earn on their keep because they must? (93710)
The simple principle of saying that millions of people, particularly those on average incomes and on low and middle incomes, should be able to retain more of the money that they earn is a very good one. It has not only a moral dimension but an economic logic, too, because with more money kept in their own pockets, hopefully that in turn will encourage many, many consumers to go out and shop and help move the wheels of the British economy.
Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), will the Deputy Prime Minister explain why, despite his pledge to widen access to internships, publicly funded museums and galleries took on close to 800 unpaid interns in the past two years?
As the hon. Lady knows, the role of internships, which used to be informal—people did not really think that it mattered very much—has become much more important over the past five to 10 years. It has become a stepping stone for people’s subsequent success in finding real work, so it is right that she and others devote more attention to it. I was not aware of the figures that she has cited for unpaid internships in the museum sector which, as much as any other walk of life, must reflect hard on whether internships are being made fairly available to as many young people as possible.
With regard to House of Lords reform, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was a matter of principle that people who are unelected should not be able to set the laws of this country. Does that mean that he now believes that unelected and unaccountable European Commissioners should not have any role in initiating legislation that impacts on this country?
The hon. Gentleman is nothing if not skilled in crowbarring the European Commission into almost any topic, and I congratulate him on doing so again. I do not think that the parallel is an exact one, because the European Commission can only propose legislation; adopting it, thankfully, is the role of elected Members of the European Parliament and elected Ministers in the Council of Ministers.
The Deputy Prime Minister is on television almost every week talking about the influence of the Liberal Democrats within this coalition. I have an idea for him: why does he not do something useful for a change by having the guts to tell the Prime Minister to drop the dastardly Bill to privatise the health service and get in line with all those royal colleges and the British people who are calling for the same thing?
It is truly ironic that the hon. Gentleman gets on his high horse once again to talk about the private sector in the NHS when it was his Labour Government—I am not sure whether he had disowned them—who crowbarred into the NHS sweetheart deals with the private sector that were deliberately designed to undermine the publicly owned parts. Some £250 million of taxpayers’ money was wasted by his colleagues in government on private sector contracts that delivered nothing. It is this coalition Government—two parties coming together—who are making privatisation by the back door illegal.
As my hon. Friend will know, we are running a consultation on exactly those kinds of questions—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says that it does not do that, but those are exactly the kinds of questions on which people can provide their views, and we will of course listen to all the views expressed.
Given that satisfaction with the health service rose from 34% in 1997 to 70% in 2010, will the Deputy Prime Minister withdraw his comment that there was a mess to be cleared up and change his advice to the Prime Minister by encouraging him to drop the Health and Social Care Bill?
I was pointing out that the Labour party’s position now, if I understand it correctly, is to remove the freedom of hospitals to be financially viable, thus condemning them to having to make £20 billion of savings. Guess who announced those huge savings that need to be made in the NHS? The Labour Government. The Labour party has no plans for how hospitals should make those savings and still will make no commitment to providing real-terms increases for the NHS of the sort we are making. I do not think we need to take any lessons on the NHS from the Labour party.
I welcome the idea of a statutory register of lobbyists, but will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that the definition of lobbyist will not deter charities or businesses wishing to invest in an area from being able to approach their MP frankly and openly?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is very important that we get the balance right so that we can ensure that there is more transparency in the way lobbying is conducted, but in such a way that does not discourage people, organisations or charities from doing what they naturally want to do, which is to approach their MP and make their case. That is why we have crafted the consultation in exactly the terms we have.
The Attorney-General was asked—
I have regular discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of criminal matters, including rape. The DPP, the Attorney-General and I take our duties in regard to rape prosecutions extremely seriously. The hon. Lady met the DPP in April last year to discuss rape prosecutions, and he wrote to her on 6 May setting out what the CPS is doing to improve the effectiveness of rape prosecutions.
Last week the chief prosecutor for London, Alison Saunders, called on the Government to start a public debate to bust some of the myths about rape victims which prevent successful prosecutions. Will the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General agree to work with ministerial colleagues to begin a Government-led campaign to address the misrepresentations of and misconceptions about rape victims which get in the way of successful prosecutions?
Of course we will. I am already a member of the inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, and as I indicated a moment ago I take my responsibilities with regard to the prosecution of rape cases extremely seriously. I have personally appeared in a number of applications to the Court of Appeal, dealing with unduly lenient sentences passed in relation to rape victims. We want to improve the attrition rate and the conviction rate, and the hon. Lady can be assured that this Government and these Law Officers are fully behind that momentum.
On the prosecution of sexual offences, the number of child sexual offences reported to the police last year was about 17,000, and the number of prosecutions was about 4,000. Does the Solicitor-General know the reason for that gap?
I do not know—I have no empirical evidence that I can deploy this afternoon—but clearly there is an absence, often in such cases, of evidence that has reached the state in which it can be taken to court. My hon. Friend will know from his practice at the Bar that it is essential that we have adducible evidence to put before the court. Without evidence, we cannot prosecute.
