House of Commons
Tuesday 20 March 2012
The House met at a quarter to Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The Speaker suspended the sitting.
The Speaker, with the House, proceeded to Westminster Hall to attend her Majesty with an Address.
The Speaker resumed the Chair at half-past Two o’clock.
address to her majesty (diamond jubilee)
I must report that the House this day attended Her Majesty in Westminster Hall, with an Address on the occasion of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee; in reply to which Her Majesty was pleased to make a Most Gracious Speech.
I will ensure that my words in presenting the Address, and Her Majesty's reply, are entered in the Journals of the House.
Mr. Speaker presented the Address to Her Majesty in the following words:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We Your faithful Commons are honoured to be here to commemorate and celebrate the sixty years of Your reign. We too are pleased to have contributed to the Jubilee Window to be revealed shortly and which will mark this occasion permanently. Time is better preserved in this historic place than in fallible human memory.
Time also tells its own story. Sixty years ago, rationing meant rather more than a short wait before the arrival of the latest electronic item. Sixty years ago, Britain had just emerged from a war of an intensity never seen before or since and had slipped into the shadow of the Korean conflict. Sixty years ago, a new “Elizabethan Era” was awaited with enthusiasm tinged with uncertainty about the challenges ahead for the country.
If, as Gandhi asserted, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”, then Your Majesty must have found Yourself countless times over the past six decades. You have dedicated Your life to others. The daily example that You set, mirrored by our courageous armed forces of which You are Commander-in-Chief, is extraordinary. Yet perhaps Your Majesty’s most profound contribution has been to the continuity that has made change manageable.
For transformation is inevitably turbulent. It has been Your singular accomplishment, Your unique capacity, to hold together that which could have been torn asunder. You have moved with the times and allowed the times to move around the rest of society.
This is a different Britain from 1952 but not one detached from then. We are in so many ways a much bigger, brighter and better United Kingdom. This is a land where men and women today are equal under the law and where Your people are respected, regardless of how they live, how they look or how they love. This is a nation of many races, faiths and customs, now beginning to be reflected in Parliament. All this progress has occurred during Your reign. You have become, to many of us, a kaleidoscope Queen of a kaleidoscope country in a kaleidoscope Commonwealth.
This gathering is one of many diverse events across these islands in tribute to You and this great anniversary. Our affection as a nation will rightly embrace the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of Your family. These will be moments striking for the sincerity expressed as much as for the scenery encountered. Sixty years of stability. Sixty years of security. Sixty years of certainty. Sixty years of sacrifice. Sixty years of service.
Gandhi also observed that “in a gentle way, you can shake the world”. Your Majesty, in a gentle way You have shaken this United Kingdom and the world for six decades. On behalf of all the members of the House of Commons, may I thank You wholeheartedly for all that You have done, are doing and will do for the good of our country.
Her Majesty's Reply
Her Majesty's Most Gracious Reply was as follows:
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons,
I am most grateful for your Loyal Addresses and the generous words of the Lord Speaker and Mr Speaker.
This great institution has been at the heart of the country and the lives of our people throughout its history. As Parliamentarians, you share with your forebears a fundamental role in the laws and decisions of your own age. Parliament has survived as an unshakeable cornerstone of our constitution and our way of life.
History links monarchs and Parliament, a connecting thread from one period to the next. So, in an era when the regular, worthy rhythm of life is less eye-catching than doing something extraordinary, I am reassured that I am merely the second Sovereign to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee.
As today, it was my privilege to address you during my Silver and Golden Jubilees. Many of you were present ten years ago and some of you will recall the occasion in 1977. Since my Accession, I have been a regular visitor to the Palace of Westminster and, at the last count, have had the pleasurable duty of treating with twelve Prime Ministers.
Over such a period, one can observe that the experience of venerable old age can be a mighty guide but not a prerequisite for success in public office. I am therefore very pleased to be addressing many younger Parliamentarians and also those bringing such a wide range of background and experience to your vital, national work.
During these years as your Queen, the support of my family has, across the generations, been beyond measure. Prince Philip is, I believe, well-known for declining compliments of any kind. But throughout he has been a constant strength and guide. He and I are very proud and grateful that The Prince of Wales and other members of our family are travelling on my behalf in this Diamond Jubilee year to visit all the Commonwealth Realms and a number of other Commonwealth countries.
