Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering our deepest sympathies to the family of PC Ian Dibell and his colleagues in Essex police. Our police officers keep us safe day in and day out, and they act when they see public safety at risk, whether on duty or not. PC Ian Dibell was a dedicated professional who sadly has paid the ultimate price.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the maximum number of eligible people are registered to vote. Our impact assessment report on individual electoral registration predicted that the current completeness of the electoral register is expected to be maintained during the transition to IER. As part of IER, we are actively exploring ways in which we can make it as easy and secure as possible for citizens to register to vote—for example, by enabling online registration. The Government are also working to raise registration rates among under-registered groups prior to the transition to IER.
May I associate myself, and doubtless all right hon. and hon. Members, with the Deputy Prime Minister’s opening remarks?
Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in welcoming the increase in voter registration of 40,000 in the past four years that has been secured by Labour-run Glasgow city council? Is not this rise of more than 10% in danger of being wiped out by his proposals for individual voter registration, which when tried out in Northern Ireland took more than one in five voters off the electoral roll?
The hon. Gentleman might be unaware of the record on overall levels of registration during the years in which his party was in office. In 2000, 91% to 92% of all people were registered; in other words, 3.9 million people were missing from the register. By December 2010, the completeness of the register had gone down to 85% to 87%. Labour therefore presided over 2 million people being lost from the register —not a record that I suggest he should be proud of.
We have been working with those involved to make sure that the system is as complete as possible. That is in addition to many other measures that we have developed, most notably the data-matching work that we have done such that many people do not need to register if they already exist on a database. All the evidence is that that will provide automatic registration for a very large number of people.
Many people believe that the number of electors on the new electoral register will be significantly depleted by December 2015. Given that this is when the new boundary review is to begin, would it not be sensible to use the old register for the boundary review?
As we have seen from the latest statistics, the old register appears to be much more flawed than the hon. Gentleman’s question implies. We are trying to learn from that experience and from other experiences such as individual voter registration in Northern Ireland. We are not only carrying out the data-matching initiative that I mentioned, but moving the 2013 household canvass to early 2014 to make sure that it is as up to date as possible ahead of the next general election; phasing the transition over two years to carry forward existing electors who are not registered under the new system in the first year so that they are eligible to vote at the next general election; and writing to all voters with reminders and doorstep canvassing in 2014.
Absolutely. Let us remember that the point of this measure, and the reason why both parties on the Government Benches agreed to put it in the coalition agreement and to accelerate the process started under the previous Government is to bear down on fraud on the electoral register. I hope that all Members from all parts of the House think that we need to stamp on that.
Bill of Rights
The hon. Lady will know that the Commission on a Bill of Rights is investigating the introduction of a UK Bill of Rights, building on our responsibilities under the European convention on human rights. It is due to report at the end of this year. We look forward to its report, but I do not want to pre-empt its conclusions.
I thank the Minister for his response. Given that there are absolute rights and qualified rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the margin of appreciation doctrine, does the Minister know whether the commission is considering the possibility of the Human Rights Act sitting alongside the Bill of Rights in a happy coalition of rights and responsibilities?
I do not know whether that is what the commission will recommend. It gave us some welcome interim advice on reform of the European Court of Human Rights, which was helpful in the negotiations that secured the agreement of all 47 members of the Council of Europe to some improvements, which were welcomed on both sides of the House. I will wait to see what the commission recommends at the end of the year.
Will the Minister confirm that, far from nibbling away at this problem, which many of us fear is what the commission is doing, any Bill of Rights will be based on Westminster legislation, not on European Union legislation or the European convention on human rights?
Again, I do not know what the commission will recommend. It contains distinguished and eminent lawyers on both sides of the argument. I think that it will come up with a very good report, and the Government will consider what it says. I remind my hon. Friend that this country signed up to the European convention on human rights only because this House decided that it should do so. We will listen to the commission’s conclusions and act on those that the Government support.
Given the special circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland, will the Minister have direct discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about Northern Ireland’s human rights legislation and a separate Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?
My understanding is that discussions are under way on that point, but that the parties in Northern Ireland have not been able to reach a consensus. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will continue to have discussions, but he wants to reach a consensus among the parties in Northern Ireland before making progress.
