Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Act of Settlement
1. What recent discussions he has had on the Act of Settlement 1700. (122130)
As the House is aware, we have sadly lost two Members over the last few weeks. Before I reply to the hon. Gentleman’s question, let me say that both Malcolm Wicks and Sir Stuart Bell will be very sorely missed.
The right hon. Member for Croydon North was an example to all who entered the House. He always held to the highest standards of public life, and was a credit to the House of Commons. On a personal level, I—along with everyone else, I am sure—was struck by his modesty, compassion and commitment. He worked tirelessly for his constituents. Whether he was dealing with fuel poverty or pursuing legislation to support carers, Malcolm tackled it all with true dedication.
We also heard the sad news of the death of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough. While, as pro-Europeans, Sir Stuart and I agreed on the importance of Europe to the United Kingdom, I think he made it abundantly clear at every opportunity that on pretty well everything else he strongly disagreed with me. He was a strong champion of Church matters in his 13-year role as Second Church Estates Commissioner, and he clearly cared deeply about the House and its traditions, earning the respect of Members in all parts of the House.
Our thoughts and prayers go to the families and friends of both Members at this difficult time.
My officials continue to work closely with the Government of New Zealand in their co-ordination of the proposed reforms of royal succession throughout the 16 Commonwealth realms, which were announced by the Prime Minister at the time of the Perth agreement on 28 October 2011.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his answer, and associate myself with his comments about our two former colleagues, recently departed.
The Deputy Prime Minister referred to the work of the New Zealand Government. He will know that legislation will soon be needed to enable those changes to be made, and that it will be initiated in the House of Commons. Given his unenviable record of success in relation to constitutional change, may I suggest that he pass responsibility for the legislation to another Minister, so that there will be some chance of its actually being introduced?
So there are to be Christmas cracker jokes from the very beginning.
No; we will pursue this. As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are already pursuing it, along with 15 other Commonwealth realms, but the process is very complex legally. Although the idea is simple—ending male primogeniture in the succession rules and allowing successors to the monarchy to marry Catholics, removing that discriminatory rule from the current arrangements—it is proving to be quite difficult and time-consuming to align all the legislative processes across all the realms, but I know that the New Zealand Government are doing all they can to expedite that.
Unlike the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend will do a brilliant job in introducing these long-overdue reforms. Is it not ironic that, had the Queen had a younger brother, she would not be Queen at this moment? Is it not time to introduce the other reform to which my right hon. Friend referred briefly? At present, not only a monarch but anyone in the line of succession may not marry a Roman Catholic or, indeed, become one. That is an absurdity, and we must surely do away with it as soon as we can.
I certainly agree that the current rules are anachronistic and explicitly discriminatory. That is the point of the reforms. It should be borne in mind that the new rules, particularly those on male primogeniture, came into effect from the moment that the declaration was made in Perth. Although some painstaking work is needed to extend the legislation to all the Commonwealth realms, it has already taken effect.
Recall of MPs
The Government remain committed to establishing a recall mechanism that is transparent, robust and fair. We are grateful to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform for its consideration of our proposals and we are now taking proper time to reflect on its recommendations.
As I have noted, we intend to introduce a recall mechanism that is transparent, robust and fair. We have set out two different sets of triggers that apply and we are also working with the powers of the House of Commons on these matters, including the definition of serious wrongdoing.
House of Lords
As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear to the House on 3 September, the Government consider that the provisions of the Bill do not address the issues that make reform of the House of Lords necessary.
I suppose I am not surprised that the Deputy Prime Minister did not answer that question himself. He will be aware, probably more than most, that there are some gaps in the legislative programme for this Session of Parliament. Will he therefore arrange for Lord Steel’s Bill to come before this House and allow adequate time for discussion of that modest but useful measure, rather than allow the best to be the enemy of the good?
Does my hon. Friend agree that now we appear to have sent House of Lords reform off into the distance we should be using any parliamentary time available to concentrate on the most important thing, which is getting growth back into our economy?