These overseas tours are a reminder of our close affinity with the Commonwealth, encompassing about one-third of the world’s population. My own association with the Commonwealth has taught me that the most important contact between nations is usually contact between its peoples. An organisation dedicated to certain values, the Commonwealth has flourished and grown by successfully promoting and protecting that contact.
At home, Prince Philip and I will be visiting towns and cities up and down the land. It is my sincere hope that the Diamond Jubilee will be an opportunity for people to come together in a spirit of neighbourliness and celebration of their own communities. We also hope to celebrate the professional and voluntary service given by millions of people across the country who are working for the public good. They are a source of vital support to the welfare and wellbeing of others, often unseen or overlooked.
And as we reflect upon public service, let us again be mindful of the remarkable sacrifice and courage of our Armed Forces. Much may indeed have changed these past sixty years but the valour of those who risk their lives for the defence and freedom of us all remains undimmed.
The happy relationship I have enjoyed with Parliament has extended well beyond the more than three and a half thousand Bills I have signed into law. I am therefore very touched by the magnificent gift before me, generously subscribed by many of you. Should this beautiful window cause just a little extra colour to shine down upon this ancient place, I should gladly settle for that.
We are reminded here of our past, of the continuity of our national story and the virtues of resilience, ingenuity and tolerance which created it. I have been privileged to witness some of that history and, with the support of my family, rededicate myself to the service of our greatcountry and its people now and in the years to come.
Business Before Questions
Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until 27 March (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
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?
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 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.
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?
House of Lords
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.
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 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.
5. What recent progress the Government have made on devolution; and if he will make a statement. (100626)
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.
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?
Political Party Funding
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.
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.
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
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”?
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Use of Powered Wheelchairs (Weight and Age Limit)
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 increase the 150 kg weight limit for class 3 powered wheelchairs used on a public footway to 200 kg; to remove the lower age limit of 14 years on use of class 3 wheelchairs; and for connected purposes.
My Bill would amend the Road Traffic Act 1988. The amendment would remove the 150 kg weight limit and the lower age limit of 14 years on class 3 wheelchairs. That would in effect modernise the 1988 Act to adapt it to modern technology, enabling severely disabled children, including those under the age of 14, to use high-specification powered wheelchairs on a public footway.
I decided to introduce this Bill after learning of a remarkable campaign by an organisation in my constituency, the brilliantly named Newlife Foundation for Disabled Children. Newlife is a combination of charity, social enterprise and business, which exists to help children with disabilities. Founded by Sheila Brown OBE in 1991 as the Birth Defects Foundation, it has helped around 4,000 UK children and spent over £5.5 million on vital equipment such as wheelchairs and child safety seats. It has invested £11.3 million in medical research and runs a nurse helpline, calls to which grew by 300% last year.
Sadly, what Newlife has discovered over recent years is that wheelchair providers, usually primary care trusts or local authorities, have found a loophole in the current law to avoid having to fund high-specification powered wheelchairs, to both adults and children who need them. It is good news that more children today are surviving illnesses and cancers, but the sad news is that one in three will still go on to have a long-term disability as a result. With that increase in service users, eagle-eyed wheelchair managers are regularly refusing to provide a “sit to stand” wheelchair, or vouchers towards that equipment, for a child in their area, because their directors of risk have become aware of legislation that actually makes providing that equipment illegal, even for free through charities. That is then used as an excuse to save money in their budgets; they do not have to provide the expensive equipment needed. At the same time they prevent charities from providing it for free, at no cost to the taxpayer. PCTs are currently not balancing their books on the backs of the poor; they are balancing their books on the backs of the most severely disabled children, which I am sure the whole House would find abhorrent in a developed country such as ours.
Working with local lawyers in Staffordshire, Newlife's excellent campaign director, Susan Woodward, has established that the legislation that needs amending is the Road Traffic Act, or ROTA. In essence what has happened is that modern technology, which has been used to develop better, more appropriate and enabling wheelchairs, has also caused the equipment to increase in weight since ROTA was enacted. I do not believe for a moment that ROTA intended to discriminate against children getting the wheelchairs that they need. However, time and development of equipment have simply moved on and ROTA has not kept up. My Bill is therefore about modernising ROTA to take account of modern, appropriate and enabling wheelchairs and to end the absurd situation where disabled people’s mobility is impaired further. Modern wheelchairs have simply got heavier with adaptations such as motorised seats, communication equipment, more robust tyres, other aids and oxygen cylinders. Meanwhile, the legislation has stood still.
