House of Commons
Tuesday 13 March 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 20 March (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Work in Prisons
9. What plans he has to promote work in prisons. (99264)
We have ambitions to deliver a step change in the amount of work done in prisons. By making use of the lessons learned from the prisons that are already delivering full working weeks, we will work with the public and private sectors—including commercial customers and partners—and through the prison competition system to make our ambitions real.
The Secretary of State will know of the great work being done in Her Majesty’s prison Highpoint, in my constituency, which is one of our biggest category C prisons. Enabling third sector, private and other providers to work with prisoners before they are released has improved their chances of finding accommodation and work on release. What further action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that is replicated throughout the country?
As I have said, we are building on the great work that is already being done, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The purpose of prisons, it seems to me, is first to punish for crime, and secondly to reform as many criminals as possible. The second aim has been neglected in recent years, but the kind of work that my hon. Friend describes ought to be replicated as much as possible throughout the system, and that is the end towards which we are working.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments. He knows about the existing business in Her Majesty’s prison Gloucester, where prisoners repair bicycles which a charity then sends to Africa. It is a not-for-profit business. How does my right hon. and learned Friend think we could ensure that if the business were profitable it would not undercut businesses outside the prison, bearing in mind that paying the minimum wage might set a precedent in regard to other rights for prisoners?
One of the things about which we try to be scrupulous is ensuring that work in prisons does not undercut the work done by businesses employing honest employees outside. We would not be able to persuade organisations such as the CBI and our private sector partners to work with us if they thought that we were undercutting British competitors. We will not pay the minimum wage, because the taxpayer would find that he or she was footing the bill for it all. However, the costs of running a business in prison are considerable because of the security that is imposed. We intend to ensure, by means of a code of practice, that fair and proper competition is maintained and that we do not undercut ordinary honest businesses.
Given that, at present, 47% of offenders are receiving out-of-work benefits two years after their release from prison, I fully support what the Secretary of State is doing. What plans has he to ensure that there is a smooth transition from work preparation in prison to actual work outside prison?
Along with the Department for Work and Pensions, we have just embarked on a system whereby people who are released from prison go straight on to the Work programme. Their receipt of benefits is tied to a programme aimed at getting them back to work if that is at all possible, as it would be for anyone else. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend: all the evidence shows that having a job is one of the main factors that determine whether someone stops returning to crime, and it also stops the taxpayer having to pay benefits to such a high proportion of ex-prisoners.
If my constituents are to have faith in work in prisons, it is vital that inmates not only learn to work, but learn to become used to the routine of work. How much time per week does my right hon. and learned Friend expect to be assigned to prisoners for work?
Just the routine of working is very important. I believe that 13% of prisoners have never had a paid job in their lives, and about half have not been in a paid job in the last month before they arrive in prison. We aim to have a 40-hour week whenever possible, consistent with the other demands of the prison regime. Apart from skills and training, just getting people used to the daily routine of a working day is good preparation for an honest life in the outside world.
Although some very good work is being done in prisons at the moment, and although there always have been one or two prisons in which a fair amount is happening, we will not be able to provide work for all prisoners for quite a long time. Our aim is to get a much higher proportion into work, and for that reason employees in prison will be volunteers. That is welcomed by private sector partners who like to have a say in their work force, and who want a properly motivated work force consisting of people who are trying to get themselves into a better state to go straight when they leave.
Actually, an even higher proportion than that have abused drugs in the month or two before they arrive in prison. We are currently opening the first drug rehabilitation wings in prisons, and we hope to have drug-free wings, too. We are upping the effort to deal with the drugs problem, which is a very large cause of the criminality of many of the people in our prisons. Obviously, it should be given a much higher priority than it has sometimes had in the past.
How many companies on the outside does the Secretary of State expect to be linked to prisons in the next 12 months, so that those companies, such as Timpson and some utilities companies, that already have workshops and bases in prisons can help people through the door and into jobs on the outside?
There is growing interest, and I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those companies, such as Timpson and one or two utilities companies, which have been pioneering this initiative for quite a long time. Shortly before Christmas, a letter was sent to the newspapers that was signed by companies including National Grid, Cisco and Marks & Spencer, and the CBI helped organise a day for us with outside companies. We have not put a target on the number of companies we want to be involved, but many companies want to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility by taking part in this programme, and some will find that it is a very useful way of recruiting and training staff for their businesses.
The Secretary of State will know that many inmates have mental health problems, including schizophrenia, which can make work in prison and, importantly, the transition out difficult, especially if they do not have anyone to monitor whether they are taking their medicine at the appropriate time. What steps is the Department taking, alongside the Department of Health, to ensure that appropriate medicines, including longer-lasting medicines such as injections that last a month, are part of the process, thereby helping people to have a smooth transition phase?
The hon. Lady has listed almost all the measures to which we are giving the highest priority in trying to make prisons reforming institutions. We have addressed work and drugs. Alcohol has not yet arisen, but mental illness is also a very serious issue. We are well advanced, in co-operation with the Department of Health, in making plans for diversion services for those who ought to be diverted out of the criminal justice system and given secure treatment for mental illness elsewhere. Through the Department of Health, we are also greatly improving the treatment facilities for those who have to stay in prison. Mental health must be tackled, especially if it is the real root of the criminality of someone in prison—and, indeed, some such prisoners should not be in prison at all.
Does the Secretary of State have any plans to adopt the Policy Exchange report recommendation that prisoners should be paid, but in turn should use their wages to pay for perks such as televisions, Freeview boxes and gym equipment, just as the rest of us in the outside world have to do?
Prisoners pay for some of those things already, although the innovation we are putting in place is to make provision from the earnings of prisoners for payment to victim services and to dependants outside. I agree that we are not just giving prisoners pocket money. We are giving them money from which they should, perfectly properly, make payment for those things for which they ought to be paying, including some reparation to their victims.
We have only to look at the Order Paper to see how keen the Secretary of State is to talk about work in prison. It is a shame that the Government are not more interested in the benefits of paid work for those who have not committed a crime.
There are merely two paragraphs on women offenders in his “Making prisons work” report, and there is no detail whatever on how his initiative will make a difference to them. Is it not true that this Government are showing no leadership on women in the justice system, and that there is a very real danger that all progress will be lost?
It is my Parliamentary Private Secretary’s enthusiasm for the policy of work in prisons that is exemplified, in part, by the Order Paper, together with the enthusiasm of all my hon. Friends who have asked questions on this extremely valuable policy, which is an innovation compared with the neglect of this subject by the previous Government.
We are giving a high priority to the needs of women in prison, and we will continue to address the matter. The previous Government were doing quite good work on women in prison, and we have not reversed anything; indeed, we are building on the Corston report. On work in prisons, we certainly intend that female prisoners should have the same opportunities of work and training as men, and we are thinking of what special arrangements we should make to ensure that such facilities are available and suitable for female prisoners.
Victims of Crime
On 30 January, in a statement to the House, the Justice Secretary launched a three-month consultation, “Getting it right for victims and witnesses”, on our far-reaching proposals to improve the support provided to victims and witnesses of crime.
In addition, as was enthusiastically pre-announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities when responding to the debate on international women’s day, I can now formally announce the next five new rape support centres to be developed by the Ministry of Justice and the voluntary sector. Over the next 12 months, the MOJ will provide nearly £600,000 in funding to develop new centres in mid-Wales, Northumbria, Leeds, Southend and Suffolk.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and I welcome the focus that the Government are putting on victims. Will he join me in paying tribute to the excellent charities that help victims of crime and their families, including Victim Support, the National Victims Association and Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad? Importantly, will he ensure that their representations on the victims strategy will be fully considered by his Department?
Government cuts have hit women and children harder than any other group. Fiona Weir, the chief executive of Gingerbread, has warned the Government that, as a result of their changes to legal aid:
“The majority of domestic violence victims will not be able to provide the evidence required to access legal aid.”
Will the Minister ensure that cuts to legal aid are not another cut that hurts vulnerable children and women more than other groups?
Does the Minister accept that moving from a national system of provision for victims to one of local commissioning, as he is suggesting, will have a particular effect on vulnerable victims of crime, who often have to move home? What does he intend to do to protect them in the new system he is introducing?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, because she raises an issue of considerable importance to Victim Support, the principal organisation providing victims services at the moment. Of course it is the Government’s view that these services would be better commissioned locally by the new police and crime commissioners. We are consulting on our proposals, and I will take her views into account as we consider the responses to that consultation.
May we have a positive drive from the Ministry of Justice to ensure that, for as many victims as possible, both victim impact statements are completed and compensation orders are lodged with the court, so that victims can get the redress due to them?
Once police commissioners are in place, we could have 41 different standards of victim support across the country. The service that someone living, working and travelling across the midlands receives could depend on one of four or more areas, depending on where the crime is committed. Given the real concerns being raised by victims groups about the potential mess that could arise as a result of the Justice Secretary’s policies, will there be an individual—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister would care to listen to the question before deciding to heckle from the Front Bench. Given the real concerns being raised by victims groups about the potential mess, which he should be aware of, will an individual or an organisation be charged with enforcing a minimum standard that victims of crime can expect, regardless of geography—a newly appointed victims commissioner perhaps?
