House of Commons
Tuesday 15 May 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I draw Members’ attention to the fact that the book for entering the private Member’s Bill ballot is now open for Members to sign in the No Lobby. It will be open until the House rises today and when the House is sitting tomorrow. The ballot will be drawn on Thursday. A note setting out those arrangements, and the dates when ten-minute rule motions can be made and presentation Bills introduced, is available from the Vote Office.
Business Before Questions
That there be laid before this House Returns for Session 2010-12 of information and statistics relating to:
(1) Business of the House;
(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question and Allocation of Time (including Programme Motions);
(3) Sittings of the House;
(4) Private Bills and Private Business;
(5) Public Bills;
(6) Delegated Legislation and Legislative Reform Orders;
(7) European Legislation, etc;
(8) Grand Committees;
(9) Panel of Chairs; and
(10) Select Committees.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Imprisonment (Crime Rate)
May I first offer to the House the apologies of the Secretary of State for Justice and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice? My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is on a visit to Russia, where he will be speaking at the international legal forum to promote United Kingdom legal services overseas. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is attending the Police Federation conference. Those engagements were made before the changed dates for departmental oral questions became clear following Prorogation.
Turning to Question 1, the evidence report that we published alongside the “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper shows that there is no clear consensus among experts about the link between the size of the prison population and crime levels. A further Government assessment of the evidence for a correlation illustrates that the causes of crime are complex and that there is no simple link between prison population size and crime levels. We will publish that assessment in due course.
I thank the Minister for that answer and congratulate him on pursuing a traditional Conservative agenda. In 2010-11, the crime rate dropped by 3%. At the same time, the prison population rose from 84,700 to 86,000. If the Minister is looking for a justification for following that strategy, I commend to him the House of Commons Library. I asked it to track the prison population and the crime rate since the war. Its conclusion was that the charts suggest that in England and Wales increases in prison population have tended to occur at a similar time to falls in levels of recorded crime.
My hon. Friend has made himself an authority in this area. He will know, therefore, that international experience is different from what he has described. The relationship between the level of crime and the level of incarceration differs across the world. The experience of countries such as Germany, Spain, Finland, Netherlands and Canada, and the state of New York, tends to contradict his analysis, while the experience of Florida and Denmark tends to support it. There is no clear evidence of such a simple relationship as he suggests.
How many prisoners who come under the category of “prisoners protesting innocence” have gone way over their tariff, with the Parole Board refusing to release them because they refuse to admit that they were guilty, even though some of them may have served 25 years?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I do not know the precise answer and suspect that it would be difficult to get the precise data to analyse the problem. There is such a problem, not least with sex offenders, who are often reluctant to engage with the system and often protest their innocence when they are not innocent. It is a problem to get such people to engage with offender behaviour programmes. The hon. Lady is right that there is a class of prisoner who does not engage in that way, rightly or wrongly, and who presents the system with particular problems. I will follow up that matter.
Presuming that, even under the prescription of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), most prisoners will eventually be released, is there not a danger that putting massive expenditure into an ever-increasing prison population would mean cutting expenditure to ensure that when people are released, they do not commit more crimes?
My right hon. Friend is, of course, correct. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is fond of the American experience, where 2 million people are in prison. The logical result of that is the experience in California, where the prison system has become so overcrowded and inhumane that the Supreme Court of the United States has ordered the Californians to release 30,000 prisoners within two years to sort out the prison system. We certainly do not want to find ourselves in that situation.
I welcome the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) to the Front Bench to answer Justice questions. It is surely only a matter of time before the Prime Minister makes the move permanent. As has been said, half the ministerial team are not here today. For our part, we are flattered that both the Justice Secretary and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice are running scared. Let us wait and see whether it makes a difference to the Front Benchers’ performance.
I will begin with an easy one. Do this Conservative-led Government still have a target of reducing the prison population by 3,000 from what it was in May 2010?
First, I am gratified by the confidence that the Justice Secretary and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice have in the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), and in my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), our departmental Whip, who is also responding as a Minister.
We have never had a target. We have an estimate of what is happening and an estimate of the consequences of our policies.
Sir David Latham, the former chairman of the Parole Board and Court of Appeal judge, who retired last month, has warned that due to decisions made by this Government, the only way to prevent a backlog of those who have completed their sentence is to change how the Parole Board reaches decisions, which means it
“may not actually be as effective in protecting the public”.
Does the Minister accept that by abolishing indeterminate sentences for public protection the Government are removing from the Parole Board the responsibility to deal properly with the most violent and serious offenders and taking a risk with public safety?
Absolutely not. The right hon. Gentleman’s attempt to juxtapose Sir David Latham’s points with the conduct of the current Government is pretty rich, given that the problem that we inherited came from the shambles of the administration of IPPs. The Labour Government estimated that there would be 900 such sentences, but we now have about 6,500 people in the prison system on IPPs, more than half of them beyond tariff. That presents the Parole Board with a huge problem, which his party’s Administration did not address in delivering its resources until far too late. The current Administration are now gripping all of that.
No Win, No Fee Arrangements
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 received Royal Assent on 1 May. Part 2 of the Act contains provisions that will fundamentally reform no win, no fee agreements to make them fairer between claimants and defendants. The changes will come into effect in April 2013, and we will set out more details about their implementation in due course.
The Government agreed to review no win, no fee arrangements for victims of mesothelioma and their families, possibly just to get the Bill through the House of Lords. Mesothelioma is a terrible disease, and everybody who suffers from it dies a terrible death. What will the Minister do to ensure that victims and their families are properly protected, in light of the review?
It is true to say that the issue was heavily debated during the passage of the Bill. I am pleased to note that all parties in the House reached an agreed way forward. The Government are therefore committed to action on mesothelioma, and various proposals about the claims process are being considered. I am sure the House will understand that it would be inappropriate to draw up the terms of reference now for a review that will not take place for some time, but we will share details of the review process in due course.
One of the worst mistakes that our last Government made was bringing in no win, no fee. It has Americanised our legal aid system and brought in a risk-averse culture and a load of ambulance chasers, so I welcome what the Government are doing. Will the Minister confirm that he will not let it rest there, that no win, no fee is now under a real review and that we will not tolerate the behaviour that we have seen in recent years?
We are retaining no win, no fee for conditional fee agreements, but we are getting rid of the reforms that the Labour Government put in place whereby success fees and after-the-event insurance were recoverable. We will effectively return to the position of the last Conservative Government, which I hope and expect will put balance back into the claims equation.
To get his Bill through, the Minister promised a 10% uplift in general damages and protection from costs for losing personal injury claimants. Those are poor substitutes for the current rules that his friends in the insurance industry wanted rid of, but where are those concessions? Are they more broken promises?