Under ROTA, wheelchairs are classified in three ways: class 1 manual wheelchairs, class 2 powered wheelchairs weighing not more than 113.4 kg or capable of reaching speeds above 4 mph, and class 3 high-specification powered wheelchairs. It is the conditions relevant to class 3 that cause the problem. ROTA states that class 3 wheelchairs must not be used by a person who is under the age of 14; that, when being used on a footway, the “invalid carriage”—the words of the legislation show how old it is—must not be driven at a speed greater than 4 mph; and that the unladen weight must not exceed 150 kg. Other regulations within ROTA include the means of stopping, lighting, speed indicators, horns, vision and rear view mirrors. Essentially what all that means is that several of the high-specification wheelchairs Newlife and other charities would like to provide have become illegal. That is because they would fail to meet the requirements for age, for weight and for certain wheelchair accessories such as lights, horns and rear view mirrors.
In essence, ROTA categorises very technologically advanced wheelchairs heavier than 150 kg as cars, which can be driven legally only by over-17s who hold a driving licence. Therefore, they cannot be provided to children under 17, as they are too young; but nor can they be provided to over-17s, as very few of the powered wheelchairs have lights, horns, rear view mirrors or a speed indicator. They are not cars; they are wheelchairs. The situation is clearly absurd.
I am aware that the Department for Transport recently undertook a consultation on possible reforms of highway mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), whom I am delighted to see in his place, concluded that no changes should be made regarding speed limits, weight limit or the minimum age for using a class 3 vehicle. In a written statement, he said:
“I do not, at this stage, propose that there should be an alternative to the current arrangements for registering class 3 vehicles”.—[Official Report, 1 March 2012; Vol. 541, c. 44WS.]
He did decide, however, that the maximum weight of class 2 powered wheelchairs should be increased to 150 kg —a move welcomed by many disability charities, including Newlife.
I am not clear why the Department stopped short of amending provisions for class 3 wheelchairs, and only increased the weight of class 2 to match that of class 3. Such an approach is illogical: why have different classes if they contain the same weight? If class 2 has increased to 150 kg, surely it is logical that class 3 should increase by a similar amount. The weight restrictions for class 3 wheelchairs were devised more than 20 years ago, when wheelchairs were still called “invalid carriages” and were primitive compared with the designs available today. Modern designs provide for a “sit to stand or lie” facility and have longer battery life. They also provide for wider, more robust tyres that allow users to travel on difficult, uneven terrain. That is why they are heavier: they can do more things and help disabled people more. Nowadays, it is not the equipment that is holding people back, but outdated legislation.
The legislation does not allow any child under the age of 14 to use any mechanically propelled wheelchair over the weight of 150 kg. That is because it is a prescribed condition of class 3 “invalid carriages” that they are not used by people under the age of 14. However, that provision is now having the perverse effect of preventing severely disabled children under 14 from accessing high-specification wheelchairs, which could be of enormous benefit to them. Young kids with degenerative conditions and very complex postural requirements need these heavier and more sophisticated high-spec chairs to help with lung and other organ function. The age restrictions should therefore be removed to allow younger children to benefit from the use of chairs that accurately reflect their needs.
Of course we need to balance the safety of pedestrians and other road users with the mobility needs of users, but it is clear that the current legislation arbitrarily discriminates against children under 14. Why not choose 13 and a half or 14 and one month? This is a civil servant’s arbitrary measure. A much better basis would be a basic assessment of a child’s ability to use the relevant high-spec wheelchair, rather than an arbitrary age limit.
To conclude, the Road Traffic Act 1988 was written when wheelchairs were an aid to mobility. Today, wheelchairs provide disabled children with an aid to life. Children with the most disabling conditions rely on their wheelchair to meet their therapy and personal care needs, to prevent deterioration in their condition or the experiencing of pain, and to provide access to education and family life. For some children, their wheelchair lengthens their lifespan. The Act therefore discriminates against the children who have the greatest need for this equipment.