House of Lords Reform
On the very subject that we were just discussing, the House will this afternoon conclude day two of the debate on the House of Lords Reform Bill. I look forward to the House supporting our Bill, which builds on a lot of the work that was done by the Labour party. We heard some good speeches from Labour Members yesterday, including the right hon. Members for Neath (Mr Hain) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), in support of the Bill.
If the hon. Lady is committed to reform, which I believe from her record she is, I hope that she will support all the motions relating to the Bill on the Order Paper so that we can make progress—something that the Labour party never managed, despite the good work that it did, in all the years that it was in office.
8. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the reports that the House of Lords Reform Bill is linked to the eventual passage, or not, of the boundary changes. As somebody who has an interest in that matter because, unfortunately, I do not face very good boundary changes, will the Minister confirm for me whether he will go ahead with that link? (115853)
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was asked that question by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). He made it clear that there is no specific link between different parts of the Government’s programme. Of course, we will urge Members from both coalition parties to support the whole of the Government’s programme, as we have to date.
House of Lords Reform (Referendum)
We are not persuaded by the arguments for holding a referendum on Lords reform. All three main parties committed to reform at the last election, and the views of the public are clearly and consistently in favour of introducing democratic legitimacy to the House of Lords.
The Deputy Prime Minister said in the House yesterday:
“Surely, it is simply time to trust the British people.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 26.]
Can you explain why you do not trust the British people to decide on the House of Lords in a referendum?
First, as I said, unlike other issues on which we have held referendums, on which there were profound differences between the stated positions of the political parties, all the main parties in the House have committed to reforming the other place for many years in their manifestos. Secondly, at a time like this, on a subject on which we are supposed to agree and when much of the country expects us to instil democracy in Parliament, it would be difficult to justify wasting about £80 million asking the public a question that they do not find controversial in the first place. That would nonplus many members of the public.
The final, very important point is that we as a country are going to face a hugely important issue in a referendum on the future of the United Kingdom during the course of this Parliament. I genuinely ask the hon. Lady, other members of her party and others who advocate a referendum to reflect seriously on the wisdom of saying that there should be another, parallel referendum that the public are not clamouring for, at a time when we are seeking to settle the future of the UK.
The Deputy Prime Minister says that he is not persuaded; let me try. There have been referendums on devolved Governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, on devolution for the north-east, on the alternative vote and on city mayors. Why can he not accept the genuine argument that to ensure the validation of such a major constitutional change as he proposes, we must put the question to the people on precedence as well as on principle?
Both the hon. Gentleman’s question and yesterday’s debate have revealed that House of Lords reform is immeasurably more controversial here than anywhere else in the rest of the country. The rest of the country thinks that there is a simple choice to be made—are we in favour of more democracy or less? Are we in favour of the simple principle that the people who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who have to obey them? No one else thinks that is controversial, only the politicians, so why do we not just get on with it?
What conclusions does the Deputy Prime Minister think the public will draw if this House is incapable, with or without a referendum, of reforming a House of Lords packed with prime ministerial appointees and hereditary peers?
We rightly take pride in our democratic traditions in this country. We send young servicemen and servicewomen to fight for the principle of democracy elsewhere in the world, and we tour the world talking to other countries about how they should instil greater democracy. I think the rest of the world would look at this great mother of Parliaments and ask why on earth it was not possible for us to practise what we preach.
Why does the Deputy Prime Minister not have the guts to admit that the reason he fears a referendum on this issue is that he knows perfectly well that when people get to examine his recommendations they will utterly reject them, just as they did with the alternative vote?
As ever, my hon. Friend brings to bear a healthy and consistent degree of suspicion. I have set out the reasons why the case for a referendum has not been made. It would be expensive, difficult to justify to the public, who do not think it is necessary, and ill timed when we as a country have a much bigger question to address, which is the future of the United Kingdom, let alone the future of one of our parliamentary Chambers.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that even without a programme motion, it is perfectly possible for the House of Commons to debate, scrutinise and amend the House of Lords Reform Bill, and get it out of the Commons, in a sensible time? If he does not agree, why did his manifesto and that of the Conservatives commit to abolishing programme motions for Committee stages?