No. All those procedures are being put in place, not least because of our concern to retain access to justice. As the hon. Gentleman said, we are introducing several measures that will help personal injury claimants pay their solicitors’ success fees and, if necessary, insurance premiums. For example, there will be a 10% increase in general damages, and we are introducing a system of qualified one-way costs shifting, which will be in place before the Act commences next April.
Our consultation, “Getting it right for victims and witnesses” closed on 22 April. We are considering the responses to it, which included views on quality, and aim to publish the Government’s response soon. The Home Secretary and her Department are engaged with all stages of the process.
Mervyn Bishop of Victim Support in Hull recently told me of his concerns about the White Paper proposals, to which the Under-Secretary just referred, to devolve victim support services to police and crime commissioners, with an additional cost of £21 million. With some victims of crime who are now defined as “not in the greatest need” being no longer eligible for support after a crime, what will the Under-Secretary do to ensure that PCCs will target effectively those who are in the greatest need?
That is why we are in the process of considering all the responses to the consultation. Victim Support has a particular set of organisational interests, because it is a national organisation and most victim services are commissioned nationally. However, I do not recognise the figure of £20 million. We should remember that we are raising another £50 million to add to the £66 million already paid for victim services. That money will come from offenders, which is where it ought to come from. The environment for delivering victim services will be considerably improved, whatever cast one puts on it.
The hon. Gentleman, like everyone else, will have to wait for our response to the consultation. [Interruption.] As the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) knows perfectly well, we have gone through an entirely proper process and we will publish it for the House when we are ready and have fully considered all the responses to the consultation, which include answers to questions such as the hon. Gentleman’s.
We are looking at local commissioning of victim support services by police and crime commissioners. Then we must make a decision about which victim support services are commissioned locally and which remain to be commissioned nationally. The homicide service and rape support centres are currently commissioned nationally. After the consultation, we will consider the matter and reach our decision about whether those services should be retained nationally.
Does the Under-Secretary agree that one of the greatest needs for victims beyond seeking justice is timely information—what Louise Casey has called “relentless information”? Will my hon. Friend assure me that all steps are being taken with the Home Office to ensure that victims are treated not as an afterthought, but as a priority when information is released?
I can definitely say yes to my hon. Friend. There has been a steady improvement in services to victims and witnesses in the past two decades. The resources that we are making available from offenders and the move to restorative justice are part of a much wider process of engaging victims much more centrally in the criminal justice system. I am therefore very happy to give my hon. Friend a positive response.
The Government’s plans to break up the national infrastructure that supports victims and witnesses has been described as “unworkable, damaging and dangerous.” We are just a few months away from elections, yet the Government’s approach to victims’ services is a shambles. Given how unpopular transferring victims’ services to PCCs is proving to be, when will the Justice Secretary—wherever he is—set out exactly what services will be maintained nationally, what will go out to local commissioning, and what safeguards will be in place to avoid the damaging and dangerous break-up of crucial support for victims? We need to know now, not in months to come.
We need to know, and the House will know, when we have come to a considered view, answered all these questions and gone through the normal processes and assessments of government. That is entirely normal. The hon. Gentleman will get the answers to all his questions when we publish our confirmed proposals.
European Court of Human Rights
Good progress has been made in clearing the backlog of inadmissible cases, but more work is needed to address the growing backlog of admissible cases, hence the recent Brighton declaration under the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which represents a substantial and important step towards realising the Government’s ambitions.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Under the Brighton declaration, we have agreed a framework for longer term reform, with built-in review points up until 2019, to give impetus to the measures proposed under the Brighton declaration and to consider whether further measures are needed. We will, of course, continue to monitor progress.
One of the problems with the European Court is its huge backlog of cases. What does my hon. Friend think the Government can do to reform the Court so that frivolous cases are not brought and the only cases brought are those of the nature of serious human rights breaches?
This is a major issue. The measures agreed under the Brighton declaration will make a big difference once implemented. More cases should be resolved at the national level, which should mean that fewer cases are considered by the Court. Where cases go to Strasbourg, the Court should be able to focus more on the important cases and do so more quickly.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Dispatch Box. I hope very much that his temporary promotion will be made permanent in the imminent reshuffle. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) mentioned the backlog, which is now 152,000 cases. Does the hon. Gentleman not think it important to have a fast-track system through the European Court for national security cases?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. With the Brighton declaration, we have ensured that fewer cases go to Strasbourg and that those cases that can be handled at the national level are held and dealt with at the national level. That means that fewer cases will go to Strasbourg and that the important ones—we hope that only the important ones will go there—will be dealt with a lot quicker.
We certainly are considering a British Bill of Rights. We would take into account the various issues concerning Britain and ensure that freedoms and liberties were enhanced, so we would hope that a Bill of Rights would build on the terms of the convention. On the specific measures, we are signed up to the convention, so the whole of it would apply.
I can happily tell the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to leave the convention. We are signed up to it, along with the other 46 nations, but where we see the need for change, we will ensure that those changes take place, in the same way that changes took place in Brighton last month.
Rehabilitation of Offenders
We receive regular correspondence on the operation of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Following consultation and consideration of the representations received, the Government have introduced a package of reforms to the Act, through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which recently received Royal Assent.
Although I welcome the changes made in the 2012 Act, will the hon. Gentleman consider some loopholes that might be closed? A few months ago I brought up the case in the Chamber of a constituent, an ex-miner who had been fined 28 years ago for stealing a bag of coal in the middle of the miners’ strike. He subsequently tried for a job in a care home as a groundsman. He was offered the job, but it was then withdrawn. That seems ridiculous, because the job had nothing directly to do with the people in the care home, and he had not been accused of—
I am aware of the right hon. Lady’s interest in this matter. The vast majority of occupations for which people may make applications do not require a CRB search. Only a small number require a search, and even in those cases there are three categories of CRB searches. Searches are required for the occupations that are listed in the exceptions order to the 1974 Act, which involve sensitive issues or where people are dealing with children, vulnerable adults and so on. We have that list of people to ensure risk management in employment and the protection and detection of crime.
On 27 March the Government published a consultation entitled “Punishment and Reform: Effective Probation Services”, which is looking at a wide range of options for service improvements. Alongside it is a consultation on the overhaul of community sentences, aimed at delivering effective and credible punishments. We will publish our response to both consultations in the autumn.
According to recent press reports, the London Probation Trust is due to run a research project later this year that would require offenders in Bexley and Bromley to report to electronic kiosks, as opposed to trained probation staff. What reassurance can the Minister give me that the trial will not endanger the public, and how can he be sure that the machines will be as capable as human beings are of detecting the early warning signs that offenders may be posing an increased risk to the public?