Nevertheless, does the Minister not agree that in spite of the foundering of the House of Lords Reform Bill there are still many residual issues on Lords reform for which there is all-party support and that there is no reason for the House or the Government not to accept that those reforms can be brought forward?
Political and Constitutional Reform
The Government have already introduced fixed-term Parliaments, a significant constitutional change, and given people a say on the voting system for this House. We have established cross-party talks on party funding and work on individual electoral registration, recall and lobbying reform is ongoing. We have radical measures in train to shift power from the centre to local decision makers, whether that takes place through the reforms in the Localism Act 2011, the Local Government Finance Bill or the introduction of local enterprise partnerships and city deals. Although I imagine some people will say that withdrawal of the House of Lords Reform Bill marks the end of the Government’s constitutional reform agenda, it is clear that that is not the case.
The Deputy Prime Minister originally said that his reforms would be ranked with those of the 1832 Great Reform Act, but given that the only legislation that is either through or nearly through—fixed-term Parliaments, the reduction in the number of MPs and individual voter registration—arguably demonstrates a lessening in democratic accountability, would not a better title be the “Great Reactionary” rather than the “Great Reformer”?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a time limit of 15 years. Various member states and other countries around the world have time limits on how long expatriates can vote in the nation they come from, whereas others do not. So far, although we keep the rules under review, we have not come to the conclusion that we will seek to change them in any significant way.
Given the public response to electoral reform and the right hon. Gentleman’s disappointment over Lords reform, and given that the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland today published its revised proposals for further consultation, can he confirm the Government’s stated position on reducing the number of parliamentary seats?
As the hon. Lady knows, yes, the boundary commissions have published their latest revisions. Equally, I have made it clear that because of a failure to deliver the wider package of reforms that we had agreed within the coalition Government, including House of Lords reform, when it comes to a vote the Liberal Democrats will not support these changes ahead of the election in 2015.
We are now in the latter stages of the legislation. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that the central purpose of individual voter registration is to bear down on fraud. That is something with which I should have thought all Members would agree. The Labour Government had plans to introduce individual voter registration, to come into effect on a slightly slower timetable than the one that we are introducing, yet for some reason the Labour party has now decided that it is against this anti-fraud measure from first principles—a very curious change of mind.
I note that the Government are happy for the Scottish Parliament to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the Scottish referendum, but surely to be consistent the Government should extend the franchise to all 16 and 17-year-olds throughout the United Kingdom. If the Government are prepared to do that, we on the Labour Benches will support them. Will they accept our offer?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, I personally am sympathetic to the principle of giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote, but it is not something that we are going to proceed with as a Government because it is not agreed within the coalition. He should be precise about the powers that we have given to the Scottish Administration. We have given them a degree of discretion over the franchise that applies to referendums, which applies to all referendums because the franchise needs to be decided on a referendum-by-referendum basis. To that extent, the powers that we have granted to the Scottish Government are nothing exceptional to the decisions made on the franchise for each referendum, wherever that might take place.
Parliamentary Boundary Review
The boundary commissions are continuing with the boundary review in accordance with the legislation, which requires them to report before October next year. It will be for Parliament to consider the recommendations and vote on them in due course.
The Conservative Members of the coalition delivered AV—[Interruption.] They delivered the opportunity for AV, and the biggest majority in this Parliament on a Second Reading was for House of Lords reform, so how can the Deputy Prime Minister then vote against the boundary review and expect to remain in the Government? Is it his view that that is a principle of the highest integrity and in the interests of democracy?
I am delighted that, if only fleetingly, the hon. Gentleman was in favour of AV and not just of the principle of holding a referendum on AV. As he knows, we are honouring the coalition agreement by leaving the boundary review legislation on the statute book. That is primary legislation from the past which Liberal Democrat Members passed, but for all the reasons that I have explained before, we are not going to introduce the changes ahead of the general election in 2015.