The Crown Prosecution Service is working with law enforcement agencies and others in the UK, as well as in source countries, to improve the investigation and prosecution of those involved in human trafficking. The CPS is also encouraging victims of human trafficking to support criminal proceedings.
We are very much aware that this is a problem, but part of the difficulty is that trafficking for forced labour is notoriously difficult to establish, and often the victims will not come forward. That said, as my hon. Friend will be aware, there is now a national referral mechanism that alerts the police at neighbourhood level, the UK Border Agency, social services and charitable organisations as to how they can pick up such information and feed it into the specialist units of the police, which can then bring in the Crown Prosecution Service to try to deal with those matters.
As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, with my hat on as superintendent of the Crown Prosecution Service, it would be easy for me to ask for extra resources in all directions outside my own Department, but if he thinks that there are specific instances in which the service may be in some way deficient he should, I suggest, bring them to my attention or to that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The evidence that I have from the Crown Prosecution Service is that it receives very good co-operation from the agencies with which it deals.
I am not in a position to give my hon. Friend a precise date. What I suggest, as he will appreciate that the issue is outside my departmental area, is that I write to him when I have ascertained whether we have further detailed information on it.
Surely we are going to get many more convictions only if there is much more effective co-operation between prosecutors and police in this country and elsewhere. Given that many such gangs are elsewhere in the European Union, is not the European arrest warrant a vital part of the necessary armoury? Will the Attorney-General tell his Back Benchers that he is not going to step outside the European arrest warrant, even if they want to do so?
I have no doubt at all that mechanisms for co-operation throughout the European Union and, indeed, elsewhere can be very useful in the apprehension of criminals, particularly in this field. How that should best be carried out is, if I may say to the hon. Gentleman, ultimately I suppose a matter for this House, if it ever comes up for review.
The Attorney-General and I hold regular meetings with the director of the Serious Fraud Office, at which we discuss all aspects of its work, including individual cases and the development of deferred prosecution agreements as an additional weapon in our criminal justice armoury. We also hold regular meetings with the Home Secretary and her Ministers, but there have been no recent discussions on economic crime. I remind the hon. Lady of the Home Office paper entitled “The National Crime Agency: A plan for the creation of a national crime-fighting capability”, which was published in June 2011. The NCA will include an economic crime command.
I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer. Given that the Serious Fraud Office is facing cuts of 23% and that the Law Society Gazette has reported on deferred prosecution agreements, will he update the House generally on those agreements? Specifically, will they be available for the public so that those dealing with companies that are subject to such agreements can see that?
When DPAs come into the criminal justice system in this country, they will be available to the public in the sense that they will be operated by the director of the Serious Fraud Office, who is a public prosecutor. I am not sure that I can help the hon. Lady much further than that. The matter is under discussion and we are developing it within Government. Further announcements will be made just as soon as we are ready.
Given that when investigating the failure of RBS, Adair Turner concluded that the FSA has little power under the existing rules to take action against individuals associated with the banking crisis; that the director of the SFO believes that
“things have got to change”;
and that we are still waiting for anyone in the UK to be prosecuted in relation to the global financial crisis, will the Solicitor-General use his best efforts to persuade the Attorney-General to look again at introducing a crime of corporate negligence so that prosecutors have a full range of weapons in their armoury to use in future against reckless financiers?
The Attorney-General and I always use our best efforts. The development of the criminal law is within the remit of the Ministry of Justice. I am sure that the hon. Lady will address her remarks, via the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), to that Department.
European Court of Human Rights
I am working closely with the Foreign Secretary and the Justice Secretary, and talking to many member states and to key figures in the Court and the Council of Europe. Only last week, I spoke at the seminar on court reform for European civil society organisations. There is a keen appetite for reform of the Court and we are confident that we can gain agreement on a reform package.
Yes, there is no doubt about that. The Court itself knows that. Some efforts have been made to reduce the backlog, particularly by streamlining the sitting hours of completely hopeless applications. The problem remains that there is a large number of cases that is in excess of the number of cases that can be heard each year. It is for those reasons that the United Kingdom, as part of its reform package, has asked those who are interested to examine how principles of subsidiarity can be introduced so that fewer cases have to be considered by the Court, with cases instead being resolved properly at national level wherever possible.
Does the Attorney-General not consider that there is a strong argument for fast-tracking certain cases, for example cases of national security, through the European Court? We will hear later about the case of Abu Qatada. That is an example of how it takes a long time to get a decision out of the European Court.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have no doubt that things could be done better. The Court already has a system of prioritisation. I have no doubt that the reform process will look at whether the Court can do better in identifying cases of particular importance. As he is aware from remarks that I have made on another occasion, the length of time that someone may be detained in custody while a case is being considered at the European Court of Human Rights level is something to which great consideration should be given.
