House of Commons
Tuesday 22 May 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2007–08 on 22 January 2008, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 12 June.
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
We are working closely with the New Zealand Government to secure the agreement of all the Commonwealth realms to the introduction of UK primary legislation on royal succession. Legislation will be introduced once we have secured this agreement and when parliamentary time allows.
If the birds and the bees of the romantic Isle of Anglesey were to conspire and bless our future King of England and his wife with the patter of tiny feet before this law was enacted, and if that royal baby turned out to be a little girl, would she succeed to the throne?
If the birds and the bees were to deliver that blessing to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—and, indeed, the nation as a whole—that little girl would be covered by these provisions and changes to the rules of succession, because they operate as from the time of the declaration at the Commonwealth summit last October. It is important to remember that the rules are de facto in place, even though de jure they still need to be implemented through legislation in the way I have described.
In the interests of democracy and dragging the monarchy and the office of Head of State into the 21st century, can it be arranged for the new Bill to permit alternative candidates to stand as Head of State, given the misgivings about King Charles III?
The hon. Gentleman mentions what sounds like another attempt to resurrect the alternative vote system, which I do not think was greeted with universal acclaim last year and would not apply in this area either. More seriously, I do not think he should belittle the enormity of this change. We are getting rid of some very long-standing, discriminatory anomalies on male primogeniture and the rule preventing heirs to the throne from marrying—uniquely among all religions—Roman Catholics. That is real progress that has not been achieved in a long time.
House of Lords Reform
The Government believe that the primacy of the House of Commons will be maintained. We accept, of course, that the conventions and agreements between the two Houses will continue to adapt and evolve, but this is compatible with the continued primacy of the House of Commons. I stress that this is not only the view of the Government; the majority of the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill said that the current basis
“on which Commons primacy rests would suffice to ensure its continuation”.
The Deputy Prime Minister will hear many Members wax precious about the primacy of this Chamber, but this Whip-tamed Chamber spends far less time considering legislation and has a poor rate of success with amendments. Is there not something pathetic about self-respecting democratic legislators having to rely on the fact that another House is unelected to claim legitimate primacy?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that, although some concerns about the primacy of the House of Commons need to be taken seriously, some are overstated, not least because the changes that we published in our draft Bill would mean that, because the other place would be elected in instalments, it would never have a more recent, fresher democratic mandate than Members sitting in this place. When combined with other differences of mandate, constituency and so forth, that approach will ensure that the relationship between the two continues to guarantee the primacy of this place.
It is interesting that the Deputy Prime Minister quoted selectively from the Joint Committee report. That report also stated:
“We concur…that Clause 2 of the draft Bill is not capable…of preserving the primacy of the House of Commons.”
Does he accept that?
I accept that the Joint Committee received evidence, particularly from Lords Pannick and Goldsmith, suggesting that the two Parliament Acts should be incorporated and reflected in clause 2 to clarify this issue of primacy beyond doubt. We are actively considering that and all the Joint Committee’s recommendations.
It is important to stress that the Joint Committee did not make that suggestion, and neither have a succession of cross-party committees and commissions over the last several years. All of them have agreed that there is nothing incompatible about increasing the legitimacy of the other place, on the basis of the very simple, uncontroversial principle that the people who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who obey the laws of the land, and that this matter should in no way need to wait for a wider discussion on the respective powers of the two places.
Given that we are now part of a multicultural and polytheistic society, does my right hon. Friend agree that now is the time to remove bishops from the House of Lords, rather than increasing the proportion of seats that they would hold?
I know there are strongly held views on this issue, as on many issues to do with reform of the other place. The balanced approach that we took as a Government in the draft Bill was to reduce the number of bishops from 26 to 12, but not to remove them altogether.
We are bringing forward our Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which has its Second Reading in the House tomorrow, to improve the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register.
It is certainly true that there has been a lot of focus on the possible risks to this approach. When we debate Second Reading tomorrow, I hope that colleagues will see that we have taken a lot of steps to deal with that. However, there are also a number of opportunities, one of which is through the online registration system that we are introducing. We hope that disabled people, particularly those with visual impairments, will find it more convenient and easier to register. We may therefore find that, among certain groups, we have a better chance of getting people registered to vote and able to exercise their democratic rights.
Information about people on the electoral register is, I understand, already published by the Office for National Statistics. It is difficult to publish a league table showing the percentage of eligible voters, because no clear information is available about the number of eligible people in each parliamentary constituency. However, information on the number of people registered to vote in each area is regularly published by the Office for National Statistics.
Can my hon. Friend assure me that all appropriate steps will be taken to reduce the risk of people falling off the register, and that registration officers will have all the tools available to them to ensure that registration is maximised in their local areas?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have made a number of changes to the Bill to reflect the recommendations of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, whose Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), is in his place today. When colleagues on both sides of the House study the changes, they will see that we have taken all the steps to maximise the accuracy of the register and to ensure that no one eligible to vote falls off it in the transition.
If the Government wish, as they say, to have a complete and accurate electoral register, why are they pressing ahead with their individual electoral registration legislation before the results of the next round of data matching are known? Can it be because they are thinking about the parliamentary boundary review of December 2015?
That is not the case. The hon. Gentleman knows that, based on the data-matching pilots we have already run, we think that there is good evidence that we will be able to confirm two thirds of voters who are already on the electoral register and move them over to the new one, assured that they are real people registered at those addresses. We will run more pilots later this year, subject to parliamentary approval of the orders, to test that proposition further and see whether there are any other lessons to learn. However, we are confident from the work that we have done so far that the process is robust.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) will know that we have just carried out a consultation on our statutory register of lobbyists, which closed on 20 April, and we are now studying the responses. We will publish our response to that consultation before the summer recess, and we will publish a White Paper and draft legislation later this Session.
I thank the Minister for that helpful answer. Abuse of lobbying is nothing new, but in recent years we have had to deal with the issue of helpful calls to News International. We have seen the Conservative co-treasurer offering dinner dates with the Prime Minister, Bell Pottinger offering influence at No. 10, and Adam Werritty and so on. So may I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to get on with this register, because people were disappointed not to see it in the Queen’s Speech and this situation is undermining our democracy?
I would add to that list of examples, because people are also concerned when trade unions write amendments for the Labour party. I will not take any lectures from the Labour party on dealing with this issue at speed, because it had 13 years to tackle the issue and made no progress at all. It is important that we get this right, so that we do not have to keep returning to it. We have published a consultation, I have set out the steps we are going to take to publish a White Paper and a draft Bill, and I have already made a commitment, when giving evidence last week to a Select Committee, that we will deal with this issue, as we have committed to do, this Parliament.
The Prime Minister has already been proved right when he said that lobbying would be the “next big scandal” to happen, so why this delay? Does the Minister not agree that any failure to bring forward meaningful legislation will justifiably feed the public mistrust of politicians? Is it not time that we completely cleaned up this place?
I am very happy to agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question; the Prime Minister is, indeed, always right. On the second part of the question, the hon. Gentleman did not listen to my previous answer. I am not going to take any lectures from the Labour party, which did nothing on this subject. It is important to get this right. We have published the consultation document. He will know, from listening to what people have said publicly, that there are a range of views on how we deal with this. We are going to look at those consultation responses, publish our proposals and put them up for pre-legislative scrutiny, so that people can look at them, and we will legislate and deal with this matter in this Parliament, as we have committed to do.
The Minister still has not explained to us why the Government are dragging their feet. It was widely expected that this Bill would be in the Queen’s Speech and we have been told that the draft legislation is going to be available before long, so why not just get on with it and bring the legislation forward?
Again, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that his party did nothing about this when in government. We will take one lesson from his Government: rushing forward with ill-considered legislation that then is not brought into force or which goes wrong when it is introduced and then has to be revisited is not a good way of legislating. We have published a number of Bills in draft so far, in the first Session of this Parliament, including the one dealing with electoral registration. That is a good way of legislating and it is generally supported across this House. It is better to get it right and do it well, rather than rush it and make a bodge of it.
What is my hon. Friend doing to regulate that most destructive form of lobbying—that which comes from Liberal Democrat Back Benchers and is designed to undermine the economic recovery by arguing against the regionalisation of public sector pay and against the Beecroft report?
Speaking for myself, I enjoy being lobbied by Back Benchers of all descriptions, be they Members from the Government parties or Opposition Members. I am very happy to listen to views. The Government will then move forward with their proposals on lobbying, based on the evidence and on the responses to our consultation.
The Minister will know that there is considerable opposition on both sides of the Houses to any regulation on lobbying, and we all know why, certainly after 13 years of the Labour Government. However, will he confirm that the key is transparency? If the public know which politicians are meeting whom, it will be much harder for anything dishonourable to happen. I hope that that will be a key part of any announcement.