Northumbria Probation Trust has received the best inspection result of any trust from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation. How will the Secretary of State ensure that probation trusts continue to be effective in protecting the public and reducing reoffending following the probation review, which proposes that offender management be fragmented across a wider range of providers?
Improvement of offender management for all our offenders is absolutely at the heart of the probation review. With the proposed reorganisation of probation we will be getting much greater offender management, with a focus by the probation service on reducing reoffending among those receiving community sentences. The outcome of our proposals will therefore be a very much improved offender management picture right across the country.
The Prison Service spends time and taxpayers’ money detoxing those who enter our prisons with alcohol and drug problems. However, I was shocked to find that taxpayers’ money is then spent on retoxing prisoners for their eventual release at the end of their sentences. Does the Minister agree that funding a drug habit—which is often the cause of an offender’s entering prison in the first place—makes the probation service’s job so much more difficult and is not a good use of taxpayers’ money?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She will be as pleased as I am to hear that there has been a change in the clinical policy within prisons in regard to how detoxification is undertaken, resulting in a much stronger emphasis on abstinence than on maintenance. We now need to get right the transition of drug-addicted offenders from custody to the community.
Private Sector Prisons
Our plans for competing custodial services are set out in the “Competition Strategy for Offender Services”, published in July 2011. That involves the competing of eight prisons, seven of which are currently in the public sector. We are considering bids from seven providers, including the public sector Prison Service, which has partnered with Mitie and with the Shaw Trust and Working Links in the third sector. That means that even if the public sector-led bid wins all the contracts, the use of private company management will have been extended as a result of this round of competition. We will announce the services selected for phase 3 of the prisons competition in November this year.
I congratulate Ministers on introducing private sector disciplines into the Prison Service faster than any of their predecessors. Payment by results will mean that contractors will be rewarded if they cut reoffending rates when prisoners leave jail, and penalised if they do not do so. When does the Minister expect the first benefits of that policy to be seen?
My hon. Friend has finely summed up the positive benefits of our policy. The first benefits are already being seen in the payment-by-results programmes in the Peterborough and Doncaster prisons. We should remember that the Doncaster prison proposal came forward from Serco, which is rebidding to manage a prison that it already runs. It is proposing to put part of its contract price at risk against its performance in driving down the reoffending rate.
We have said that we do not intend to compete in the high-security estate. There is a limit on how fast the private sector could absorb new prisons and on the capacity of the Ministry of Justice to compete prisons. There is no stated policy, but there are practical restrictions on the speed with which we can increase private sector provision.
Small Claims Courts
The Government announced in their response to the “Solving Disputes” consultation paper on 9 February that the general limit for cases in the small claims track will be increased from £5,000 to £10,000 next year. In addition, we are proposing that all small claims are assessed for mediation, to support our policy that cases that can be kept out of court should be kept out of court.
Yes; courts offer several types of enforcement method which, collectively, are intended to make it as difficult as possible for debtors to avoid their responsibilities. We are currently reviewing how those enforcement methods might be improved and modernised, in particular through updating information orders and requests, which can be an important step in calculating the assets of the debtor.
Rape (Victim Anonymity)
It is an offence to breach the anonymity of a complainant in a case of rape or any sexual offence. Allegations that a complainant has been named will be investigated.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that response, and I hope that he shares my concern at the online outing of the victim in the Ched Evans rape case who had her name emblazoned all over the social media. I am pleased that a number of arrests have been made, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that rape victims will be even less likely to come forward if they think that they might be outed in this way?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. I want to make it absolutely clear that the anonymity of rape victims is there for life. When it is breached, the full force of the law must be brought to bear. My understanding of the case that she mentions is that, as at 10 May, 13 people had been arrested. It is right that the law should be enforced, but it is also noteworthy that we clearly need to monitor the internet and ensure that we supervise it a lot better than we perhaps have in times past.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend could help, as there is growing concern about the use of Twitter in the ways described, but for other criminal offences. What actions are the Government taking to make sure that people are not allowed to hide behind their own anonymity when they tweet or use the internet in this way, which is to commit a criminal offence?
It is most interesting to hear the hon. Lady’s thoughts, but they are relevant in this context only in relation to victims in rape cases, not more widely. That is what the question is about. We are immensely grateful for the hon. Lady’s musings, but I am not sure that they entirely pertinent to the matter under discussion.
Briefly, I am aware that where breaches have occurred through the use of Twitter, the Communications Act 2003 has been used as a basis for taking action. My hon. Friend thus raises a good point, and I am happy to say that law enforcement is taking its course.
The Defamation Bill has been introduced into this House as part of the Government's programme for this Session. The text of the Bill and accompanying explanatory notes were published on 11 May.
I thank the Minister for that answer. After campaigning for many years for libel reform, it was excellent to see the Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech and published—and in better form than it was in the draft, which says something about pre-legislative scrutiny. I particularly welcome the protection for academic and scientific articles and for operators of websites. The Bill talks about regulations applying to website operators to deal with anonymity and other issues. There are many nuances to that, so will the Government publish a draft of that order together with the Bill?
My hon. Friend sat on the Joint Committee and I know that he has long taken an interest in matters pertaining to scientific freedoms. I fully agree that we must ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate scientific and academic debate and that the law must be reformed to provide an appropriate libel regime for publications on the internet. The Defamation Bill aims to address both those areas fairly and effectively. I look forward to further debate as it proceeds.
In order to save the Northern Ireland courts and the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland from becoming, in the words of Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who works for the United Nations, “an international laughing stock” in defamation cases, have the Government decided to abolish the arcane defamation crime of “scandalising” judges, thus protecting the rights of Members freely to express their views in this House without hindrance from the courts?
The basic skills of English and mathematics underpin almost all other learning. Assessing prisoners’ learning needs, and then meeting them, is at the heart of the reforms set out in “Making Prisons Work: Skills for Rehabilitation”, the new offender learning strategy published jointly last year with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
I recently met David Ahern, the chief executive of the Shannon Trust, and I assured him that we will continue to support his excellent scheme. I would be surprised if the new arrangements we have put in place for getting the commissioning of offender learning much closer to prisons and the institutions themselves did not see a much greater take-up of schemes such as toe-by-toe.
In view of the very poor performance in Ofsted inspections of provision by A4e, which provides much of the education in prisons, what conversations has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about how, when the contract is re-let, the quality of provision and the achievements of the prisoners will be at the fore of decision making about who should provide it?