12. The Deputy Prime Minister says that the Liberal Democrats will not vote for the boundary change proposals but the chair of the Conservative party, speaking for once using his real name, says that he has still not given up hope, so who should we have confidence in—him or the chair of the Conservative party? (122142)
Yes, I have also read press reports that the chairman of the Conservative party wishes to strike a deal with us on boundaries in return for a party funding deal. I suppose that is finally a “get rich quick” scheme which he is prepared to put his name to. Let me be clear—[Interruption.]
I was surprised when parties and Members in this House, having fought on a manifesto commitment to reform the House of Lords, decided against simply voting in favour of a timetable motion to do so. These things happen, and I think that everybody in the country understands that a coalition Government is a deal. It is like a contract, and where one part of the contract is amended another part of the contract is amended as well, and we move on.
I begin by welcoming the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) and congratulating her on her new role. We genuinely wish her well. I also welcome the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister has finally found some principle and backbone. We welcome his rigour in answering the last question raised in relation to the one asked by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). But bearing in mind that during the last year thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent on a boundary review that will be futile, and that there will be uncertainty and further taxpayers’ money spent during the next 14 months, why not use his power to put a stop to it now?
The terms of reference for a strategic, constructively critical review of the economy in the north-east have rightly been set by the north-east local enterprise partnership itself, not by Government. The partnership has commissioned a high-profile team of leaders from UK finance, industry, public and civil society to produce this review, and I believe it will be an excellent means of helping to drive growth in the north-east. I look forward, as I believe my right hon. Friend does too, to receiving the report early next year.
Is my right hon. Friend confident that this group, which has an important and valuable job to do, can take fully into account those things that matter to the economy of Northumberland, in particular the dualling of the A1 and the provision of broadband in rural areas?
Absolutely. I can assure my right hon. Friend on that because the group, as he knows, is independently constituted and can address itself to the concerns surrounding broadband infrastructure and road transport, which I know are deeply felt and on which he has long campaigned in the north-east.
I am interested that the Deputy Prime Minister takes full responsibility. Given the waste of £12 million on the Boundary Commission review, which, from what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, will not go anywhere, and the £100 million wasted on the west coast rail franchise, is he proud of the Government’s record in wasting taxpayers’ money?
It seriously beggars belief that an Opposition Member, whose Government drove this country to the edge of bankruptcy, tries to make a point about value for money. The Government are repairing, rescuing and reforming the British economy because the hon. Lady’s party wasted such monumental amounts of money over 13 years.
T4. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in saluting the fact that we now have a million new jobs in the private sector, largely through entrepreneurial activity? Will he further join me in suggesting that we need a greater focus on developing a culture for entrepreneurial activity in this country, and will he consider coming to my constituency to support my festival for engineering and manufacturing, where that is being put into practice now? (122149)
I certainly agree that an entrepreneurial culture and a backing for engineering and manufacturing is crucial to the rebalancing of the woefully unbalanced economy that we inherited from the Labour party, which spent all its time on a prawn cocktail charm offensive in the City of London, letting the banks get away with blue murder. We have a manufacturing festival in Sheffield that is extremely successful and I am delighted to hear that there is one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as well.
May I associate the Opposition with the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks about Sir Stuart Bell and Malcolm Wicks? I draw attention to Sir Stuart’s work on the House of Commons Commission, which was not often seen by Members but was very important for Members on both sides of the House. When Leader of the House, I saw at first hand the painstaking commitment and dedication with which he carried out that work over many years. We will miss that work.
I also endorse what the Deputy Prime Minister said about Malcolm Wicks. He made an extraordinary and unique contribution to British politics. I believe that he was no less than the father of British family policy. His work moved us beyond what were sometimes stale arguments for or against marriage into substantive policy discussions about balancing work, bringing up children and supporting carers. Members on both sides of the House recognise that we will miss them both greatly.