We all know in this House that ten-minute rule Bills rarely make it on to the statute book. I am already anticipating the cry from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) of “House not sitting” when I read out the date for my Second Reading debate. However, I am honoured that both the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes, and the Minister for disabled people, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), are sat here listening from the Front Bench. I urge them when they leave this Chamber to work together to amend the legislation and use the opportunity to improve the lives of some of the most needy in our society. To disable our disabled community further by legislation is simply nonsensical. We have 21st-century equipment and 1980s law. This is an easy amendment for the Government to make. It will allow charities and statutory services to respond fully to need, instead of having a make-do, lesser alternative. Those are the reasons why we need the Bill, which I commend to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Aidan Burley, Dame Anne Begg, Stephen Gilbert, Keith Vaz, Stephen Lloyd, Jeremy Lefroy, John Glen, Karen Bradley, Priti Patel, David Morris, Christopher Pincher and Mr Robert Buckland present the Bill.
Mr Aidan Burley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April 2012 and to be printed (Bill 320).
Health and Social Care Bill
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of whether the House should defer consideration of Lords Amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill until after disclosure of the NHS transitional risk register.
My right hon. Friends and I are grateful for your agreement to give the House this opportunity, Mr Speaker. On this of all days we should be celebrating what a much-valued social institution has done to bind our nation together throughout the 60 years of Her Majesty’s reign. Instead, we gather to dismantle it. A health service that is judged by international experts to be one of, if not the, best health service in the world is about to be inexplicably and unjustifiably broken apart by an ideological Bill ending 63 years of NHS history.
This is a difficult day, but what makes it all the harder to stomach for people watching is the manner in which things are happening. People outside will struggle to understand how Members of this House could make such momentous decisions without having carefully considered all the facts and all the evidence. The truth is that Members will go through the Lobby tonight without knowing the full implications of what it means for the NHS in their constituencies. How do they begin to justify that to their constituents, to patients who depend on the NHS and to staff who devote their lives to it? We have argued from the beginning that the Government’s decision to combine an unprecedented financial challenge in the NHS with the biggest ever top-down reorganisation has exposed the NHS to greater risk, and the truth is that we are beginning to see the effects of that. In our constituencies, they have already dismantled the existing structures of the NHS before the new ones are in place, leading to a loss of grip just when it was most needed. So we are seeing A and E waits getting longer, staff shortages leading towards A and E closures, and patients in our surgeries beginning to complain of treatments being restricted or of longer waits.
We have also heard from the health professions—from GPs, nurses, midwives and physios—who one by one have made clear their considered professional judgment that, on the balance of risks, it would be safer to abandon the Bill than to proceed with the upheaval of reorganisation. Ministers by their actions are putting the NHS at greater risk, but even today this House does not know the assessment that was given to Ministers or the precise nature and scale of those risks.
I do not plan to give way because I want other Members to have the chance to contribute to the debate.
Ministers want the House to back the gamble they are taking with the NHS without having the courtesy to tell it the odds. The Information Commissioner thinks we should see the risk register and so does the Information Rights Tribunal, which brought forward its ruling so that it could influence our proceedings. If the NHS starts to struggle because of all the change being thrown at it and if services in some parts of the country start to fail, how will Members of the House respond when people come to our surgeries and ask whether we did everything we could to anticipate the dangers? We will remind them of the truth—that Government Members put politics before the national health service and signed up to a reckless reorganisation without knowing all the facts.
No, because we brought down NHS waiting lists to their lowest ever levels and we left patient satisfaction at its highest ever level. Those same waiting lists are going up under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government and he should be ashamed of that. He will not publish the information about the risk to waiting times because he is frightened of putting it before the House and the public, but we will remind them of the truth.
The Government proclaimed that they were going to be the most open and transparent Government in history. Today, it still says on the Treasury website in a statement of the Government’s principles for risk management:
“Government will make available its assessments of risks that affect the public, how it has reached its decisions, and how it will handle the risk. It will also do so where the development of new policies poses a potential risk to the public.”
May I suggest that the Government take down that misleading statement of policy? Their actions have left it in tatters, together with the grand claims of openness and transparency. The tribunal, they will say today, has not given us its reasons. Ministers will try to argue that the public and Parliament’s right to know about the impact of their policy decisions is outweighed by the public interest in the preservation of a safe space for policy advice.
Those arguments were considered, first, by the Information Commissioner, and subsequently by the Information Rights Tribunal. They found the opposite to be the case: that the public interest lay in full disclosure. But it does not matter; Ministers are simply re-running the arguments of a case that they have lost. They have no leave to reopen the substance of that argument, but they are not the only arguments that they have lost.
