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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2012

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—


We set out our initial proposals on 20 January. We are undertaking a wide-ranging consultation exercise. I have appeared at a number of meetings and will do so again. We will listen to everything that people have said and in due course we will lay out our proposals for legislation.

I have had a number of meetings with the voluntary sector over the past six months. Can the Minister reassure the House that the changes to the lobbying system that we may introduce will not bar small charities from making contact with their Members of Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Nothing that we intend to do is intended to stop people legitimately lobbying their Members of Parliament. Indeed, we have set out that lobbying is a good thing to make sure we are aware of the impact of our legislation. The important thing is that it is carried out transparently, and that is what we are aiming to achieve.

The hon. Gentleman may ask me, as I am answering the question. We are carrying out a consultation exercise, listening to the industry, to the public and to organisations campaigning for transparency. When we have done that, we will weigh up everything that has been said. We will then publish draft legislation for full pre-legislative scrutiny.

The most recently published information describes all but two of the Chancellor’s meetings with external organisations as being for the purpose of general discussion. The other two are described as social. Does the Minister agree that for proper disclosure of lobbying activity, any register will need to go further than such broad descriptions?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I shall count that as part of the consultation exercise. It is a point that has been made by others about the disclosures that Ministers make. We will weigh that up when formulating our proposals.

I wholeheartedly support the idea of a statutory register of lobbyists, but surely it must include the full-time people who do it on behalf of their companies in-house. If we do not know whether the head of lobbying for BP, Shell or whoever else is coming in to see a Minister, we have not really brought about transparency, have we?

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes about those who lobby for the companies they work for, as opposed to third parties, has been made by others and we will weigh that up. If a person from an individual company comes to see a Minister and the Minister discloses that they have had that meeting, as they do, it is clear on whose behalf they are lobbying. The situation that we are trying to deal with is one where we do not know on whose behalf someone is lobbying. That is the reason for our initial proposals.

Electoral Registration

Electoral registration officers have the power to require any person to provide information about any aspect of a person’s eligibility to register. It is currently not an offence not to be registered to vote, but it is an offence not to provide information to an ERO when required to do so. Under our plans for individual electoral registration, we do not intend to criminalise people who fail to register when invited to do so. However, we are considering the merits of introducing a civil penalty for a non-response to an invitation to register, and will announce our decision when we bring forward the legislation.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that leaving electoral registration officers without the power to criminalise those who refuse to register to vote will effectively tie one of their hands behind their back?

I do not think that many electoral registration officers feel that it is necessary to put a new criminal offence on the statute book to deal with that issue, which is why we have been quite open about the fact that we want to keep the existing offences on the statute book but are considering a civil offence to ensure that the right information is provided to electoral registration officers.

Ian White and Heather Jackson at the electoral registration department of Kettering borough council, of which I am a proud member, do a superb job in registering local people on the electoral register. What can the Deputy Prime Minister do to encourage the dissemination of best practice, because clearly some electoral registration officers are not up to the job?

That is an excellent idea, and it is exactly one of the tasks of the Electoral Commission to find out where EROs are most effective and then ensure that their colleagues in other parts of the country are aware of best practice.

House of Lords

The Government have received more than 250 representations since the publication of the White Paper and the draft House of Lords Reform Bill in May last year.

Many of us are of the view that many Members of an elected upper House, elected by proportional representation, will be tempted to claim a mandate equal to that of hon. Members in this place. Why does the Deputy Prime Minister think that his rather squalid Bill will not undermine the primacy of this Chamber?

I do not think that anything in our plans would change the primacy of this Chamber or that there is an automatic link between changing the composition of the other place and changing the balance of power between the two Chambers. There are many bicameral systems around the world where both Chambers are either wholly or fully elected but there is a clear division of labour between them. The hon. Gentleman calls this a squalid proposal; it is a proposal to introduce a smidgen of democracy in the other place, which has been around for about 100 years, and I think that we should now get on with it.

On 21 April 2010 the Deputy Prime Minister described the House of Lords as being

“stuffed full of people who have basically done favours to other politicians.”

Is that how he would describe those Lib Dems who have been sent to the Lords since the general election?

For anyone who wants to defend the status quo, and it is unclear whether the hon. Lady does—the Labour party used to campaign proudly for reform of the bastion of privilege and inherited power but seems to have lost its historical vocation as a progressive force for political reform—I ask them to reflect on the fact that over 70% of all the people in the other place are there because of an act of political patronage. Is that really sustainable in the 21st century? I do not think so.

14. Has the Deputy Prime Minister received many representations from those who appear to believe that the way to uphold the supremacy of the elected House is to defy the supremacy of the elected House, which has already said that it wants to introduce some democracy to the other Chamber? (100635)

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. There is an odd sort of circularity in the argument that, notwithstanding the fact that this House has voted clearly in favour of either a wholly or largely elected Chamber, somehow to preserve the primacy of this House we should not allow any legitimacy into the other place. That seems to me to be a somewhat self-serving argument.