Nobody can be in any doubt about the utmost seriousness of the vile abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile. It has come to light that Jimmy Savile committed these crimes at the BBC and at other public institutions. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we need one inquiry that looks into what happened in each of the institutions to see whether there were patterns of systemic failure and so that we get a coherent picture? Does he agree that any inquiry must be completely independent? That is the very least that Savile’s victims would expect if we are to get to the truth and learn the lessons. Will the Government now set up an independent inquiry?
I certainly accept that there might be a case for an inquiry and that, if one that is as broad as the right hon. and learned Lady suggests it should be were to be held, it should be independent and able to look at the full range of shocking revelations that have come to light. We are not ruling that out, but I think that the first priority must be to allow the police to conduct their work in relation to these deeply troubling and shocking revelations and allegations. Like her, I keep asking myself how on earth this was possible on this scale, over such a prolonged period of time and in so many different settings. In many ways it is the dark side of the cult of celebrity that might have intimidated people from speaking out earlier. Now that we know these things and they are coming to light, we should proceed in a way that is led by what the police find and keep an open mind on the issue of an inquiry.
The police are carrying out important investigations that obviously should not be impeded, but that does not mean that an independent inquiry should not be set up now. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to reflect on that and think again, because revelations are coming forward daily and the victims of this abuse need to hear firmly that the truth will be discovered. I can assure him that we stand ready to discuss terms of reference to ensure that we have the full and thorough inquiry that is no less than what the victims deserve.
The right hon. and learned Lady says, reasonably enough, that there is no reason why we cannot establish an inquiry while the police are doing their work, but I think that the practical issue is the other way around: what kind of work could an inquiry do while the police are conducting their investigations? We should not imagine that an inquiry that cannot pursue certain avenues of investigation because the police are conducting their own investigations would necessarily be the best answer for the victims at this time. Let us at least agree that we must first do everything we can to ensure that proper answers are given to the victims. I am grateful to her for her signal that she is prepared to work together on a cross-party basis as we get to the bottom of what on earth happened.
May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister what he thinks politics in this country should be about? I remind him that he argued with some passion for more equal constituencies and fairer boundaries on their own merits. Is politics about arguing for what one believes in on a point of principle, or is it about getting what one can out of a particular situation for one’s own political advantage, in which case why should we ever believe anything he says?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has yet got his head around the politics of coalition. [Interruption.] He raises these questions month in, month out. His party did not win the general election; that is fact 1. Neither did my party; that is fact 2. Fact 3 is that we need to compromise for the benefit of the country as a whole; and when we compromise we enshrine that in a coalition agreement, which is like a deal. When one party does not abide by a certain part of that deal, it is perfectly legitimate for the other party to say that it will amend the terms of that deal. That is the meaning of coalition politics.
T2. The Deputy Prime Minister, not for the first time, disappointed many people this week by refusing to support calls for the editor of The Sun to take the long overdue step of dropping page 3, saying that it would be illiberal to do so. Does his version of liberalism really prevent him from taking a public stand against the objectification of women? Whose interests is he most interested in protecting? (122146)
Not for the first time, the hon. Lady has entirely twisted what I said. I said—I would be interested to know whether she agrees with this—that it would be wholly illiberal and wrong for this House to seek to compel any editor to determine the content of their newspapers. If that is the kind of authoritarian nonsense she believes in, then I am perfectly content to say that we entirely disagree.
T13. In addressing concerns over the operation of the European arrest warrant, does my right hon. Friend agree with our police that we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater and that rather than scrapping the arrest warrant we should be reforming it? (122159)
I think that there is widespread agreement in all parts of the House that the European arrest warrant is not perfect in its operation. There is clearly a legitimate concern about its disproportionate application to what are essentially judicially frivolous cases, and that is why it needs reform. The disagreement is between those who argue that we should reform it while remaining a full signatory to it, which is the Government’s current position, and those who feel that we should abdicate from it altogether. The reason I am strongly opposed to the latter position is that criminals do not recognise borders. Paedophiles, murderers and terrorists need to be chased across borders. It is not about whether one is pro or anti-European or likes or loathes Brussels; it is about whether one is for or against going after nasty, wicked people. That is why I support continuing to be a full signatory to the European arrest warrant while, of course, continuing to argue for its reform.