I welcome the efforts that Ministers are making. Is there an appetite among the mature democracies, as the Attorney-General indicated, to ensure that the Court gives priority to cases of gross abuses of human rights, rather than to the refinement of the law in countries that have well-developed human rights?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s sentiments would be echoed by most member states that are asking for reform to take place. At the same time, I want to make it clear that any reform package must still leave autonomy for the European Court of Human Rights. Its own processes must be reformed, and it must have control of them. Those issues are being examined, and I hope that the reform package that we will initiate will make a real and substantial difference to how the Court can approach its work load and continue doing its important work.
In his reforms to the European Court of Human Rights, will the Attorney-General ensure that we do not end up by default making it much more difficult for people bringing human rights abuse cases from, say, Russia, Hungary or other places where there are serious abuses of human rights, by pushing them back to the national jurisdiction? The influence of the Court can be a force for good and help to curtail some of the most vile human rights abuses that are taking place across Europe.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we share his view that the Court has been of immense benefit in member states across the European continent in improving human rights standards. In that context, as I have indicated, there can be no suggestion that the right of personal petition, for example, should be removed. Although we need to ensure that the Court keeps its autonomy, there is widespread acknowledgment that there must be reform if it is to continue doing its work properly.
Eighteen months ago, Alison Levitt, QC, was tasked with a review of the previous evidence from the 2006 hacking case. Will her conclusions be shared with Lord Leveson, and can they also be shared, maybe in a redacted form, with members of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, who are conducting an inquiry on the matter at the moment?
Is it not the case that public confidence in both the Crown Prosecution Service and the police is absolutely vital? If so, does the Solicitor-General share my concern about the fact that we have had many arrests of journalists under Operation Elveden but only two arrests of police officers, and that the names of those police officers have remained unpublished? There seems to be one rule for the police and another rule for journalists.
There is also another rule that the Law Officers do not tell the police what to do. It is entirely a matter for the police to deal with arrests. If matters come to their attention that need the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service, which the Attorney-General and I superintend, we will no doubt examine them.
One issue that will arise in this context is contempt of court and the extent to which the media need to be controlled. I was rather disappointed to hear the Attorney-General’s responses on Radio 4 this morning. Would the Solicitor-General like to make it absolutely clear to the entire nation that, notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of particular cases, it is possible to commit contempt on Twitter?
Crown Prosecution Service (Evidence)
The effective management and disclosure of evidence relies on the proper discharge of duties and obligations by both the police and the prosecutor. Although there have been failures in a small number of cases, in the vast majority of cases the disclosure duties are carried out well.
As the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) will know, there is currently an inquiry into the Lynette White case in south Wales, more properly called the Crown v. Mouncher and others. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is carrying out a review of police conduct in that case, and the Director of Public Prosecutions has separately and additionally asked the inspectorate of the Crown Prosecution Service to carry out a review of the actions and decision making of the CPS in relation to disclosure in that case.
It took nearly 10 years and cost the taxpayer about £30 million to bring eight former South Wales police officers to court on charges of perverting the course of justice and fabricating evidence. The case collapsed when the key documents were thought destroyed, but they have now been found. I thank the Attorney-General for his answer, but what assessment has the CPS made of the prospects of a future prosecution?
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) has said: there is considerable shock at the conduct of this case, in south Wales and elsewhere. In the past, there have been a particularly high number of miscarriages of justice under the South Wales police force. Is the Attorney-General aware of any other similar cases in which the disappearance and re-emergence of key evidence has led to a retrial?
Off the top of my head, I am not aware of any such cases, but the right hon. Lady is right to point out that the collapse of the Lynette White case in south Wales just recently, which affects her constituents and neighbours and those of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), is a matter of huge regret. It is now being subjected to two inquiries. Once they have been completed, further announcements will be made.
Is not the lesson of the disclosure debacle in the Lynette White case this: when criminal allegations are made against police officers in one police force, disclosure should be handled by officers from an entirely independent police force? Will my hon. and learned Friend do all he can to ensure that such reforms take place so that such a disaster does not happen again?
Clearly—particularly in large and complex cases such as the one we are talking about—the need to get disclosure right is key. That is also true, however, in what one might call less serious cases—although I do not want to be misunderstood when I use that adjective. My hon. Friend’s point about other police forces dealing with the disclosure in such cases must, surely, be a matter for the chief constable of the relevant police area. I have no doubt that the Home Secretary, who is sitting beside me, will bear that in mind in due course.
My understanding is that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is currently giving careful consideration to the recommendations of the independent extradition review panel. She wants to discuss the Government’s proposed response to those recommendations with Cabinet colleagues before announcing to Parliament what action the Government will take. In reaching a decision on what the Government propose to do, she will also take into account the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on extradition and the representations made by Members of the House during recent debates.
A recent motion in this House called for the extradition treaty to be redrafted to enable the Government to refuse extradition requests if UK prosecutors have decided against beginning proceedings at home. What progress is being made on that?
As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the review is being led by the Home Office and it might therefore be best if my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary answered his question. The entire package being considered by the Government will take into account all representations made in coming to a decision.