My own view, which I have always been very open about, is that a Bill of this complexity and self-evident controversy—at least in this place—is unlikely to progress without being properly timetabled in one shape or form. I should just ask the right hon. Gentleman this: is it not time he had the courage of his convictions? He says he believes in House of Lords reform, but he wills only the ends, not the means—[Interruption.] Will he just listen? The history books will not judge him kindly if he takes refuge in procedural obfuscation when this is a time for people to stand up and be counted.
Law of Succession
Finally a question not on the House of Lords.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his excellent work. He has been a steadfast campaigner for reform of the law of succession. I can confirm that we will bring forward UK legislation to give effect to changes to the rules of succession once we have secured the consent of the other Commonwealth realms. As he is aware, that work is being co-ordinated by the New Zealand Government, with whom we are working very closely. It is worth noting that the change on gender will apply to a child born after the date of the Perth announcement, namely 28 October 2011, even if the birth happens before the legislation is passed.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer, but it is sad that we have waited a year since I met him and offered my ten-minute rule Bill as the vehicle for this change. I realise that the change will be backdated, but it would be greatly embarrassing if a royal child were born before we finally settle the matter. Does he have any plans to go to New Zealand to meet the Prime Minister there to try to get this matter speeded up?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, thankfully the embarrassment would be spared if a child were born after the date at which the Perth decision was made. The rights of that unborn child are properly protected by the procedures. Just like him, I would love to wave a magic wand and dispense with such outdated and anachronistic rules governing whom a person in the line of succession can marry and those on male primogeniture, but we must move as a convoy with the 16 other Commonwealth realms. For one reason or another, that takes a bit of time.
The House appreciates the progress that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government have made with the Commonwealth Heads of Government, but does he agree that, surely, during this jubilee year when people not only in the UK, but right across the Commonwealth, have shown that they hold our Queen in extremely high regard, nobody could possibly argue that a woman cannot succeed to the throne?
On this if not on other issues we have debated recently, I fervently agree with my hon. Friend. The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man is incomprehensible in this day and age.
The Deputy Prime Minister often speaks of the importance of fairness in our society. There is a crisis meeting in London tomorrow of dairy farmers from across Britain about the reductions in prices imposed on them by processors. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that outrageous behaviour?
Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have met dairy farmers in my constituency who are distressed by the fluctuating prices in the milk and dairy market. As my hon. Friend knows, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is actively engaged, and it will look closely at the representations that will be made tomorrow.
Because I am not a walking encyclopaedia. I do not have all these facts and figures. [Interruption.] Oh, I am sorry. Am I also guilty of not knowing every single departmental statistic? I am sure the hon. Lady would have had the figure at her fingertips if she were in my position. Honestly!
None the less, I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will co-operate with the Government in a positive spirit as we enthuse many, many children to take up sports that they have not taken up before and as we move towards this historic occasion of the Olympics.
The truth is that the Deputy Prime Minister does not know, and neither do the Government, because they have made it their business not to know by abolishing the school sports survey. Like people up and down the country, we are concerned about this, and our freedom of information requests to local councils show that the amount of PE teacher time spent organising school sport has fallen by 60%. At a time when everyone wants more children involved in more sport, will he admit that what his Government have done is a travesty, and will he reinstate the school sports partnerships?
I certainly remember the travesty under the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government of the industrial-scale sell-off of school playing fields. She never listened to complaints from us when that was going on. I think she should celebrate the fact that in this year, the year of the Olympics, thousands upon thousands of children are taking up sports they have never done before as part of the school Olympics.
T3. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister will agree that for far too long there has been an emphasis in NHS mental health services on crisis management rather than on the prevention and the community support that patients require. Will he outline what steps the Government are taking to address this problem and properly to look after patients with mental health problems in the community? (115863)
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I hope he has noticed that the operating framework recently published by the Department of Health for the NHS in England sets out priorities for the NHS that, for the first time, stipulate the expansion of access to psychological services as part of the overall commitment to the full roll-out of the improving access to psychological therapies programme by 2015. I know that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), has dedicated a lot of time to this. I say to Members on both sides of the House who spoke in that very moving debate recently on mental health that they played a remarkable role in breaking down some of the taboos by speaking about an issue that afflicts one in four people in his country and which has often been kept in the shadows, leaving people to suffer in silence. It is finally being talked about in a more grown-up and open way.