Major constitutional change that is successful is best done by parties trying to work together and then putting the case to the country via a referendum. We have seen devolution to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and London done in that way, and on 3 May we will see cities across the country choosing via referendums whether they should have elected mayors. Will the Deputy Prime Minister work with those of us who want to see the second Chamber reformed and then trust the British public on this major constitutional change via a referendum?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, because he himself joined in the discussions, we had months and months of painstaking cross-party discussions about the content of the draft Bill, precisely because, as he quite rightly says, it is best to proceed with these important matters on a cross-party basis. All three parties, again as he knows, had in various shapes or sizes a commitment to a reformed House of Lords. It is something we have been discussing for a very long time as a country—close to a century.

There is an open debate to be had about when something is presented to the people via a referendum—or not. The Lords Committee that recently looked at the issue very clearly said that there should be a referendum if there is a proposal to abolish the House of Lords. That of course is not what we are proposing, because we are proposing to reform the composition of the House of Lords, so I do not share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that a referendum is justified in the way he describes, although I acknowledge that it was in his party’s manifesto at the last general election.

Electoral Fraud

4. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of bringing forward the annual canvass on levels of electoral fraud. (100625)

The Government take combating electoral fraud very seriously. Following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, I directed that this year’s annual canvass should be started and completed earlier so that the register to be used for police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales outside London is the most accurate and up-to-date register possible.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but does he believe it right that the nominations for police and crime commissioners and their subsequent elections should take place using different electoral registers?

I think, in this particular case, that is perfectly fine. It does not deal with the hon. Gentleman’s question, however, which was about electoral fraud. The reason for bringing forward the canvass was to ensure that we were not using a register that was right at the end of its useful life, with significant numbers of people not being at the addresses on the register. That would have provided an opportunity for fraud, and we wanted to reduce that to the minimum.

Is the Minister aware that there are concerns from cities such as mine, which have a large number of students, about the impact of moving the dates forward, that students who have arrived will not be put on the register and students who have left will still be on the register for far too long? Will he look at ways of avoiding that problem?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One reason for issuing the direction to registration officers as early as possible was so that, in each area, they could think through the consequences for their particular registration and the challenges that they face, and then put in place procedures to ensure that the register used for police and crime commissioner elections is the most accurate and complete register necessary. If he has any specific concerns, I shall be very happy to discuss them with him.


The Scotland Bill is completing its passage through Parliament, implementing most of the recommendations of the Calman commission and resulting in the most significant transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament since its establishment. We have also established the Silk commission on devolution in Wales and initiated the McKay commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons. We have also devolved powers directly from Whitehall to local communities through the Localism Act 2011, providing for referendums on directly elected mayors in 10 cities on 3 May and for local referendums on a range of issues, and giving local authorities a general power of competence.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. Does he recognise that devolution is an ongoing process, whereas separation is a once-and-for-all decision? Does he agree that we need a single question on independence in the proposed referendum if we are to have a clear and decisive result from it?

I strongly agree, as I suspect do many Members on both sides of the House. It would be wrong to play cat and mouse with the Scottish people by confusing two entirely different issues: one is whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom; the other is on the process by which we might provide greater devolved powers to Scotland. We cannot really address the second without first knowing whether the United Kingdom is going to remain intact, and that is why it is important to give a simple, clear question to the Scottish people to decide—through one question in the referendum.

The Deputy Prime Minister will note that the Scottish National party Bench is bare this afternoon. Will he confirm that the West Lothian commission will include not only Scotland, but Wales, Northern Ireland and London?

It will consider in the round all the issues about how we manage business in this House in a more devolved United Kingdom. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the McKay commission will report in the next parliamentary Session.

My right hon. Friend and I are already, in a sense, married politically—and very happily, at that—but as we have so much to do together on devolution, House of Lords reform and the Health and Social Care Bill, can we just leave it at that: as a partnership?

My hon. Friend is right that our in-tray is full, but, as I said before, I think it is a good thing that this partnership and this coalition is being as ambitious as we are.

Political Party Funding

6. What recent discussions he has had on political donations arising from the proceeds of crime as part of his proposals for the reform of party funding. (100627)

The Government are committed to reform of party funding and believe that this is best achieved, where possible, through consensus. I recently wrote to party leaders asking them to nominate representatives for cross-party discussions. Arrangements for those discussions are being finalised, and I hope that they will commence shortly.

I am very pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister has answered this question. I want to ask him about the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which allows for the recovery of money from crime. Money stolen by fraudsters such as Michael Brown is surely tainted within the spirit of the Act, and as such it should be recovered, as I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister agrees. Will he apply the principles of the Act to his party funding reforms?

As the hon. Lady knows, the Electoral Commission looked in great depth at the donation made by Mr Brown five, six or seven years ago and concluded, as the watchdog that oversees these things, that the money was taken in good faith by the Liberal Democrats and all the reasonable checks were made by the party at the time.

If we are going to talk about party donations being tainted, is it not important that we ensure that tax avoiders and non-domiciles who supported the Labour party are also dealt with?

It is quite gutsy of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) to raise this when prominent members of her own party such as Ken Livingstone seem to have very exotic tax arrangements, and when the Labour party now relies for 90% of its funding on trade unions that then write the parliamentary questions that Labour Members read out in this Chamber.