I understand that a written ministerial statement has been made today by the Department for Work and Pensions in respect of A4e, which will be of interest to the hon. Lady and the House. In addition, a review of offender learning has been undertaken by the Skills Funding Agency. It was organised by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and I am happy to say that its findings have been positive as far as A4e is concerned—I know that will be of interest to the House. As for the future provision of offender learning, we are going through a re-tendering process, whereby prison governors involved in clusters of prisons that represent the offender’s journey through the system are able to ensure that they are satisfied with what is being commissioned into their prisons. That will mean a much more satisfactory state of affairs than we have had before.
14. What steps he plans to take to promote training in prisons. (106587)
Following the joint Ministry of Justice and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills review of offender learning, we are enabling prison governors to determine jointly with the Skills Funding Agency the procurement of training in their prisons. The relative priority for that, set against a falling overall budget for the MOJ and BIS, is shown by the fact that funding is being maintained at £154 million per academic year for the programme.
I recently visited Standford Hill prison in my constituency, where I saw inmates being trained to make optical lenses by Tanjit Singh Dosanjh, who undertakes the training on a voluntary basis. Unfortunately, Mr Dosanjh will not be able to offer that service free of charge indefinitely, so will my hon. Friend consider formalising Mr Dosanjh’s scheme to enable it to continue?
We are always keen to support work and training initiatives in prison and with offenders. A significant number of policy initiatives are now coming forward that might be able to incorporate the kind of service and training that Mr Dosanjh is offering, and I will ask my officials to contact him to see what might be possible.
We are currently developing a programme of reforms that will deliver swift, sure and visible justice—we intend to publish details shortly. As part of that, we are considering new and innovative ways to involve magistrates in delivering justice, and we will work with magistrates to develop these plans.
I had not heard that, but it sounds as though the hon. Gentleman could be confusing it with virtual courts, where the courtroom is extended into the police station. The defendant would be in the police station, with the defence counsel either in the police station or in the magistrates court, but the magistrates would still be in the magistrates court.
An efficient and flexible justice system was demonstrated last summer in the response to the riots by all in the Courts Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, and it is to be commended. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is right that an open mind is kept as to how justice can best be administered in local communities?
It is very important to maintain justice at the core of summary justice and in the localities. I should say that neighbourhood justice panels are not about recreating magistrates courts, because, as panels, they reach restorative outcomes by consensus; magistrates would not be exercising any judicial powers in this capacity.
Bill of Rights
In accordance with its published terms of reference, the commission should aim to report no later than by the end of 2012.
Last year, the Government received advice from the commission on reform of the European Court of Human Rights, which was taken into account in negotiations to agree the Brighton declaration. The commission’s website contains minutes of its meetings and details of seminars, as well as information regarding the public consultation held last year. The topics considered so far include: reform of the Strasbourg Court; possible options for a UK Bill of Rights; parliamentary sovereignty; and issues relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government look forward to receiving the commission’s final report by the end of this year.
We have received a number of recent representations on pleural plaques from Members of Parliament sent on behalf of their constituents.
The Government understand that it could be seen as unfair for compensation to be available in one part of the UK but not in another, but the civil legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland and that in England and Wales are separate and there will inevitably be differences in the law.
My constituent, Janet Jeffrey, lost her father in 2003 to pneumoconiosis after working at Shaw’s foundry in Middlesbrough. Can the Minister assure me that any compensation arrangements will include all those whose families are affected and will not be restricted only to miners?
I can say that in light of the medical evidence, the Government do not consider it appropriate to overturn the House of Lords’ judgment that the condition of pleural plaques is not compensable under the civil law. However, I would point out to my hon. Friend that the law does not prevent a person with pleural plaques who goes on to develop any recognised asbestos-related disease in the future from bringing a claim in relation to that disease.
The justice system plays a vital role in helping business to flourish. Economic growth can only be achieved if the framework exists within which businesses are free to trade and prosper and the justice system can help them to achieve that. Earlier this week, I published a paper, entitled “Justice for Business” and subtitled “Supporting Business and Encouraging Growth”, which sets out how our ambitious transforming justice programme is making the justice system more effective, less costly and better for business. By delivering lower legal costs, regulation that encourages investment and court processes that are faster, simpler and cheaper, we are overhauling the justice system so that business can get on with the job and contribute to growth rather than getting bogged down in protracted and expensive litigation.
At Reading prison this morning, I played football with fellow MPs from across the House against members of National Grid’s young offender scheme, which reports reoffending rates of just 6% compared with a national average of more than 70%. Given the widely recognised success of the programme, what is the Minister doing to encourage more companies to get involved and help slash reoffending rates?
The National Grid scheme is a good example of good practice and Mary Harris, who is the lead force behind it, has very properly been honoured for her contribution. National Grid has been running the scheme for some time and getting a large number of other businesses engaged. The scheme is extremely important for the resettlement of offenders. Equally, it needs to sit alongside our proposals for work in prisons, all of which will assist in the rehabilitation of offenders with, we hope, the scale of success that the National Grid scheme has seen.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is no longer in his place and that is a shame, as he and I have rather a lot in common. For example, we both used to work for Asda, where we were told that the quality of a department can be judged on how it performs when the boss is away. Today, we have had at least five elegantly given “Don’t knows” from Ministers. Let us see whether Minister can answer this: does he know, and can he explain, why a written answer from his Department shows that almost 20% fewer inmates completed drug treatment courses in prisons last year than did so two years ago?
Of course, drug treatment programmes are the responsibility of the Department of Health. As one would expect from a mature Department, I will—[Interruption.] No, I do not know the precise answer to the question, so I will write to the hon. Lady with a precise answer.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We have invested £10.5 million in moving from 65 to 80 rape support centres across the country, examining the areas where there are gaps in provision to make sure we get the best possible national coverage so there is access to advice and support for victims of rape across the country.
T2. Further to the question from my colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), will the Minister comment on the relationship between health care and resettlement given that from April next year offenders in prison will receive health care that is commissioned centrally, whereas when they are released from prison back into the community those health services will be commissioned by the local clinical commissioning group? (106600)
The right hon. Gentleman is on to the very important issue of the continuity of care that is required, particularly for drug and alcohol addicted offenders, from custody into the community. I am delighted to say that the Department of Health’s drug treatment pilots look likely to be a vehicle by which we will be able to identify to areas when prisoners are being discharged to their area, so that they will know when a drug-addicted offender is being discharged to them. We will see how those pilots go, but I think we will have a much more effective system of ensuring that we deal with the gap in provision between when people are in custody and when they are in the community.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is fair to say that the Brighton declaration was an excellent achievement for Britain. In his speech to Strasbourg on 25 January the Prime Minister outlined three achievements that he hoped for, the first of which was that there should be subsidiarity, with more decision making at the national level in the courts. That has been achieved. The second was that there should be more efficiency in the whole court structure, and that has been achieved. Thirdly, he hoped we would have a greater and better quality of judges in the Court, and that too has been achieved. We are going to have fewer cases going to Strasbourg and those that go will be dealt with efficiently. We dealt with 46 other countries, representing a total population of 800 million citizens, and I think it is a wonderful achievement on the part of Britain’s chairmanship to have got agreement between so many countries.