The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on transparency. It is one reason why Ministers in this Government are much more transparent about those whom we meet than Ministers in previous Governments were—[Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) laughing; this Government are much more transparent about the meetings that Ministers have. Transparency is the key; that is where we have identified the problem and this is what we are going to solve with our proposals. As I said, it is important to get it right and get the job done, and that is exactly what we are going to do.
House of Lords Reform
Members of a wholly or mainly elected reformed second Chamber will serve long non-renewable terms. Non-renewable terms of three electoral cycles have been a feature of cross-party reform proposals since they were agreed over a decade ago by the Wakeham commission in January 2000. This is why the idea was reflected in the draft Bill. It has since been endorsed by the Joint Committee, and we expect to maintain it in the Bill shortly to be brought before Parliament.
It appears that the Deputy Prime Minister has the anti-Midas touch and that great opportunities for lasting constitutional reform have been squandered because of poor political judgment. What is the Deputy Prime Minister’s rationale for believing that those 15-year non-renewable terms for the second Chamber will renew democratic accountability? As a result, will Lords reform simply be another failed Lib-Dem coalition policy?
I know that the hon. Gentleman meticulously wrote his question before he listened to the initial answer, so perhaps he will listen to this one. As I said in my first answer, the idea of three non-renewable terms is not something invented by this coalition Government or the Joint Committee; it was first identified on a cross-party basis over a decade ago. That is why—quite sensibly, in the name of consensus and in pursuit of real reform—we are maintaining that proposal now.
If we are to have real reform of the House of Lords and to restore trust in politics, not only should the House of Lords be largely elected, but is it not now time to send the ermine up the motorway to one of our great northern cities, such as Manchester or Sheffield?
That is an excellent idea. We will include this novel proposal in our thinking. On a more serious note, all three main parties put before the country in May 2010 manifestos that committed us all collectively to House of Lords reform. If we are to honour our manifesto commitments, I think we should proceed quickly and swiftly.
The power of a whiff of ermine on people’s opinions on reform of the House of Lords has never failed to amaze me. All I can say is that the manifesto commitments of the hon. Gentleman’s party, my party and the Conservative party were clearly in favour of completing this century-long debate on the reform of the other place. I think we should now get on with it.
When the Bill is published, will it come with a financial assessment of what will happen to the House of Lords if we do not reform it, and of what will happen once we get to, say, 2020, when we will have to equalise every time there is a change of government in this place?
We will, of course, publish the financial implications. The hon. Lady is right to highlight an issue that has not been given sufficient attention—how unsustainable the status quo is. Are people really comfortable with a second Chamber that will soon be composed of 1,000 or more members, in which more than 70% are there through nothing more than political patronage and in which they receive £300 tax-free just for turning up?
Given that the House of Lords is often seen as a lifeboat for ailing political careers, so that there are vested interests in this place that are very much against reform, will the Deputy Prime Minister lead by example and guarantee that, in the event of his attempts at reform being unsuccessful, he will not take up a seat in the Lords?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. We have a very courageous Deputy Prime Minister, and may I urge him to continue with House of Lords reform, because he will be a national hero to the 8% who vote Liberal Democrat? On accountability, will he promise that there will be no programme motion so that this House can fully discuss these major constitutional reforms?
Ample time will be allowed, but we should keep this in proportion. This is not something that the vast majority of people in the country care about a great deal. That does not mean that the Government cannot do more than one thing at once, and I have to say to those, perhaps including the hon. Gentleman, who want to block up all parliamentary business because they object to this simple reform that the burden is on them to explain why they want to protect an unsustainable and indefensible status quo.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policies and initiatives. I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform, including reform of party funding. Let me briefly update the House on that issue. I wrote to party leaders in February asking them to nominate representatives for cross-party discussions on party funding. Meetings took place on 11 and 30 April. Representatives are meeting again today, and will hold a further discussion next week.
We all know the parameters. This is not about reinventing the wheel. The Kelly report provides a sound basis for agreement. We simply need to demonstrate the political will to make progress, and I hope and expect that to be possible before the summer recess.
This week the Deputy Prime Minister spoke of the wasted talent in the country caused by the lack of social mobility, and I concur with his comments. However, given the direct link between poverty and some of the indicators that he will be using, such as birth weight, why are the Government pursuing cuts in tax credits and benefits, which will simply lead to more children living below the poverty line?
As the hon. Lady knows, our welfare reforms are based on the simple principle of ensuring that work always pays. That is what these controversial reforms are about, and that is what universal credit is about. For years and years under Labour the welfare budget ballooned and the incentive to work diminished. That is what we are seeking to change through our welfare reforms.
T2. People in Broxtowe will have been pleased by today’s news that inflation has come down. What other measures does the Deputy Prime Minister think the Government should be taking to help hard-pressed families throughout the country? (108476)
I think it is significant that in one week we have seen the release of official statistics showing that both unemployment and inflation are down, and today we have heard from the IMF that the policy prescription that we are pursuing is exactly the right one to repair the mess left by the Labour party. There are many reforms that we need to introduce, but one that I would highlight is a simpler, fairer tax system. Because of the tax reforms that we have introduced, as of next April more than 2 million people with low earnings will be paying no income tax whatsoever.
It has been a bad week for the Germans. First they are beaten by Chelsea, and then they get an economics lecture from the Deputy Prime Minister. Can he tell us why he is qualified to lecture anyone about economic policy when his Government have left us with a double-dip recession and 1 million young people looking for work?
The right hon. and learned Lady must be suffering from amnesia. Does she not remember how her Government sucked up to the City of London, went on a prawn cocktail offensive which let the banks off the hook and presided over increases in youth unemployment year after year after 2004, the biggest peacetime deficit ever seen in this country, and the largest decline in manufacturing—even larger than the decline in the 1980s? That is Labour’s record, and I am proud of the fact that we are trying to fix the mess that she left behind.
When we left office, the economy was growing and unemployment was falling. Today the Deputy Prime Minister has been prancing around preaching about social mobility, which is frankly ludicrous when he is cutting tax credits for low-income families, providing a tax cut for millionaires, and scrapping an important measure designed to narrow the gap between rich and poor, namely clause 1 of the Equality Act 2010. It is always the same with this Deputy Prime Minister: he says one thing and does another. For all the difference that he makes in Government, he might as well be chillaxing or beating his own record at Fruit Ninja.
That was laboured even by the standards of the right hon. and learned Lady. She referred to the upper rate of income tax, and she is ranting and railing against the new 45p rate that we will introduce next April. Perhaps she can answer a simple question. Why did the Labour party maintain a lower tax rate of 40p in the pound for upper-rate earners for the 12 years and 11 months for which they were in office? I know that the right hon. and learned Lady does not like the 45p rate; perhaps she wants to advocate the rate that she maintained for most of her time in office.
Just today, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund that
“when I think back myself to May 2010, when the UK deficit was at 11%”
—that was Labour’s gift to us—
“and I try to imagine what the situation would be like today if no such fiscal consolidation programme had been decided…I shiver”.
That is a judgment on the legacy of the right hon. and learned Lady.
T4. Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that House of Lords reform was in the manifestos of all three main political parties, and does he agree that it is absolutely right and proper that politicians should now keep to their promise and enact this much-needed reform? (108478)
Yes, I strongly agree that, as I have said, we should just get on with reforming the House of Lords with the minimum of fuss. I ask those who want to hold the whole of Government and parliamentary business hostage on this matter why on earth they think it is such a priority for the country that that business should be brought to a standstill. Given those manifesto commitments, we should work on a cross-party basis to finally complete reform of the House of Lords.
T5. I did not hear the Deputy Prime Minister say anything about ethnic inequalities in his speech on social mobility this morning, yet black youth unemployment is twice that of white British young people, ethnic minorities are under-represented in apprenticeships and although increasing numbers are entering higher education, they are more likely to attend less prestigious universities. If the Deputy Prime Minister is serious about social mobility, does he agree that we need targeted policies to address ethnic inequalities in education and employment? (108479)
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the problem for many young people in our black and minority ethnic communities. It is one of the reasons why I have commissioned some work to look at the strong anecdotal evidence that it seems to be harder for young black and minority ethnic entrepreneurs to secure loans from banks on the same reasonable rates as others. That is just one issue among many that we need to address. However, I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that the targeted interventions that we are delivering—£8 billion on pre-school support for two, three and four-year-olds, a new free pre-school support package for all disadvantaged two-year-olds as of April next year, the pupil premium and so on —disproportionately benefit those who are disadvantaged in the communities to which she refers.