T2. The Deputy Prime Minister wants the House of Lords to be more accountable, yet his Government are giving new dictatorial powers to elected mayors to veto decisions made by elected councillors. Will he say where the accountability is there? (115862)
T7. It is vital that the electoral roll is accurate, but young people are quite poor at getting their names on to it. What measures can the Deputy Prime Minister take to ensure that they are engaged in the democratic process and put their names forward to cast a vote? (115868)
Interestingly, registration rates among young people in Northern Ireland are now higher than they are here, so we have looked carefully at what has been done in Northern Ireland to reach out in different ways to young people in order to tell them how to register and, crucially, to ensure that they are informed at the right time, so that they go on to register and get their names on the electoral roll.
T4. When this place passes a Bill that changes the power of the ballot box, which, it is generally agreed, the House of Lords Reform Bill undoubtedly does, how can the Deputy Prime Minister justify the argument that people are not entitled to a referendum? (115864)
As I explained earlier, although House of Lords reform greatly exercises people here—people in Westminster get terribly hot under the collar—most people in the country at large think it a fairly common sense reform to introduce a slither of democracy to a legislative Chamber. It is not an issue on which the main parties, formally speaking, disagree, and a referendum would be very expensive and, as I said, cut across an all-important referendum on the future of the United Kingdom.
T10. There is a body of opinion in Scotland that says that the upcoming referendum should have a third option: devo-max. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that putting that option on the ballot paper in advance of detailed discussions with the UK Government would be misleading and wrong? (115871)
I disagree with people who want to turn the referendum on Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom into a sort of smorgasbord or multiple-choice exercise. That is playing cat and mouse with the Scottish voters. There should be a simple question —whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom: yes or no? In our view, that question, in plain, simple terms, should be put to the Scottish people as soon as possible.
T5. You were elected on the promise to scrap tuition fees, yet you trebled them, to such an extent that there is now a 12% reduction in the north-east in university applications. How can we trust you on anything, let alone House of Lords reform? (115865)
First, I have never hidden the fact that, as leader of a party that has 8% of MPs in this Chamber, I cannot deliver—much to my regret: not enough people voted for us at the last general election—every single line, and every crossed t and dotted i of our manifesto. That is the nature of plural compromise politics, and it is something that some of us are grown up enough to acknowledge.
On the all-important issue of the number of applications to university in the recent UCAS figures, which have been published overnight, the proportion of English school leavers applying to university is, in fact, the second highest on record. The percentage of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged areas applying to university is, according to the figures we have seen overnight, higher than at any time under the Labour Government.
The Deputy Prime Minister believes that we need 360 new elected politicians in Parliament. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase a well-respected former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, does this current Deputy Prime Minister agree that if the answer is more party-selected elected politicians, we are obviously asking the wrong question?
The impression that is sometimes given of the House of Lords—where it is seen through a sepia-tinted filter and everyone there is a dispassionate observer of the scene, unsullied by politics entirely—unfortunately does not quite conform to the truth. More than 70% of the Members of the House of Lords are there because of decisions taken by people such as me, not the British people. The largest number of people who are in the House of Lords through their former vocation are retired MPs, so we can take a choice: either we give the British people a say in who is there or we simply turn it increasingly into a retirement home for ex-MPs.
The review on the alternatives to a like-for-like replacement of the Trident system is ongoing, according to the stipulation in the coalition agreement. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence is heavily involved with it, and I am sure he will come to this House and seek to make a statement when the work is complete.
With the successful launch of the “Better Together” campaign, we now have campaigns in place for both sides of the argument on the future of Scotland. Has my right hon. Friend had a rational or sensible explanation from the Government of Scotland of why they want to deny the people of Scotland an early say in our future?
Bluntly, no—perhaps we will get an explanation in this place. I do not think the uncertainty of this endless boxing and coxing, and playing cat and mouse with the Scottish people on the part of the Scottish Government, does Scotland any good. It is damaging to investment. Indeed, a number of investors in Scotland and business groups have been saying that the uncertainty is bad for the Scottish economy, at a time when we are clearly facing economic difficulties in the United Kingdom as a whole. I therefore agree with my hon. Friend that it is time that we got on and simply put a simple, single question to the Scottish people, so that they can decide what their future is: in the United Kingdom or not.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the previous Labour Government introduced countless constitutional Bills that touched on our constitutional future in relation to the European Union, all of which were timetabled. We have been asking those on the Opposition Front Bench over and over again how many days the Opposition would like on the timetable but, still, answer comes there none.
Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister did an able job in defending himself against all the protests coming from behind him. Has he noticed that a silent protest is taking place today, in that Conservative Ministers have not come to support him on the Front Bench? There are 10 Ministers here who are not Whips, and only three of them are not Liberal Democrats.
The hon. Gentleman made a similar head count yesterday. His forensic fascinations, first with the early death of the Prime Minister and now with exactly who is on the Front Bench, continue to fascinate me. I am waiting with bated breath to see what his next rather peculiar fascination will be.
T11. Will the Deputy Prime Minister extend his commendable enthusiasm to trusting the people and extending democracy by giving our people a right that is enjoyed in almost every other free country in the world—that is, will he allow them to vote on whether Charles, William or A. N. Other should be our next Head of State? (115872)
I am struggling enough simply to make the case for what I see as the plain vanilla, common-sense proposition that the people in the other place who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who have to obey the laws of the land. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s proposition, but let us focus on the argument on the other place right now, as it has not yet been fully won.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Government’s apprenticeship programme, which offers a brilliant alternative to the strictures of academia for many people, could provide a fantastic boost for social mobility in Britain?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The apprenticeship programme is one of the things that Government Members should be proudest of. We are expanding opportunities for young people through increased apprenticeships on a scale never before seen in the post-war period, and we will be delivering 250,000 more apprenticeships than were planned by Labour. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, for those who do not think that an academic qualification at university is the best route when they leave school or college, apprenticeships are a great tried and tested way of giving them the opportunities that have been denied to them for so long.
T12. Wrexham Remploy workers, whom the Deputy Prime Minister refused to meet in April this year, have been told at the final hour that their jobs have been taken away from them. Will he now meet those people whom he wants to put on the dole even though a private investment company has offered to keep them in work? The Government, and the Deputy Prime Minister, have refused to let that happen. (115873)
As the hon. Gentleman might know, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), will be making a statement on this matter straight after Deputy Prime Minister’s questions. He will also know that the recommendations on the reform of the Remploy factories across the country—
Order. The Deputy Prime Minister is contending with a great deal, about which I am sure he makes no complaint. I know that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) wants an answer—that message is clear—but he must not keep ranting from a sedentary position. It is not statesmanlike, and ordinarily, I expect him to be statesmanlike.
Many of my constituents have written to me to express their support for House of Lords reform, but many have also taken the opportunity to remind me of our need to reduce the cost of politics. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us whether the reforms will significantly increase the cost of politics?
T13. In May, the Deputy Prime Minister obliged my Newcastle constituents to vote on mayors. In May last year, he obliged them to vote on the alternative vote system. In November, which is not usually a warm month in Newcastle, he is going to force them to vote on police commissioners. Why, then, will he not give them the right to vote on the most wide-ranging constitutional change that he is proposing? (115874)
I have sought to answer this question as best I can a number of times before. The hon. Lady cites police and crime commissioners, and she is right: the people will be able to elect them. I ask her quite simply: why is it okay to elect police and crime commissioners, but not to elect the people who shape the laws over which those police and crime commissioners have to preside?
Will my right hon. Friend join me in observing that there are four times as many members of the House of Lords over 90 as there are those under 40, and reflect on the fact that this rather implies that this Parliament as a whole does not represent younger people in particular? What measures can the Government take to involve younger people more in our democracy? In particular, will he look again at giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds?
As my hon. Friend knows, I am very sympathetic to that cause, but it does not constitute part of the coalition agreement. As I have been saying exhaustively over the last 24 hours, it is important for all Members, particularly those of the two coalition parties, to fulfil the spirit and letter of that coalition agreement. On the issue of the interesting demographic profile of the House of Lords, it is not just one of age; it is also very striking that close to half the people in the House of Lords come from London and the south-east. What does that say about the geographical representativeness of one of our legislative Chambers? One of the great virtues of our reforms is that it will guarantee places to people from all the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.
