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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 545: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2012

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Royal Succession

2. What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals on the rules governing succession to the Crown. (108461)

5. What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals on the rules governing succession to the Crown. (108465)

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.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that there are no plans to change the requirement for the monarch to be a communicant of the Church of England?

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

3. What assessment he has made of the effect of his proposals on House of Lords reform on the relationship between the two Houses. (108463)

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.

Would it not have been sensible to start out by looking at the powers and responsibilities of the second House first, rather than just continuing as we are?

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.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for the way in which he answered those questions. How soon does he expect to be able to publish the Bill, and how many days does he think it is reasonable for MPs to have to debate it?

We hope to publish the Bill well before the summer recess. The amount of time that would be allocated to it would be the subject of discussion through the usual channels and then a possible timetable vote in the House of Commons.

Electoral Register

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.

How does my hon. Friend expect individual voter registration to help with efforts to get more disabled people and young people registered to vote?

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.

Will the Minister publish an ongoing league table showing the number and percentage of people on the electoral register?

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.


9. When he plans to implement the commitment in the coalition agreement to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists. (108469)

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.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister explain why so few of his own party’s Members in the House of Lords support his proposals? Indeed, Lord Ashdown is almost a lone voice. What is the explanation for that?

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.

Topical Questions

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

T14. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that proceeding urgently and with vigour on the reform of political party funding is a matter of fairness and justice? (108489)

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—

Order. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to guide the Deputy Prime Minister unduly, but I should say that there is no violation of parliamentary rules in offering the House an answer that consists of a yes or a no.

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)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister reassure the House that there was no reference to recall in the Queen’s Speech because it has been sent back for a much-needed redraft and not because it has been dumped altogether?

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.

Given the allegations of voting fraud in certain parts of the country, including in Bradford in my part of the world, will the Deputy Prime Minister explain why photo ID should not be required before people are allowed to vote?

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.

Should there not be a civic duty on everyone to ensure they are on their local electoral register, and should that not be backed up by an enforcement system of civil penalties for those who do not?

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.

When are we going to stop the constitutional scandal that, because of devolution, Scottish MPs can vote on legislation that affects my constituents but does not affect their own constituents?

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)

1. How many prosecutions the Crown Prosecution Service brought for human trafficking in the last 12 months. (108450)

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.

As the tragedy of human trafficking crosses all regions of the United Kingdom, what recent discussions have been held with the devolved Administrations?

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.

Rape Allegations

2. If he will take steps to increase the public profile of the work of the Crown Prosecution Service on allegations of rape made by young women. (108451)

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.

Does the Solicitor-General agree that the increased number of rape crisis centres opened by the Government helped to increase the number of rape prosecutions?

Yes. It will be one of the many factors that have done so, and I hope that we will see them being better used and with greater efficiency in future.

The Solicitor-General will be aware that high profile cases often attract resource and, in particular, early involvement of the prosecution. Can he ensure that victims of rape get similar attention and profile?

Yes, I can. The specialist rape prosecuting teams and the specially trained police officers, as well as witness care units run by the CPS, are now working well together to ensure that rape victims receive the proper treatment they need.

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, I cannot say precisely when we will have a Bill to outlaw this barbaric practice, but I can assure him that our signing of the convention will lead inexorably in that direction.

Can my hon. and learned Friend inform the House what penalties are envisaged for this terrible crime once it is made a criminal offence?

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)

5. How many employees the Crown Prosecution Service has at (a) Athena house, York and (b) other locations in York. (108454)

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.

Order. If the hon. Lady’s intended supplementary question refers to York, it will be in order. If it does not, it will not.

Staffing numbers are a huge concern in the CPS. Will the Solicitor-General meet me to discuss what impact that might have had on the case of Mrs Swarnapali Timmann, who is concerned—

And it may not. The hon. Lady has got her point on the record, but it requires no answer. [Laughter.] I am glad that the House is in such a good mood.

Interpreters (Prosecutions)

7. If he will assess the effect on the cost of prosecutions of delays caused by the absence of an interpreter. (108456)

The CPS has no central records on the cost of court delays caused by the absence of an interpreter, but common sense tells me that such delays resulting from the absence of a necessary interpreter waste time and money.

Apparently, Jajo the rabbit is now a registered interpreter and translator. Does the Solicitor-General agree that that latest embarrassment illustrates the utter shambles that the contracting out of the interpreter and translator service has become?

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.

I do not think that that will be necessary, but perhaps in future the hon. and learned Gentleman would face the House. We would all be greatly obliged.

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?

The CPS can tell us; my hon. and learned Friend can tell us; he can tell the Ministry of Justice; we can tell the Ministry of Justice—[Interruption.]

The demeanour of the Solicitor-General is eccentric. I cannot account for how he performs in Her Majesty’s courts, but in the Chamber it would be helpful if he looked in the direction of the generality of Members.

Police (Criminal Allegations)

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of criminal allegations against police. (108457)

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

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of the Serious Fraud Office about the future of that organisation. (108459)

I have had many, both with the new director, Mr David Green, and with his predecessor, Mr Richard Alderman. The SFO has a bright future.

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?

No, the Serious Fraud Office has a remit to deal with high-end fraud, international fraud and corruption. The work of the Department for Work and Pensions is a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions.

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.