Electoral Registration

We have received a number of representations on our proposals for individual electoral registration, including an excellent report from the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, to which we have responded.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that if we are to avoid the prospect of many people leaving the electoral register when IER is introduced, we need a significant and robust system of data swapping. If that cannot be achieved in time for the date when the Government plan to introduce IER, will the Minister delay that date or run the risk of millions of people falling off the electoral register?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has studied our response to the Select Committee’s report, so he will know that one of the things that arose from our data-matching pilots was that there is a good opportunity to use a pre-verification process to ensure that we, in effect, put a floor under electoral registers to reduce the risk of people falling off the register. We will test that further and no doubt debate it when the proposed legislation is going through the House. That can give us a great deal of confidence that we will not see the problems the hon. Gentleman mentions.

9. Does the Minister agree that all rights should be exercised with responsibility and that where people have the right to vote they should exercise their personal responsibility of registering to vote, and thus, through the Minister’s introduction of individual electoral registration, the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register will be improved? (100630)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, who is a prominent member of the Select Committee that looked at this in great detail. I absolutely agree with her. Registering to vote and voting is an act of personal responsibility, but we are also looking to make sure that we reduce the risk of people falling off the register and increase the tools at the disposal of registration officers to ensure that the register is complete.

Does the Minister share my concern that the Electoral Commission said that its main conclusion about the Government’s data-matching pilot schemes is that they

“do not provide sufficient evidence to judge the effectiveness of data matching as a method for improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers”?

If he shares my concern, what action will he take?

Part of the reason for having the pilots was to learn some information. One thing that we found was that the data-matching pilots were less successful at improving completeness and accuracy, but very good at pre-verification, as I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) will know that we plan to have further data-matching pilots, subject of course to parliamentary approval of the appropriate orders. That will build up further evidence, which will show Members that this system will be robust in improving the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register.

House of Lords

8. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for the Parliament Acts of his proposals for House of Lords reform. (100629)

The Government’s proposals will maintain the primacy of the House of Commons and the Parliament Acts will continue to apply.

It is easy to see why the Deputy Prime Minister is hooked on the Parliament Acts and on financial privilege, when the House of Lords has so far inflicted nine defeats on his Government on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill alone. Will he explain why every Lib Dem peer voted to cut social welfare legal aid the day after his conference voted for the

“protection of fair and equal access to justice”?

If my understanding is right, the hon. Gentleman campaigned at the last general election on a commitment in his manifesto to reform legal aid. There have been countless reviews—[Interruption.]

Countless reviews have been conducted on legal aid funding, which has ballooned out of all recognition in recent years. As on so many other issues, the Government have the guts to confront the difficult decisions that Labour ducked for 13 years.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policies and initiatives. I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

There are reports in the media today of plans to publish tax statements, which will give people a detailed breakdown of how the Government spend their money. I welcome that proposal, which treats people with much more respect and makes government more open. The reports suggest that the scheme may start in 2014. As it is such a good idea, can it be brought forward to 2013?

I, too, think it is an excellent idea. It will provide citizens of this country with far greater transparency on how the money that they provide to those of us in government is spent. That goes to the heart of greater accountability in government. It will empower citizens to know where their money is spent. I am sure that the Chancellor will consider any opportunity to bring this good initiative forward, where it is feasible.

Last November, when talking about the top rate of tax on income over £150,000, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“I do not believe that the priority…is to give a tax cut to a tiny, tiny number of people who are much, much better off than anyone else.”

If the Chancellor announces any cut in the top rate of tax, Opposition Members will vote against it: will he?

The right hon. and learned Lady will have to wait until the Chancellor announces his Budget tomorrow. The priority for me and for the whole coalition Government is to provide real help to people on middle and low incomes, who have faced higher prices and great difficulties because of the economic implosion that she and her colleagues presided over in government. Whatever changes there are to this bit of the tax system or that bit of the tax system, Government Members believe that the wealthy should pay more, because the broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden.

We will see about that. Next month, low-income families will be hit by a massive cut to their tax credits, which the Lib Dems voted for. It is now clear that they will go along with a cut in the top rate of tax. I suppose that we should not be surprised after what they have done on VAT, the police and tuition fees. By signing up to cutting the top rate of tax, the Deputy Prime Minister is giving thousands of pounds to the very rich, while cutting tax credits for people who are struggling to make ends meet. Surely, even by Lib Dem standards, that is a step too far.

Next month, this Government will take more than 1 million people on low pay out of paying income tax altogether. Next month, we will deliver the largest cash increase in the state pension ever. There will be no more of Labour’s 75p pension insults. Next month, thousands of children from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive an uplift in the pupil premium to give them the head start in life that they never got under Labour. That is a record that I am proud of.

T2. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that many small businesses are struggling to gain access to credit, which is why I am delighted that the national loan guarantee scheme was introduced today. However, what can the Deputy Prime Minister do to ensure that small businesses with a turnover of less than £5 million can access the scheme? (100638)

The banks that are participating in the NLGS—the announcement on that has now been made—must use all their branches, and all their contacts with small and micro businesses in each area where they have branches, to make this new credit-easing facility available to the largest number of small businesses, for whom it has been very difficult to access credit on reasonable terms in recent times.