T11. Last week we had some fantastic news: 700 new jobs at Ellesmere Port Vauxhall factory, making the new generation of Astras. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that that is a fantastic example of how flexible working can help rebalance the economy in the United Kingdom? (108485)
I strongly agree. That was a very important moment, as it underlines something that has been quietly building for some time: a real return to form for British manufacturing. The fact that as a country we are now exporting more cars than we are importing for the first time since the 1970s shows that, notwithstanding all the anxieties and concerns about the economic situation generally, this is an area of emerging strength for Britain.
T6. May I refer the Deputy Prime Minister to an answer he gave a few moments ago, and ask whether he is aware that figures have been placed in the House of Commons Library this morning showing that public sector debt has risen from £12,500 per head in May 2010 to £16,200 per head in April 2012? Is this figure—[Interruption.] It’s higher. Is this higher figure a result of the Deputy Prime Minister having taken his eye off the ball by concentrating on Lords reform instead of getting on with jobs and growth and getting our 1 million young people back to work? (108480)
The reason for those figures is the shocking state of the public finances left by Labour. Today’s IMF report very precisely identified three reasons why the British economy still faces real headwinds: first, increasing global commodity prices last year, which was not something we could control; secondly, the uncertainties of the eurozone, which is also not under our control; and thirdly, the hangover of monumental public and private debt, which was, indeed, a debt crisis made in No. 10—the No. 10 of Gordon Brown, aided and abetted by the backroom boys, the current Labour leader and shadow Chancellor. It is they who created the crisis in the first place.
We all know that that is a problem for all political parties. The controversies and scandals about party funding, the opaque way in which it is organised and the imperfect way in which political parties are held to account has damaged all political parties. That is why it is overwhelmingly in our shared interest to come to an agreement. As I said earlier, it is merely a matter of political will. The Kelly committee has show in outline what the bare bones of an agreement should look like and I hope that we will now be able to reach one.
T7. The Government have been taking a bit of a “pastying” in the west country recently and, as a result, we are told that the Deputy Prime Minister is listening—at least to the voices of his own MPs in panic. Will he also listen to the voices of Welsh workers at Talgarth Bakery, the Old Parish Bakery, Ferrari’s, Pin-it Pastry, Jenkins the Bakers and Peter’s pies and make a hasty—or should that be a “pastry”—retreat on the pasty tax? (108481)
That is Christmas cracker stuff from the hon. Gentleman. As I said earlier, we have extended the period of consultation on that issue. I recognise the strength of feeling about the issue from him and from many Members on both sides of the House. We have listened very closely to the representations of many figures in the industry and I hope that we will be able to make proposals shortly.
On 10 May, Rosehill street in Cheltenham was devastated by a major gas explosion. Within 24 hours, 600 residents of Hatherley in my constituency had also been evacuated following a police explosives alert. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in congratulating the emergency services, the council and residents on their response to that unprecedented combination of emergencies and send a letter of special support to the jubilee street party in Rosehill street, which is going ahead anyway in a great show—
T8. Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister said:“There is going to be no regional pay system. That is not going to happen.”Are not his Government drawing up plans for precisely such a system? (108482)
As my hon. Friend will know, the Select Committee is still carrying out its inquiry on recall. I know that he recently gave evidence to the Committee on the subject and, in keeping with our approach to many other items on the constitutional reform agenda, we are keen to gather views and consult widely before we produce draft legislation.
T9. The Deputy Prime Minister will know that Bristol has decided that it wants an elected mayor. Will he support the official Liberal Democrat candidate or the man who has just resigned his Liberal Democrat membership after 25 years because he thinks that being outed as a Lib Dem will sound the death knell for his political ambitions and is therefore standing as an independent? (108483)
I think the hon. Lady was trying to be stinging, funny or both, but I could not quite work out what the question was. It is up to the Liberal Democrats in Bristol, as it is to all political parties, to decide how to put forward candidates for mayoral elections.
In deciding the new individual voter registration system, with which we are proceeding with, I hope, cross-party support, we have looked exhaustively at the checks we consider necessary to bear down on fraud in the electoral system. That is the whole point of individual voter registration and it was right that the Government brought forward the timetable we inherited from the previous Government so that it is introduced sooner rather than later.
T10. Given the slow progress with the related legislation, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what share of the lobbying market is accounted for by companies that did not register with the UK Public Affairs Council? What will the penalty be for those companies that do not co-operate with the Government’s proposed statutory register? (108484)
I am afraid that I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the statistic he asks for, but I will look into it and see whether I can provide it later. On his second point, we are consulting right now on that exact issue of penalties and sanctions.
If we are going to give more power to the electorate by removing privilege and patronage from a reformed House of Lords and giving voters the power of election, will the Minister confirm that there is no compelling reason for a referendum?
I am personally unpersuaded that we should waste £100 million of taxpayers’ money on an issue on which, unlike with electoral reform of this place, there is cross-party consensus, with manifesto commitments to reform from all three parties. I would take seriously advice from all those critics who say that we should not proceed with House of Lords reform at all. They claim that it is not an issue of significance to the British public, so I do not think we should waste a great deal of the public’s money on a referendum when we all, nominally at least, agree that this reform should happen.
T12. The Deputy Prime Minister has been quoted in the media as saying, rightly in my opinion, that social mobility will take a long time to change, so why, on coming to power in May 2010, did he agree to the reduction or elimination of measures such as the education maintenance allowance and Sure Start long before their long-term effects could be judged?[Official Report, 24 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 15-16MC.] (108486)
As I hope the hon. Lady knows, we have protected the money for Sure Start, but there is, I acknowledge, greater discretion for local authorities to decide how to use it. I am aware of 10 outright closures of Sure Start centres across the country, and of course it is important to know why local authorities have taken those decisions. I hope that she is also aware of the extra investment that we are now putting in, particularly for early years—for children even before they go to school. We know from the evidence that that makes the most dramatic difference for subsequent social mobility. As of April next year, 40% of all two-year-olds in this country, including all two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged families, will receive for the first time 15 hours of free pre-school support.
Absolutely. We listened to many representations on this point when we considered what should be included in the Bill on individual voter registration and we have indeed, as I hope he has noticed, included a civil penalty to ensure that the civic duty to register to vote is properly maintained.
T13. Following on from the G8 summit at the weekend, may I ask the Deputy Prime Minister how the plan to support the Afghan Government after 2014 will have the slightest prospect of success without real progress on problems of politics and governance, which, according to almost all reports, have got worse, not better, in recent years? (108487)
The hon. Gentleman makes a very serious point. Anybody who has visited Afghanistan or examined the conflict there will know that there was never any prospect of a military solution alone. In a sense, all that military intervention can do is create the space in which social and political stability can take root. I share his concerns that we are still some way from that. It is immensely important at this stage, as we are moving towards real transition in Afghanistan, that we include other countries in the region, notably Pakistan, so that they play their full part and bring their influence to bear in order that political stability can indeed take root in Afghanistan.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned in his speech this morning plotting the advances made by children on free school meals. Some of the schools in my constituency have more than 50% of pupils on free school meals. Will he undertake to increase the value of the pupil premium over the life of this Parliament so that the schools already making huge progress can build on their achievements so far?
The pupil premium is currently worth £1.25 billion, and that will double to £2.5 billion by the end of this Parliament. That is additional money on top of the baseline funding provided to schools. Last year, on a per pupil basis, the pupil premium was worth about £480. It is now worth £600 and will go on to increase. Given those statistics, it is remarkable that Labour in Manchester voted to scrap the pupil premium altogether. How on earth is that going to help social mobility?
In his speech on social mobility this morning, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“It is my strongest political conviction that…if we have a chance to open up success to all, we must seize it.”
What is he going to do to put an end to the scandal of unpaid internships, particularly in politics, the media and our creative industries?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady’s work on internships, not least in this place as part of the Speaker’s Panel. As she knows, the legislation is clear: if an intern is, in effect, doing work that should be remunerated, he or she should be remunerated. There are cases of interns doing work that falls outside that legal definition. Having looked closely at the issue, and she and I have corresponded on this, we have decided that it could be self-defeating if we sought to outlaw altogether across the piece—not least, for instance, in charities—some unpaid internships. I agree, however, that even in those cases, it is incredibly important to ensure that internships are available to everybody, and that basic costs, such as travel costs and lunch costs, are properly covered, even in those cases.
As the hon. Gentleman may know, the McKay Commission, established to look into the so-called West Lothian problem, is doing its work and will report by the end of the Session. I urge him to give evidence to that commission, perhaps, and certainly to follow its work closely.
Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues who have been standing. I say in a spirit of impartiality that the Deputy Prime Minister is box office. Lots of people want to ask questions and, sadly, there is not time to accommodate them all, but the right hon. Gentleman will return to his slot ere long, and colleagues can doubtless reheat their questions.
The Attorney-General was asked—
Human Trafficking (Prosecutions)
The Crown Prosecution Service has charged and prosecuted 133 offences of human trafficking in the past 12 months, 1 May 2011 to 30 April 2012. The CPS prosecutes human trafficking-related cases under other legislation as well. The CPS is taking a number of steps to increase prosecutions, but is dependent on cases being referred for investigation by law enforcement agencies.
We have another Minister at the Dispatch Box who is also box office. May I encourage him to look at the problem where police spend time, money and effort breaking up criminal gangs of human traffickers, only for the CPS to charge them with much lesser offences, getting shorter sentences that are no deterrent to the human traffickers? It is essential that we prosecute people for human trafficking. What can the Attorney-General do?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that it is important that the right offences should be prosecuted, and if he wishes to draw to my attention instances where he feels that has not happened, I am always prepared to take the matter up. It is also right to point out that in deciding how to prosecute, the Crown Prosecution Service will look very carefully at all the surrounding issues, including sometimes the vulnerability of the offender, and may on occasion consider that the best way in which the public interest can be served is in prosecuting a lesser offence, but the principle must always be that the offence charged and prosecuted should meet the gravity of the crime.
I agree with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and pay tribute to him for the work he does in this area. Some 100,000 people are trafficked around Europe every year. This is a cross-border crime that requires cross-border co-operation. What steps is the Attorney-General taking through the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan police to work with Interpol and Europol to find the perpetrators of this cross-border crime and make sure that they are brought to justice? It must be done on an international basis.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman. It is indeed an international crime. Within the European Union there are CPS liaison magistrates in other countries, the European Judicial Network contacts, the Serious Organised Crime Agency liaison officers and Eurojust to assist. Outside the EU the position is more complicated, but we have some liaison CPS working in a number of countries with which we have particular important links. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the extraterritoriality provisions provided for in EU directives have been implemented, although they have not yet been brought into operation, so that these offences can now be prosecuted here even if they were committed abroad. Ultimately, the CPS will be dependent on the evidence produced to it. That will come from the police or SOCA, and for those reasons, the CPS, while doing its best, will always continue to be dependent on the quality of the information it gets.
Does the Attorney-General agree that just as the CPS must increase the number of prosecutions against people guilty of human trafficking, it must also stop prosecuting those who have been trafficked, such as in the case of AVN?
Yes, I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the CPS has a process in operation, which has been echoed by the Home Office, to provide protection for those who have been trafficked. He will also be aware that, with the encouragement of all political parties, the previous Government signed up to providing protection against deportation for those who had been trafficked.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The best thing I can do is write to him. I am perfectly aware that the CPS liaises extensively with the CPS in Northern Ireland and the Lord Advocate’s Department in Scotland, and I will provide him with that information.
The CPS and the specialist rape and serious sexual offences teams in every CPS area take all allegations of rape against every age group very seriously, and as a matter of general principle are keen that their work should be given the highest possible public profile. That said, they and the police have to make a judgment in each case about whether and to what extent to give publicity to it pre-trial, because quite apart from the laws of contempt and those prohibiting the identification of victims, the victim is entitled to be spared as much as possible any additional trauma beyond that caused by the rape itself.
The conviction last month of Kabeer Hassan and another man for rape and conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child calls into question the original CPS decision not to charge the men because the young woman was deemed not to be a credible witness. Does the Solicitor-General share my concern that the CPS’s original decision sends out a very dangerous message to other young victims of rape that they will not be believed?
If there is any good news to be had out of that terrible case, it is that the chief Crown prosecutor for the north-west, Mr. Nazir Afzal, revisited that decision, overturned it and ensured that the defendants were prosecuted, and prosecuted to conviction. I hope that the hon. Lady will be pleased by the result of that case.
Forced Marriage (Prosecutions)
None personally, but the Home Office recently concluded its public consultation on forced marriage and the Prime Minister has announced our intention to sign the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which will require us to criminalise forced marriage. Currently, in this jurisdiction there is no specific crime of forced marriage, and offences within that term are prosecuted under, for example, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Sexual Offences Act 2003, or other suitable statutes.
Every year in this country, thousands of children are subjected to the cruelty of forced marriage. The Government are quite right in what they say and they will act against this, but nothing at all was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. Can the Solicitor-General tell us exactly when we will have a Bill in this House so that we can outlaw this barbaric practice 100%?
No, but the penalties will be quite severe. The only guidance I can give my hon. Friend is to look at the penalties imposed under existing convictions. For example, last year there were 42 prosecutions for forced marriage under the various statutes I have referred to, a number of which led to quite lengthy sentences.
Crown Prosecution Service Employees (York)
Has the CPS consulted North Yorkshire police and the courts in York and Selby on the impact of moving staff from Athena house on administrative costs for those two bodies? If the staff have to be moved from Athena house, would not it be practical to relocate them to the offices in central York where the other York-based CPS staff are based?
Yes. As the hon. Gentleman might be aware, a consultation is taking place. An informal consultation procedure has now ended and a formal consultation procedure on any final decision on Athena house will follow. The argument for relocating a large part of the casework units to Leeds, in my judgment, cannot be argued against because, with the reduction in numbers resulting from the savings that have to be made, maintaining critical mass and having a regional hub makes sense, but I would like to reassure him that the need to maintain a presence in York is also accepted, because of its importance as the headquarters of North Yorkshire.
What discussions is the Solicitor-General having with his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the contract provisions are carefully examined and, if necessary, penalties are imposed if the service is not up to the standard required?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I discussed that matter only this morning with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and am assured by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), that the contract with Applied Language Solutions is now running properly. The company has got a grip on it and we can expect nothing but progress from here on.
It is my pleasure to stand in for the shadow Attorney-General, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)—I understand that she has informed the Attorney-General, if not the Solicitor-General. Reports from the media, the courts and interpreters themselves show that, contrary to the Solicitor-General’s briefing, problems with ALS are getting worse, not better. The MOJ intends to publish its analysis of ALS’s performance this week, based on data that I understand were collected by ALS itself. Will the Law Officers conduct their own investigation of the collapse of the interpreting and translating service in our courts, one that will put the interests of justice before the self-serving interests of the Ministry of Justice and its contractor?
No, I genuinely do not believe that to be necessary, and I think that the hon. Gentleman has been misinformed. The ALS contract is working well. If he knows of any particular instances where it is not, no doubt he will tell the Ministry of Justice about them, but I think I am prepared to believe my hon. Friends in the MOJ a little bit before I believe him.
What mechanisms exist for the CPS to communicate concerns with regard to the quality of interpretation both to the Law Officers and, indeed, to the Ministry of Justice?
Police (Criminal Allegations)
I agree that allegations against police officers must be taken very seriously, and I have had discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions about the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of criminal allegations against the police. Any such cases are handled, as with any other case, by CPS prosecutors, who are independent of the police, applying the code for Crown Prosecutors.
As the Attorney-General knows, the case of Lynette White in south Wales, which involved bringing eight former South Wales police officers to court after 10 years on charges of perverting the course of justice, collapsed and is now the subject of two inquiries. Can he give us some idea of when they are likely to report?
I am afraid that I am not in a position to give the right hon. Lady those details, but I will see whether subsequently I can supply her with further information. I entirely agree that the case revealed some very worrying features indeed, and I can assure her that the Director of Public Prosecutions takes those aspects very seriously and wishes to get to the bottom of them. I have no doubt that we will be better informed when we have those reports.
Serious Fraud Office
In view of the really bad press that the Serious Fraud Office has been getting of late, has the Solicitor-General had an opportunity to consider the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions properly to assess the risk of fraud at A4e and, in particular, to obtain key evidence relating to internal audit documents, as identified by the National Audit Office this week? Does he believe that there is a role for the SFO in providing specialist help to Departments?
Without going into specific case details, I must ask: does not recent adverse publicity about the incompetence of the Serious Fraud Office call into question the integrity of fraud investigation in our country? Is it not a matter of utmost importance that we should address urgently?
Although, with the greatest respect, I do not entirely accept the premise of all my hon. Friend’s question, I can assure him that the Serious Fraud Office is pursuing investigations and prosecutions with competence and vigour. I appreciate that Lord Justice Thomas has had some interesting things to say about the SFO in a current case, upon which I shall not comment further.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, there was an exchange about something called a Fruit Ninja. Sir, I do not know whether you know what a Fruit Ninja is, or whether it is a parliamentary expression as defined by “Erskine May”, but, given that apparently the Prime Minister spends an awful lot of time with one, can we all be given one so that we can understand what he is up to?