The hon. Gentleman has pointed out the problems that can come with enfranchising people at a local level, but the Government believe in localism and it is our view that police and crime commissioners will have the best appreciation of the victim services that are required in their local area. We look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the consultation to see precisely what his view is. We have noticed that he is against a localist approach, but this Government are not.
Broadcasting Court Proceedings
We are planning to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to permit broadcasting of selected court proceedings as part of our commitment to increasing transparency in public services. Initially, we will allow broadcasting of judgments in the Court of Appeal, and we expect to extend this to sentencing remarks in the Crown court in due course.
The Minister just said something very important when he said that witnesses will not be filmed. Will he repeat that guarantee, because a court appearance is a very traumatic process for a witness or victim? We need a red line that cannot be crossed not only by current Ministers but by Ministers in the future, so that witnesses are protected.
Illegal Encampments (Public Parks)
In 2010, there were 38 prosecutions for offences under sections 61, 62B and 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Figures for 2011 are not yet available and the data do not show what proportion of these prosecutions related to unauthorised encampments in public parks or whether vehicles were involved in each case.
Will the Minister consider a review of the powers of local authorities to prosecute trespassers effectively and/or to charge occupants fees so that there is an effective deterrent against uninvited encampments and so that some of the costs associated with unwelcome activity can be recouped?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern, which is widely shared, about illegal encampments, whether they are on private land, thereby attempting to subvert the public planning process, or ruining people’s enjoyment of public parks. A range of powers are available to the police and agencies, and we are strengthening them through the latest legislation, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, to allow local authorities to attach the power of seizure to their byelaws. We want to ensure that the new powers are used effectively.
Legal Aid (Benefit Cases)
No such discussions have been held, as the withdrawal of legal aid would have no impact on the number of cases concerning benefits requiring early stage legal advice. The need for advice will be determined by decision making at the Department for Work and Pensions, not the availability or otherwise of legal aid. Of course, I recognise that many people find that the type of general advice concerned is useful in resolving their problems, which is why the Government have announced additional funding for the not-for-profit sector.
Charnwood citizens advice bureau works very closely with my office in Loughborough on benefits matters. Will the Minister, when he has such discussions, tell the Department for Work and Pensions that it needs to simplify the benefits system as that would be of great assistance in helping to keep some cases away from the legal system and administrative tribunals in the first place?
Lord Newton of Braintree, who was the Secretary of State for Social Security in a Conservative Government in the 1980s and early 1990s—in the days when the Conservative party won elections in its own right—said last week that 81% of all cases heard in the first-tier tribunals relating to benefits are to do with disability benefits. In 2009-10 an appellant at the first-tier tribunal who received advice before going to the tribunal was 78% more likely to win their appeal than an unadvised appellant. The advice that citizens advice bureaux, law centres and advice agencies give to their clients is very important. These are not fat-cat lawyers or litigious clients. Will the Government now accept the votes passed in the House of Lords over the past week, which will not only save taxpayers’ money in the medium to long term but will also avoid unnecessary misery and suffering for some of the most vulnerable in our society?
I have to say that the Government are disappointed by the position taken in the Lords and we will return to the issue when the Bill comes back to the Commons. We remain of the view that these cases are primarily about financial entitlement and as such do not raise the fundamental issues involved in cases concerning liberty or safety. I can say to the right hon. Gentleman that the user-friendly nature of the tribunal means that appellants can generally present their case without legal assistance.
If that is the case, why is the success rate 78% higher for those who do receive advice before they go to appeal? We have said from the outset that we agree that savings need to be made to the legal aid budget. If we were in government, we would be making cuts as well, but our values and connections with ordinary people mean that our priorities would be very different. Figures from the Ministry of Justice say that by the end of this Parliament, criminal legal aid provided largely by well-paid QCs, barristers and solicitors will be cut by 6%, whereas family legal aid will be cut by 29%, but social welfare legal aid, which is delivered by CABs, law centres and small voluntary organisations, at which some of the lowest-paid advisers and lawyers work, will be cut by 53%.
We simply are not doing what the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Social welfare law will still receive £50 million in legal aid and we are redirecting the money we spend on legal aid towards helping the most vulnerable. When it comes to advice on benefits, people do not currently receive legal aid for representation. Before people go to appeal they will still be able to receive advice for many such cases from a general advice practitioner such as their local CAB.
Legal Aid (Litigants in Person)
Substantial numbers of cases already involve litigants in person, so the courts already deal with this situation. The Government recognise that the changes to legal aid are likely to increase the number of litigants in person. The evidence appears to show that some cases featuring litigants in person are resolved more quickly, whereas some cases take longer.
Well, we have just discovered that the Labour party’s policy is to make substantial cuts in criminal legal aid. If the Government had made that proposal, that would no doubt have led to amazing attacks on our disregard for the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty and to comments about the high risk of injustice in criminal trials. On the savings we are making in the cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers, the fact is that courts already deal with litigants in person. Any judge or tribunal knows that they have to pay particular attention to make sure that people are not disadvantaged by not having legal representation, but as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), has just explained, we have tried to identify cases in which the informality of the tribunals means that applicants should not be at any particular disadvantage if they do not have a lawyer there in any event.
We are not persuaded that that will give rise to any increase in costs. Everybody accepts that cuts need to be made to legal aid. It is just that the Labour party is against every single cut that we suggest in particular. This cut is perfectly straightforward and will not give rise to the difficulties that the hon. Lady points out—[Interruption.] I can only say to the Opposition spokesman that he is obviously so discommoded by realising that he nearly gave out a policy on the subject a moment ago that he is getting rather carried away. We have carefully selected cuts in legal aid concerning less serious cases where cuts can be made without any risk to justice whatever.
The president of the family division gave evidence to the Justice Committee and said that he did not think that when a parent was disappointed not to have got legal aid for a contact or residence case, the parent should just say, “Well, never mind. Let’s forget about the child. I’m not going forward.” That person will go to court alone, taking twice as much time as a person represented. That will waste the judge’s and everybody else’s time, it will be hurtful for all concerned and it will damage the children as well.
In family justice we are placing much more emphasis on mediation, which should be much more comfortable for all the clients and will lead to a much easier and less traumatic resolution of many disputes. We are putting more money into mediation and more money into training for mediation. We should remember that the purpose of this public service is to resolve disputes with the minimum of cost and time and to take all the emotion out, so far as is possible, of these difficult family cases. Access to justice is access to the most civilised way of resolving disputes. Access to justice does not depend only on how many lawyers the taxpayer pays for to go into adversarial litigation on every such issue.
Improving the treatment of victims of domestic violence is a high priority for the Government, and I encourage organisations providing support to victims of domestic violence to give us their views in response to our consultation document, “Getting it right for victims and witnesses.”
Public Order Convictions (Havering)
Data available on 1 February show that six people from Havering were convicted for their part in the public disorder of 6 to 9 August last year.
As the Minister knows, many of our courts worked extra long hours last August to ensure that many of those who engaged in the riots were dealt with very quickly. What lessons have the Government learned from that to ensure that our courts are more efficient in future?
We certainly were impressed by the speed with which the criminal justice system responded to the disorder, and we are grateful for the efforts of those working in it. Cases were dealt with in a matter of hours and days, rather than the routine, which can be weeks and months. We seek to learn the lessons from that and we will shortly come forward with proposals for how we can ensure that we have a justice system that is swifter and more sure.
Legal Aid (Victims of Domestic Violence)
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is designed to protect victims of domestic violence. It protects funding for advice and representation in private family matters for victims of domestic violence, as well as public funding in respect of protection orders for victims of domestic violence. We will also continue to waive financial eligibility limits in these cases.
I thank the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that when the matter was debated in another place, serious concerns were raised that genuine victims of domestic violence would not receive the legal aid support and ability to take action that they need, because of the legislation that the Government are bringing through. Organisations such as Refuge have expressed similar concerns. Will the Minister assure us that all victims of domestic violence will receive the help and support they need?
Again, the Government were disappointed by the position taken by the Lords and will return to the matter when the Bill comes back to the Commons. We are very concerned about the victims of domestic violence. Indeed, it was because we are removing legal aid for private family law that we realised there will be certain categories, such as domestic violence, that will not be suitable for mediation, which is why we are concentrating on that area.
It is widely recognised that specialist domestic violence courts have been very successful, but 23 of them are due to close. Will the Minister assure me that the expertise and multi-agency working that have been a feature of their success will continue in this changed landscape?
It is important to point out that those specialist domestic violence courts are closing not because of what they do, but because the courts in which they are based are closing. I am pleased to say that those specialist courts will be moving to other courts, so no specialist domestic violence courts will be lost.
The Government’s response to the report of the Joint Committee on the draft Defamation Bill was published on 29 February. It set out the Government’s position on all the key issues. A substantive defamation Bill will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and hope that there will be time for the Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The Joint Committee recommended that qualified privilege should be extended to
“peer-reviewed articles in scientific or academic journals.”
Does he agree that it is in the public interest that scientists and other academics should be able to publish bona fide research results without fear and that, unless their publication is maliciously false, they should be protected from defamation actions?