T5. Legal aid is a safety net that protects the most vulnerable people in our society, but now that the Government have refused to listen to the concerns of Mumsnet and other organisations that protect vulnerable women, does the Minister accept that there are potentially thousands of women who will be too scared to leave their violent partners as a result of the reforms? (106605)
T6. I warmly welcome the development of neighbourhood justice panels, and pilots are being developed in areas such as my constituency in Swindon. They should be dealing with low-level crimes in our community, but what interplay will there be between those panels and the role of the magistracy in our communities? (106606)
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, which goes to the heart of our proposals in relation to the panels themselves, the development of restorative justice and the more effective delivery of community justice. Magistrates are the communities’ representatives in the delivery of justice and I would very much welcome their engagement in neighbourhood justice panels and their taking part in the training of restorative justice practitioners, for which we are putting in nearly £2 million. Those are proper roles for a modern magistracy representing the community in the delivery of justice.
T8. Given that there is no replacement in sight for the victims commissioner, does not that send out entirely the wrong message to victims about the importance that the Government place on their needs? (106608)
I fear that the hon. Lady will share the frustration of the Opposition Front-Bench team. We will make clear the position on the victims commissioner along with all the other victims and witness issues when we properly respond to the consultation that we have just engaged with on our policies.
T7. Will the Minister say when the review of the justice needs of Gloucestershire will be finished? Given that both the Crown and the magistrates courts in Gloucester are top of the list for replacement in the south-west of England, will he confirm that his Department will look closely at the proposal, which he knows I strongly advocate, for a new justice centre that brings together courts, tribunal and police station in the heart of Gloucester’s Barbican site? (106607)
I have of course met my hon. Friend to discuss the matter, and discussions about the court and tribunal estate in the Gloucester area are ongoing. Our aim is to achieve an estate of appropriate capacity to meet the business need, and which is also efficient and less costly to run. We continually review our estate to ensure that it is well utilised and offers the best possible quality of service and facilities that we are able to provide for our users.
Is the Ministry of Justice aware that the Crown Prosecution Service has proposed withdrawing its staff from a purpose-built joint office that they share with the police at Athena house in York, where prosecutors and police officers work side by side, sharing files, to reduce court delays and court costs in York and Selby? Will a Justice Minister meet the Law Officers urgently to put a stop to this plan, on the basis that it would significantly increase costs for his Department?
I welcome the investment that the Government have made in rape centres. Can the Minister tell me when the sexual assault and rape centre is going to open in North Yorkshire and whether all the partners are signed up to it?
In 2004 Robert Levy, aged 16, was killed in Hackney. His parents, Ian and Pat Levy, will be receiving support from the probation trust to help them give a victim statement at the parole hearing, which is due next year, but their rights are limited. There is no guarantee that they will appear in person and there will be no cross-examination of them about the impact on their lives. Will the Minister look again at this element of victim impact and tell us what he is doing?
We have done so in the course of our consideration of our policy for victims and witnesses, and I hope the hon. Lady will be able to look forward to the conclusions that we take from that, in particular on the future rule of the victim personal statement. I agree with her about its importance. It is another vehicle for getting victims properly engaged in the exercise of justice.
Eleven thousand, one hundred and twenty-seven—the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails is down slightly from the peak of 11,546 under the previous Government at the end of 2009. What further progress can we expect from the Government to send these people back to prison in their own countries?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in the matter, which continues to spur the Government into action. As he knows because he understands the subject, it is a difficult and multifaceted exercise to get serving prisoners to return to their own country. Every avenue is being explored, from entry into the system, through examination of conditional cautions and the individual bilateral relationships that we have with countries, to the operation of the European Union prisoner transfer arrangements and the European Council’s protocol on the subject. No effort will be spared between us and the UK Border Agency to achieve success and improve performance in this area.
Constituents of mine who are interpreters have given me a dossier about Applied Language Solutions and its failings. Court hearings have been adjourned and costs have been incurred. Will the Minister update the House on what action he is taking against ALS—for breach of contract?
On 24 May, we will publish a full statistical analysis of the performance of ALS up to 30 April. Since the contract went national after a successful regional pilot in the north-west on 30 January, there were significant problems with the exercise of that contract, both related to the administration by ALS and to the attitude of interpreters engaging with ALS. I am pleased to be able to report to the House that the performance of ALS and its owner Capita has considerably improved in this area. The position has improved further since 30 April, and it is achieving very nearly now the performance required under the contract.
David Parfitt killed my constituent Ged Walker, who was a serving police officer. Parfitt was released from custody a few months ago after a long sentence. We understand that he appeared in Lincoln magistrates court charged with a new offence, but my constituent’s widow has not been given the details of that offence. Does the Minister agree that as a victim of crime, she is entitled to know if he has reoffended, and if he has, in what way?
I will want to examine the precise duties that the House and the Government have placed on the victim liaison services, both in the probation service and in the police, with respect to that case. The duties of the system to victims have improved, are improving and must continue to do so. They must feel very central to the exercise and administration of criminal justice.
Of course, our Administration is generally against ring-fencing, and it can be accepted only in very exceptional cases. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Office are looking carefully at the whole area, and the case for ring-fencing is being strongly made. When we have reached a conclusion, I will report it to the House.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 14 May),
Question again proposed,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Foreign Affairs and International Development
Our Government’s foreign policy has two principal aims: to respond to urgent challenges and crises in ways that promote Britain’s national interest and our democratic values, including human rights, poverty reduction and conflict prevention, and to equip our country to be a safe, prosperous and influential nation for the long term. To do that, given the scale of the economic changes that we are seeing in the world’s economic landscape, we are expanding British diplomacy beyond Europe and north America, even at a time of tight resources. We are forging new connections with new and emerging powers while maintaining our traditional alliances and our role in international institutions. We are intensifying efforts to promote British exports and attract inward investments, with strong early results. In 2011, British goods exports to India increased by 37%, to Indonesia by 44%, and to Colombia by 35%, while British exports as a whole last year increased by nearly £50 billion.
I will make a little progress before giving way, if my hon. Friend can wait just a moment.