T3. As the man with his finger on the pulse of the nation, can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House the level of the new CIL tax—community infrastructure levy—that is currently being introduced in his own Sheffield city region? (122148)
In his answer to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about the north-east local enterprise partnership. Will he confirm that he is aware that there is more than one LEP in the north-east, and that the Tees Valley LEP, which is doing a great job of working with businesses, the Government and the regional growth fund to deliver employment, growth and investment in the south of the region, will have a place at the table when discussing the north of the country?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that everybody who has a stake in the future success and prosperity of the north-east economy should have a voice in the important discussions that are taking place. As he will know better than I do, one of the great strengths of One North East was that it spoke for the region as a whole. One of the strengths of LEPs is where they work most effectively together on behalf of a region as a whole.
T5. Six months ago the Deputy Prime Minister described the new energy tariff agreement as a “landmark deal” for UK consumers, but now Which? has found that there are still over 230 tariffs in existence and that three out of four consumers are paying the highest possible tariff. When are the Government going to act to end this rip-off of 5 million consumers by the big six energy companies? (122150)
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have announced new arrangements that will compel the big six utility companies to provide information to consumers about which tariff is best for them. That has not yet come fully into effect, but it will be a huge change. He is quite right: there is still far too much confusion and too much information, with too many contradictory messages being given to households and consumers about their energy bills and the tariffs available to them. This will, I hope, make a dramatic difference, because it means that in clear, simple terms people will be informed of the cheapest tariff that suits them best.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very important that we tackle the threat to our economy and our society of climate change and that the messages given out by Ministers on both sides of the coalition are consistently and strongly pro-green, pro-green energy and pro-green manufacturing in order to give green business the confidence to invest?
As my hon. Friend will know, the coalition agreement commits this Government—across all parties—to be the greenest Government ever. We have achieved many radical new things, such as the carbon budget, the carbon floor price, the green investment bank and the green deal, which will be the first of its kind anywhere in Europe and will be unveiled in the next few months. I say to my hon. Friend that this is not just about whether we think it is right for the environment, but about what is right for our economy. The green sector employs close to 1 million people, was growing at about 4% or 5% last year and is one of the few sectors that runs a trade surplus. That is why he is right that we should be working consistently to deliver more investment and more jobs for the people of Britain.
T6. Is it not an affront to the Deputy Prime Minister’s party that the Tories are trying to buy Lib Dem support for boundary changes by offering financial enticements? Given his record on constitutional reform, does he agree that the only way to ensure that those proposals never see the light of day would be for him to give them his full backing? (122151)
Given the problems with the reform agenda so far, and given the fact that recall represents an opportunity for some real, meaningful change that voters will notice, many people are concerned that the assurances being given at the moment are vague at best. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give us a crystal-clear timeline and will he draw inspiration, as he rewrites it, from my private Member’s Bill, the Recall of Elected Representatives Bill?
The hon. Gentleman and I have spoken and I pay tribute to him for his dogged sincerity and commitment to a radical, California-style model of recall. We have looked at it and, as he knows—we have discussed it—we have concerns about the danger of such a model of recall becoming a kangaroo-court process. There need to be some checks and balances. We recently received the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report, which makes certain observations and, indeed, strong criticisms of our approach, and we are considering our response.
In light of my right hon. Friend’s answer that he will vote against any boundary changes, will he confirm that he will, therefore, allow Government Ministers to vote against Government policy?
As I have said, it is an excellent tribute to both sides of the coalition that, notwithstanding huge pressures to do otherwise, we have religiously stuck to the commitments that we made together to the British people in the coalition agreement. On this particular occasion, for reasons I will not rehearse now, one party in the coalition felt unable to deliver one very important part of the constitutional reform agenda—House of Lords reform—so, reasonably enough, the other part of the coalition has reacted accordingly on the issue of boundaries. Those are circumscribed circumstances which will not and do not prevent the coalition Government from working very effectively on a broad waterfront of other issues, the most important of which, of course, is cleaning up the economic mess left by that lot on the Opposition Benches.