One of the main reasons for publishing the draft Bill and looking at the law in that area was the fear that genuine academic and scientific debate was being stifled by the use of the defamation laws. We propose that peer-reviewed research should be protected and are now considering the draft of the final Bill in the light of the Joint Committee’s report. I will not anticipate the Queen’s Speech, but if we can include a defamation Bill, one of its principal objectives will be to deal with the very serious problem that the hon. Gentleman has identified.
European Court of Human Rights
When the Prime Minister addressed the Council of Europe in January, he set out our priorities for reform and how we intend to achieve them. We want reform to allow the Court better to fulfil the purpose for which it was intended: upholding human rights under the European convention on human rights and tackling serious violations of human rights across Europe.
I declare an interest, as I used to work for the Council of Europe and trained there. The coalition Government are absolutely right to prioritise reform of the Court’s procedures, because the backlog of cases and the skills of the Court need to be dealt with, but does the Secretary of State agree that we must continue to say that it is vital for this country, and all European countries, that we have a strong Court which can ensure that the rights of all European citizens are upheld, and upheld outside their own countries as well as within?
The convention applies, and the jurisdiction of the Court extends, to 47 member states, where we want to entrench the principles of liberal democracy, and it is in all our interests that we do so. The aim of our proposed reforms is to strengthen the Court and enable it to concentrate on the most serious cases requiring adjudication at international level. At the moment the Court is not functioning well because it has 150,000 cases in arrears, it take years to get a hearing and it has to deal with cases that are trivial, repetitive or have been properly dealt with at national level.
I seem to remember promising the electorate that we would bring in a Bill of Rights that would enable us to disregard some of the more barmy decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Would the Secretary of State like to update us on our progress towards fulfilling that important commitment?
Different Conservative candidates put forward the campaign in different terms at the last election, and not for the first time, as you will know from your experience, Mr Speaker, and as I do from mine. As usual, I am sticking firmly to the policy of the Government of whom I am a serving member. The reasons we are reforming the Court were set out clearly in the terms of reference of the commission looking at the matter and in the Prime Minister’s speech to the Council of Europe, which I think coincide with my own views.
Prison Provision (Charities)
Charities can apply to qualify as tenders in prisons competitions, but it is unlikely that they will have the financial strength to take the legal and commercial risks of running a prison. None is on our current list of framework providers.
We are actively encouraging the participation of subcontractors, small and medium-size enterprises and voluntary and community sector organisations within the supply chain of custodial services. Fifteen such organisations attended the launch of the current round of prisons competitions.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Clearly, there are very good examples of charities working within prisons, and I urge him to work with some of them to see whether it is possible for them to take over a community-run prison that provides a local setting and a local response to offenders’ needs.
I am obviously delighted to recognise the valuable work of charities and of the voluntary sector in supporting the rehabilitation of offenders. It is the area of our society in which, if we can engage the voluntary sector in such work, we will find that there is significant extra capacity for people who want to do the right thing to help some of the most damaged and damaging people in society to go straight. We have to ensure that those links work and that people can do the work. As I have said, there will be concerns about whether a charity has the financial resources to underwrite the running of a prison, given the commercial and other risks concerned, but I welcome the general tenor of my hon. Friend’s remarks.
Community Service Sentences
It is for the court to determine whether an offence is serious enough to warrant the imposition of a community sentence. When a community sentence is imposed, we want to ensure that it is effective in stopping offending behaviour escalating to the point at which prison becomes the only option.
Hull Crown court recently found Lee Bates guilty of illegal moneylending, or loan sharking as most people call it. At least 17 victims and their families suffered from his exploitation, and he got 180 hours’ community service for pleading guilty, but surely such criminals should go to prison, should they not?
I cannot comment on that particular case, but in general we certainly believe that serious offenders—those offenders who have committed repeat offences—should be sent to prison, and that option remains for the courts. We believe also, however, that community sentences, when they are imposed, should be more rigorous and have a more punitive element, so that we can stop the escalation of offending which results in a custodial sentence. It is that escalation that we seek to avoid.
We have not concluded a specific study on the deterrent effect of sentencing on the incidence of metal theft, but on Report in the other place we will table amendments to the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill which would see unlimited fines for the more serious metal-dealing offences and raise the maximum penalty for more minor offences from level 1 to level 3. We also propose to prohibit cash payments for scrap metal.
I hope that the Minister is aware of the intensive campaign being run by Nottinghamshire trading standards and Nottinghamshire police to clamp down on metal theft, but can he reassure the House that he will take steps to ensure that the sentencing of those who deal in stolen metal is severe enough to put them off and reduce the market?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the advice on Nottinghamshire. I confess that I was not aware of that work, although I am aware of very good practice in the north-east, for example, and elsewhere in the country. But, of course, we do not propose those changes to the sentencing regime for that offence except to send a very clear message that it is an offence that can do very serious damage indeed.
Legal Aid (Litigants in Person)
I thought that I had already answered this question, which was grouped with Question 10. I said that a substantial number of cases already—
The courts already deal with litigants in person, and they are very used to dealing with that situation. We accept that the legal aid changes currently before the House of Lords will increase the number of litigants in person, but the evidence on the issue is very mixed, indicating that some cases are dealt with more quickly and others take longer. In fact, many such cases do not require legal representation at all.
The Justice Secretary is clear that the number of litigants representing themselves will increase. In drawing up his cuts in legal aid, did his Department make any assessment of increased costs, given that the Lord Chief Justice is concerned that courts could be swamped and that the cost to the taxpayer could be higher as a result of those cuts?
We see no evidence at all that this would give rise to increased costs. It is extremely difficult to anticipate precisely the effect of there being more litigants in person because the evidence is so mixed. We are concentrating, particularly in the family division, on dealing with more cases by way of mediation. Adversarial litigation is not always the best way of resolving problems; there are many better alternative ways of resolving disputes in suitable cases. We are putting more money into mediation and less into taxpayers paying for lawyers.
I am sure that they are very happy when being advised by my hon. Friend or by me, but I have encountered examples of dissatisfaction in other cases. Most people dread a dispute in which they are involved having to go to court through the full legal process. Most disputes are settled by negotiation, but if the parties cannot do that, mediation is a very good way of resolving them, particularly in emotional family disputes. The whole justice system should be seen as a public service. We are seeking to resolve disputes in the quickest possible way at the least possible cost to the parties involved. It is too often thought that access to justice means that the taxpayer has to keep paying for more and more lawyers to take part in longer and longer litigation. That is not always the best way of resolving many things.
Broadcasting Court Proceedings
As soon as parliamentary time allows, the Government plan to legislate to remove the ban on cameras in courts. We are working closely with the Lord Chief Justice, the judiciary and the broadcasters on achieving this.
I very much support the broadcasting of court proceedings because of the transparency that it will bring, but will my hon. Friend confirm whether a fee will be charged to broadcasters for the use of the material so that the cost does not fall on to the taxpayer?
Today is the fifth anniversary of the Corston report, which called for radical change in the way that women are treated throughout the criminal justice system. I am sure that the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) will be pleased to hear me say that there have been real improvements in the five years since the report, including significant investment in women’s community centres to address the underlying causes of women’s offending, such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, and often long histories of abuse. We are fully committed to addressing women’s offending, for their own good and that of the public. The National Offender Management Service has committed to an additional £3.5 million each year to continue to fund 30 women’s community services. Women offenders will also be included in two payment-by-results pilot areas to link productive work to reducing reoffending.
In these tough economic times, more people are borrowing money, getting into debt and, sadly, having to deal with the bailiffs, who are, on occasion, aggressive and intrusive. What is being done to ensure that creditors and debtors are aware of their rights and responsibilities?
The Government are clear that aggressive bailiff activity is unacceptable, and we are committed to bringing forward effective proposals that protect the public and ensure that such action is proportionate. We have made a start by publishing our updated national standards for enforcement agents, and we have followed that up with a consultation paper issued on 17 February on a new, legally binding regulatory regime for bailiffs.
Before the contract with Applied Language Solutions for court interpreting started this year, the Minister was warned that it would fail by almost every qualified interpreter, by Labour Members, by Back Benchers of all parties in a debate here last November, by the Lord Chancellor’s own constituents at his surgery—so they tell me—and even by ALS itself. The contract has failed, so why did he decide to risk £300 million of public funds with an untried, small-time company?
Even in the spendthrift days of the previous Administration, it was noticed that there was something wrong with the cost of interpreters in the justice system. The previous Administration began the process that led to the contract being awarded to ALS. It is not a small company, because it is now backed by Capita. There was a pilot over six to eight weeks in the north-west, which gave no indication of the problems. Within two weeks of the national roll-out, when the problems became clear, the Ministry of Justice procurement people were across the problems at ALS and measures were put in place to put right the problems. Some of the problems, strangely enough, came from the interpreters who, on finding that under the new payment regime they could no longer earn six-figure salaries, as they could under the previous Administration, did not co-operate. They are now doing so.
In his staggering complacency, the Minister fails to grapple with the fact that every day, when ALS interpreters fail to show up, defendants are being remanded in custody or released with no consideration of the evidence, trials are collapsing or being postponed, and the potential for miscarriages of justice is huge, as is the loss of public money, which dwarfs the alleged savings. Will he suspend the contract and order an immediate investigation into how this disaster happened on his watch?