Well, I plead ignorance myself. I am not familiar with the thing or practice concerned, but I am comforted by the knowledge that I share that ignorance with one so learned as the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane). Sadly, his intervention, whatever its merits, did not constitute a point of order.
We come now to the main business. As I advised the House yesterday, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) has tabled a motion for debate on a matter of privilege which I have agreed should take precedence today. To move the motion, I call Mr John Whittingdale.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the conclusions set out in chapter 8 of the Eleventh Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2010-12, on News International and Phone-hacking, HC 903-I and orders that the matter be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Let me begin, Mr Speaker, by thanking you for granting precedence to this motion, which I move on behalf of all the members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I am aware that the motion is unusual, if not almost unprecedented in modern times, but as the Committee set out in the conclusions to our report, we believe that the integrity and effectiveness of Select Committees relies on the evidence that we are given being given truthfully and completely. We therefore regard the finding of the Committee that we were misled by specific individuals as an extremely serious matter, and we think it only right that it should be brought to the attention of the whole House of Commons and referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I apologise for throwing this hot potato into the lap of the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), but I think that it is important that his Committee consider this matter, first, to establish whether my Committee was indeed misled in the evidence that it was given; and secondly, to deal with the perhaps rather more difficult question of what Parliament should do in response.
It might help the House if I briefly describe the events that have led to this afternoon’s debate. At the beginning of 2007, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee decided to hold an inquiry into the self-regulation of the press. Three events triggered that decision. The first was the harassment of Kate Middleton —then a commoner, now the Duchess of Cambridge—that was taking place, which was felt to go well beyond what was acceptable.
The second issue was the publication by the Information Commissioner of his report “What price privacy now?”, at the end of 2006. In that report, he published details of the very large number of journalists working for a wide variety of publications who had employed the services of Steve Whittamore, a private investigator who was subsequently convicted for illegally breaching the police national computer and the driver vehicle licensing database in order to obtain information. Although no prosecutions of the journalists were brought, there was certainly a widespread suspicion that many members of the press had been involved in what appeared to have been illegal activity.
The third matter that the Committee decided we needed to consider was the conviction, just a few months previously, of Clive Goodman, the royal editor of the News of the World, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, who were found to have conspired to intercept communications without lawful authority. On that third specific issue, the Committee took evidence from the then chairman of News International, Mr Les Hinton. During our evidence, I put this question to him:
“You carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry, and you are absolutely convinced that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on?”
Mr Hinton replied:
“Yes, we have and I believe he was the only person, but that investigation, under the new editor, continues.”
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the Committee had to accept the assurance that we were given, but we did make some fairly strong comments about the culture that had allowed payments to be made by Clive Goodman without any apparent authority from the management of News International. However, although we concluded that we had not seen evidence that proved otherwise, I think we all heard alarm bells ringing, since we were very much aware that Glenn Mulcaire had been convicted of hacking into the telephone voice messages of Mr Max Clifford, Mr Sky Andrew, Mr Gordon Taylor, Ms Elle Macpherson, and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), none of whom had any obvious connection with the royal family. Yet we were told that the only person at the News of the World who had any knowledge or involvement was the royal editor. There was therefore certainly a suspicion in our minds that the phone hacking may have gone much wider than we were led to believe.
During 2009, two years later, the Committee conducted an inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. During that inquiry, in July 2009, The Guardian reported that News Group Newspapers had paid more than £1 million to settle privacy cases that had been brought by Gordon Taylor, one of those on the charge sheet for Glenn Mulcaire, and by Jo Armstrong and a lawyer, all of whom were involved in football matters. We decided that the size of that settlement was so large that it cast doubt on the previous testimony that we had received. On that basis, we decided to reopen our inquiry.
That decision, and certainly the report that appeared in The Guardian, was vigorously attacked by News International to such an extent that when we summoned the editor of The Guardian and the journalist who had written the story, Mr Nick Davies, to appear before us, they responded by providing the Committee with certain documents. In particular, there was a contract between Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator, and Greg Miskiw, a senior executive on the News of the World, and also what has become known as the “For Neville” e-mail. That was a heavily redacted transcript of an exchange that took place between Gordon Taylor and Jo Armstrong on their voicemails.
To us, that clearly suggested that others had been involved. We therefore took evidence during the course of our inquiry in 2009 from quite a number of senior executives of News International, including Tom Crone, the legal manager; Colin Myler, the then editor of the News of the World; Andy Coulson, the previous editor of the News of the World; Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor; and Les Hinton, the executive chairman. Mr Crone told us that he had become aware of the e-mail in April 2008, but in his evidence to us he suggested that an investigation had found little real evidence that it had gone any further. His implication was certainly that it did not amount to much. As we commented in our report:
“In summary, Mr Crone’s investigation, he said, had established that nobody remembered the ‘for Neville’ email, apart from Mr Hindley”—
the journalist who taken the transcription—
“who could not remember what he did with it.”
We went on to note:
“In spite of the allegations contained in the Guardian, the News of the World has continued to assert that Clive Goodman acted alone. Les Hinton, the former Executive Chairman of News International, told us: ‘There was never any evidence delivered to me that suggested that the conduct of Clive Goodman spread beyond him.’”
I thank the hon. Gentleman not just for his work and that of his Committee but for the measured way in which he is putting the case.
May I make it quite clear—this is in the public domain, so I am not breaching any prospective prosecutions —that there was substantial evidence, at all material times soon after the arrest of the two people who were subsequently convicted, that a series of other people at higher levels in the same newspaper had been involved, because they had been told what was going on? That is now in the public domain, and some of us believe that that knowledge cannot have been limited to those who were named in the documents seized by the police. It must have been held more widely.
I hope that the full facts will continue to emerge, not just through the work of the Committee but through that of Lord Justice Leveson and the police investigation and the possible charges to follow. I have to say that the Committee reached that conclusion in our work. Initially, it was suggested that the “For Neville” e-mail might have been going to any old Neville in the News of the World. We made inquiries and discovered that in fact there was only one person called Neville in the employment of the News of the World, and he was its chief reporter. Therefore, in 2009 the Committee concluded:
“Evidence we have seen makes it inconceivable that no-one else at the News of the World, bar Clive Goodman, knew about the phone-hacking”.
In relation to the previous assurance about the rigour of the inquiry, we said:
“The newspaper’s enquiries were far from ‘full’ or ‘rigorous’, as we—and the PCC—had been assured. Throughout our inquiry, too, we have been struck by the collective amnesia afflicting witnesses from the News of the World.”
We published that report and nothing happened. It is perhaps a matter of regret that no further action was taken for another two years. However, evidence then started to emerge from the civil cases being brought by the victims of phone hacking, which led to the initiation of Operation Weeting—the police inquiry—and an Adjournment debate introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), in which he suggested that the Committee had been misled. Those events, plus the decision of James Murdoch to close the News of the World and to make a statement saying that the evidence and statements given to Parliament were wrong, caused the Committee to decide to reopen the inquiry.
We took evidence from a wide range of people, including John Yates, then of the Metropolitan police, Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Jonathan Chapman, Daniel Cloke, Tom Crone, Colin Myler, Les Hinton and Julian Pike. We were assured at the time that News International was extremely keen to co-operate with the Committee and to establish the facts, but during the course of our subsequent inquiry three crucial documents emerged. It is worth noting that none were supplied to the Committee by News International, and that they actually came from various lawyers acting for the personalities involved.
The first document was the letter sent in March 2007 by Clive Goodman to Les Hinton, the then chairman, objecting to his dismissal. The reason Clive Goodman gave for his objection to his dismissal was as follows:
“This practice [phone hacking] was widely discussed in the daily editorial conference, until explicit reference to it was banned by the Editor. The legal manager, Tom Crone, attended virtually every meeting of my legal team and was given full access to the Crown Prosecution Service’s evidence files. He, and other senior staff of the paper, had long advanced knowledge that I would plead guilty.”
The second document we obtained was an internal e-mail sent from Tom Crone to Colin Myler before a meeting with James Murdoch to discuss the terms of the settlement with Gordon Taylor. The e-mail states that
“this evidence, particularly the e-mail”—
the “For Neville” e-mail—
“from the News of the World is fatal to our case.”
Tom Crone went on to say:
“Our position is very perilous. The damning e-mail is genuine and proves we actively made use of a large number of extremely private voicemails from Taylor’s telephone in June/July 2005 and that this was pursuant to a February 2005 contract.”