T8. I welcome the commission that has been set up on the north-east economy, because we need all the help we can get at the moment. Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), does the Deputy Prime Minister understand that the commission must report to both local enterprise partnerships, and was it not a mistake by the Government to split our region into two? (122153)
I do not think that it was a mistake for the Government to replace the layer of regional development agencies, many of which were disconnected from the communities, cities and towns that they sought to represent. I am sure that the hon. Lady, who is fair-minded, will accept that RDAs were too often distant from the businesses and people that they sought to represent. I know that there was a lot of backing in the north-east for One North East, and that is why it is very important that all the LEPs in the north-east continue to work together to promote a cohesive approach to economic development that represents the whole of the north-east region.
The main change, other than some important rule changes to the administration of the postal voting system, which the hon. Gentleman will know about, is the introduction of individual voter registration. That is the biggest single weapon that we have against the worrying instances of widespread electoral fraud in parts of the country. That is why I hope that, instead of constantly complaining about our attempts to stamp out electoral fraud, the Labour party will support them.
T10. The early intervention grant is used by local authorities to fund programmes that have the potential to transform the long-term life chances of deprived children. We discovered recently that hundreds of millions of pounds of that money will be diverted to fund the provision of nursery places for two-year-olds. We cannot tackle child poverty and improve social mobility by taking money from one set of essential services to pay for another. What steps does the Deputy Prime Minister propose to take to protect this specific pot of funding? (122155)
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s legitimate concern about an important area of Government policy, but he is just plain wrong when he says that money is being taken away from the EIG. We made it clear that some of the money under the EIG umbrella was dedicated to the two-year-olds offer. As he knows, that is a new offer of 15 hours’ pre-school support for two-year-olds from the most deprived families in this country. It is a radical and progressive step towards greater social mobility and early intervention. We have retained the total amount of money for early intervention, but allowed the EIG to be used in a more flexible way. I ask him not to be preoccupied with which pot the money is in, but to focus on the fact that we will do big progressive things with exactly the same amount of money.
Specialist manufacturing is a huge growth opportunity for the economy. Surgical Innovations in my constituency is a great example of that. It is receiving £4.91 million from the regional growth fund. Will my right hon. Friend say when we can expect the next round to be announced, so that we can hear more good news stories like that?
We will make the impending announcement on the third round of the regional growth fund in the coming days. Although there have been criticisms about the pace of the disbursement of the money under rounds 1 and 2, my hon. Friend will be delighted to know that 60% of the projects from the total envelope of £2.5 billion are up and running, creating thousands upon thousands of jobs directly and tens of thousands of jobs indirectly, and enhancing private sector as well as public sector investment in our economy.
T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that abusing police officers at the gates of Downing street and calling them “f***ing plebs” would constitute serious wrongdoing for the purposes of recall? What representations has he made to the Prime Minister on this issue? (122157)
Order. It is not a criminal offence to shout at the Deputy Prime Minister, but it is notably discourteous. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is used to practising in the courts as a barrister. He is a senior and sober fellow, and should behave accordingly.
My right hon. Friend is right to say, as he has many times, that one of the great achievements of the coalition has been to come together in the national interest. Will he not, therefore, reconsider the fact that reducing the number of Members of Parliament and equalising the number of electors in each seat is clearly in the national interest?
As I sought to explain, the legislation on the boundary reviews remains on the statute book and there is no question of our seeking to repeal it. To that extent, we are honouring the coalition agreement commitment to introduce legislation to hold boundary reviews and reduce the number of MPs in this House. However, for all the reasons that I have explained, the legislation will not be introduced in effect before the next general election.