T3. Deputy Prime Minister, in 2008, when you used to visit Liverpool, you categorically said:“Will I ever join a Conservative Government? No. I will never allow the Liberal Democrats to be a mere annex to another party’s agenda.”What do you regret the most: your betrayal on the 3,000 extra police you promised, your broken tuition fees pledge, your party’s support for the destruction of the NHS, or becoming a Tory? (100639)

I am proud of the fact that we have stepped up to the plate to clean up the mess the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and his party colleagues left behind after 13 years in office. It is convenient for him to airbrush out of history the fact that when his party was in government it went on bended knee to Rupert Murdoch, yet now it will not even talk to his newspapers. It also let the banks get away with blue murder, but it now wants to tax them to the hilt. The country will not forget the mess it left the rest of us to clear up.

T6. I recently visited the Yorkshire College of Beauty Therapy, alas not for treatment—I feared there would not be enough time for that—but to see how successful its apprenticeship scheme has been. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about youth unemployment, so what are the Government doing to encourage employers to take on more young apprentices? (100642)

In the earlier list of proud achievements that I gave, I forgot to mention the fact that we are delivering more apprenticeships than have ever been delivered in recent times in this country. We are delivering 250,000 more apprenticeships during this Parliament than would have been delivered by a Labour Administration. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the whole apprenticeship programme depends very heavily on companies and employers participating in the scheme and giving young people the opportunity to take up apprenticeship places. That is why in the youth contract, which will start in a matter of weeks, we are providing a £1,500 incentive to employers to take on young apprentices.

T4. On the emerging proposals for the reform of party finance, does the Deputy Prime Minister favour a £10,000 cap on contributions from wealthy donors, as proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, or no cap at all, as proposed by the Prime Minister? (100640)

I strongly support a cap. We need to put a limit on the arms race in party funding. That, of course, must include a cap on donations. There is a range of opinions on where that cap should lie, and I think it should lie as low as possible. This issue is best addressed on a cross-party basis, which is why I hope the cross-party talks I have called for will now proceed in earnest.

T7. Being stalked must be a terrible experience, and it is calculated that there are about 120,000 such cases each year. I am delighted that the Government are going to make it a criminal offence. The people of Broxtowe—and no doubt those throughout the rest of the country —want to know when legislation will be introduced. (100643)

We will, of course, look for the earliest possible opportunity, to ensure—[Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House reminds me that that happened yesterday, so the offence is being put on to the statute book as quickly as possible, precisely because, as my hon. Friend says, it is incredibly unsettling for victims of stalking, and it is high time it was made a criminal offence.

T5. Last year the NewsThump website awarded the Deputy Prime Minister the parliamentary April fools’ day prize for convincing a number of MPs that he intended to keep one of his pre-election promises. With April fools’ day 2012 fast approaching, will he confirm that he is a contender again, with the claim that tomorrow’s Budget will help those who are struggling? (100641)

My own view is that the tax proposal that I have championed for many years—that everyone who earns in this country should earn the first £10,000 entirely free of income tax—is one of the most radical tax policies to have been promoted in British politics for many, many years and would make a dramatic difference for people on middle and low incomes, who were abandoned by the Labour party and its punitive approach to tax. As I have said, from next month, with the steps that we have already announced, we will already be taking more than 1 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax whatever.

T9. In 2010-11 the average public spending purse per person in Wales was £9,947, and for the west midlands it was only £8,679. In the light of the fact that Welsh MPs can vote on matters that affect my constituents, how can I justify that discrepancy to the people of Redditch? (100645)

I know that this is a sensitive issue, but I do not think that at a time like this, when we are seeking to fill the black hole in the public finances, reopening the mind-numbingly complex issue of the Barnett formula should be our No. 1 priority. That does not mean that we cannot make progress on how fiscal devolution could proceed in the United Kingdom, which is why the Silk commission has been established to look, for instance, at the new fiscal powers that could possibly be devolved to Wales in the future.

T8. This Government put back Labour’s universal broadband pledge by three years, with the result that we now have more than 2 million people without access to decent broadband. Now, the Deputy Prime Minister has decided that for the police commissioner elections, people will need decent broadband to know who to vote for. How can he possibly justify turning the digital divide that he created into a democratic deficit? (100644)

As the hon. Lady knows, the Government have committed hundreds of millions of pounds to investment in superfast broadband. She also knows that the Chancellor is due to make an announcement tomorrow on the 10 cities that will receive further support for improved broadband speeds, which of course are important not just for democratic participation but for a range of services that we want our citizens to be able to access.

T10. Has my right hon. Friend assessed the possibility that Orkney and Shetland could opt to remain part of the United Kingdom if the rest of Scotland voted for a separation? (100646)

That would be a popular proposal in the Liberal Democrat Whips Office, but I fervently hope that the issue will never arise, because I very much hope that the Scottish people will agree with the biggest body of opinion here and elsewhere, which is that we are stronger, safer and more prosperous as a United Kingdom.