Of course, that was written almost a year before Mr Crone appeared before the Committee and suggested that the “For Neville” e-mail was of no real significance because they could not remember where it had gone or find any record of it.
The third document was the opinion obtained by Michael Silverleaf QC, who advised News Group Newspapers that it should reach a settlement because, as he said:
“there is a powerful case that there is (or was) a culture of illegal information access used at News Group Newspapers in order to produce stories for publication.”
The Committee, in its conclusions, comments on several specific issues that I will not go into in great detail, but they include such matters as the decision to authorise payments to Clive Goodman following his conviction; the importance of confidentiality in the size of the Gordon Taylor settlement; and the commissioning of surveillance of at least some members and former members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. These are matters that we describe in detail, and I hope that the Standards and Privileges Committee will also consider them.
Our overall conclusion was that the evidence that we had obtained made it clear that the evidence given to us in our previous inquiry, when the individuals involved had once again attempted to assure us that there was no real suggestion or evidence that anyone else at the News of the World was involved in phone hacking other than Clive Goodman, was not true. They certainly did have documents that indicated very clearly that that was not the case. It was for that reason that the Committee concluded that we had been misled by Les Hinton, Tom Crone and Colin Myler—
I commend my hon. Friend for the skilled way in which he has chaired the Committee over a long period, including during these very difficult inquiries, on which there was not always agreement. Will he just reiterate that, despite all the controversy over other parts of the report, on the chapter we are discussing today the Committee was united in finding that these people had misled the Committee, and there was no disagreement about any part of this chapter?
My hon. Friend is correct: on whether the three individuals whom I have just named misled the Committee we were unanimous in our finding. It is for that reason that I was very pleased that the Committee agreed to support the motion that I am moving.
We took evidence from other individuals, and the Committee deliberately decided that we would reach no conclusion on the evidence given to us by people who have since been arrested and could face criminal charges. The Committee reserves the right to return to that question once proceedings are concluded, but the three individuals we identified have not been arrested, and we therefore felt it was right that we should draw the conclusions that we have and bring them to the attention of the House.
We are under no illusion: these are serious matters. The conclusions we have reached bear profound consequences. I am not entirely clear what those consequences are, but there is no question but that these are very serious matters. It was also brought to our attention that those individuals should have a right to rebut the charges and to respond to them. We respected that, and we therefore felt that the right procedure was to refer the matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee, so that it had an opportunity to consider the evidence that led to our findings and to consider the responses that have already been given by two of the individuals named. On that basis, I ask the House to refer the Committee’s report and the evidence we received to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
I support the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) in his recommendations. These are very serious matters and they mark a parliamentary milestone in an investigation that began in 2003, when my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked the now infamous question about payments to the police. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Maldon said, this marks the beginning of the end of the role of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in this inquiry, although obviously we have reserved the right to return to the other arrested members of News International.
The matter is not over for News Corporation, the police officers who failed to investigate properly back in 2006 or the computer hackers and other rogue private investigators who some evidence suggests played a wider role. There are other investigations going on, but for now it is important that the Committee is united and that the House unites to send this document to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I am sure that other Committees will play a role, but we are united in ensuring that the three people named receive some form of parliamentary justice. The last thing we want to do is interfere with the process of criminal justice. I hope that the House can unite around the motion.
I want to make a short contribution and to begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and his fellow members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for their painstaking and at times challenging inquiry into News International and phone hacking, building on the Committee’s work in the last Parliament. I thank them for their comprehensive report.
The motion is a narrow one inviting us to note the conclusions of chapter 8 of the report and to refer it to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I believe that this is the right course of action in the first instance and I support the motion. The Committee rightly observes:
“The integrity and effectiveness of the Select Committee system relies on the truthfulness and completeness of the oral and written evidence submitted.”
The Committee’s report contains four specific conclusions relating to possible contempt, which are set out in paragraph 275. The findings are, of course, disputed vigorously by the individuals and organisation concerned. Although it would be for the House itself to reach a final determination on whether a contempt has been committed and, if appropriate, to respond in the light of any recommendations by the Standards and Privileges Committee, it should do so on the basis of a full and impartial consideration of the facts and appropriate steps by that Committee.
Should the Standards and Privileges Committee conclude that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was knowingly misled, it would be right for the Standards and Privileges Committee to consider any appropriate action, having regard to the House’s 1978 resolution to use its penal jurisdiction in respect of non-Members as sparingly as possible and only when the House is satisfied that it is essential to act in order to provide reasonable protection from improper obstruction causing or likely to cause substantial interference with its functions. The Committee on Standards and Privileges, which is chaired with such distinction by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) and whose members are accustomed to the impartial consideration of complex and contested issues, is well equipped for this role. The House should concern itself today, therefore, with the specific question whether to refer to the Standards and Privileges Committee the issues identified in chapter 8 of the report. I believe it should, and I support the motion.
I echo the comments of the Leader of the House by paying tribute to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for its significant work on the ongoing, complex and important matter of News International and phone hacking. Throughout its long inquiry, the Committee has been chaired admirably by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and his Committee has pursued its inquiries in a commendable and dogged fashion. Just as the Treasury Select Committee pursued its inquiries into the banking crisis, so the Culture, Media and Sport Committee has pursued its investigations into the media crisis. I know the work has been exhaustive and exhausting for the members of the Committee, past and present, and the House staff supporting them, and once more I pay tribute to all involved.
Members will be well aware of the context of this report, which the hon. Member for Maldon has just set out. The Committee’s inquiry began in the last Parliament and has taken place against a background of rapid external developments. Despite the challenges, it is a tribute to the Committee that it has produced its report in spite of the ongoing police investigation and the Leveson inquiry. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry, which we expect to report in the autumn, will be of great importance. We are inevitably constrained in what we can say today, given the context, but the House will have further opportunities to debate the wider issues. The motion before us is therefore a narrow one, as the Leader of the House has just told us.
From their introduction in 1979, Select Committees have had the power to send for persons, papers and records. They have relied largely on written and oral evidence to perform their duties. Over more than two decades, and during hundreds and hundreds of separate inquiries, Select Committees have ably and satisfactorily used mainly informal powers to ensure that they can access the evidence they need. However, we should not forget the purpose of such inquiries: Select Committees exist not just to hold the Government to account and to examine in detail the implication of Government bodies and policies, but to shine a light across the public realm. The powers of the House are for a purpose: to enable Parliament, on behalf of our constituents, to hold the powerful to account. Today the Select Committee system works well, but it would not if witnesses felt they could mislead a Committee without consequence.
Although Committees rarely take evidence on oath, the House of Commons 2011 guidance for witnesses giving evidence to Select Committees is clear. It states that witnesses are expected to answer fully, honestly and truthfully, and:
“Deliberately attempting to mislead a committee is a contempt of the House”.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee concludes, at paragraphs 274 to 280, that three individuals—Les Hinton, Tom Crone and Colin Myler—and, corporately, News International and the News of the World misled Parliament in their evidence to the Committee. Under these circumstances, it is right that the matter be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee for further investigation and consideration. We should not seek to pre-judge or second-guess the work that the Standards and Privileges Committee may undertake, under the able chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron). It is enough that we agree today to refer this important matter to that Committee, which is why the Opposition support the motion.
It is a privilege to speak in today’s debate, and I wholly endorse the motion before the House today. It is fair to say that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was absolutely united in saying that Les Hinton, Tom Crone and Colin Myler had misled Parliament. That was evidenced by just one aspect of an external lawyer’s perspective. Julian Pike from Farrer & Co. affirmed that Parliament had been lied to when responding to a question from the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly). When asked by the hon. Gentleman, “When did you first know about the evidence given to this House?”, he answered, “At the moment they said it, back in 2009.” Such affirmations from external parties give confidence to members of the Committee on the conclusions reached in our report.
In preparing our report, we were advised not to take on the principle of lawyers, in serving their clients, not having regard to allowing falsehoods to be perpetuated, but instead to accept that lawyers are there to serve their clients. However, we all have to show personal leadership. I wonder at times whether lawyers should take a look in the mirror—individually and, as the legal profession, collectively—and decide to take a certain view on these ethical matters, including whether they wish that position to continue to be part of their ethical code.
I think it is fair to say that the Committee was not entirely united on chapter 8, owing to the fourth point in paragraph 275. However, we all accept the established principle of vicarious liability, and that the company should accept responsibility for what happened in that terrible time.