We are using the National Security Council to pursue a much more systematic approach to Britain’s international objectives across all Government Departments, and the Foreign Office is back at the heart of Government in the making of Britain’s foreign policy, with three clear departmental objectives, instead of the 10 that were in place when we came to government. The objectives are to safeguard Britain’s national security, to build our country’s prosperity and to support British nationals overseas through our consular work.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way and apologise for my eagerness, but I want to pay tribute to the British ambassadors who came to this House two weeks ago sizzling with ideas about how British companies could export to their markets. I refer, in particular, to the ambassador to Namibia, who won the X-factor contest for the most competitive ambassador that day.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. Never before have our ambassadors been described in this House as “sizzling”, so I am delighted by his description—an accurate one—of their commitment to promoting British businesses overseas. They are now backed by the biggest drive to build up the Foreign Office’s diplomatic skills and capabilities that the Department has seen in modern times, with a new language training centre training up to 500 diplomats a year, more economic and commercial training and a new economics unit. Following his intervention, I pay tribute to the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, who work tirelessly day after day in support of our country.
I understand that many of the more junior posts overseas will now be filled by locally engaged staff. How will the Foreign Secretary ensure that staff going on their first posting overseas once they get higher up the scale will have the necessary experience if they have been unable to gain that in other postings?
The hon. Lady is right to say that that is one of the changes in the administration of the Foreign Office. We are saving £100 million in administration, and it is not possible to do that without making some important changes, such as the one she refers to for A and B-band staff. Most of the staff who work overseas, of course, come in at a different level and did not acquire their previous experience at the A or B-band level. Those staff affected by the change will, in many cases, have the opportunity to seek promotion to higher grades—I strongly support that—so we are trying to mitigate the effect on their careers.
I announced to the House on 11 May last year that we would substantially reinvigorate Britain’s diplomatic presence overseas. I believe that there will never be any substitute for a strong British diplomatic service that advances the interests of the United Kingdom, centred on a global diplomatic network.
On that point, may I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the work he has done to expand the diplomatic network, because under the previous Government many of our diplomatic missions were neglected and some were closed? I congratulate him on what he is doing because it is good for business. Are there expansion plans for India, that crucial and vibrant democracy?
Yes, there are, but I will speak about India in a moment because I have a specific announcement to make on our posts there. I can say to my hon. Friend that we will not set out to close any of the existing British embassies or high commissions in the lifetime of this Parliament, although clearly there are extreme circumstances, such as the attacks on our embassy in Tehran and the security situation in Damascus, that have required the temporary withdrawal of British diplomats. Instead, by 2015 we will have deployed 300 extra staff in more than 20 countries and will have opened up to 11 new British embassies and eight new consulates or trade offices.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I will give way in a moment, because I just want to elaborate on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) raised.
Not only is that a reversal of the overall policy of the previous Government, who closed 17 high commissions and embassies, but in some instances we are reopening embassies and high commissions that they closed.
No. I want to list them to the House.
In Africa we have reopened an embassy in Côte d’Ivoire and opened a new embassy in South Sudan; we are reopening our embassy in Madagascar, which should never have been closed; we are opening an embassy in Liberia; and we have set aside funds to open an embassy in Somalia as soon as circumstances permit. We have opened a new embassy in strategically important Kyrgyzstan, and we are establishing a new honorary consul network for economic and commercial diplomacy in Turkey.
In Latin America we have already opened a new consulate in the north of Brazil; we are reopening our embassy in El Salvador, which was closed in 2003; and on top of that we are strengthening many links with the people of Latin America, with an agreement for example to welcome 10,000 Brazilian students and researchers to British institutions by 2014. I stress that this focus on stronger ties in Latin America goes hand in hand with our absolute commitment to the rights of the people of the Falkland Islands to self-determination and to develop their own economy.
The right hon. Gentleman, like many, will know that, in some cases, embassies and consulates require new buildings, and this British presence overseas can be an opportunity to highlight the best of British design and architecture. I have been contacted by a constituent with a leading architectural practice who believes that the Government’s new arrangements discriminate against high-quality design and architecture in favour of the cheapest option and, sometimes, in favour of multinational companies rather than British architecture and design. Will the right hon. Gentleman look into that point, about which I have written to one of his ministerial colleagues?
I will certainly have a look at the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course we want to support British architecture, and I think that we do, very well, in many parts of the world. It also has to be cost-effective in this public spending environment, but I will look at the point that he makes.
The expansion of the diplomatic network is important and welcome, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that businesses in the illegal settlements on the west bank should not have European Union grants in any shape or form, and that diplomats should be working to stop them?
I will come to the middle east peace process later in my speech, but at the EU Foreign Affairs Council yesterday, we issued an important new and detailed statement about our approach to the two settlements, in particular. I will come back to that, but perhaps I will take the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on this point.
My right hon. Friend has done a huge amount in his time as Foreign Secretary to go to countries throughout the world and to reinvigorate the Foreign Office, which was sidelined by the previous Government. Indeed, under the Blair Government the Foreign Office was seen more as a nuisance than as a help. Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House some of the countries that he has been to which have not been visited by a Foreign Secretary in a great many years?
It would extend my speech probably too much if I were to go into all those countries, but when I arrived in Australia it was surprising to find that no Foreign Secretary of the Labour Government had visited the country during their entire 13 years in office. I give that as an example.
No, I will proceed for a moment.
In Asia we are reopening our embassy in Laos, which will mean that we are one of only three EU member states with diplomatic representation in every single Association of Southeast Asian Nations country; and we intend to open a new British interest office in Burma, in Naypyidaw.
It is vital that we develop a strong, frank and open partnership with China, reflecting our growing shared interests and our support for China’s continued economic success and more active leadership in addressing global issues. Where we differ, such as on human rights, it is vital that we continue our dialogue, so by 2015 we will have an additional consulate, 60 more staff and 40% more Chinese language speakers in our posts in China.
I am just coming to the India point, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Given the growing importance of our relations with India, I can announce today that we have secured the agreement of the Indian Government to open new deputy high commissions in the important cities of Hyderabad and Chandigarh. That will bring the number of our diplomatic posts in India to seven and mean that Britain has the most extensive diplomatic network in India of any diplomatic service in the world. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to explain why those things did not happen when he was at the Foreign Office.
Oh, good. You seemed to be asking somebody.
I want to return the Foreign Secretary to the subject of Colombia. He will know that many people in all parts of the House have profound concerns about human rights issues in that country. The EU is in the process of agreeing a free trade agreement with Colombia. When does he expect that this House will have a right to vote on that ratification?
I know where the country is that the hon. Gentleman was first talking about; I have just announced the reopening of an embassy there. He visited that country without increasing our diplomatic representation; I have done so without visiting it.
On Colombia, yes, there continues to be human rights work to do there. The commitment of the President of Colombia to make further progress on human rights is, I think, very genuine and should be warmly received in this House. I believe that there will be strong support in this House for free trade agreements being extended across the rest of the world, including with Colombia. It is not our normal practice in the House to vote on such things, but of course there is no reason why a vote cannot be created on such an issue, particularly given the rights of Back Benchers to bring about votes. I will look at the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.