I very much hope it will be won, as I think it would be inconsistent—this appears to be the position of the hon. Gentleman’s party—to vote in favour of the principle of reform but to deny this House the ability to deliver reform. That, in my view, would be a synthetic, skin-deep and cynical commitment to reform.
I strongly agree. During the heated exchanges on House of Lords reform, I think we forget that the central purpose of this Government is indeed to rescue, repair and reform the British economy, which has been so severely damaged by the Labour party.
The Deputy Prime Minister has said that the present House of Lords is a “flawed” institution. Having listened to the debate thus far, does he agree that many Members believe that the reforms he proposes could lead to a flawed institution?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work in the Joint Committee. One thing I heard yesterday was a number of Members making allegations that the Bill has been a rushed or botched job, and that we have somehow invented it out of thin blue air. As distinguished Opposition Members rightly pointed out, this blueprint for reform owes as much, if not more, to the work of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and to Robin Cook’s commission on the future of House of Lords. In many respects, it is a carbon copy of the proposals for reform stretching back to 2008 and many years before that. Before we vote this evening, it is important to remember that this is not something simply invented by this coalition Government; it is very much something that draws on the inspiration and wisdom of many people and reformers who have gone before us.
The Attorney-General was asked—
Serious Fraud Office
8. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the Serious Fraud Office. (115842)
Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has been asked to carry out an inspection of the Serious Fraud Office. It is intended that the inspection should assist the new director, and it has been timed accordingly. In my superintendent’s role, I have regular meetings with the director and other senior officials.
The Attorney-General has said that he does not plan to publish the results of the current review into the operation of the Serious Fraud Office. Will he give his reasons for that and reconsider his current plan to keep us and the public in the dark on this issue?
It is not accurate to say that I have indicated that the report will not be published. The position is that such reports are not normally published, but due to the unusual and understandable level of interest, I think it important that as much as possible should be put into the public domain. I will make it my business to ensure that that happens. I should explain that the reason it may not be possible to publish all of it is that there have to be safeguards to prevent prejudice to ongoing investigations, but subject to that, I would wish to see the results made available.
Having spoken to my constituents at the weekend, I know that there is no doubt that they would have preferred a judge-led inquiry into the banks. During last Thursday’s debate, the Attorney-General told us that a quick inquiry would clash with ongoing criminal investigations by the Serious Fraud Office. What assurances can he give us that the Select Committee inquiry, which will be wrapped up by Christmas, will not create the very clash that he warned us about last week?
Provided that the Select Committee conducts its business in the best traditions of the way in which I would expect a Committee of this House to do so, any difficulties that may arise in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation ought to be surmountable, and indeed I made that clear during last week’s debate. The difficulty that I identified with part of the motion that had been tabled on behalf of the shadow Chancellor was that it was quite prescriptive in terms of what it wanted the judicial inquiry to do. I foresaw that that could cause particular extra problems.
Would the Attorney-General consider making arrangements to enable people to move in and out of the SFO on a more regular basis, so that the experience of working for the organisation could be more widely spread throughout the private sector?
To-ing and fro-ing between prosecutors and the private sector is always desirable. The SFO does a great deal of work in trying to recruit from the private sector, encouraging individuals to work there for a period and then return. That is a very good way of acquiring expertise, and I know that the current director will have it very much in mind.
It is clear that there will be close co-operation between the SFO and the National Crime Agency and its economic crime command. However, in setting up the agency we gave careful consideration to whether there was any point in moving the SFO into it, and the conclusion reached was that the SFO’s work was so distinctive that it did not fit naturally into the agency’s work, and so important that it should be maintained as a separate entity.
The Americans spend massive amounts of money on prosecuting fraud. Indeed, the increase in their budget this year is more than the total amount that we spend on the SFO. On this side of the Atlantic, we are cutting our budget by 25%. No wonder the bankers laugh at us. Too many people in the City believe that the rules apply only to little people and not to them.
While we welcome the additional £3 million for the prosecution of LIBOR offences which was announced in the Financial Times and which has been hastily gathered from the crumbs that have fallen from the Treasury’s table, we ought to note that it amounts to only 5% of the Barclays LIBOR fine. Is it not too little too late? Will the Attorney-General take account of the call this week from the Leader of the Opposition for the establishment within the SFO of a properly funded, dedicated banking and financial crime unit, recruiting the best and headed by a high-profile prosecutor, so that those fraudulent, thieving bankers can be sent to prison like the common criminals they are?