As I have stated before, News International will have a long time to regret not taking action after our excellent predecessor Committee’s 2009 report—as it now appears to be doing through its internal management and standards committee. I point to paragraph 278. Parliament—our Select Committee—was careful to try not to trample on criminal proceedings, for which we could not have been forgiven. However, we should reflect on the fact that it is thanks to parliamentary privilege that we were able to uncover and bring certain information through to Parliament that the Leveson inquiry would not have been able to bring. It is not acceptable to evade the truth when speaking to parliamentarians. It is not acceptable simply to try to leave people second-guessing, so that they may be misled—often deliberately so. It is imperative that people are prepared to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and we demand nothing less for our constituents.
I am grateful for all the work that has been done by the Committee, so ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). Does my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) agree that the issue about taking an oath is irrelevant, as when a witness comes before a Select Committee there is an expectation that they must tell the truth, whether or not they swear an oath?
That is absolutely right. As the shadow Leader of the House said, that was in the guidance. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is irrelevant whether or not somebody puts a Bible or some other thing in front of them; they are in this House because they have been asked, on behalf of the people of this country, to come to answer questions. People should do that honestly, straightforwardly and without reservation.
The taking of the oath is not irrelevant, because if someone gives evidence under oath that turns out to be untrue—these powers of a parliamentary Select Committee exist for a reason—they can subsequently be charged with a criminal offence under the Perjury Act 1911.
I am not a lawyer; I stand here as a parliamentarian who passes law. In response to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), my understanding is that any information given as evidence during parliamentary sittings cannot necessarily be used in a court of law. That is part of the basis of parliamentary privilege.
I, too, pay warm tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), because this task has been particularly difficult, not least because it has followed on from previous inquiries, not only while he has been Chairman, but carried out when my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) chaired the Committee.
This is a debate about privilege, and I always think that the word “privilege” is an unfortunate one to use in relation to Parliament, as I am sure would most voters. The truth is that we have not yet seen all the evidence. It is important to note that, precisely for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has adduced that nobody has wanted to trample on the toes of a criminal investigation, we are so far—this is true of Leveson as well—seeing only the tip of a very large iceberg. The issues that have been presented to us in the report refer to just three people, but more than 40 have been arrested and there may be further arrests yet.
When the whole story has come out, as I hope it will eventually, I think this instance will prove to have been one of the most flagrant examples of contempt of Parliament in Parliament’s history. It was not just one person at one time or one organisation for a brief period of time; a series of people systematically and repeatedly lied so as to protect themselves, to protect their commercial interests and to try to make sure that they did not end up going to prison. They did that knowing fully that they were telling lies to Parliament, and I believe that that is a fundamental contempt. If we look through the history of Parliament, it is difficult to find a moment when there was such a concatenation of deliberate abuses—contempt of Parliament. That is why we need to take this moment very seriously.
There was covert surveillance of Members of Parliament, deliberately to intimidate them in going about their duties. That applied particularly to members of the Committee. As we know, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) had his phone hacked, as quite possibly did some four score others. Indeed, News International managed to turn the Metropolitan police into a partially owned subsidiary, whereby members of staff from one organisation were going to work for another and then coming back. [Interruption.] I note that some of my hon. Friends suggest that the subsidiary was not partially owned.
The important thing for us to decide is what we do about this. I think that everybody is agreed that something egregious and terrible has happened. The question is what we do now. The Government have published a White Paper on parliamentary privilege, and it seemed to me that the Leader of the House was trying to suggest to the Committee on Standards and Privileges that it should be very wary of using penal powers or recommending that penal powers should be used. The Scottish Parliament, however, has precise powers under section 25—I think—of the Scotland Act 1998: where people refuse to give evidence to a Committee of the Parliament or to the Parliament or where they lie to Parliament, they are liable to imprisonment for up to three months. That provision is not written into statute for us, but we should certainly consider it.
Perjury before a court attracts a maximum sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment, and even perjury by making a false declaration in a statutory declaration is liable to a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment. The factors considered when sentencing would be whether the lie was said just once, whether it was inadvertent or deliberate, the impact that the lie caused, whether there was more than one lie, and on how many occasions the lie was perpetuated.
Further to my earlier intervention, does my hon. Friend remember the point of order I raised on this matter on 14 July 2011, when Mr Deputy Speaker confirmed that under the Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871 and the Perjury Act 1911, Select Committees can require witnesses to give evidence under oath and make them subject to criminal charges of perjury if they are subsequently proved to have lied?
I do remember that point of order, which is why when my hon. Friend intervened on the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), I knew what he was going to ask her. It is a point that he rightly makes and has made repeatedly.
We are congratulating ourselves today on the Select Committee process bringing us to this point, but if the Select Committee process had worked better, we might have reached this point three years ago. The Select Committee might have been able to require Rebekah Brooks to give evidence in 2009 and it might have been taking evidence under oath from the very beginning. Then we would not have to decide what we should do about these people, as the courts would be doing so. If we were to apply all those elements of how to decide a sentence for perjury before a court to this case, I would have thought one of the lengthier sentences would be handed down. The same is true for contempt of court, which carries a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment.
Yes, but Committees have quite often been rather tentative about using those powers. I remember discussing this with the hon. Lady in the Library, and she was uncertain whether that power existed—and I kept on telling her, “Yes, it does exist. It can be used. All we have to do is make sure that the Clerk of the House uses the proper processes.” It is important to remember that we have these powers and that they need to be used more effectively. For instance, it seems extraordinary that no member of the Murdoch family had ever given evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee until the day on which Mr Rupert Murdoch and Mr James Murdoch were summoned last summer. I am sure that that was not because Committees did not want to interview the most important significant player in the British media landscape in this country.
As well as using such powers more effectively, we need to decide for ourselves that we have these powers. I know that there are those who say that we are not a High Court of Parliament anymore; that we are not a court. They say that we are not able to provide a fair tribunal, as the Human Rights Act or, for that matter, the European convention on human rights, might determine. So would it be possible for the House of Commons to make a determination in relation to any individual, for instance requiring that individual to be arrested and brought to the House? Some people think that the very idea of bringing someone to the Bar of the House is anachronistic.
We must have some powers to be able to do our job properly. We must be able to summon witnesses, and if they do not want to come here—as happened with the Maxwell brothers, and seemed at one point to be going to happen with the Murdochs—we must be able to send the Serjeant at Arms to summon and, if necessary, arrest them and bring them to Parliament. We need to be able to arrest. Most Members will not have been here on the occasion when the Chamber was invaded, but the Serjeant at Arms has to be able to arrest. It is quite a simple power.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman takes an intervention from the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), may I gently remind him that the narrow matter under consideration today is the question of whether to refer it to the Standards and Privileges Committee—to which subject I know that he is addressing himself?
Indeed, Mr Speaker. It has been customary in all the debates that have taken place historically on such motions to try to provide a little bit of advice for the Select Committee that will be dealing with the matter, so that it knows how to deal with it.
I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and then to the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland).
I shall bear your warnings in mind, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman is raising matters that I think Parliament needs to consider. In particular, the Select Committee did decide to dispatch the Serjeant at Arms to serve a summons on Mr James Murdoch and Mr Rupert Murdoch after they had initially said that they were not willing to attend the Committee at the time when we had asked them to attend. I have to say, however, that we did so with some trepidation, because we genuinely had no idea what would happen if they maintained their refusal to come. That too is something that Parliament needs to think about.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about being bold in regard to contempt of Parliament and how the House enforces its rules, but does he not share my sense of trepidation about involving the prosecuting authorities in dealing with any alleged lies that have been told to us? Does that not present a danger that the courts will be brought in to determine issues that are properly the province of this House and no other?
The hon. Gentleman has taken me into much wider subject matter, but he too is trepidating—if that is the verb from “trepidation”—and I do not want to trepidate. I want to step boldly.
I believe that the House, and the Select Committee itself, should consider, in terms, first whether or not the three individuals mentioned, and perhaps, corporately, News International, should be summoned to the Bar of the House. I believe that that must still be an important power available to the House. Secondly, I think that the House and the Committee should consider whether or not the individuals should be fined, not least because considerable expense has been incurred by Parliament and by the prosecuting authorities through the process of lying to Parliament. Thirdly, I think that it must be right for us to consider whether or not to imprison. If this had happened in the Scottish Parliament, it would have led to imprisonment. If it had been a contempt of court, it would have led to imprisonment. If it had been perjury in court, it would have led to imprisonment.
It has been said that some of these people are not in this country. What can we possibly do about it? The last person who was arrested and imprisoned by Parliament, in 1880, Charles Grissell, also fled the country. He went off to France, to Boulogne. The Speaker sent the Serjeant at Arms’s messenger to Boulogne, and when Charles Grissell came back to the country he was arrested and sent off to Newgate until the end of the parliamentary Session.