The Government are committed to protecting and building on the reputation of UK business. The recent use of the civil recovery process to recover shared dividend payments derived through contracts won through unlawful conduct reinforces that. The actions of the Serious Fraud Office send a clear message to shareholders and investors, particularly institutional investors, that they must satisfy themselves that the business practices of the companies in which they invest are legal and ethical. The Serious Fraud Office has signalled its intention rigorously to pursue similar civil recovery actions, where appropriate, in the future.
It is good to see the Attorney-General being tough on bribery and he might want to have a word with the Justice Secretary about that. He will be aware that in the Mabey Holdings case, the director of the SFO said that
“the shareholder was totally unaware of…inappropriate behaviour.”
Will it be common practice for lay shareholders and pension funds to be penalised for the fraudulent activities of companies which, by definition, they will not know about, as bribery is not generally advertised?
I think it is right to say that in the case of Mabey Engineering, the company that held the dividends was a subsidiary company—that is, a holding company held the dividends. That said, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any specific assurance as we will consider the matter on a case-by-case basis. The principle of the possibility of taking back dividends that have been paid wrongly, as they are the fruit of bribery and corruption, must clearly be kept in mind.
Since December 2001, successive British Governments have sought to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan, his home country, because he poses a serious risk to our national security. Qatada has a long-standing association with al-Qaeda. British courts have found:
“His reach and the depth of his influence…is formidable…He provides a religious justification for…acts of violence and terror”.
In Jordan, he has been tried and found guilty in absentia of terrorism offences including conspiracy to cause explosions at western and Israeli targets and involvement in the bombings of the American school and the Jerusalem hotel in Amman in 1998.
The House of Lords agreed with the Government that Qatada can be deported to Jordan to face a retrial because of the diplomatic assurances negotiated by Britain and the Jordanian Government. That agreement ensures that individuals deported to Jordan will not be tortured upon their return. Despite the House of Lords agreement that Qatada should be deported, and despite accepting that he would not face mistreatment in Jordan, the European Court of Human Rights ruled last month against his deportation. It did so on the grounds that deportation would violate article 6 of the convention, the right to a fair trial, due to the risk that evidence obtained from the torture of others would be used against him. Hon. Members should be aware that that argument had already been considered by a British court and rejected.
I hardly need tell the House that the Government disagree vehemently with Strasbourg’s ruling. We believe that Abu Qatada should be deported. We are considering all the legal options available, including whether to refer the case to the Grand Chamber. As we do so, we will continue to negotiate with the Jordanians to see what assurances they can give us about the evidence used against Qatada in their courts. Following the Strasbourg ruling, Qatada’s lawyers appealed to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission for bail. We opposed that appeal vigorously, but yesterday it was granted, and bail will start within a week.
The bail conditions are among the most stringent imposed on anybody facing deportation from the UK, and reflect the conditions set out when Qatada was bailed in 2008. He will be under a 22-hour curfew. He will not be allowed to access the internet or any electronic communication devices. He will not be allowed to travel outside an approved boundary. Visitors will need to be approved, under very strict conditions. He will be subject to a specific condition preventing him from attending mosques and leading group prayer. If any of those conditions are breached, he will be re-arrested and we will seek his immediate re-detention. But however strict the bail conditions, I continue to believe that Qatada should remain behind bars.
It is simply not acceptable that after the Jordanians have guaranteed his treatment, after British courts have found that he is dangerous and after his removal has been approved by the highest courts in our land, we still cannot deport such a dangerous foreign national. We continue to consider the case for a British Bill of Rights, and the Prime Minister is leading the Government’s attempts to reform the European Court of Human Rights.
The right place for a terrorist is a prison cell. The right place for a foreign terrorist is a foreign prison cell, far away from Britain. That is why we will do everything that we can within the existing legal regime to deport Qatada, and we are doing everything that we can to reform that regime to avoid such cases in future.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for her answer. She will understand, of course, that there is considerable concern throughout the House about yesterday’s decision. I appreciate, as do we all, that it places her in a difficult situation, but the public will want reassurance that the Government are doing everything possible to protect their safety.
First, can she offer any explanation why Mr Justice Mitting decided to bail Abu Qatada now, while an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights is still possible, rather than give notice that that would happen at some point in future if Ministers were ultimately unable to deport him? Will she say more about the discussions with the authorities in Jordan? Does she expect to receive assurances on the use of evidence, and if so, when? Given the urgency of the situation, will Ministers be directly involved in those discussions? Does she intend to make further representations to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission? Has Mr Justice Mitting indicated that he would be prepared to reconsider the three-month deadline for removing bail conditions if the Government received the necessary assurances and appealed against the ECHR ruling?