As the hon. Lady will know, the SFO and its directors have indicated that they have initiated a criminal investigation. At no point during the time for which I have had superintendence has it been suggested to me by any director of the SFO that they were not able to take on a case that they considered that they should be able to take on because they did not have enough funds to do so.
What happened last summer was that the perfectly sensible decision was made that the Financial Services Authority should initiate its regulatory inquiry, and should liaise with the SFO while it was being carried out until the regulatory investigation was finished. When it was finished, the SFO considered the matter, and has initiated a criminal inquiry.
That said, I fully accept the hon. Lady’s point: it is possible that we could spend more money on the SFO. I should also point out, however, that within the totality of funding for prosecutorial functions in England and Wales, the level of funding for the SFO is similar to that which prevailed under the last Government—and it is not, of course, the only prosecutor of fraud.
The Attorney-General’s Office records show that from 10 May 2010 to 6 July 2012 the Solicitor-General and I have referred the sentences of 188 offenders from 135 separate Crown Court cases to the Court of Appeal. One of those offenders’ sentences has yet to be considered. Of 187 individual sentences that have been considered since May 2010, the Court considered 87% to be unduly lenient and increased the sentences of 155—or 83%—of them. Annual statistics are published on my Department’s website, and the 2011 figures were published last week.
May I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on taking forward these unduly lenient cases and making sure that proper sentences are handed out? However, can he tell us what remedial action is taken against the lily-livered, wet, soft, liberal judges who hand out these unduly lenient sentences in the first place to make sure that this does not happen again?
I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s basic premise. Just to get the position in perspective, I should say that 95,795 sentences were passed in the Crown Court in 2011, and we had referred to us in that period some 377 requests to reconsider sentences. Many of those requests were in fact wrong, and the total number we referred reflects the sorts of cases that we identify where a mistake has been made. I have to say to him that I am afraid that in human affairs such mistakes will always be made, which is precisely why we have the mechanism we have got to try to ensure that they are corrected.
It would be odd for me to agree too often with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) but, nevertheless, there is genuine public concern about levels of sentencing. It is certainly true, on one level, that too many people go to prison, but it is also a matter of fact that at any point in time there are cases that do trouble the public. A 71-year-old man being given a four-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting a very young child is not seen as the kind of punishment that the public would expect. Nobody wants overly harsh sentences, but we do want realistic sentences, so how do we assess the judges?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I can only do my job? I have a job, laid down by statute, to review cases where it is thought that the sentence may be unduly lenient, and if I think it is, I will refer it. The success rate that we have been enjoying seems to indicate that, broadly speaking, on most of the references we make the Court agrees with us. It is worth pointing out that there are sentencing guidelines, which lay down very clearly how a judge should go about sentencing. In some cases, although the public may be unhappy about a sentence, it may conform to those guidelines. If the lawyers who advise me and I consider that that is so, the case may not be suitable for a reference.
Serious Fraud Office
Owing to their complexity, SFO cases rarely conclude in the same year in which the prosecution, still less the investigation, begins. In 2011, the SFO concluded 14 fraud cases and 28 defendants were convicted; a further seven bribery cases were brought to a successful conclusion.
With the SFO budget being cut by 25% over the course of this Parliament, what advantages does the Solicitor-General think the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements will bring, apart from plugging the financial hole in fraud investigations through plea bargains with corporate perpetrators?
Deferred prosecution agreements bring with them self-evident advantages: they will ensure that companies are brought to justice, through confession, through whistleblowing or through investigation; they will bring speed, as a resolution in these matters will be brought forward much more quickly—the average SFO case takes about three and a half years and costs about £1.5 million; they will bring compensation to victims; they will avoid collateral damage to innocent parties; and they will provide an additional weapon in the prosecutor’s armoury. I hope that the hon. Lady would welcome that.
Rules of Disclosure
The duty of disclosure is a key part of the criminal justice system and therefore Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has plans to undertake specific work on disclosure. That includes both a focused review of the disclosure of sensitive material in cases involving sexual offences, which is planned for this autumn, and a joint inspection with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on complex cases, which is currently being scoped.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer but I am concerned, as are the British Association of Psychotherapists and the Association of Women Barristers, that the way in which disclosure is sometimes handled in cases of rape and sexual assault affects pre-trial treatment decisions and inhibits victims from undertaking counselling. Will the Minister give me his assurance that those concerns will be addressed by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate in the upcoming review that will, I understand, be announced in the next few weeks?