I would be slightly more inclined to take lessons from the hon. Gentleman if he was even vaguely on the money. Within two weeks of the contract going nationwide, the Ministry of Justice was right across the problems and put in place an action plan to address them. The idea that we are not interested in the matter, when we are making £18 million of savings in the provision of interpreters under a process that was commenced under the previous Administration and after interpreters had been grossly overpaid and had taken advantage of the system that was in place under that Administration, is beyond belief.
T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that the Prime Minister said on 25 January of the European Court of Human Rights that,“we are hoping to get consensus on strengthening subsidiarity—the principle that where possible, final decisions should be made nationally.”Does the Secretary of State agree with me that subsidiarity should start and end with votes for prisoners in this country? (99284)
The statement that my hon. Friend just read out is the basis on which we are negotiating with the other members of the Council of Europe on reform of the Court in Strasbourg, which everybody agrees needs reform urgently. The principle of subsidiarity is very important. We are not negotiating on existing judgments on any subject. Obviously, we are trying to comply with the obligations of the European convention on human rights in a more effective manner, which I think the courts in this country usually do in their judgments.
Prisoner voting is an entirely separate matter, which the House has already considered. The latest stage is that the Attorney-General has been making representations on behalf of the British Government in an Italian case on which we are awaiting a judgment. The issue is therefore still under legal review.
T2. Will the Justice Secretary say when decisions on the Green Paper on justice and security are likely to be taken? Will he confirm that the devolved Administrations will be fully consulted on those decisions, particularly in respect of aspects that will affect devolved functions? (99281)
We will come forward with a Bill as soon as parliamentary time arises. We will, of course, respond to the consultation before that. We are liaising and consulting closely with the devolved Administrations, because there will be implications for them. We will make progress in the fairly near future.
T7. There are considerable concerns about the proposals for elements of court hearings to be heard in private. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that one of the reasons for that solution is that it will safeguard national security by protecting information that comes from our foreign allies? (99286)
Yes, I can. The aim is to combine that purpose with getting a proper judicial decision on disputed cases, in which allegations or claims are made or in which matters have to be inquired into, that is better than the conclusions that we get currently. There is no system in the world in which spies give evidence in open court, naming their sources, describing their techniques and giving the full facts that the intelligence service has at its command to the public at large. At the moment, all that happens when such evidence is relevant is that it is not given and no satisfactory conclusion is ever reached. We have addressed that in the Green Paper that we have published.
T3. The Lord Chancellor will know that the ALS interpreters’ contractor has been an unmitigated disaster, and I can provide specific examples of cases in my constituency. If it is about saving money, will he tell us how many hearings have had to be adjourned or postponed due to the fiasco? (99282)
There will be a full presentation of all the statistics and evidence relevant to the matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that matters are in hand and that ALS’s performance is improving significantly. Particular problems remain with two nationality groups of interpreters, who are causing difficulties, but plans are in hand for them, too. [Interruption.] I do not wish to name them at the moment. The matter was in hand within two weeks of the system’s going live. There are weekly reports to me and daily management oversight from the Ministry of Justice. The matter is improving.
T8. Until now, prisoners who were on the run often managed to stay on the run because the authorities were unable to name them. That is an obvious barrier to their recapture, so will the Minister outline his plans for improving that state of affairs? (99287)
We were concerned that there was a belief that it was not possible to name offenders on the run for reasons of, for instance, data protection or human rights. When offenders are unlawfully at large, it must make sense for there to be a presumption that they can be named by the authorities. The Government will take steps to ensure that that is made clear and that there will be such naming unless there are specific operational reasons why that would not make sense.
T4. The Office for Judicial Complaints has been investigating the poor performance of the Teesside coroner since August but, seven months on, we still have no indication of when the investigation will conclude. Has the Minister set a finish date for the investigation? When will matters improve? Has he merely kicked the subject into the long grass? (99283)
T10. Last year, the Government found it necessary to close several smaller courts because of low utilisation rates, particularly in rural areas such as Norfolk. Will the Minister update the House on the effect of those closures on court efficiency in the remaining courts? (99289)
T6. It is clear that the ALS contract is a disaster, but I would like to question the Secretary of State and Ministers about the impact on the deaf community. The resulting poor employment conditions have forced British sign language interpreters into other work, contributing to a trend of recruiting BSL interpreters who may not be fully qualified, which may lead to a miscarriage of justice. What safeguards are in place to ensure that deaf people—a protected group with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010—and their officially recognised language, BSL, are afforded proper regard, enabling them to have fair and proper access to justice? (99285)
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I undertake to look into any actions that are happening with regard to deaf people. However, there are not necessarily comparisons and precise parallels to be drawn between ordinary language interpreters and translators for the deaf. I will consider her points and come back to her.
With a senior CIA official stating that there has been no drop in the intelligence exchange between the US and the UK, with the current inquest system providing greater certainty than the proposed alternative that families will find out why their loved ones died, and with closed material proceedings introducing, according to Lord Kerr, untested evidence into court, will the Secretary of State explain why we need the Green Paper on justice and security?
When we share intelligence with other friendly countries, we do so on the basis that we will not disclose that intelligence to the outside world. The moment doubt is aroused about whether or not intelligence remains secure once it is given to the British intelligence community, there is a damaging effect on the willingness of other intelligence communities to share information with us. I have no control over the American intelligence service or any other, and we have to respond to reality in this extremely difficult world. As I have already said, in the case of inquests or civil courts and sensitive material that cannot be given in public, the alternative is that the evidence is not given at all, and everybody remains dissatisfied by the outcome.
T9. I am sure I will not be the only Member of the House to have been dismayed by the Secretary of State’s last answer. Yet again the Government seem to think they know better than the Royal British Legion and service personnel on this matter. Service families want justice done in the open for loved ones killed in action. Why will he not listen to their rejection of the secret inquests he has proposed in the justice and security Green Paper, or will he answer again that the Government know best? (99288)
I am sorry that the British Legion seems to be getting carried away with another campaign, this time based on “secret justice” conspiracy theories that are being put around. I am not normally attacked by people for, or accused of having, an ill-regard for the principles of justice or for my reactionary views on closing things off from the public. The fact is that military families, like everybody else, understand that military intelligence officers, for example, cannot always give full evidence in open hearing about all their activities. However, the particular difficulties of inquests and other hearings are addressed in the Green Paper on which we are now consulting. We must strike the right balance in the very rare cases in which intelligence that puts national security and individual safety at risk is involved. One part of that balance is the undoubted needs of open justice, which should be done wherever it is remotely possible.
This splendid Secretary of State has always been open to novel ideas to solve important problems. Has he looked at my Bill that would allow us to withdraw temporarily from the European Court of Human Rights to deport terrorists? Does he think it might have some merit?
I am glad to know that my hon. Friend is, as ever, on the side of moderation—he suggests not necessarily leaving or remaining, but temporarily withdrawing, which is obviously in his opinion the middle path. I am awaiting the advice of the independent commission that we have appointed, which I have not interfered with at all, and which is seeking to get to some conclusions. I am also awaiting the results of negotiations with 47 other countries that are signatories to the European convention on human rights.
Does the Justice Secretary agree that, no matter how much sympathy we have for the personal suffering of our fellow men and women, only Parliament can change the law of murder and permit someone to take their own life by their own hand or to be assisted in doing so by doctors or others?
Hostage Rescue Operation (Nigeria)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the attempted rescue of Chris McManus and his colleague, the Italian national Franco Lamolinara, who were, very sadly, killed by their kidnappers during the operation on Thursday 8 March. I will give the House as much information as I can on the background, the events leading up to the rescue attempt and the operation itself. However, the House will understand that I will not be able to say anything that might compromise intelligence sources or jeopardise future operations. I should also inform the House that there will be a coroner’s inquest into the cause of death of Christopher McManus, and my statement today must not in any way prejudice the course of the coroner’s inquiries.
But first, Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House would wish to join me in expressing utter condemnation of the murder of these two innocent people, and in offering my heartfelt condolences to the families of both Christopher McManus and Franco Lamolinara.
Chris McManus and his colleague were kidnapped by armed men from Birnin Kebbi, in north-west Nigeria, on the night of 12 May 2011. In the early days of the kidnap, it was not clear who had taken them or what their motives were, but as the days passed and no demands were received, and as the tempo of terrorist activity in Nigeria increased, we concluded that, unlike other kidnap cases in Nigeria, this was not a straightforward criminal kidnap, and that Chris and Franco had most probably been abducted by terrorist extremists linked to Boko Haram and calling themselves AQ in Nigeria.
Boko Haram was founded in the early 2000s. From 2010, the group launched an increasingly aggressive campaign of violent attacks. The House will be aware of the appalling toll that the group has inflicted on Nigeria over the past year or so—through attacks against churches on Christmas day 2010, with over 30 deaths, to the co-ordinated attacks in Kano on 20 January 2011 that resulted in nearly 200 deaths. Boko Haram has murdered hundreds of Nigerians over the past two years. Attacks have also been launched against international targets. In an attack on the UN building in Abuja on 26 August 2010, 23 people were killed. Sadly, the violence continues. Attacks against a church in Jos and police stations in Kano and Maiduguri over the weekend have added to the terrible toll.