The public will be reassured by the fact that Home Office lawyers were successful in pressing SIAC to impose a 22-hour curfew on Abu Qatada. What arguments were advanced for that level of control, and how do they compare with the much-reduced arrangements that would be available if Abu Qatada were made subject to a terrorism prevention and investigation measure? Will the Home Secretary confirm that, under a TPIM, Abu Qatada would be entitled to a mobile phone and have access to the internet, that an overnight residence requirement would not exceed 16 hours, and that she would be unable to relocate him to another part of the country?
What additional costs will fall to the police and the Security Service as a result of the decision to grant Abu Qatada bail? Will the Home Secretary update the House on progress made since the Prime Minister’s recent speech in Strasbourg on the need to reshape the relationship between the ECHR and the UK’s own judicial system? Does she agree that it should be only in truly exceptional cases that a Supreme Court judgment can be challenged in the ECHR? Finally, does she agree that it is a good thing that indefinite detention without trial was ruled to be unlawful, but that the answer in Abu Qatada’s case is deportation, with assurances, to Jordan, not release into the community in Britain?
The right hon. Gentleman has raised several issues in his supplementary questions, some of which relate to the approach that Justice Mitting might take in certain circumstances, but obviously it is not for me to indicate what approach the judge would take. However, were assurances received from the Jordanian Government—we are working hard on that—obviously that would change the scenario and, by introducing a new factor, would enable the Government to take action that would, I think, change SIAC’s approach. If any case were to go before it again, though, it would be for it to determine.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the work being done on the ECHR. As he will be aware, because of our chairmanship of the Council of Europe, we are in a position for six months to take action on this matter, and we are working actively with other countries with a similar interest in ensuring that the European Court acts as originally intended, which is as a Court considering the most serious issues and key points of human rights law, rather than as a body to which people automatically appeal once they have gone through national courts. That work is being actively led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. Furthermore, as I mentioned, the Prime Minister has been to Strasbourg, spoken on these matters and explained our position.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned TPIMs and bail, but of course they are two separate matters—one should not conflate the two. The Home Office made vigorous representations to SIAC arguing that Abu Qatada should not be released on bail, but that were it to happen, the most stringent conditions should be applied. As I said, these are among the most stringent conditions applied to anybody we are currently unable to deport from the UK.
As the right hon. Gentleman said at the end, it is absolutely right that in this country we do not have indefinite detention without trial. However, everyone on both sides of the House wants to ensure that we can deport those who represent a danger to the United Kingdom and whom we believe should be deported. That is why we are considering our options within the legal process, and why we are negotiating with Jordanians on further assurances in order to deport Abu Qatada. However, it is also why we are working to make the changes in the European Court to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, and looking at the whole issue of assurances with other countries, to ensure that we strengthen our ability to deport people who are a danger to us.
The Home Secretary has made a robust statement; the Prime Minister has made robust statements. Unfortunately, the declaration that she made some months ago—that we would repeal the Human Rights Act—is the remedy. I would like to know, and I would be grateful if the Home Secretary would say, whether she intends to carry through our commitment—her own statement that she would repeal the Human Rights Act—return the remedy to this House and pass the legislation necessary to get this right; otherwise it will be all talk and no action.
I have been used, over time in my political life, to words that I have said being taken slightly out of context. I said that it was my personal view that the Human Rights Act should be repealed, not that I was about to repeal it—which my hon. Friend sort of implied in his question. I would simply remind him that even if we were to repeal the Human Rights Act, we would of course still be subject to the European convention and the European Court.
The Home Secretary has given a serious account of the risk from Abu Qatada. She will know that we agree that he should be deported, on the grounds of being a risk to national security. However, she has not said much about what she is doing now in response to the judgment. She is right to look at the legal options for appealing against the European Court judgment, but what more is she doing to get further assurances from Jordan so that he can be deported now? She will know that an agreement was reached by the British Government before the election, so it is possible to make diplomatic progress. We understand that the British ambassador has been in some discussions, but what actions have Ministers taken? Has the Home Secretary taken this up herself with the Jordanian Government? If she has not done so, will she do so now? If so, will she go back to SIAC to ask for a stay of the bail until those high-level discussions with the Jordanian Government have been completed, given the urgency and seriousness of this case?
On the second issue—protecting public safety in the meantime—it is unclear whether the Home Secretary is looking for more evidence to take to SIAC to overturn the bail decision. However, what will happen if the negotiations with Jordan fail and if the courts conclude that bail cannot be extended in three months’ time? Those are the circumstances that control orders were introduced to address, but her decision has been to weaken those counter-terror laws, and that will make it harder. Under the current system, if TPIMs have to be introduced after three months if bail is stopped, she will not be able to ask the courts for a curfew—only an overnight residence requirement—and she will have to provide access to the internet and telephones. She will not be able to ask the courts to relocate Abu Qatada outside London, should that be appropriate—during the Olympics, for example—nor will she be able to extend those restrictions for more than two years. The restrictions that the Home Secretary will have available to her in three months’ time are a far cry from the restrictions that she and the courts understandably believe are necessary now to protect the public, which include the 22-hour curfew, no access to the internet and no access to phones.