In an attempt to rescue the Bill last year, the Prime Minister made a number of claims for it. They cover issues that we know are in the local and regional risk registers which have been published. First, he said the Bill was needed as the NHS does not
“deliver the patient-centred, responsive care we all want to see”.
He cited heart services and claimed that someone in this country is twice as likely to die from a heart attack as someone in France. That was before new research in January reported a 50% fall in heart attack deaths in the past decade.
Then the Prime Minister said that cancer services were failing people, compared with other countries. That was before new research in November 2011 which showed that the NHS in the past decade achieved the biggest drop in cancer deaths of any comparable health system in the world. Thirdly, the Prime Minister and all the Ministers on the Government Front Bench have routinely trotted out the same script for years—that NHS productivity has declined in the past decade. That was before new research on NHS productivity from Professor Nick Black published in February in The Lancet showed that, far from falling, NHS productivity increased in the past decade at the same time as the NHS achieved patient satisfaction.
One by one the Government’s arguments for the Bill have fallen apart. They have comprehensively lost the argument. They have convinced nobody and now they are running scared, resorting to the only remaining option of ramming the Bill through Parliament before they are required in law to publish the real assessment of their policies.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will join me in wishing well 11-year-old Bailey Stark in my constituency as he and his family cope with his condition that means that he is unable to swallow. His mother is worried sick about the changes in the health service, which might mean that he will not get the treatment he requires in Newcastle. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that risk is all the more reason for publishing all risks, as we should know the truth about what is happening to our NHS? [Interruption.]
Members shout “Scaremongering” from the Government Benches, but the Government will not publish the evidence to back up their claims. We have read the local and regional risk registers which warn precisely of the case that my hon. Friend mentions—of damage to the continuity of care, risks to patient safety, longer waits for cancer patients, risks to child safeguarding. Those are the facts in the regional risk registers and they are the facts that Ministers are trying to withhold from the public.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my surprise and sadness that the Liberal Democrats, who were once the defenders of freedom of information, are now trooping through the Lobby in support of a dangerous Bill shrouded and protected by the restriction of information?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point. The Liberal Democrats once derided the Freedom of Information Act as too weak. Today they cower behind it, trying to use any scrap of protection they can find within it to prevent the publication of the information that patients and the public deserve to have. That says everything that people need to know about today’s Liberal Democrat party.
I will not give way. I will now bring my remarks to a close.
We are clear that the risks in the Bill arise not just from the organisational turbulence that the Secretary of State is inflicting on the NHS, but from the specific policies in the Bill. Today we table a package of amendments in a last-ditch attempt to provide the necessary safeguards that the Liberal Democrats failed to secure in another place—
They are safeguards in light of the huge potential for the conflict of interests in the award of contracts under the “any qualified provider” provisions, which will not be addressed by a simple register of interests, and safeguards on a stronger local HealthWatch—the Government have watered that down since the Bill left this House of Commons. There are safeguards too—
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Will he just clarify one issue of principle for the House? Are Labour Front Benchers now arguing that every Government Department should publish its strategic risk register? If not, can he justify his proposition that the Department of Health should do so uniquely?
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the Information Commissioner’s ruling on the decision about a third runway at Heathrow. That is the precedent his Government should be following, but instead they have chosen to defy the commissioner. It was the Labour party that published the decision on a third runway at Heathrow, and I refer him to the ruling from the Information Rights Tribunal, which made a clear distinction between the strategic risk register, which covers all the uncontrollable risks that any Department will face, and the transition risk register, which deals specifically with the effects of Ministers’ decisions, in this case on the NHS. There is a real difference between the two. The tribunal said that the transition register should be published. His Government should respect the law and publish today.
We will table amendments to provide safeguards today, but in future it will not just be the cover-up of the risk register that we will have to worry about—that is just a taste of things to come in the new NHS. Members will have to get used to the words “commercial confidentiality” when inquiring about local services, because that is what they will find in the NHS that Ministers are creating. Let us look at the risks inherent in the proposed relaxation of the private patient income cap. One risk assessment that Ministers have published—the revised impact assessment—states that
“there is a risk that private patients may be prioritised above NHS patients, resulting in a growth in waiting times for NHS patients.”
That is all they have told us, but that alone is reason enough to oppose the Bill.