T12. Earlier, the Deputy Prime Minister was asked about the economy, and he stated that he effectively had to enter into coalition to rescue the economy. Would that argument not be stronger but for the fact that none of the predictions about growth has actually happened over the past two and a half years? (122158)
The hon. Lady may lightly dismiss the fact that the Government have created 1 million new jobs in the private sector. She may lightly dismiss the fact that we have some of the lowest interest rates in the developed world, saving ordinary households thousands and thousands of pounds. She may lightly dismiss the fact that the bond markets are not on our necks as they are in so many other over-indebted countries. Those are huge achievements which were not made any easier by the Labour party’s lamentable economic record in government.
The Attorney-General was asked—
My consideration of the evidence in this matter is far from complete, but as I do not wish to cause the families affected by this disaster any greater anxiety, I have decided to take an exceptional step and announce that, on the basis of what I have already seen, I am persuaded that an application to the Court for fresh inquests must be made.
Ninety-six people died as a result of what occurred at Hillsborough that day, and 96 inquests were held. I believe that, as all those deaths arose from a common chain of events, it would be better for me to apply for all 96 cases to be considered again. I want to allow all the families affected the opportunity to make representations to me on that issue, and I will be in contact with them.
I wish to make it clear that, having announced my decision, I will still need further time to prepare the application so that the strongest case can be made to the Court. I have given that work priority and I will continue to do so. I have today laid a written ministerial statement in both Houses announcing my decision.
All in the House and all the families involved will welcome the Attorney-General’s decision today; they have lived with a completely wrong verdict for far too long. Will the Attorney-General assist the House by telling us about the speed of the process, so that urgent justice can prevail?
I need to complete my consideration of the evidence and, as I have said, I need to provide the families with the opportunity to make representations, and to consider any representations that are made. I need to complete my consideration of the legal issues, and I then need to make the application to the Court. When the case is heard will be a matter for the Court’s listings. It is very difficult for me to give a precise timetable for my hon. Friend; I will move as quickly as I can.
I say a genuine thank you to the Attorney-General for what he has announced today. The families who have waited so long for justice are at least now within reach of that justice. Will he assure the House that sufficient resources will be made available so that work on getting a new inquest can proceed as quickly as possible? Can he say whether that inquest will be held in Liverpool, as the families have always requested?
I am satisfied that there will be sufficient resources to take this forward. The venue of any eventual hearing is not really a matter for me. Should—I stress this for the House—the application that I make to the Court be successful, it will be for the Court and the coroner to decide where the inquests take place. I am sure that representations can then be made in respect of that, but it is not my decision.
I thank the Attorney-General for his very important statement; he will know what a hugely important day this is for Merseyside and the many people around the world who care about putting right the injustice of Hillsborough. Will he meet a delegation of Members of Parliament, with the families, so that we can talk about some of the complexities of what he has announced today?
I am always happy to see Members of Parliament. As for meeting with delegations, the hon. Lady will appreciate that one feature of my work is that I must take it independently. If there is a good reason for meeting people, I am certainly always happy to do so, but she will appreciate that I have already undertaken to consult representatives of the families. We will do that as a formal process, and I would obviously wish to avoid something that does not appear sufficiently structured.
I genuinely thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his announcement, which will be of great comfort to my constituents whose family members died at Hillsborough, and particularly to the families of those who died after the 3.15 pm cut-off. Will he indicate whether he expects the Director of Public Prosecutions’ potential consideration of criminal charges to have any impact on the timing of the inquest?
Clearly, the consideration of charges is done independently by the DPP and I have no role in it. It is perhaps trite to say—I think I have said this before—but were there to be criminal proceedings, that could undoubtedly impact on when an inquest could take place. However, I do not think that it has any impact on the timing of my making an application to the Court for it to order inquests to take place if it is so minded.
It is my understanding that there will be the opportunity for a debate on this matter next Monday, 22 October, which I believe will be led by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Obviously, I will be present for as much of the debate as possible to listen to what is said.