The Home Secretary cannot blame the European Court for her decision to weaken British counter-terror powers. The courts, the security experts and the Home Secretary have all made it clear that Abu Qatada is a continued threat to public safety and national security. We support her in her actions to protect the public and get the deportation in place, but she should be straining every sinew, on behalf of the public, to get him deported. If she cannot, she should make sure that we have the legislation and the safeguards in place to protect the public now.
I have to say to the shadow Home Secretary that she appears to have prepared her statement before listening to my answer, because I made it clear that I continue to believe that Qatada should face trial in Jordan and that the Government have begun discussions with the Jordanians to see what assurances we can secure about the quality of evidence used in their courts. We will be pursuing those discussions at every level that is appropriate to ensure that we work towards the aim that we share across the House: getting the assurances that will enable us to deport Abu Qatada. As I said, we will also consider the legal options that are available, including whether we should refer the case to the Grand Chamber, but we need to consider the consequences of those actions before we take a decision.
I referred, obviously, to the bail conditions that have been placed on Qatada, as the right hon. Lady did. I continue to believe that he should be behind bars. The bail conditions are among the most stringent on anybody facing deportation from Britain. She referred to the difference between TPIMs and control orders. I remind her that the bail conditions are stronger than would be possible under TPIMs or control orders. I also refer her to the wider point that I have made about TPIMs in the Chamber in the past, which is that the police and the Security Service are content with the package that was negotiated in relation to TPIMs and with the extra funding that has been made available to the Security Service and the police.
We should be able to deport Abu Qatada; that is the view across the whole House. He should be behind bars. Home Office Ministers and previous Home Secretaries under the previous Government have tried to do everything possible to get him to Jordan, and that is what this Government are trying to do. The case has been ongoing since 2001. In 2008, there was a brief period during which he was released on bail. We should send a clear message from across the House that we believe he should be deported, and this Government are doing what we can to ensure that we achieve that. That is what is right for the security of our citizens.
The specific reason for the European Court finding against deportation was the question of whether the evidence that would be used against Abu Qatada in his retrial—he had been tried in absentia—had been obtained as a result of torture. That is the issue that was raised by the European Court, and that is the issue that we are addressing.
In 2002, when Abu Qatada was eventually apprehended, he was in a flat about 400 yards away from MI5 headquarters, using what was then the most sophisticated electronic equipment to communicate his message. Given that the Home Secretary has said time and again this afternoon that the bail conditions are tough and would restrict him from being able to do that again, how can she possibly justify allowing a situation to arise at the end of April, with the Olympic games and the Queen’s jubilee taking place, in which terrorism prevention and investigation measures would come into effect that would do away with all the restrictions that she has set out in the bail conditions?
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in our unwritten constitution, there is a distinction between the rule of law and the tyranny of lawyers? Does she also accept that the interaction between the European Court of Human Rights and the ruling by Justice Mitting on the question of bail has created a dangerous situation in which millions of people in this country are starting to lose confidence in our legal system?
I do not believe that millions of people are losing confidence in our legal system. I believe that they are concerned about the ability of the European Court to come to decisions that we do not believe to be in the best interests of the United Kingdom. This decision on Abu Qatada is clearly a case in point. That is why it is important for the Government to pursue the work that we are doing, not only in looking into the possibility of a British Bill of Rights but in trying to make changes to the way in which the European Court operates, so that in future we will be able to deport people who present a danger to us.
The right hon. Lady’s peremptory answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) was simply not acceptable for a Home Secretary. My right hon. Friend asked her a very serious question, but she failed to give him any answer to it at all. All of us believe that Abu Qatada should be sent back to Jordan. Many of us, myself included, personally sought to negotiate with the Jordanians—unsuccessfully—to achieve that. If that cannot happen, however, and if the bail conditions lapse at the end of three months, will she accept that, on any analysis, the powers that she has put on to the statute book—these so-called TPIMs—are much weaker than the powers of the control orders that were in place and that worked satisfactorily in the past?
I will repeat the point I made in response to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett)—that our work now is to try to get the assurances necessary to ensure that we could deport Abu Qatada, but also to look at the other available legal options, such as whether or not to refer the case to the Grand Chamber.
The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and many of his right hon. and hon. Friends have raised in the House on a number of occasions the issue of the conditions relating to TPIMs and I have every confidence that they will be raised again in future. I repeat the comments I made in response to the shadow Home Secretary, which I have made previously, that we have put together, from TPIMs and additional funding available to the Security Service and the police, the package that we believe is right and with which the police and the Security Service are content. Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman as I did to the shadow Home Secretary that the bail conditions applied in this case are more stringent than control orders, so even if control orders were in place, it would not be possible to apply the same conditions as have been made available under these bail conditions.
Signatories to the European convention on human rights, such as Italy, have simply ignored in exceptional circumstances rulings from the Court. Have Her Majesty’s Government considered that course of action in the Qatada case?