T11. Last week the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that it was possible for a Government to do more than one thing at once. That was in relation to House of Lords reform. Does he agree, then, that it is possible to retain the 50p tax rate and introduce a tougher tax avoidance regime at the same time? (100647)

As I said, for me, the principles are very clear. First, the priority should be providing tax relief to people on middle and low incomes at a time when many people are feeling the pinch and struggling to make ends meet. Secondly, we should ensure that there is a progressive shift in the tax system, so that there is less tax on work, effort and enterprise, and more tax on wealth and the wealthy.

T15. I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s commitment to attend the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development later this year. Will he inform the House on which priorities he personally intends to lead during those vital discussions on the future well-being of our planet? (100651)

It is very important that this country continues to take a lead in the international discussions, not only so that we can confront together the overarching threat of climate change, which is such a potent threat to everybody across the globe, but so that we can work together to compare notes on how we can green our economies, which will be the specific focus of the Rio+20 summit. I think everybody now agrees that sustainable prosperous growth in the future has to be green as well.

T12. The president of the Liberal Democrats has said that in his opinion, the Health and Social Care Bill has gone from being “appalling” to being “pointless” over the past 12 months. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that over the same period, the Liberal Democrats have gone from being pointless to being appalling? (100648)

The only thing that is appalling is the Christmas cracker lines that Opposition Members dutifully read out. I really hope the hon. Lady will do a little better next time.

The Government are confronting a dilemma in our health care system that every Government in every developed economy and society must face. We have an increasing and ageing population, with an increasingly large number of people with long-term chronic conditions, who spend much more time in hospital than has ever been the case. That is why it is right to give people such as doctors and nurses, who know patients best, greater authority regarding how our health care system works. That remains the key reform in the Bill.

Going back, if I may, to the topical issue of House of Lords reform, may I check with the Deputy Prime Minister whether he believes a 15-year senator who is unable to stand for re-election is more or less accountable than a current Member of the other place?

The key ambition of that reform is to ensure that the House of Lords is more legitimate. The simple principle that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who have to obey the laws of the land is not an unfamiliar one across the democratic world. Of course, there is a legitimate debate on the length of the mandate for elected Members of the House of Lords, but the reason why we have opted for non-renewable terms—as in previous proposals, by the way—is precisely to enshrine the contrast between this Chamber and a reformed House of Lords.

T13. Many will echo the Deputy Prime Minister’s earlier statement on House of Lords of reform—“Let’s get on with it.” After 100 years of waiting for reform, and after it was in all three party manifestos—although people would not know that from listening to some Members on the Government Benches—when will we have a Bill before the House? Sooner or later? (100649)

The Joint Committee that is examining our draft Bill is in the final stages of completing its work, and I hope it will publish its report shortly. The Government will then move as soon as we can to present a final draft Bill to the House.

It has taken 100 years to get Lords reform. It is an important matter and the Deputy Prime Minister is a great democrat. Will he give the House the assurance that this legislation for constitutional change will not be timetabled, but will go through the House at the appropriate pace?

It is a relief to be asked a question by my hon. Friend that is, for once, not related to the demise of his party leader. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that the Bill, given its importance, should be given adequate time. That is precisely what we will provide for it.

T14. The Deputy Prime Minister is clearly at the heart of Government. Has he seen a copy of the legal advice on whether competition law applies to the Health and Social Care Bill, and the transition risk register, and will he publish it? (100650)

The reasons why we are withholding publication of the risk register are precisely the same as the reasons why the Labour Government withheld their consent for publication on three occasions—[Hon. Members: “Have you seen it?”] Yes, I have seen the risk register. As the hon. Lady knows, it is a very important tool to allow civil servants to give frank and fearless advice to Ministers. As champions of freedom of information such as The Guardian and The Independent have said, publishing the register would inhibit civil servants from providing such frank and fearless advice to Ministers in future.

Yesterday the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs published a report recommending the devolution of the Crown Estate, sea bed and foreshore rights in Scotland to local communities as far as possible. That would be a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to communities in the highlands and islands, exactly in line with the big society agenda. I hope that the Government support the recommendation.

I understand that those proposals were published just yesterday, so the Government have not had a great deal of time to consider them, but we will do so carefully.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House, and my constituents, what the Government will do to help hard-pressed, hard-working, ordinary people throughout the United Kingdom facing exorbitant rises in fuel prices?

My own view is that the best way to help many, many families and the more than 20 million basic rate taxpayers in this country is to let them keep more of the money they earn. That is why the centrepiece tax policy in the coalition agreement is to lift the point at which people pay income tax to £10,000, so that everybody in the country receives a sizeable tax cut—because they will keep more of the money they earn.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what progress he and the cities Minister—the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)—have made in negotiating the city deals with the eight largest cities outside London?

My right hon. Friend and I have made significant progress on those city deals, and I am pleased to announce this afternoon that the negotiation with Greater Manchester has now been concluded. This deal is a huge step forward in our devolution-rebalancing agenda, and signals the Government’s genuine commitment to unlocking the great potential of our cities. It will enable Greater Manchester to shape its own future, including through an innovative approach to economic investment—the so-called “earn back” model—that has the potential to transform how cities are incentivised to drive growth. According to people in Manchester, this deal will create 6,000 new apprenticeships, strengthen Greater Manchester’s business growth hub, creating 3,800 new jobs, and commit us to a package of transport measures. Good news for Manchester.