The only hope I can give people worried about the future of the NHS is that this might be the end of the Bill, but it is just the beginning of our campaign. The NHS will find a way of working around these changes and will not deteriorate overnight. We will be working to mitigate the worst effects of the Bill. This is the eleventh hour; our only hope would be a change of heart from the Liberal Democrats. We will call a vote on this motion and ask people to vote against it to show that we have not had enough time to debate these important issues.
I respect those Liberal Democrat Members who have had the courage to defy their orange book leadership, and I respect their grass-roots members who did the same at their spring conference, but the truth is that from today the Liberal Democrats will be remembered not only for tuition fees, but as the party that stole people’s votes in May 2012 in order to secure jobs for themselves and sell out the national health service. They could have stood up to the Prime Minister and enforced the coalition agreement, but they chose not to do so.
That brings us back to where we started: a Bill that nobody voted for, rammed through this place tonight in the teeth of near-universal professional opposition and in defiance of a major legal ruling; a Bill about which no Member of this House can look their constituents in the eye and say they have a mandate to support. Tonight Government Members will inflict this Bill on the NHS without knowing the potential damage it can do to the health service in their constituencies. They have made their choice; I have made ours. Although on a day like today it is hard for me to give any encouragement to people worried about what the Government are doing, I can at least say this: we will repeal this legislation at the first opportunity and restore the N in NHS. We have given this fight everything that we had. All I can say is that our fight will go on to protect and restore the Labour party’s finest achievement.
Order. The Secretary of State has indicated that he wishes to speak later in the debate—[Interruption.] Order. That is his absolute prerogative. In view of the level of interest in the debate, it will be helpful for the House to know at this point that a five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches is to be imposed immediately. I call Dr Daniel Poulter.
I start by apologising to the House for making what I suspect may sound like a slightly portentous speech. It is not meant to sound portentous, but if it does I apologise.
Because of the effluxion of time, there are not many former Ministers on the Government Benches are, but there is, irrespective of the topic, an important point that needs to be made in the context of today’s debate. I urge every right hon. and hon. Member, before they vote at the end of this debate, to get a copy of House of Lords Hansard for yesterday’s debate, where this matter was debated. There are, in that Lords Hansard, two speeches that hon. Members would do well to read: those of Lord Wilson of Dinton and Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, both former heads of the civil service.
Lord Wilson was head of the civil service during the time of a Labour Government, and both he and Lord Armstrong made it very clear in their speeches yesterday that to release the risk register would be extremely bad news for the relationship between the civil service and Ministers generally. Irrespective of this issue, irrespective of the topic, if risk registers were to be released, officials would needlessly be politicised and thus be concerned about the advice that they gave to Ministers. Ministers would then find themselves being given verbal advice, fewer people would be involved and that would not help the machinery of government.
I will give way to the right hon. Lady in a moment.
Lord Wilson made it clear in his comments:
“Every day in government, Ministers consider policy issues and depend on the Civil Service for advice. Anyone who has been a Minister understands the private space in which civil servants give their best advice.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 March 2012; Vol. 736, c. 643.]
It seems to me that this debate is really very much about a matter of principle: the relationship between civil servants and Ministers.
I understand the Opposition wishing to make some political points, but many of them, including the right hon. Lady to whom I am about to give way, have recently been Ministers, so I am sure they understand that point, and it does not behove the House, in its desire to make a political point, to seek to undermine a long-standing relationship between Ministers and officials.
Why therefore has the strategic health authority in London felt able to publish its risk register? There are 18 areas of risk, and those that were red are, after mitigation factors, still red, so we learn something very important. That is why we should have the risk register under discussion published.
I understand that point, but they are very different registers. The register to which the right hon. Lady refers is meant to be publicised. The two are of an entirely different nature, and that point has been explained to the House by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench on a number of occasions.
We are discussing departmental risk registers and the advice that civil servants give to Ministers. All I am saying is that right hon. and hon. colleagues, before they vote, should at least take care to consider the advice of former heads of the civil service on the effect that publication would have on the relationship between civil servants and Ministers.
I can assure my hon. Friend that what I am saying is true. All he has to do is walk a few feet to the Vote Office and pick up a copy of Lords Hansard and read for himself the speeches of Lord Wilson of Dinton and Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. All I am saying to my hon. Friend—
All I am saying to my hon. Friend is that this is a debate about the relationship between civil servants and Ministers, a relationship that has worked very well and very effectively in this country.