I can reassure my hon. Friend. The final scoping for the inspection is not yet complete but it will include examination of a significant number of sexual offences cases to ascertain whether the disclosure of medical records, including, where applicable, counselling notes, complies with the prosecution’s duty of disclosure and policy and the potential impact of any non-compliance. As I hope she will appreciate, although the other part of the disclosure inquiry is particularly about the problems that came out of the south Wales case of Lynette White, those two things are not mutually incompatible.
The Crown Prosecution Service, police and security services work closely together to build a strong evidential case to enable those suspected of involvement in terrorism to be charged wherever possible with appropriate criminal offences. A post-case review is held after every prosecution and, where appropriate, lessons learned and good practice are used to improve future prospects of successful prosecution and conviction.
I thank the Attorney-General for that answer. According to Home Office data, convictions under terrorism legislation have fallen by 100% since 2006 while convictions for false accounting have fallen by 82% since 2004. Is it not time that we better armed our prosecutors with tools such as intercept evidence and greater use of plea bargaining so that we can take a more robust approach to disrupting and deterring joint criminal enterprises, whether they are terrorism or fraud in the banking sector?
I have had the opportunity to discuss this with the CPS and it is not thought that the processes we have require widespread reform. The CPS and the Security Service already work closely together from the earliest stages of an investigation, exploring options to strengthen the evidence and follow lines of investigation that lead to sufficient evidence on which to charge. Early formation of the prosecution team and collaborative working with international partners are regarded as essential in securing convictions. I have not seen the statistics to which my hon. Friend referred, but mercifully the number of prosecutions for terrorism-related offences is small and I would be just a little wary of trying to extrapolate a trend in view of the numbers of cases involved. For example, I know that in the early part of this year there were a number of notably successful prosecutions in that field.
I am slightly concerned about the whole question of terrorism at the moment, as points are being raised by residents of parts of London about missile batteries on the roof and so on. Has anything crossed the Attorney-General’s desk about the legal implications of that or about cases being taken to court?
I am not quite sure how best to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Crown Prosecution Service is a demand-driven organisation. As and when its services are called on, it will do the work to help the police with investigations. That is what it does day in, day out and what it will certainly continue to do over the course of the Olympics.
Prosecutions (Olympics and Paralympics)
The arrangements for fast-track prosecutions during the Olympics and Paralympics are in place and they have been agreed by the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and representatives of defence lawyers in London. Olympic offences originating from the hon. Lady’s part of London will be dealt with at Thames magistrates court and Snaresbrook Crown court, with priority cases being dealt with at Highbury Corner magistrate’s court.
The Crown Prosecution Service has been quoted by the media as saying that offences classified as “Olympic offences” will be fast-tracked through the courts during the Olympic and Paralympic games. Will the Solicitor-General explain what is meant by an “Olympic offence”, and does he think that it is right that Crown and magistrates courts near Olympic venues or traffic hubs should close or reduce their sittings during the games?
The hon. Lady has not seen it either. We are both in the dark, that is wonderful—[Interruption.] The shadow Attorney-General does not know anything, apparently. Let me enlighten her—[Interruption.] She is obviously in a hurry to learn.
The criminal justice system Olympics working group has adopted the following definition of an Olympic offence:
“any offence…committed and charged in the period 1st July to 30th September 2012, and is…stated by any Court to be directly connected to the 2012 Olympic or Paralympics Games”.
It is a definition of a type of crime, not a new offence.
When fast-track courts were used following the riots, there was a feeling among magistrates that district judges had been used extensively and the lay magistracy had not been used as much as it could have been. Will that happen in Olympic cases, or is the Solicitor-General looking carefully at this?
I am sorry, but I found it quite difficult to hear my right hon. Friend, but in so far as I heard his question, the courts will be manned by all appropriate judges. At the Crown court, clearly there will be Crown court judges; in magistrates courts, district judges will be deployed and, where appropriate, justices of the peace will sit in banks of three.