May I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that it was in fact a Labour Government who removed the large majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords? Is it not quite obvious that there will be no progress on House of Lords reform, given the intense hostility from Conservative Members sitting behind him, unless the Parliament Act is used? I previously challenged him to a bet that there would not be such a change in this Parliament. Is he willing to take that bet?

My job is to deliver House of Lords reform, and to do so in as consensual a manner as possible. After all, all three main parties in the House committed themselves, in their manifestos, to reforming the House of Lords. Some say that this should not be a priority. I care about many things a whole lot more—such as a fairer tax system, the pupil premium and apprenticeships for young people. People defending the status quo should not elevate this issue to a status that it does not deserve. It has been debated for 100 years. Now let us get on with it.

Order. As usual, demand has exceeded supply. I apologise to colleagues who could not be accommodated, but we must now move on.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Serious Fraud Office

There has not been a recent independent assessment of the performance of the Serious Fraud Office, and for that reason, in consultation with the SFO director, I have requested Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate to carry out an inspection. It is intended that the inspection should assist the incoming director, and is timed accordingly. Furthermore, the SFO will continue to publish its annual performance information in its annual report.

A KPMG report suggests that fraud is on the rise and estimates that more than £1 billion of Government money was stolen by fraudsters in 2011 alone. This financial year the SFO’s budget was a little over £30 million. Does the Attorney-General agree that that smacks of a false economy?

I have absolutely no doubt that if there is more money to spend, one may get greater results—but it is also worth pointing out that since the 2008 de Grazia review the SFO has been transformed. Investigation times have been significantly reduced, conviction rates remain high, and very substantial sums of money are being recovered from the proceeds of crime. From that point of view, the SFO is well fulfilling the mandate it has been set. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point: it is always possible to argue that priorities in government should be substantially altered, but if that is to be done, far more funds will have to be found.

9. The Attorney-General will be aware that the Department for International Development’s annual review states that the Government’s record on investigating international corruption suffers from incoherent strategic direction. Can he tell the House how he will improve that record and increase the number of prosecutions? (100660)

It is worth bearing in mind that, so far as international corruption is concerned, the benchmark legislation is the legislation passed in 2011. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, for reasons that are obvious, that legislation is not retrospective. Therefore, although investigations are now under way into offences that have taken place from that time on, not many cases—or no cases—will have come to court. It is therefore a bit difficult at the moment to make an assessment of how successful this work will be. What I can tell the hon. Lady, however, is that between 40% and 50% of the Serious Fraud Office’s investigatory case load relates to bribery and corruption.

Transforming through Technology Programme

2. What assessment the Crown Prosecution Service has made of the effect of its Transforming through Technology programme on small firms of solicitors. (100653)

The impact on defence firms of working digitally is discussed every fortnight when the chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service, Mr Peter Lewis, meets the Law Society and other defence representatives to discuss progress on the programme.

The criminal justice system goes digital next week. However, with less than half of publicly funded criminal defence firms able to receive CPS e-mails, with defence firms having no money to print evidence, and with the Government not even knowing how many sockets there are in courts to plug in the computers, is the Minister fearful that some problems may develop in the system?

The hon. Gentleman paints a pretty gloomy picture—but then, he is in opposition, so I can fully understand it. The short point is that this is a rolling programme: it will be introduced incrementally. I can assure him that defence firms in his constituency and mine will come to terms with it and meet the challenges that they need to face.


3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on reform of the UK’s extradition arrangements. (100654)

I meet the Home Secretary regularly to discuss a wide range of issues of mutual interest. I know that my right hon. Friend is giving careful consideration to the recommendations in Sir Scott Baker’s review of extradition, and will make a further statement to Parliament detailing what action the Government propose to take as soon as is practicable.

As the Attorney-General has told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that he is not sure that changing the test applied in UK and US extradition cases would make any difference, does he regret his previous statement that our extradition laws are “one-sided” and should be rewritten?

It is worth bearing in mind that part of the problem for the first three years was that the last Government decided to implement the extradition treaty on a one-sided basis, so that we extradited to the US under the terms of our treaty at a time when the US would not carry out such extraditions. I think the hon. Lady will find that one of the reasons why I made that comment was that at the time of that debate, which took place in 2006, the United States had still not ratified the treaty. There are undoubtedly differences between the way in which the test that is required is applied, but having looked at the matter carefully. I do not think that the treaty as it stands at the moment can be described as one-sided. What can be said is that, as I explained to the Home Affairs Committee, there remain serious issues with public confidence in the way in which the extradition system with the United States operates.

But is it not important to recognise why there are serious anxieties among the public about the nature of the system for extradition, and does not the question of the different standard of proof on each side of the Atlantic lie right at the very heart of that anxiety? The Attorney-General will be obliged to give legal advice to the Home Secretary. Will he give her advice that points to the fact that the two standards are different, and therefore that the political conclusion that the system is failing is a legitimate one?