The Foreign Secretary has talked about opening embassies around the world. I congratulate him on that, because it is vital for the future growth, trade and investment of this country. Will he enlighten the House on how the Foreign Office is working with UK Trade & Investment to make sure that we bring more trade and investment back to Britain?
Yes. Not only do the Foreign Office and UKTI work very closely together, but we provide UKTI with funding for specific projects, allowing it to expand its presence overseas in the same places where the FCO is expanding its work, with the additional personnel and posts that I am describing, to try to open markets and change policies in other countries so that British companies can gain access to their markets and UKTI can then help them to use that access. In the past year, the FCO and UKTI, working together, helped about 20,000 small and medium-sized enterprises to gain access, for the first time, to emerging markets around the world. That is a very important part of the economic revival of this country, and that effort must be further redoubled over the coming years.
The approach that I have described on India will help to expand our trade and investment relationship by helping British companies, and it will help to deepen our political links with state leaders across India. We are funding this expansion in relation to the emerging powers through the reallocation of FCO resources, the withdrawal of some subordinate posts in Europe, and the reduction over time of our diplomatic footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, where security costs are considerable. We are doing that while making the £100 million per year of administrative savings by the end of the Parliament required by our spending review settlement, showing that it is what we choose to do with our resources that counts the most. I can also tell the House that next month we will publish the Government’s new White Paper on relations with the UK’s overseas territories.
Our focus on stronger political and economic ties with the growing economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America in no way comes at the expense of our role in the European Union or our alliance with the United States. We will never have a stronger ally than the United States of America. We make a vital contribution to each other’s security, and our co-operation in foreign affairs will always be one of the absolute pillars of our foreign policy. Nowhere has this been more visible in recent years than in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to all the British personnel who have lost their lives, including, sadly, in recent days, or have been injured serving our country there. We are in Afghanistan to protect our own national security by helping Afghans to take control of theirs.
The process of transitioning security control to Afghan forces agreed at the Lisbon summit in 2010 is on track; it is realistic and it is achievable. Transition has begun in areas that cover about 50% of the Afghan population and in 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. With the latest announcement this weekend, that will rise to 75% of the population and involve areas of all 34 provinces. In mid-2013, when the final stage of transition begins, the Afghan national security forces will lead security responsibility across the whole country and the international security assistance force will begin to move to a supporting role, focusing primarily on training, advising and assisting the Afghan national security forces. ISAF will be in a combat role until the end of 2014, when the transition process will be completed.
The main focus of the Chicago summit this weekend will be to agree a plan for the size, shape and funding of the Afghan national security forces beyond 2014. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has announced that Britain will contribute £70 million a year from 2015 to fund the Afghan forces after ISAF’s combat operations end. That will be in addition to our leading the Afghan national army officer academy, which was announced by the Prime Minister last year. We will continue to support the Afghan Government’s efforts to achieve an inclusive, representative and sustainable political settlement through their reconciliation process, and to urge Afghanistan’s neighbours to support that objective.
The Prime Minister and I welcomed the Prime Minister of Pakistan to London last week for extensive discussions that illustrated the strength and breadth of our enduring partnership.
The European Union remains central to our prosperity, both internally through the single market and externally through its programme of free trade agreements. The European debate about growth and austerity has intensified in recent days. We should not artificially frame this as a choice. The Government have long pressed for a more growth-oriented EU policy to go alongside the necessary fiscal measures that are being taken at the national level, including in the UK. That work has been developed with our many allies in the EU, following the publication of the Prime Minister’s pamphlet “Let’s choose growth” more than a year ago. That policy has won the support of countries comprising a majority of the EU’s population.
The most recent European Council agreed a comprehensive growth agenda for the EU based on those arguments. The agenda is not about spending money that we do not have, which is the unsustainable folly that put this country in such difficulty; it is about expanding trade within the EU and beyond, lifting regulatory burdens and making structural reforms to European economies. Our future prosperity cannot be driven by Government spending or consumer spending, but will be created by earning our way in the world through trade and competitiveness.
On a recent all-party parliamentary group trip to Brussels, it was clear that the Prime Minister’s letter of last February had struck a chord with many countries. I urge the Foreign Secretary to push ahead with the deregulation agenda at Commission level, because I was not convinced that it was accepted totally by all the countries involved.
I agree that it is important to push ahead, for instance with the agreement in the European Union to exempt the smallest businesses in Europe from new regulations. It is important to ensure that that happens in practice. That is an example of what we are achieving with the growth agenda. Sustained effort is needed to bring it about.
The financial uncertainty caused by the eurozone crisis is the biggest single obstacle to our economic recovery. Although each eurozone member must make its own decision on how to handle the crisis, our view remains that it is only through the control of public finances, an increase in productivity and competitiveness, and structural reform that Europe’s economies will obtain the lasting economic growth that will take us out of these hard times.
In this Session, the Government will bring forward two items of European legislation. The first is a Bill to amend the EU treaties and confirm the legal basis of the eurozone-only European stability mechanism. During negotiations on that treaty change, we ensured that the UK will not be liable through the EU budget for any future eurozone bail-out once the ESM comes into force. The second is a Bill to ratify the accession of Croatia to the European Union.
Of course, today we welcome the new President of France to his office. We look forward to working with him as a close ally.
Just as Britain will make full use of its unique network of partnerships, including the Commonwealth, we want the EU to use its collective weight in the world to good effect. We must continue to place pressure on the authorities in Belarus to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners and commit themselves to real reform, and we must continue to urge the Ukrainian Government to demonstrate that they respect fundamental democratic values and principles. Our Government are dismayed by the alleged mistreatment of former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko.
In the western Balkans, we look forward to the opening of accession negotiations with Montenegro and to Croatia’s expected accession in July next year, and we welcome Serbia’s EU candidate status, awarded in March after progress towards normalising relations with Kosovo.
I am delighted that the Foreign Secretary has raised the case of Yulia Tymoshenko. What measures are the Government taking, and what representations are they making, about that appalling mistreatment and breach of someone’s human rights?
We have made very clear representations about it. I have discussed the case personally with the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, and our ambassadors right across the EU have made strong representations about that case and other trials that do not appear to have followed what we would regard as due process. While the difficulties remain, the stabilisation and association agreement that has been negotiated between Ukraine and the EU is not being brought into force, so there is a standstill in progressing relations between EU countries and Ukraine. We welcome the recent developments such as the provision of medical care to Mrs Tymoshenko with the assistance of Germany, and we will continue to pursue that case and others vigorously with Ukraine.