Following the kidnap, cross-Government crisis management teams were established in our high commission in Abuja and in London. They began work to identify who had taken Chris and Franco, and to locate them. The Nigerian Government have supported our efforts throughout and worked closely with us. We also worked closely with the Italian Government throughout the period through intelligence and diplomatic channels in order to keep them abreast of developments and informed of our efforts.
From the outset of the effort to find Chris and Franco, our objectives were clear and focused: to secure their safe release while continuing the long-standing policy of successive British Governments not to make concessions to hostage takers or to pay ransoms to terrorists. To do otherwise would serve only to increase the threat to UK nationals. Where terrorists are involved in kidnapping, payment of ransoms is illegal under UK law.
During Chris and Franco’s captivity the Government’s emergency committee, Cobra, met regularly to review progress and discuss steps to secure their safe release. During their captivity the kidnappers made threats, through a video and by direct contact with Chris’s family, that they intended to kill Chris and Franco, but at no time during their captivity did the kidnappers make any coherent demands.
Throughout the 10 months of Chris and Franco’s captivity, we worked very closely with the Nigerian Government to track down their kidnappers and identify the location where they were being held. The close working over that period included preparation for the possibility of a hostage rescue. The Prime Minister discussed the case with President Jonathan during his visit to Nigeria in July 2011, and as a result agreed a package of UK support for Nigeria’s counter-terrorism efforts. As part of that package, a sustained operation was conducted to identify members of the group responsible for the kidnapping. Earlier last week a number of them were apprehended, and during debriefing late on 7 March, credible intelligence was obtained identifying the probable location of the hostages at a house or compound in Sokoto, northern Nigeria.
The Foreign Secretary briefed the Prime Minister that evening, and at his request chaired a meeting of Cobra at 8.15 on the morning of 8 March to assess the situation. Following that meeting, the Prime Minister received a full briefing. In the hour or so that followed, the location was confirmed, although we still did not know if the kidnappers and their victims were inside. On the ground, the Nigerian army had secured a cordon some distance around the property and an assault group, including UK support, was in place.
The assessment on the ground was that there was a significant possibility that the kidnappers, if present, were already aware that their security had been compromised, and if not, that the level of military activity in the town meant that there was a real risk of them developing that awareness. The military judgment was that the hostages were facing an imminent and escalating threat and that, although an immediate rescue attempt would inevitably involve risk, it represented the best chance of securing the release of Chris and Franco alive. The Prime Minister was briefed by military and national security advisers, and gave his authorisation for an operation to release the hostages to go ahead with UK support. As soon as possible afterwards, our ambassador in Rome informed the Italian authorities that an operation was getting under way.
The Nigerian security forces, with UK support, launched the assault on the compound last Thursday at 10.58 am London time. UK personnel encountered and killed one armed kidnapper almost immediately on entering the compound. As the assault teams moved into the compound, UK personnel found the bodies of Chris and Franco, already dead, in a room at the rear of the compound. Early indications are clear that both men were murdered by their captors with automatic gunfire before they could be rescued. Three further guards of the hostages were killed by Nigerian forces during an operation that lasted approximately an hour and a half in total. None were taken alive.
Following the operation the Prime Minister called the McManus family to tell them how sorry he was that we had not been able to bring Chris home safely. He also spoke to Prime Minister Monti to pass on his condolences, and to President Jonathan to express his thanks for Nigerian support. This was a difficult operation that it was judged had to be carried out at speed, in view of the risk to the lives of Chris and Franco. One Nigerian soldier was wounded in the rescue attempt. I wish him a speedy recovery from his injuries, and I want to express our gratitude again to the members of the Nigerian forces, along with our UK personnel, who risked their lives in the attempt to rescue Chris and Franco.
The deaths of Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara were a terrible tragedy. But let us be clear that the responsibility for their deaths lies squarely with the people who kidnapped them, held them, threatened them and then murdered them in cold blood. Terrorism and kidnapping can never be justified. Many of the group responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Chris and Franco, including its senior leaders, are either dead or have been detained—an important achievement in reducing the threat of future kidnapping. However, violent extremist Islamist groups remain active in Nigeria, and so long as they do, we will work with the Nigerians and other allies to fight the scourge of terrorism wherever it manifests itself.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, a copy of which was handed to me as he started speaking, as he knows. Our thoughts are rightly with the families and friends of Mr McManus and Mr Lamolinara. Both were killed in cold blood, and those responsible for their abduction and murder, as well as those who provide support for them, must be pursued.
The Defence Secretary rightly paid tribute to the vital role that British special forces play around the world, and the entire country agrees with that sentiment. They are increasingly central to counter-terrorism operations. We rely on their expertise, discretion and courage. It is right, therefore, that we maintain the sovereign operational autonomy of our special forces in future. In that light, and in the light of everything we know about the operation, we believe that the Government took the right course of action in seeking to rescue two innocent captives.
It is, however, concerning that the Italian President—who is, by general agreement, a measured man—called Britain’s action “inexplicable”, while Prime Minister Monti has asked the UK Government for a “detailed reconstruction of the events”, and that the Italian Government have demanded the “utmost clarity”. Such discord suits no one other than our enemies. In the interests of that clarity, can the Secretary of State offer further details of the contacts with the Italian Government? The Prime Minister’s spokesman stated on 9 March:
“We contacted the Italians yesterday as the operation was getting under way,”
while the Foreign Secretary has said that the Government were
“constrained how much we were able to consult others”.
Downing street also stated that a possible rescue attempt had been raised with the Italian Government beforehand and no objections were raised. In what was a substantial statement, the Defence Secretary gave little detail of the interaction with the Italian Government. Will he detail his contacts with the Italian Government in advance of the operation? More widely, were assurances given to the Italian Government that they would have the right to sanction any rescue attempt of one of their citizens?
On the specifics of the rescue operation, the Ministry of Defence has said that this was a Nigerian-led operation with the UK Special Boat Service in support. Will the Secretary of State share with the House as much information as he can about the rules of engagement that were agreed with the Nigerian authorities, bearing in mind his earlier comments about the need to protect intelligence?
There have been various separate reports of ransoms being paid in full or in part to the hostage takers. The UK Government have a clear policy on ransom payments, as the Secretary of State has reminded us today. The reports claim that approximately £1 million was paid to the captors as a down payment on a potential £5 million ransom. I would like to give the Secretary of State the opportunity to confirm that no British official or Minister had prior knowledge of, or agreed to, any payment being made by a third party or foreign Government for the release of a British national.
Turning to the wider context, Nigeria is one of the countries not mentioned in the Government’s strategic defence and security review, but it is a nation that will require our collective attention. It is west Africa’s predominant power, Africa’s most populous country and the world’s 11th largest producer of oil. The UK has a positive diplomatic relationship with Nigeria, and a vibrant diaspora community that enriches our country. However, Nigeria is a country in which roughly two thirds of the people live on less than £1 a day, and in which one in five children die in infancy before the age of five, and 12 million are not in school. Those are the conditions in which radicalisation can fester.
The hostage takers, Boko Haram, have been referred to as the Nigerian Taliban and are accused by the head of Nigerian armed forces of having ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group is particularly active in Saharan states and was responsible for the bombing of the UN headquarters. The US embassy recently warned staff about its activity, and the head of US military’s Africa command has said that Boko Haram might be expanding because of an alliance with al-Qaeda. What assessment have the UK Government made about the links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda? It has been reported that the National Security Committee discussed the hostage crisis on 20 separate occasions. If that is the case, it is a welcome reflection of just how fiercely the UK Government focused on this crisis, but will the Secretary of State share with the House his assessment of the continuing threat to British nationals and interests in Nigeria and the wider region?
I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State’s response. This tragedy is another painful reminder that the UK must retain the ability to act across the globe. It is also a reflection of the vindictiveness of our opponents and the valour of our forces. My final request today is to ask the Defence Secretary to convey the appreciation of Parliament as a whole to the commanders of the Special Boat Service for their remarkable efforts and bravery.
First, may I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for what turned out to be the non-delivery of my statement prior to my standing up to deliver it? I knew that he was going to get it late, but I did not know that it was not going to arrive at all. I apologise to him for that. I am also extremely grateful to him for his support. He and most of his colleagues on the Front Bench have been in government, and they understand the difficulty involved in making these fine judgments and decisions, often under extreme time pressure constraints.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the information that had been given to the Italians, and about the nature of the contact with them. He will understand that the contact was not conducted by me; it was conducted through the Foreign Office. Throughout the process, a regular dialogue was maintained between the security services and their Italian counterparts, on a day-to-day, business-as-usual basis. Last Thursday morning, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Rome visited the Italian authorities as soon as he was able to do so after the completion of the Cobra meeting to pass to the Italians the information about the operation that was getting under way.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we had agreed that the Italians would essentially have a power of veto over such an operation. I find that question slightly strange, in view of his earlier remarks about the importance of retaining the sovereign capability of our forces. I have to tell him that we did not agree that the Italians would have any power of veto over a rescue operation involving a British citizen, but of course we consulted them throughout the 10-month period. They were well aware of the direction in which the operation was moving.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the rules of engagement. Of course this was a Nigerian-led operation on Nigerian soil; the area was secured by Nigerian forces, and was under the overall command of a Nigerian commander. Appropriate arrangements had been agreed with the Nigerian authorities to ensure that any UK personnel involved in lethal activity would be protected from any redress under Nigerian law. I am happy to be able to reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that front.