I have to say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I do not think that, in practice, the difference between a test of “probable cause”, which we have to show in the United States, and a test of “reasonable suspicion”, which the United States has to show here, amounts to a very significant difference at all. As I mentioned to the Home Affairs Committee, in any event, the United States usually provides material to its own “probable cause” standard, so I have to say that I may disagree with him on this. Although I accept that there is an argument that this country could seek to move to a “probable cause” basis, to mirror that of the United States, in practice I do not think that that would make a very substantial difference to the way in which the extradition agreement with the US worked.

The Attorney-General will know that since his own appearance before the Home Affairs Committee, President Obama and the Prime Minister have announced a joint initiative to look into the operation of the treaty. In the light of that initiative, and the review that is now being conducted by the Home Secretary, does the Attorney-General agree that it would not be in the public interest for any British citizen to be extradited to the United States under the treaty until the review and the initiative have been concluded?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, and as I explained to the Home Affairs Committee, the discretion for the Home Secretary, or any member of the Executive, to prevent an extradition from taking place is extremely limited under the current law. I am afraid that what the right hon. Gentleman is asking for would be impossible, unless Parliament were to enact fresh legislation.

Has the Attorney-General had any discussions about the UK and US team that has been set up? What is its remit? Does it include only implementation, or could it also include issues such as the forum bar?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the matter was discussed by the Prime Minister and President Obama during the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States. The Prime Minister said that they would seek ways in which the treaty could be better operated in practice, and ways in which some of the public concerns could be addressed. At this stage that is probably all that I can reasonably say, but I can give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance that this is a matter that the Government and I take seriously.

Does the Attorney-General think it entirely fair that the European arrest warrant can be used to extradite people from this country with no evidence whatever, and that the Home Secretary, who has absolutely no room for manoeuvre, simply has to hand those people over to other Governments, some of whom have a burden of proof that is quite dubious?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this subject causes disquiet, but it was his Government who enacted the necessary legislation to enable these circumstances to come about. The matter will come up for review, as part of the third pillar arrangements, by 2014.

Police Paperwork

4. What assessment he has made of the effect on prosecutions of the roll-out of the streamlined process in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England in reducing police paperwork and in summarising key evidence to a high standard. [R] (100655)

In 2011 the Crown Prosecution Service reviewed about 900 files across all 43 police force areas in England and Wales, including Northamptonshire, to assess compliance with the streamlining process. All CPS areas, and the police, have since been advised of what further work is required of them to reduce paperwork and ensure that key evidence is identified and summarised effectively.

I declare my interest as a special constable with the British Transport police. The aim of the streamlining process is to reduce the police time required to prepare effective prosecution files while reducing the cost to the public purse. What steps can my right hon. and learned Friend take to highlight best practice, in order to encourage the police forces that are falling behind the curve?

First, I commend my hon. Friend for the work that he does as a special constable. The idea behind the streamlining process was precisely to achieve better practice. Performance in terms of the way in which the police have responded to it is variable. Some police forces have responded very well indeed, and the reviews suggest that they are applying the measures correctly; others appear to have more difficulty. If they have more difficulty, that means that they are spending unnecessary time over-preparing files. The Crown Prosecution Service is committed to working with every police force to try to ensure that best practice can be rolled out, and we will continue to do that, and to conduct periodic reviews to see how the process is progressing.

The Attorney-General has mentioned the huge variation between police forces, as did the National Audit Office last year. Is it possible to iron out those differences to ensure a common standard? Is any research being carried out to examine whether the process is leading to different outcomes—for example, in relation to guilty or not guilty pleas, or even to final sentencing?

In human affairs, achieving the complete elimination of all disparities might be rather difficult, but more could certainly be done to reduce them, and that is what we are striving to do. I will go away and check whether we can draw any specific conclusions from the process. Clearly, if people overburden themselves it will take up more time, and it could lead to a case not being properly presented, because the amount of material involved could hamper the presentation of the prosecution. I am afraid that I am not in a position to tell the hon. Gentleman whether statistics can show that the problem is leading to cases failing when they might otherwise have succeeded, for example—but it is clearly undesirable, and we must do what we can to help the police to make their lives easier.

Domestic Violence

5. What recent progress he has made in increasing the rate of prosecutions for domestic violence. (100656)

The number of domestic violence prosecutions in England and Wales has increased from 57,361 in 2006-07 to 82,187 in 2010-11. Prosecution in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is, of course, a matter for the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.

Each year, many of those who suffer domestic violence return to the home where it all began. For them, legal aid is vital before a decision is made. Will the Minister urge his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice not to reverse the improvements in protection for victims of domestic violence that the Lords have made to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill?

I will certainly make sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in that Department have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say.

On domestic violence, does the Solicitor-General agree that the programme of having independent domestic violence and sexual violence advisers supporting victims has improved conviction rates?

Yes, my hon. Friend may well know that from his own experience as a criminal law practitioner, but it is certainly true for an observant Member of Parliament, too.