Here we have heads of the civil service advising Parliament that this move, which the Opposition would seek to force upon us, is not in the best interests of the relationship between civil servants and Ministers and is not in the best interests of the good running of government.
The national health service is probably the most precious institution in this country. It is vital to millions of our fellow citizens—its hospitals treated nearly 10 million people last year—and so no one should take risks with it. The Prime Minister decided to take such risks, he told a private meeting of Conservatives, because the NHS was in an “invisible crisis”. Well, all I can say to the Prime Minister is that it is invisible because there is not one. The NHS is not in crisis; it is doing remarkably well, and it needs to continue to improve. The Prime Minister also said that he was willing to “take a hit” in this regard. No Labour Member cares very much whether he does or not: what we are bothered about is that we do not want the national health service to take a hit; we do not want its precious, hard-working staff to take a hit; and we do not want its patients to take a hit.
Government Members—or those in the majority party—call themselves conservatives, but actually they are a party of chancers. Real conservatives recognise that the outcome of change is unpredictable, that the process of change can be troublesome, and that there are often unexpected consequences of change, and they therefore need convincing that there is a good case for the change. Clearly, the Government have not made such a case.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
The Government have not made such a case for change. They have not convinced the 1 million-odd people in the national health service that these changes are needed, and if they cannot convince the people on whom the service is going to depend, they are taking a real chance with its future.
The Prime Minister attributes his commitment to competition, including outside competition, to some of the most worthless and shallow research that has ever been conducted at the London School of Economics—and that puts it in a pretty extreme category. The researchers said that they identified that hospitals they claimed competed with one another had achieved a 7% improvement in the period for which patients awaiting an operation had to wait once they got into hospital. A 7% improvement is a period of less than an hour. Then, without any justification whatever, they generalised from the particular and said that the hospitals they claimed competed with one other were 7% more efficient right across the board. It is on that basis that the Prime Minister says that he wants to introduce competition into our national health service.
No, I will not give way, even to the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who has made a very honourable contribution to these debates.
Across the board, we see the Government taking unjustified risks with our national health service. If they are not prepared to disclose to the rest of us what risks they have been advised they are bringing about, they are both cowardly and stupid. I do not think that the people of this country will ever forgive them for their reckless, chancy, dodgy, second-hand-car-salesman approach to the national health service.
It is a sure sign of a deranged mind when one starts to repeat oneself. I have said previously that the Bill is a huge mistake, that not releasing the risk register merely creates further alarm, and that abandoning the Bill could be the safer option. I have also said that the Secretary of State’s intentions are noble and that the Opposition’s objections are—in part, at any rate—considered and compelling. However, I have clearly failed to persuade many of my parliamentary colleagues to share that point of view, as last night’s voting showed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He says that he has been opposed to the Bill from the outset. As he knows, I served on the Public Bill Committee with him. Why did he not vote against it? He had ample opportunity to make the Government drop the Bill.
If the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard carefully, he will find that there were occasions when I did. We must all agree, whether sadly or happily, that the vote in the Lords last night was conclusive, even if some, like Baroness Williams, were voting for legislation that they said they did not particularly like. That is in part because of the modifying genius—I put it as strongly as that—of Earl Howe.
There are risks attached to the legislation. The risks that I face are small in comparison with those faced by the Secretary of State. I risk being found out for having fears that are misplaced. I risk having my forebodings exposed. He risks a great deal more than that. The House does not need a risk register to find out what those risks are. If he proceeds rapidly at a time of huge upheaval in the NHS, he will actually promote that upheaval. If he goes ahead, he will be doing so at a time of austerity, in the teeth of wholesale professional opposition and in a climate of genuine legal uncertainty, with legislation that has, in part, been cobbled together. We will soon find out what has been scaremongering and what is plain scary. Crucial to mitigating the risks will be the pace and the extent of enactment and implementation. There will be a mopping-up phase. It will be crucial for the Government to woo back professional opinion. The risk register would have told us, to some extent, how easy or difficult that will be.