Returning to the subject of the Balkans, continued progress in relations with Kosovo will remain vital to Serbia’s path towards EU membership. We also want Bosnia-Herzegovina to be able to make its own leap forward to EU candidate status and full membership of NATO. We intend to develop our co-operation with Russia where it is in our interest to do so, particularly in our economic relationship and in addressing key issues affecting global security as members of the UN Security Council, and I will shortly visit Moscow again.
My right hon. Friend failed to mention one country in the Balkans area, which was Macedonia. Given that the Greeks might not exactly be as strong as they used to be in negotiations in the EU, surely we can give a bit of oomph to Macedonia’s negotiations to enter the EU should it want to?
The whole of Europe wants to see the name dispute resolved, of course. That requires an agreement with Greece, which of course requires a Greek Government to be able to take the initiative and come to such an agreement. My hon. Friend will be aware that as we came into the Chamber for the debate, the news was that a caretaker Government would be appointed in Greece pending fresh elections on 10 or 17 June. We certainly hope that whoever is elected in Greece, facing formidable challenges, will include the resolution of the name issue among their priorities.
The EU has an important role to play further afield, including in Burma. The House can be proud that we never wavered in our support for democracy there and insisted on real political and human rights reform as the condition for any move towards an open relationship between Burma and the EU. We are starting to see real reform, although the gains are not yet irreversible and serious human rights concerns remain. The bold leadership shown by President Thein Sein and by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has finally placed the country on a hopeful path, and every Member will have been moved by the sight of Aung San Suu Kyi taking her seat in Burma’s Parliament on 2 May. It will be a huge honour if she visits Britain this summer for the first time in 24 years.
I visited Burma in January, and our Prime Minister was the first western leader to visit after the recent by-elections. We led the way in calling for and securing the suspension, rather than the complete lifting, of EU sanctions, and we have announced that we have lifted our policy of discouraging trade with Burma, although we maintain an arms embargo. We believe that at this moment, the right kind of responsible trade and investment can help aid that country’s transition.
I am glad that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister went to Burma to meet that great leader, and we all look forward to her being able to visit London, but she might be alone because although we are open to one or two personalities our nation is shutting down. Does the Foreign Secretary know that, according to today’s report by the European Tour Operators Association, France now attracts 50% more visitors from India than we do; that 26% of all Indians and 30% of all Chinese who apply for a visa to come to the UK give up because it is too expensive and the application is eight pages long; and that everyone goes to the Schengen area, which now includes Switzerland? We have the reputation of being desirous of business, but closed to foreigners. Is that wise?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will, as always, want to take your advice, Mr Speaker. Of course, I will look at the report that he mentions—I have not seen it—but I do not think that that picture of this country is accurate. Indeed, when we discussed relations with China and India in the Cabinet this morning, we considered the number of Chinese students in the UK. The figure is currently 95,000—the largest number of Chinese students in the world in any country outside China apart from the United States. We are only narrowly behind the United States, and we have more Chinese students than any other country in Europe. That is an example of our openness to people from the rest of the world, and the right hon. Gentleman should bear it in mind.
As the Foreign Secretary knows, the Inter-Parliamentary Union campaigned for many years for the political prisoners in Burmese jails. Although we welcome the release of some of them, hundreds are still in prison. Will he make a particular point of asking for the release of all political prisoners in Burma?
Yes, we certainly do that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development was in Burma before me last November, and he made that point strongly, as I did in January. Indeed, several hundred more prisoners were released the following week. I had asked that they be released in time to be nominated as candidates for the by-elections on 1 April. We therefore strongly welcome the releases. As I said, there are still human rights concerns, including continuing ethnic conflict in Kachin state, and prisoners whom the Burmese Opposition argue are political prisoners. We are now at the stage of definitions of what constitutes a political prisoner. We and the opposition in Burma may have a differing view from the Government there. However, there have been large-scale releases, and we will continue to ask for the release of all individuals who can be defined as political prisoners.
We also want the EU to play a determined role on Iran’s nuclear programme. Next week, on 23 May, the next round of negotiations between Iran and the E3 plus 3—France, China, Russia, the United States, Germany and the UK—will take place. We welcome the fact that, in the previous talks in Turkey last month, Iran did not try to lay down conditions for negotiations, as it has in the past. However, we have seen no indication yet from Iran that it is willing to take concrete action to address concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear programme—we will look for that in Baghdad. We will take a step-by-step approach, looking for reciprocal actions by both sides. They should start with steps by Iran to build confidence in its nuclear activities. In particular, Iran should take early action to address the concern about its production of 20% enriched uranium.
The Foreign Secretary knows that Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and that a conference is due in Helsinki in December. Will he confirm that that will go ahead, with the idea of promoting a nuclear weapons free middle east, and that Britain, Israel and Iran will all be present?
I certainly hope that that will go ahead. The hon. Gentleman is right; there is a Finnish co-ordinator, which is why we are looking towards a conference in Helsinki. A meeting was held on 8 May about drawing the conference together, so it remains our objective that it will be held in 2012, albeit late in the year, and, of course, we want all relevant nations to participate, although it is up to each of them to decide. We strongly support the Finnish representative’s work on the conference, and we will participate in and support it.
On 9 May, Reuters news agency produced a report suggesting that British officials were attempting to delay by six months a ban on insurance for ships carrying Iranian oil, which would have a knock-on effect on delaying sanctions. Is that true? If so, why?
The UK is one of the strongest advocates of the sanctions being applied by the EU, including the ban on EU imports of Iranian oil from 1 July. The House should be clear about that, but discussion is continuing within the EU about protection and indemnity insurance and when a ban on it would be applied—on 1 July or at a later date. We are discussing that separately because of concerns expressed by countries outside the EU about the impact on their trade. We are assessing that, working with France in particular, to try to understand how serious the impact would be. We are clearly applying sharply increased pressure on Iran, but we also have to bear in mind the wider consequences for oil prices and the world economy, and balance those concerns.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that even if the Iranians make constructive proposals in Baghdad next week, which would be very welcome, it would be premature to consider any suspension of sanctions, except in the unlikely event that the Iranians propose to suspend, as of that date, their further enrichment of uranium?
We will have to see what, if any, proposals Iran makes in Baghdad on 23 May, but if my right hon. and learned Friend is saying that we should be cautious about making large-scale concessions, of course I agree—we will be cautious. It would, in any case, require agreement across the E3 plus 3. We will see what the Iranians say. If they propose and start to implement concrete steps, of course there would be ways in which we would want to respond, but very serious and significant steps would have to be taken for us to change, in any way, our approach to, for example, the imposition of the oil sanctions that I just described.