Housing authorities in Sheffield have reported to me an increase in domestic violence, given the stress on families resulting from the economic situation. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are finding out about domestic violence generally, as he has reported an increase in prosecutions? Is domestic violence increasing overall, and what work is going on across Government to look at this issue, which still leads, week by week, to women being killed by current or former partners?

My take on the matter is necessarily narrow, as it is to superintend the Crown Prosecution Service and its conduct of such prosecutions. Of course I am generally aware of the matter to which the hon. Lady refers, and it may well affect her constituents more than mine. The short answer is that the Government, and certainly my Department, will bear down on domestic violence—however it is caused or wherever it happens—so that women, in particular, can be protected and those who are guilty of it can be brought to justice.

6. What recent assessment he has made of the role of special domestic violence courts in improving prosecution rates for domestic violence. (100657)

Evaluations of specialist domestic violence courts, or SDVCs, in 2005 and 2008 clearly demonstrated that they had contributed to improving prosecution rates, as well as safety, for victims of domestic violence. There have been no further formal assessments since 2008.

In the light of the truly disgraceful comments by the actor Dennis Waterman, does the Minister agree that now might be a good time to reassure the House that the vital services provided by domestic violence courts will be maintained, despite the court closure programme and the plan to close 23 of them? Will those vital services be protected during the transfer of services?

Yes, they will. We need to distinguish between bricks and mortar and the service provided by the specialist courts. There will be a reduction in the court estate, but it is certainly my intention that there should be no reduction in the service provided for victims of domestic violence.

It is good news all round that stalking has been made a criminal offence, but there are countless examples of victims of stalking having been ignored for years by the authorities, despite the fact that the stalkers are already breaking the law. The law is one issue: enforcement is another. Will the Solicitor-General reassure the House that the new laws will be properly and robustly enforced?

As soon as the new criminal law comes into effect, it will of course be up to the police to provide the Crown Prosecution Service with the evidence upon which prosecutions can be progressed, but my hon. Friend makes a good general point, which will be followed up.

Crown Prosecution Service

The Crown Prosecution Service operates a robust performance management framework with 10 key performance measures. They address case work outcomes, together with performance relating to finance, efficiency and people. Over the past 12 months, performance has improved according to nine measures and declined according to two.

Only one in 10 rapes are reported to the police, and only one in 15 of those reports lead to a conviction. How does the Attorney-General expect a 25% cut in resources for the CPS to increase the number of cases reported, or indeed the number of convictions?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question, but as I have told the House on numerous occasions, domestic violence and rape matters have remained a top priority for the CPS, and at present I have no reason to believe that the result of any changes in its funding will alter its ability to prosecute people successfully for such offences. If there are instances that the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring to my attention, I shall of course be happy to meet him.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend as concerned as I am about the conclusion of the inspectorate’s report that there is too large a pool of Crown advocates, that they are often under-prepared and that work is poorly allocated, which leads to cracked trials and unchallenged evidence?

Yes, I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. When we first came to office I devoted some attention to the issue, and particularly to the balance between work done by Crown advocates within the service and that done by the independent Bar. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there have been some changes in the way in which that work is allocated, and I hope very much that the quality of both the work done by the independent Bar and that done in-house will improve as a result. The Director of Public Prosecutions takes this matter very seriously.

On 6 April it will be four years since the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 came into force, but although between 250 and 300 people die at work each year—deaths which, according to the Health and Safety Executive, are usually avoidable—only two companies have ever been prosecuted under the Act. Does the Attorney-General know what is wrong, and if not, will he conduct urgent inquiries and make a statement to the House as soon as possible?

I shall be extremely happy to go away and seek the detailed views of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and to write to the hon. Lady and place the letter in the Library. I have discussed the matter with the DPP on occasion, particularly in view of my background as a health and safety practitioner.

Corporate manslaughter is the most serious offence for which people can be prosecuted, but prosecutions can sometimes be brought to cover similar sorts of offence within the health and safety laws. I know of no evidence to suggest that the Crown Prosecution Service is not correctly applying its approach to deciding when a prosecution for corporate manslaughter is appropriate, but in order to reassure the hon. Lady in response to what was a very sensible and pertinent question, I will endeavour to provide her with the information.

BAE Systems

8. What recent discussions he has had with the director of the Serious Fraud Office on penalties imposed on BAE Systems following the company’s conviction for offences connected with the sale of a radar system to Tanzania. (100659)

I have regular meetings with the director of the Serious Fraud Office, and I discussed that issue with him recently. On Thursday 15 March the SFO announced that a memorandum of understanding between the Government of Tanzania, BAE Systems, the SFO and the Department for International Development had been signed, enabling a payment of £29.5 million plus accrued interest to be made to support educational projects in Tanzania.

This is the first time that a British company convicted of financial crimes has been required by our courts to compensate victims in a developing country, but it has taken more than a year for the payment to be made. Do the Government intend to change the law to empower judges to impose penalties of this kind and to enforce quick payment, instead of relying on the voluntary agreement which led to the payment of compensation in this particular case?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me when, later in the current Parliament, I introduce deferred prosecution agreements to the criminal justice armoury. Such agreements will deal with penalty payments, but also, where appropriate, with the payment of compensation, and the payments will be made as a result of court orders.