I, too, have read the reports of ransom payments, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The UK’s policy is clear: we do not pay ransoms to terrorists; no UK officials or Ministers were involved in any discussions about the payment of ransoms to terrorists; and we are not aware of any ransom having been paid or indeed any ransom having been demanded.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of Nigeria as a country. When the defence engagement strategy is published—it will not be too far in the future —he will see that Nigeria plays a very prominent part in that document and in the agenda going forward. We have a strong relationship with Nigeria—a strong military to military relationship—and we provide ongoing counter-terrorism support to the Nigerians; and we have one of the largest bilateral aid programmes with Nigeria, precisely to address the underlying causes of discontent in the poverty to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, right to be concerned about Boko Haram and its links to al-Qaeda. Our understanding is that it is not directly linked to AQ in the Islamic Maghreb, but that factions of Boko Haram have started to refer to themselves as AQ in Nigeria. The linkages between the organisations are somewhat tenuous and not well understood by us, but it is absolutely clear that we should be concerned about this development.
To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s other questions, Cobra—not the National Security Council—met 33 times during the period of captivity to discuss this particular kidnapping. As for the threat to UK nationals, of course there is a threat to them and others from the ongoing extremist terrorist activity in northern Nigeria. I would say this to the right hon. Gentleman, however. While the action taken last Thursday did not, sadly, have the outcome we all hoped for in the safe return of Chris and Franco, it has undoubtedly reduced the threat to UK nationals by demonstrating to would-be kidnappers that the UK is willing and able to react robustly when our nationals are put at risk.
It is the case, is it not, that the difference between success and failure in these operations is often a very narrow one? While it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that those who may be asked to carry out such operations are properly trained and equipped, it is necessarily the case that when Government authority is sought for these operations, the Government have to rely on the advice, judgment and experience of those on the ground.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Throughout the critical period last week, we were being advised by UK personnel on the ground and UK senior military personnel here in London. The Prime Minister quite rightly challenged and questioned the advice he was given, but was of course strongly guided by the professional judgments.
Having, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), had to make similar difficult and urgent decisions in such dire circumstances—sometimes with equally unhappy consequences—may I fully endorse the decisions that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister had to make in this situation? May I just press the right hon. Gentleman a little more on the position of President Giorgio Napolitano? I happen to know him, and have done since he was the Interior Minister when I was Home Secretary 15 years ago. He is extraordinarily cautious and measured in his language. It is plain that he felt blind-sided. Will the Foreign Secretary say what high-level efforts are being made to assuage his concerns at this stage?
I am sure that the Foreign Secretary could, but as he is not here, I will have a go instead. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there have been extensive contacts with the Italian Government and authorities since the expressions of unhappiness that we heard on Thursday and Friday, and I think it fair to say that the situation has been clarified to the satisfaction of all parties.
In these very difficult operations, surprise is vital. I have not yet seen the statement because it has not been distributed, but I believe that the operation began at 10.58 am, and that the area was secured by the Nigerian army. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is allowed to answer this question, but was the timing of the operation precipitated by the fact that security had been breached and we were forced to go in? Will he confirm that the timing was not of our choice?
My hon. Friend is right. The judgment was that, first because of the apprehension of members of the group earlier in the week and secondly because of the presence of significant numbers of Nigerian troops not very far from the compound in question, it would be taking too great a risk to defer the operation. The military judgment was that despite the risks involved, there was a greater chance of rescuing the hostages alive by acting immediately.
These are always the most difficult decisions to take. Our condolences must go to the families of the two men, and our profound thanks must go to our special forces, who acquire and are then prepared to use skill and bravery to carry out operations of this kind. We must be enormously grateful to them for doing so.
May I return to the issue of the unfortunate discord between us and the Italian Government? Is the Secretary of State able or prepared to say anything that would explain some of the complexities that would arise from a nation’s attempts to embed another in the kind of decisions that would be necessary to keep them completely and absolutely as one in such circumstances?
I think it fair to say that throughout the long months of captivity there were very good and full discussions and exchanges of views with the Italians, and that they understood very clearly our direction of travel and the way in which we sought to advance our understanding of the situation and then bring it to a close. The circumstances that arose on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning represented an accelerated closing of a time window which simply made it impossible to consult as fully as one might ideally have liked. I am assured that information was continually being transmitted between intelligence agencies, as is the norm between allied agencies, but that there was not enough time for the discussions at Government-to-Government level that we might have had if a further day, or even 12 hours, had been available to us.
As my right hon. Friend and others have said, this was an extremely difficult operation, and one in which the odds were increasingly stacked against us. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while we commend the courage and professionalism of our special forces, it is extremely important that any examination of the details of what took place does not in any way compromise the necessary secrecy of the methods that they employ?
Christopher McManus was one of my constituents. I have been in touch with his family regularly both before and after his untimely death, and I want to pay a very real tribute to their unceasing efforts to secure his release—in conjunction with the Foreign Office, which was extremely helpful—not just in the most recent period, but throughout nine or 10 nerve-racking months.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, but may I ask him to say a little more about the exact nature of the intelligence that was collected in the raid on Boko Haram in Kaduna, which indicated that precipitate action was necessary to save the hostages’ lives? May I also ask why such expressly urgent action was needed that the Italian Government could not be consulted before a final decision was made, because the life of one of their citizens, as well as of Chris McManus, was at risk?
First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the McManus family? I attended a significant number of the Cobra meetings that have been held on this subject since October last year, and whenever there were reported contacts with the family, comment was made on how engaged they had been with the process and how focused they were on getting the result we all wanted. They were under tremendous pressure, but they conducted themselves with remarkable dignity and co-operated very well with the authorities throughout the process.
The right hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot go into the details of the intelligence that was available, but what he has to understand is that there was a fast-evolving situation. On Tuesday evening, some people were arrested. During the course of their debriefing on Wednesday, several of them provided information that gave us a credible fix on where the hostages might be being held. Later, additional intelligence was available to corroborate that. So the level of knowledge and understanding was ratcheting up, and at the same time the deployment of Nigerian forces into the area in question raised a significant risk that the hostage-takers would become aware that the operation was under way.
As chair of the British-Italian parliamentary group, I have been closely following reports in the Italian press. Saturday’s La Stampa stated that the Italian secret services had been informed in the morning, and Saturday’s Corriere della Sera reported that the two countries’ secret services spoke to each other at 10.15 am on Thursday, when the operation was imminent. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we, and all our counterparts and friends in the Italian Parliament, should stand in solidarity in facing threats from terrorism, hostage taking and piracy, and that rather than allowing critics to divide us, we should continue to work together against terrorism and hostage taking?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiment, and I can assure him that that has been the nature of the relationship between the UK authorities and the Italians throughout this process. We have worked closely together and it has been a relationship of close collaboration and close understanding. On the question of communication, I can only repeat what I have already said: my understanding is that there was regular, day-to-day communication between the intelligence agencies, including on the morning of last Thursday.
Mario Monti and his Government are doing a tremendous and very difficult job in repairing the damage done by the Berlusconi regime, and they are our natural allies on many issues, not least in the European Union, so can the Secretary of State assure the House that he, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will make every effort to address the apparent grievance felt at the highest level in the Italian Government about some elements of the way in which this operation was handled?
I echo the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. We have extremely good relationships with the Italians, including on military and defence matters. I repeat what I said earlier: I believe that the conversations that have taken place over the weekend have very substantially defused the situation. On Thursday, there will be an operational visit to brief the Italians on military and intel channels, and I am told that the Foreign Secretary intends to visit Italy later in March.
For the reasons outlined by the Secretary of State, there can be no doubt in my mind that the Prime Minister took the right decision—the only question is whether that decision was communicated quickly enough to the Italians. According to what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) cited from the Italian press, it would appear that the decision was communicated quickly but that it perhaps did not then reach up into the Government in Italy as quickly as it should have done. Will the Secretary of State confirm that we did convey the information about the decision as quickly as we could, and that there was no question of our deciding not to do that because of doubts about the information leaking, the Italians wanting to pay ransoms or anything of that sort?
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that there was no question of information being withheld. There were two clear, separate channels of information. The intelligence agencies were communicating on a regular basis, and the British ambassador in Rome went as soon as he practically could to deliver the information to the Italian Government, once the operation had got under way.
As the Secretary of State will know, a number of foreign nationals are still being held as kidnap victims in Nigeria and many British citizens work in Nigeria. I hope that this is not seen as the end of support for the Nigerian Government. Will he confirm that if President Jonathan asks for more support to help with counter-terrorism, it will be forthcoming from us?
I thought that I had already said that the package of counter-terrorism support that we put in place after the Prime Minister’s visit this year will continue. So long as the Nigerians are facing a threat from extremist Islamist terrorists, we will support them, as we support other allies in the fight against terrorists.
Members of this House who serve on the all-party group on global education for all spent half-term week in Nigeria, and the spectre of the burnt-out United Nations building in Abuja will stay in our minds for a long time. The question raised by the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs is crucial, not least because we have so many excellent Department for International Development officials and people from the voluntary sector working in the sensitive area of education, particularly in the volatile northern states. What hope can the Secretary of State give those officials that sufficiently robust security arrangements are in place for those important workers?