As I made clear in my earlier responses, we are looking at every option available to us under the current legal regime in order to deal with this issue. We wish to be able to deport Abu Qatada; we do not believe he should be in the United Kingdom, but we are looking at all options under the existing legal regime.
The Home Secretary said quite rightly that she wishes to be in a position to deport Abu Qatada, but I am afraid that, much as we all might wish that, if it does not happen in three months’ time, the Home Secretary will face a serious choice. The bail conditions might well be relaxed, so the only choice she will have under current legislation would be to impose a TPIM. Time and again, we have seen that TPIMs do not have the measures necessary to give the British people the degree of security that they need. In this year, with the Olympics and the diamond jubilee and with half a dozen people on control orders coming back to London and being relocated, there is layer upon layer of risk. What steps is the right hon. Lady going to take to make sure that we can be assured of our safety and security?
I can assure the right hon. Lady that this Government place the security of this country and its people as their priority. That is why we have put in place a series of measures that we believe will satisfy that requirement. Right now, the Government’s intention is to work to try to achieve what the right hon. Lady has recognised that all of us want across the House when it comes to dealing with Abu Qatada.
The European Court of Human Rights has yet again placed the Home Secretary and this Government in an extremely difficult position. In the short term at least, we are stuck with it, but can the right hon. Lady assure us that she will renegotiate not just with Jordan but with other countries that are subject to memorandums of understanding so that we can head these sorts of problem off—before they happen, not once they have happened?
Negotiations take place with a number of countries about the memorandums of understanding required to enable us to deport people so that we do not find ourselves unable to do so because of legal requirements. One important aspect of the Strasbourg Court’s decision in this case was that it supported the memorandum of understanding in respect of what would happen to Abu Qatada himself, were he to be returned to Jordan. In that sense, the memorandum of understanding was found to be workable by the Strasbourg court; access to a fair trial was the issue that it raised, but we will continue to be in negotiations with a number of countries where we feel it would be helpful to have such memorandums of understanding in place.
The Home Secretary’s robust approach on this case mirrors that of previous Home Secretaries who have spoken today, but is there not a case for fast-tracking cases of national security through the European Court? The main complaint is that it took three years to pass from the House of Lords to the European Court. In cases like this, urgent action needs to be taken. Will the right hon. Lady confirm whether Sheikh Raed Saleh is still in the country?
The issue with the European Court is not so much one of whether certain cases should be fast-tracked; rather, the question we need to ask is which cases should be going through to the European Court. One issue we need to look at is the fact that when cases have gone through every single level of judicial consideration through national courts, appeal to the European Court is too often seen as a natural thing to happen at the end of the process. That contrasts with the original intention, which was about defining some very key points of law relating to human rights. That is the issue on which we need to focus.
Yet again, it seems that the rights of terrorists trump the universal right of people in this country to feel that they have safety on their side. This must be costing some police force an enormous amount of resources. Would it not be better to allocate one police officer to go with Mr Qatada and hold his hand throughout the time he is in Jordan than to allocate someone to hold his hand here when he will potentially walk out of the door three months later?
As I said in answer to an earlier question, the European Court has upheld the memorandum of understanding on the basis of assurances in relation to the treatment of Abu Qatada himself were he to be returned to Jordan. The issue it has raised is that of a fair trial, and concerns the evidence that has been obtained from others and whether that evidence was obtained with or without torture.
Does the Home Secretary agree that this case reflects a wider problem? Courts, whether in Europe or here, often weigh the integrity of their own proceedings against national security. Is it not now necessary for us to make absolutely clear how important national security is, and that it should be given priority? Should we not also make that absolutely clear in legislative terms?
The right hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point about the balance between judicial proceedings and the consideration of those proceedings, and the interests of national security. If I may say so, I think it possible that those who have been in the Home Office are often more acutely sensitive than others to the fact that the balance sometimes goes in a direction that we do not feel gives sufficient weight to issues of national security. However, as we try to bring 46 other countries along with us in our attempt to introduce some reform to the European Court, we shall need to examine exactly what sort of cases should be going there.
The Qatada case highlights wider chinks in our security strategy. It is a fact that the number of terrorism convictions has plummeted by 100% in the last four years. Will my right hon. Friend consider lifting the ban on intercept evidence so that we can prosecute more of these terrorists? Will she also consider amending the UK Borders Act 2007 to strengthen our capacity to deport, which we can do without touching the Human Rights Act? Above all, does not the Qatada ruling show that it is time for Britain to say no to Strasbourg?
Of course we are always in the business of considering what measures we can take to ensure that we can strengthen our ability to deal with potential terrorists. As for the issue of intercept evidence, we are still pursuing it, the advisory council of Privy Counsellors is considering it again, and it has been considered by successive Governments. It is a complex issue, but that work continues while we try to establish whether there is a way in which it would be possible to introduce intercept as evidence.
This person is clearly motivated by murderous hatred—there is no doubt about that—but can the Home Secretary answer this question? He has been here for some 16 or 17 years. If there is evidence that he was inciting murder, why was he not charged? Would that not have been the most appropriate way of dealing with this fanatic?