I simply think that we were hoodwinked. Indeed, for a long period politicians were so nervous and frightened of what the press would say about us that we effectively put the hoodwinks on ourselves. Now the temptation will be for the Committee to shy away from using any of its penal powers, and I think it a shame that that seemed to be the direction in which the Leader of the House was pushing it. I think that would be a profound mistake, because, surely to God, it is time we asserted the freedom of Parliament—in fact, the rights of Parliament. We must do so not for our own sakes—it is irrelevant for our own sakes—but simply because if Parliament is lied to, we cannot do our job on behalf of our constituents, and if Parliament is lied to and there is impunity thereafter, people will lie again, and then the democratic process unfolds.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and I join him and other Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for the great care and skill with which he chaired what was a lengthy and challenging inquiry.
I want to address the key point that the hon. Member for Rhondda brought to our attention: there must not be no sanction for lying to a parliamentary Committee. However, although we may like reassuring ourselves about the traditions of this House and its rights, it is not clear what the sanctions should be. It is unclear whether someone giving evidence not under oath to a Select Committee has the same obligations as if they were under oath. The Committee obviously considered that before the Murdochs gave evidence to us last July. I believe it is very important that there are consistent procedures. There should not be some witnesses who are made to swear on the Bible and some witnesses who are not.
Are we not in danger of getting into a situation where all witnesses before Committees have to appear under oath? The vast majority of witnesses who appear before Select Committees do so willingly in order to give of their information and expertise, and these issues therefore do not arise.
I agree, but it should be implicit that someone giving evidence to a parliamentary Committee is telling the truth. I therefore do not think there should be a separate group of people who are made to take an oath. It should be implicit in the act of their giving evidence that they are telling the truth and openly answering the questions asked by Members of Parliament. It must be built into the processes of our methods of inquiry, particularly in Select Committees, that witnesses will tell the truth and there is some form of sanction against them if it can be demonstrated that they have not done so.
At present, however, that is not clear. It is not clear what powers the Standards and Privileges Committee has to punish or recommend punishment. There may even be a question as to whether the recommendation of a penal sentence, as the hon. Member for Rhondda suggested, would itself be open to some form of legal challenge in the courts, including the European Court, which may seek to overrule the House on any such decision. We therefore need much clearer guidance about the available punishments and the processes for summoning witnesses to appear before a Committee.
The Select Committee is posing an interesting challenge to the Standards and Privileges Committee, because in our conclusions in chapter 8 of the report we make recommendations about three named individuals—Colin Myler, Tom Crone and Les Hinton—in respect of instances where we believe they gave misleading evidence to the Committee. Members can read the report, the evidence given in previous sessions and the written evidence presented to the Committee, and thereby see that there are discrepancies in testimony and, I feel, clear evidence that we were given misleading testimony by those witnesses.
There is a second issue that the Standards and Privileges Committee must consider: the corporate guilt of News Corporation, as also expressed in the conclusions of the report, and what sanctions there should be against a company and its directors and representatives, as opposed to a named individual who has given misleading testimony to Parliament. This is an important issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon touched on it in his speech.
We must consider what in the evidence that was given has undone the News Corporation executives. They were not undone by a witness changing their story or a new witness giving evidence that was different from evidence given to our predecessor Committee in the last Parliament. They have largely been undone by documents that have always existed and were in the possession of the company, and which subsequently came to light as a result of the inquiry—by information that was always there and was always accessible to those executives, and that we believe they could, and should, have had access to. Indeed, we know that some of them—including Tom Crone and Colin Myler, who played a pivotal role in these investigations—did have access. We know that they had access to the Queen’s Counsel opinion suggesting that phone hacking and the use of illegal methods to obtain information was widespread. We know that information was received by the legal department of the company. We know that Clive Goodman suggested in his letter to Les Hinton that phone hacking was widely discussed within the company, and that that was rejected. We know that that information was known, and these executives have been undone by information that was neither presented to Parliament nor freely given but released as a result of cross-examination of witnesses by the Committee or released by lawyers or other people who chose to make it available to us. It would have been much better if the company, when it gave evidence last July, had provided that information. If the Murdochs had sought it themselves, they might have given us clearer and better evidence last July and we would have been able to conclude our inquiry somewhat sooner.
We were consistently given false reassurances about the rigour of internal investigation, the work that was done to uncover phone hacking and those who had knowledge of it. Indeed, we have received information from Surrey police that states categorically that the police discussed the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone with executives at News of the World in 2002. That was not a minor discrepancy or new information that had recently come to light; the information was known by people within that company for a very long time. Parliament was misled over a long time by some of those people and I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda that we will probably not get the full picture until the conclusion of the police investigation and any subsequent trials. I am sure that the Committee, next year or in future years, will wish to return to the matter and give the House a fuller picture of exactly what happened based on all the evidence that has come to light.
I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), on his excellent introduction. I agree very strongly with the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who has just left the Chamber. Not a single member of the legal profession—not a single legal adviser to News International—has resigned their services when they knew that evidence that was being given to the Committee was false and misleading, and that is an issue for the legal profession to consider.
I will be brief, because I believe our report’s conclusions are clear and speak for themselves. Our Committee has pursued the issue of phone hacking and how it reflects on press standards for five long years and, sadly, because of the forthcoming criminal trials, this might not be the final word. As the House has already heard, so as not to prejudice any prosecutions, we have taken great care in what we have said.
The report is not just about phone hacking per se; it is about the integrity of the Select Committee system in Parliament. Two years ago, in our report on “Press standards, privacy and libel”, on the evidence we found it “inconceivable” that News International’s “one rogue reporter” defence could possibly be true. Yet on the same evidence, the Press Complaints Commission cleared the News of the World of wider wrongdoing and shot the messenger—The Guardian—instead. The PCC is, of course, now on the scrap heap, a busted flush, waiting for Lord Leveson to pronounce and the Government—possibly—to act on the future shape of regulation.
After revelation upon revelation from the civil cases, last summer the then chair of the PCC, Baroness Buscombe, put her hands up. At long last, she was scathing about News International’s conduct and its so-called co-operation with PCC inquiries.
Order. I remind the House that the motion for debate is the question of whether to refer the Select Committee’s conclusions to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. As has already been indicated, it is perfectly legitimate to record and, in a sense, almost to report to the House the basic findings of the Committee and to offer to the House, as the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee did, the background to and context for our debate. That seems eminently reasonable, but this is not an occasion to rehearse all the issues, the evidence and the chronology of events that have led to where we are today. Although I do not in any sense seek to prescribe what people should say, there could be advantage in recalling the pithy observations of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson).
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and the background has been rehearsed well enough by the Chair of the Select Committee. I will now move on to what the Committee did about the lies to us, which the Press Complaints Commission’s chairman admitted when she said that there was only so much that the commission could do when people were lying to it.
Order. I just want to be clear that the hon. Gentleman has understood what I have said and intends to be guided by it. I presume that he is adducing this material in support of the proposition that the report should be considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee.
You are right, as always, Mr Speaker.
On the conclusions of the report that we are asking the House to note, if “collective amnesia” was the one phrase from our 2010 report that echoed long afterwards, I hope that our “wilful blindness” conclusion will be one of those that resounds with the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges this time. That is the wilful turning of a blind eye to wrongdoing, not just phone hacking, over a period of time as long as any repercussions could be contained through the exercise, if need be, of raw press political power.
We were invited to lay most, if not all, of the blame for the cover-up on just two executives through News International’s damage-limitation exercise—Tom Crone, the company’s long-time in-house lawyer, and Colin Myler, the new and final editor of the News of the World. In our report, after months of deliberation and very patient amendment, with very skilful chairing, we declined that very unappealing invitation. As we navigated the issue of possible prosecutions, we asked whether it could be right to find wanting just a few executives who had so far not been arrested. We wondered whether it would be right, based on the evidence, to limit a critical verdict in our report if not just to one rogue reporter or one rogue newspaper, to just one rogue subsidiary, News International. After careful deliberation, we decided that it would not be right.
During that time, the group’s founder, Rupert Murdoch, and his son James were directors both of the parent company, News Corporation, and of News International. At the same time, News International misrepresented the investigations it had actually undertaken and attacked the Select Committee remorselessly, and its executives authorised surveillance on certain members of the Committee. So, we found that it was important that the report, based on the evidence, drew a strong corporate conclusion about a culture that was set right from the top. I conclude by drawing the House’s attention to the final sentence of paragraph 275 on page 84 of the report:
“In failing to investigate properly, and by ignoring evidence of widespread wrongdoing, News International and its parent News Corporation exhibited wilful blindness, for which the companies’ directors—including Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch—should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility”.
I commend the motion to the House.