The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien) tells me that we have taken all necessary steps to protect UK personnel in Nigeria who are working on aid programmes, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) tells me that we have taken the appropriate steps to protect Foreign Office personnel, too.
The right hon. Gentleman has talked about the security support being provided to President Jonathan and the Government of Nigeria. Does he or the Foreign Secretary have any plans to visit Nigeria to cement that relationship further and offer any further support that the Nigerian Government may require?
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk has just informed me that he will be in Nigeria next week. I am not aware of the Foreign Secretary’s forward travel plans, but, as I said to the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) a few moments ago, when we publish our defence engagement strategy shortly, Members will see that we are placing very great importance on the defence relationship with Nigeria. Defence Ministers will be responding to that document by pursuing the deepening and strengthening of those relationships.
I join colleagues in paying tribute to not only our special forces, but our intelligence services, for their professionalism and dedication, and for the unique global security reach they give our country. In particular, I welcome the message that this operation sends—tragic though the final outcome was—which is that in such a situation, the UK leaves no one behind and leaves no stone unturned in looking after the interests of our citizens abroad.
I worked as an engineer in Nigeria for several years, and I can only pay tribute to the courage of Mr McManus and his colleague in facing captivity for so long. I welcome the assurances about working with Nigeria to address the challenge of terrorism, but many British engineers do go abroad to work, partly because of a lack of opportunities in this country, so will the Secretary of State work with his colleagues across government to ensure that these people are well informed about the threats they may face, and that we are well informed of the numbers working abroad and the work they do? We must properly value their contribution.
The Foreign Office maintains travel advice to UK travellers in respect of all countries and will, of course, update it, but I take on board the hon. Lady’s comments about engineers and people working in similar professions, who of course play a very important ambassadorial role for the UK as they go about their daily business. We seek to understand where people are although, of course, we do not have formal registration requirements in any sense.
My right hon. Friend suggested that the heightened level of military activity in Sokoto might have alerted the kidnappers that their security had been compromised. Was there any way in which that military activity could have been reduced or was it absolutely essential to the conduct of the operation?
The control of the wider area was under the command of the Nigerian military authorities and the approach that they determined was appropriate—they, after all, are in the best position to judge—was that a cordon at some distance needed to be placed around the area. Our concern was that a number of events, starting with the arrest of members of the group on Tuesday evening through to the movements of Nigerian military into the area overnight on Wednesday, could have given the kidnappers an increasing awareness of what was going on and therefore put at increasing risk the lives of the hostages.
May I associate myself with what the Defence Secretary and the shadow Defence Secretary said about the operation itself? The Secretary of State gave us some detail about the timeline of events, but he did not give us the exact time at which our ambassador in Rome informed the Italian authorities that an operation was getting under way. What was that time?
I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman the exact time, but the Cobra meeting broke up just before 9 am and the responsible officials undertook to go away and contact the British ambassador in Rome immediately and to ask him to go as soon as was practicable to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome to provide the information to them.
Having established the absence of a power of veto in this case, what could Mr Monti possibly have said had he been consulted in advance, as apparently he wished to have been, that would materially have impacted on the decision matrix and, ultimately, the course of events?
I do not think that the course of events would have been changed in any way. In fairness, if the boot was on the other foot, UK Ministers would undoubtedly feel the need to know what was going on with an operation that would impact on the life of a UK citizen. I do not think that the Italians’ concern is in any way unreasonable, I just think they need to understand—I believe that they do, now—that, as regards the pace at which the operation developed, they were informed as expeditiously as possible. As I have said many times already this afternoon, the lines of communication between the intelligence agencies were pretty much continuously open.
The House will recall the tragic cases of Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan, who were killed by their captors in Iraq some years ago, as well as the steps taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to ensure that the families received adequate ongoing support. May I press the Secretary of State to say what ongoing support will be given to the family of Mr McManus?
Last year, the Economic Community of West African States warned the international community about the amount of former Libyan weaponry that was crossing the border straight into the hands of Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. Given our financial interests in the area, what pressure are the Government putting on the international community to address that in order to prevent further UK kidnappings?
I am not sure that I see a direct link. There are two separate issues here. First, there is the lawlessness in Nigeria and the threat it represents in terms of the kidnapping of UK citizens, and I have outlined the support we are giving to the Nigerians to maintain their counter-terrorism effort. Secondly, there is a real and serious concern about unaccounted-for weapons, which tend to be heavier weapons such as shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles. The UK has been involved with the US in a major operation in Libya since the end of the conflict there to try to identify, track down and secure weapons that have become unaccounted for.
I want to associate myself with hon. Members’ comments sending sympathies to the families of Christopher McManus and Franco Lamolinara. I also thank our British forces for their sterling efforts out on the field. Boko Haram is a ruthless, murderous terrorist organisation that kills at will—some 200 people have been killed, 400 churches have been burned down and thousands have been displaced. It is trying to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. What military and financial assistance does the Minister feel that the British Government and their allies could give to Nigerian authorities to rid Nigeria of Boko Haram once and for all and to enable Nigeria to be a stable influence in Africa?
As I have said, DFID is providing one of our largest packages of bilateral aid to the Nigerian Government. Following the Prime Minister’s visit last year, we are providing a counter-terrorism support package and will continue to provide that support to the Government of Nigeria in their struggle against Islamist extremism in northern Nigeria.
Point of order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The written version of the Minister’s statement was not available to Members until 24 minutes into the statement. Is it possible, through your good offices, to remind Ministers of the importance of providing written versions of their statements to Back Benchers in a timely fashion?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I do not think we need to labour this point and I am sure that he would be the last Member of the House who would seek to take any opportunity to do so. The Secretary of State apologised for what I think was an inadvertent error in failing to supply the shadow Secretary of State with a copy of the statement until after he had come into the Chamber. I think that the general expectation that Ministers will do their best is understood and I feel sure that the Secretary of State is as assiduous in discharging his responsibilities as anybody else.
Football (Financial Transparency)
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 require a football club playing in the top four tiers of English and Scottish professional football to disclose the identity of its owner, the identity of the owner of its home playing ground, training ground, any intellectual property associated with the club or a third party stake in its players and the identities of outstanding creditors; to require all creditors of a football club to be compensated equally should the club go into administration; and for connected purposes.
I want to introduce this Bill to give the House a chance to have its say on the wide issues associated with the financial failure of many professional football clubs in England and Scotland. The Bill proposes measures that would provide an early warning to the football authorities to take action and stand up for the interests of the communities that the clubs serve. Some might say that that is all well and good but is surely a matter for football and not a concern for Parliament. I believe we should be concerned when communities have to stand by powerless when their club is stripped of its assets and left drowning in a sea of debt it can never hope to repay. I believe we should be concerned when taxpayers lose millions in unpaid taxes when clubs go into administration, and when local businesses are left out of pocket and at risk of financial failure as a result. I believe that we should be concerned when, in a global game, millions of pounds are passing in and out of this country to buy clubs and players and we cannot be sure of the source or destination of that money. I believe we should be concerned when players can effectively be trafficked around the world under the control of the third-party interests who control them.
Let me say a little more about each of the areas of concern I have outlined and how the Bill is designed to help address them.
First, fans should know who owns their club and that these people pass the fit and proper person test that has been designed by the football authorities. I have no problem with foreign ownership of clubs, but we need to know who the owners are. In the case of Leeds United, fans went six years without knowing, until Ken Bates assumed control of the club from the future sports fund trust, which was registered in Nevis in the West Indies and administered from Switzerland. We do not know how much he paid for it, or whom he paid, and if we believe his testimony, he did not know whom he had paid either. The sale of the club was not advertised—rather strange if one is selling an asset and trying to get the best price. Many people believe that the only way he could have pulled off this deal was if he or close associates or family members had effectively controlled the club all along.
Last year I made inquiries with the Football League about the identity of the owners of Coventry City football club, and was told that it did not know who owned the club either. The letter that I received from Nick Craig, the director of legal affairs, went on to say:
“We have for some time expressed our concerns as regards investment vehicles (often offshore) and the issue of the lack of transparency surrounding ownership of them. Indeed we have previously sought assistance from DCMS”—
the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—
“in that respect but to no avail. We are left in a position where we can regulate and seek to require clubs to comply but are reliant on self-declaration with no official means of independent verification. The proliferation of offshore investment trusts means we will never always be 100% certain in all cases but we continually assess the appropriateness of our rules in a changing environment.”
How can we apply a fit and proper person test to football club ownership if we do not know who the ultimate owners are?
On Friday last week the football authorities published their joint response to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report on football governance. The report proposed the establishment of a Football Association regulatory authority. The role of the authority would be to co-ordinate the enforcement of rules between competitions and to step in if it feels that the Football League or the premier league in particular are not following through on their duties.
This is a welcome step forward, and certainly the premier league seems to have taken a tougher stance on ownership issues than the Football League in the case of Leeds. However, I believe we need to go further by requiring fuller declarations on behalf of club owners, with the authorities having the right to check this information with the club’s bankers. That is why the Bill calls for a public declaration from anyone owning any stake in a football club and its major assets, such as its playing and training ground, and for the football authorities to have access to a full list of the creditors of the club. The authorities should have the right to determine the source of funds, as well as the legal entity responsible for them.