In all cases relating to terrorists, potential terrorists or those who are inciting others, our preference is always to be able to prosecute, and for those people to be behind bars. That is why all cases are looked at very carefully, and, obviously, the appropriate judgments are made.
Does the Home Secretary not accept that the British Government are now in a rather pathetic, humiliating situation? A proud, sovereign country cannot deport foreign terrorists. It is no good the Home Secretary simply huffing and puffing about the decision. What the British public want to know is this: if we cannot secure the reforms that we need from the European Court of Human Rights, will we withdraw from the European convention? In the absence of that commitment, the Home Secretary will simply be spitting in the wind.
One of the important messages comes from part of the Court’s decision, which is that where we have memorandums of understanding in relation to the treatment of individuals, that was upheld by the European Court. That is an important part of the judgment. Obviously, as I have said we vehemently disagree with the other part of the Court’s judgment in relation to the issue of a fair trial, which is why we continue to do what all hon. Members have said they want, which is to see if there are ways we can move to Abu Qatada’s deportation.
My right hon. Friend referred to the current legal framework. Will she confirm that it is open to Parliament to change this legal framework, and would it therefore be possible to repeal any rights of the European Court to interfere in our affairs and to return this matter to British courts—and could a Bill to achieve this be introduced tomorrow?
We are signatories to the European convention on human rights, and we remain signatories to that convention. That has been the policy across Governments in this country. As I have said in response to a number of questions, we are doing what we can at this time, with our chairmanship of the Council of Europe, to bring change to the way the European Court operates.
Is it true, as some press reports suggest, that, despite the stringent bail conditions, this individual will enjoy the privilege of a daily school run? If that is the case, what steps are in place to offer protection and reassurance to innocent parents and their children who may inadvertently find themselves forced into contact with this man?
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that we have now reached the point where the vast majority of people right across the country are saying, “Enough is enough”? While we understand the difficulties the Home Secretary faces with the European convention on human rights, the Human Rights Act and so forth, will she reassure the House that the Government will use its presidency of the Council of Europe to seek to reform the European Court of Human Rights?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who in a nice way points out that I referred to our chairmanship of the Council of Europe when I should have referred to our presidency. I can absolutely assure her that we are putting considerable effort into the possibility of reform of the European Court and the way it operates. As my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister went to Strasbourg and gave a speech to assure people of the reasons why we feel that is necessary. We are, of course, working to bring the other 46 countries along with us in achieving what I am sure all Members want: appropriate reform of the Court.
May I compare this case to that of my constituent, Michael Turner, who under a European arrest warrant spent four months in jail in Hungary, without charge, for alleged fraud? Does the Qatada case show that there is one rule for fanatical terrorists and quite another for British citizens?
For people watching the news bulletins tonight, it will be both depressing and alarming that once again the European Court of Human Rights is undermining British justice and British national security. Is it not time that the United Kingdom temporarily suspended its membership of the European convention and European Court pending the reforms my right hon. Friend has set out today, and then once those reforms are in place go back into the convention and the Court? Will she set out a timetable for those reforms?
We have the opportunity, particularly with the six-month presidency of the Council of Europe, to bring other countries around the table to discuss the possibility of reform and we hope to achieve agreement on reforms that might be possible. We should be putting our energies into looking at how the European Court operates and at reasonable reform of how it operates.
Does the Home Secretary agree that entrenching the convention by the Human Rights Act was a catastrophic error on the part of the previous Labour Government? Will she set out a process that she will follow to take us towards a British Bill of Rights?
I have made my views on the Human Rights Act clear, but I also point out that even before that Act we were signatories to the European convention and subject to the European Court of Human Rights. On the process of reforms towards a possible Bill of Rights, a commission is examining a possible UK Bill of Rights. It was set up by my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister, and I believe that it is due to report before the end of this year.
This individual supports terrorists who want to kill our children. Regardless of what somebody says in Strasbourg, we must protect the human rights of the good people of this country, so I ask the Home Secretary to take the lead and put this man on a plane to Jordan.
I believe the feeling of the whole House is the same as that of my hon. Friend, in that we all want to be able to deport Abu Qatada. That is why the Government are making every effort to negotiate with the Jordanians to see whether it is possible to put in place the assurances that would enable that to happen.
Surely this international law is an ass. It is clear that this man is a terrorist and he laughs at our weakness. He considers that he is at war with us—that is what he thinks. In wartime conditions, our Government can take extraordinary actions, so surely he should not come out of prison. If we cannot send him to Jordan now, he should stay in prison until we can send him there.
James Adams, a decent, gentle, law-abiding constituent of mine, was murdered by Islamist terrorists on 7/7, and my constituents will be appalled and disgusted by this judgment of the Court. Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), is it possible that the Home Secretary could consider the efficacy of doing what Sweden did and suspending our membership of the European convention on human rights?