Already we hear that the Government are struggling with the central plank of the legislation: GP commissioning. We wait with interest to see the regulations on that. It is hard to see how GPs can commission basic out-of-hospital services in primary care, which is a central thrust of the Government’s legislation, and not be seen, as small businesses or associations of undertakings, to be benefiting themselves with public money. In the legislation, we have made the biggest provider the biggest commissioner as well. GPs will have no problem commissioning hospital services without any legal obstacle, but they will lack the expertise to do so. That is what primary care trusts found when they did the commissioning. The risk is that we will end up with GPs not being able to commission what they do understand, and being asked to commission what they do not understand. We therefore await the regulations with considerable interest.
I suggest that although Cabinet members have been banging the table today, they may well be banging their heads against the wall in the years to come.
This Standing Order No. 24 debate is an important statement from Parliament to the Government. We expect better from the Executive, and the public demand better, as they have shown in e-mails, surveys and petitions.
This afternoon, the House is being asked to agree to the longest ever NHS legislation and to back the biggest ever reorganisation of the NHS. We are being asked to accept that from Ministers who have lost twice in law and still keep secret the risks that they are running with our NHS. This is a legal and constitutional argument; it is not a political argument. This is not about being in favour of or against the Health and Social Care Bill; it is about the public’s right to know the nature and scale of the risks that the Government are running with their NHS, and it is about their elected Parliament’s right to know about those risks when it is asked to legislate—as we are being asked to do—on their behalf. We are elected to the House to legislate by the people, for the people.
Nothing is more precious to people than our NHS. We all need the NHS. We depend on it utterly when we are at our most vulnerable and fearful. The NHS in England employs more than 1.4 million people, treats 3 million patients each week and provides each of us, throughout our lives, with some of the best health care in the world, free at the point of need. That is why it matters so much, and that is why people mind so much about the plans for the NHS.
The NHS, as an institution, is exceptional, and the public interest in anything that puts it at risk is exceptional, too. The current reform plans are exceptional in their nature, scale, timing and speed, and concern about the risks to the NHS is exceptional. That was expressed by all NHS experts, professional groups and patients in the consultation on the White Paper, and it was expressed by the Health Committee in its reports in December 2010 and January 2011. Risk was, is and will continue to be at the heart of the concerns about the biggest ever internal NHS reorganisation. That is why I made my original FOI request for the transition risk register in November 2010. That is why I refused to accept the Department’s refusal to release it. That is why I went to court this month to help to argue the case against the Government’s appeal.
Good government demands that Ministers get the best and fullest policy advice from officials, and it requires some safe space in which to make major policy decisions, but I am not asking for the release of policy advice. Risk registers are management, not ministerial, documents. They do not contain policy advice or accounts of policy discussions. They derive from major policy decisions, and the White Paper of July 2010 set out the main policy decisions three and a half months before the first transition risk register was compiled.
Nor am I asking for the release of information that will bring to a halt the Government system of risk management. It did not do so in 2008 when we were forced to release the risk register for the runway at Heathrow. Nor am I asking for the routine disclosure of risk registers. I am asking for the non-routine disclosure of this risk register because of the exceptional case and the balance of public interest that is in favour of disclosure and not in favour of withholding, just as the Information Commissioner and now the Information Tribunal—both of whom have had the benefit of having seen this risk register—have decided.
We are at the very end of the eleventh hour of this Bill’s 14-month forced passage through this House. Beyond today, the Government must decide whether they will respect the law and release the risk register. This is part of the reason why the Government have lost the support of NHS staff and lost the confidence of NHS patients, and have now lost the trust of the British public.
It is a great honour to take part once again in a debate on the Health and Social Care Bill. I first made a contribution to these debates in 2010 and, as the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said, since then there have been 14 months of detailed and careful consideration of the Bill’s provisions. That says a lot. There has been criticism both in this debate and previously that the Bill is ill-considered and has been rushed through, but given the consideration of it that there has been over such a long period, and with so much public involvement and comment, that is clearly not the case.
The right hon. Gentleman also said that our NHS is truly a precious institution for each and every one of us—our own family members as well as all our constituents—and I agree. People rely on the health service and hold it very dear, and it is therefore right for passionate feelings to be expressed about its future both in this Chamber and outside. I contend that because we have a changing demographic and magnificent advances in medical technology, the way our national health service is run cannot stay still.
No one on the Opposition Benches has argued that the NHS does not need to continue to improve. That is not what we are discussing; we are discussing the risk register. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government should abide by the tribunal’s decision, or does he believe they should continue to igno