Also, as part of the football club licensing scheme proposed by the Select Committee and accepted in principle by the football authorities, there should be some oversight of a club’s financial performance to ensure that it has the funds it requires to complete the playing season. Early intervention should be normal when, for example, clubs fall behind with their tax payments. This is now a requirement for clubs playing in the English premier league. It should have happened in the case of Rangers, a situation that should not have been able to get as bad as is it did. The double tragedy here is that Rangers’ financial failure may take down other clubs, such as Dunfermline, which had entered into agreements with Rangers in good faith and is left being owed large sums.
These are issues of concern not just for football fans, but for the law enforcement authorities. A report published in 2009 by the Financial Action Task Force, based on research across 25 countries, including England, highlighted the fact that because football is an international cash business with many assets controlled offshore, it is vulnerable to approaches from criminal organisations. The desperate financial state of many clubs may also mean that an approach from a would-be sugar daddy could be too good to resist, and without too many questions being asked.
The report indentified more than 20 cases of money laundering through the football sector, ranging from simple cases of smuggling large amounts of cash that seemed to have been derived from illegal transactions, to complex international money laundering cases. The report noted:
“Football clubs are indeed seen by criminals as the perfect vehicles for money laundering.”
It went on to say that
“the targets are frequently clubs in financial trouble looking for ‘lifesaving’ sponsors”
“the lack of regulation or control over legal structures and the ownership or control of football clubs means that they are easy to acquire.”
We have to ensure that the measures proposed in this Bill can be enforced to restrict these practices and send a message out to the world that the owners of a club in England or Scotland cannot hide their identity or the source of their funds.
I shall touch briefly on third-party ownership of players and the football creditors’ rule. Third-party ownership of footballers is banned in the UK, but not in many other countries in Europe and around the world. There is already an established practice of player ownership funds buying the controlling interest in a player at a club in, say, South America, and moving him on to a European club, with a view to a further transfer to a top club at a time of the ownership fund’s choosing. Even if third-party ownership is banned in the final destination country, this financial interest could be hidden by agreements to pay agents, or for payback clauses to the selling club and then back to the player fund, depending on the number of appearances a player makes, or indeed whether he is ultimately sold on again.
In a recent survey conducted among players in eastern Europe and the former USSR by FIFPro, 40% of footballers said that their salaries were not paid by the club they played for. That is why the Bill calls for a register to be available to the football authorities for any financial ties third parties have to players in a club. That is also at the heart of one of the big problems in football: some people make money simply from the margin they take on buying and selling the assets they control and the value they can get someone to pay. For those people, that is how they make money from the game and ownership of a club is simply a means of accessing and influencing the market.
Finally, the Bill would provide for the abolition of the football creditors’ rule. The rule means that when a football club goes into administration, people in football to whom it owes money, such as players and other clubs, receive their money in full but other creditors, such as a local printer who prints the match programmes, the St John Ambulance or a local builder who works on the ground, receive just pence in the pound. In the case of the administration of Leeds United, the club also left £6 million in unpaid taxes. Even the chairman of the Football League has admitted that he
“cannot defend the morality of it”.
I believe that getting rid of the football creditors’ rule would encourage football clubs to have greater openness in their dealings with each other, as there would be an element of shared risk. A club would really want to know if another club to whom it was selling a player could afford the transfer fees it was asking. Getting rid of the rule would also give the football authorities an even greater stake in ensuring that clubs do not go into administration during the season, which compromises the competition as they are forced to sell players and severely weaken their squad.
The issues I have touched on today affect English and Scottish football, but not exclusively; they affect football right around the world. In the absence of firm leadership from FIFA on these important matters, I believe that it is important that we take a stand and do our bit to clean up football in our country and give our fans a proper say and stake in how their clubs are run. These are the reasons why we need the Bill, which I commend to the House.
I rise to point out briefly a fundamental flaw in the Bill, but I commend the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for the work he has done in this field and through the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—its reports are excellent and we look forward to the report on racism in football. He identified a particular problem that is dear to my heart: the opaqueness of the ownership of Leeds United football club, a club I have supported throughout my life. Indeed, I have attended many hundreds of the club’s matches over the seasons—I appear to be the only Member of the House who regularly attends. I therefore have a great deal of sympathy for the principles and detail of what he is putting forward.
However, we are coming to the end of a parliamentary Session and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be considering resubmitting the Bill in some way after the Queen’s Speech. The Bill’s fundamental weakness is the fact that it would deal only with the top four leagues. I have another love in my life, another football club, and the world’s fourth oldest: Worksop Town football club. As a non-league club, Worksop Town would not be covered by the Bill, yet the non-league clubs across England and elsewhere have suffered far more than the professional clubs as a result of the problems of opaqueness and the asset strippers who have come and taken the clubs away. Some 33 current English league teams of the 92 have been in administration since 1992 and the Sky deal and the establishment of the premier league. Far more non-league clubs have gone into administration, and a considerable number have been liquidated. Whether in Worksop, Halifax, York, Wrexham, Crawley, Salisbury, Boston or Lincoln, non-league football across the country has been plagued by the problem of people buying clubs, asset-stripping and attempting to develop the land. It is a fundamental problem.
I shall not push the Bill to a vote, but should the hon. Gentleman come back to the House with it after the Queen’s Speech, I urge him to incorporate non-league clubs into what is a very worthy proposal.
Question put and agreed to.
That Damian Collins, Dr Thérèse Coffey, Philip Davies, Thomas Docherty, Paul Farrelly, Louise Mensch, Penny Mordaunt, Steve Rotheram, Mr Adrian Sanders, Jim Sheridan, Mr Gerry Sutcliffe and Mr John Whittingdale present the Bill.
Damian Collins accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed (Bill 316)
[Un-allotted Half Day]
Health and Social Care Bill
We come now to the main business and to the Opposition motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. It might be helpful if I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of Mr Andrew George.
Just before I call the shadow Secretary of State to move the motion, may I remind the House that in the light of the extensive interest in this debate I have imposed a five-minute limit on individual Back Benchers’ contributions? There is no formal limit on contributions from the Front Benchers, but I feel sure that the shadow Secretary of State and Secretary of State will tailor their contributions in order to facilitate their Back-Bench colleagues’ participation.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the e-petition signed by 170,000 people calling on the Government to drop the Health and Social Care Bill; and declines to support the Bill in its current form.
I do so on behalf of the 170,000 people who have signed the e-petition calling on the Government to drop the Health and Social Care Bill.
The petition was initiated by Dr Kailash Chand, a distinguished general practitioner in the north-west of many years’ standing, and I pay tribute to him today. He has united patients who depend on the NHS and professionals who have devoted their lives to it in this simple but sincere call on the Government: “Drop the Bill”. Today, their voice will be heard in this House, as it is entitled to be. We will not let them be silenced, even though attempts were made to stop this debate taking place.
That takes us—
No. I have been listening to the strictures from the Chair, and I want to get into my speech so that Back-Bench colleagues have a chance to contribute.
That takes us straight to the heart of the predicament in which we find ourselves. There is huge concern in the country about the Bill, but the Government and Parliament—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but before we move beyond that point will he confirm that Dr Chand is an adviser to the Labour party, which inspired the petition? Further, given that Dr Chand has called on the British Medical Association to take strike action against the Bill, does the right hon. Gentleman share that view, or will he disown him?
Dr Chand is not an adviser to the Labour party, and the Secretary of State, in seeking to inject that party political note so early on in today’s debate and to claim that the petition of 170,000 people is a political petition, continues, it suggests to me, to misread the mood of this country on his unnecessary Bill.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not.
We have arrived at a dangerous moment, not only for the NHS but for our democracy. To recap, this is a Bill for which nobody voted at the general election and which does not have a mandate, a Bill ruled out by the coalition agreement, and a Bill that has been so heavily amended in another place that in effect the unelected Chamber has written a new legal structure for the national health service that we are being asked to rubber-stamp. Yet despite all that, it could be rammed through this House in just seven days’ time, in defiance of an outstanding legal ruling from the Information Tribunal and in the teeth of overwhelming professional and public opposition.
This is an intolerable situation, and it is no way to treat our country’s most valued institution. Far-ranging changes to the NHS of the kind proposed by the Secretary of State can be made only by public consent and professional consensus, and it is plain for all to see that the Government have achieved neither of those things.
No, I will not.
To proceed as planned risks profound damage to the relationships of trust that underpin a successful health service and risks a further erosion of trust in our democratic process that this House can ill afford.
Today there is one final chance for this House to ask the Government to step back from this dangerous course and reflect the feeling that there is in every single constituency in England. In introducing this debate, I have a bigger responsibility than speaking for Labour Members. The call to drop the Bill is not a narrow Labour campaign, as was claimed just now and in Gateshead at the weekend—it is a new coalition for the NHS that has brought together patients, professionals and people of all political views, including, I dare say, some of those in the Secretary of State’s own party. People who have signed the petition will be watching our proceedings closely. They will be hoping against hope that somehow we will put the NHS first, put aside the customary clash of party politics, and find common ground that can help the NHS.