The Attorney-General’s statement is greatly to be welcomed, and the families had a very positive meeting with the DPP yesterday. All hon. Members hope that justice for the Hillsborough families is finally in sight. However, the Crown Prosecution Service faced criticism for failing to act 14 years ago when it was presented with evidence of the wholesale alteration of witness statements by South Yorkshire police and their solicitors. In order to build further public confidence in the process launched by the DPP last week, will the Attorney-General consider discussing with the DPP the value of instructing, at the outset, a senior and independent-minded Queen’s counsel to lead the review of evidence and the decision-making process on any possible prosecutions? Does he agree that such an additional check and balance would be helpful and positive?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I understand that she wrote to the DPP on 8 October, which I believe his office received last Friday, to raise some of those issues. I understand that she will get a reply from him as soon as possible.
May I reiterate that the DPP, under our constitutional system, acts entirely independently from myself, although I have superintendence. I am sure he will have noted the hon. Lady’s comments. The question as to how he best goes about conducting his operations within the CPS, bringing prosecutions or reviewing any matter that is historic, is a matter for him, but it is always open to him to discuss it with me.
The Attorney-General’s announcement will be welcome not just on Merseyside and in Yorkshire, but by football supporters in the whole country. Will he, at an appropriate time, and perhaps with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice, talk to the new chief coroner to ensure that the lessons of this experience are learned for all future inquests?
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said and I think I agree with him. It is worth bearing it in mind that the world has moved on quite a lot since the events surrounding the original inquests. We have much better systems in place. One of the challenges, should the Court be minded to grant my application, will be how to structure the new inquests, if they are to take place. I have no doubt that tried and tested methods—they have already been used with great success in other recent, high-profile matters—are in place.
That is a rather difficult question for me to answer. Ultimately, costs can be a matter for the Court. As I have indicated, at the moment, the costs of the preliminary work that is taking place are borne by my Department. I cannot assess how much those will be. Once the matter is within the court process, the courts have discretion, but I suspect—it is probably inevitable—that the taxpayer will pay a considerable amount of the cost.
The hon. Lady has made her point, but it is not for me to start giving views or instructions to the Court or coroner about how they should conduct an inquest, if one is held. I have no doubt, however, that representations made by hon. Members and representatives of the families will be noted by those concerned.
Disability Hate Crimes
The whole country marvelled this summer at the achievements of the Paralympians, which provided a huge opportunity for changing attitudes towards disability. The CPS takes disability hate crime very seriously and the DPP has made his own commitment very clear. I have not had the opportunity to discuss the matter with him yet, but I can assure her that the CPS prosecutes these cases whenever it can.
I start by welcoming the Solicitor-General to his new position.
In 2011, the number of disability hate crimes rose by one third to 2,000, but only 523 convictions were upheld. When he has such conversations, will he talk through how that conviction rate might be increased?
The hon. Lady has spent much time and effort campaigning for disability rights, including within the criminal justice system, and I respect the point she makes. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that progress has been made: the number of convictions has risen steadily from 141—I believe—in 2007-08 to the 480 concluded in the past year. However, yes, more progress needs to be made, and the DPP has explained in the past that he thinks a lot more needs to be done.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important to monitor and identify crimes, particularly violent and public order crimes involving an element of disability hate. The CPS has issued new guidance on this matter to its prosecutors, who of course have the right in appropriate cases to ask, under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, for an uplift in the sentence. That needs to be done in appropriate cases.
Media Prosecutions (Guidelines)
Weighing the competing elements of public interest and criminality in this area of the media will always be a nuanced matter. Is my right hon. and learned Friend confident that the new guidelines bring greater clarity to prosecutors and will lead to increased robustness in decision making?
Yes, I am. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the guidelines arose from a response by the DPP to the Leveson inquiry and from evidence he gave before it. Essentially, the guidelines encapsulate in a transparent fashion the practice of the CPS in this area. I therefore have every confidence that they provide, and will continue to provide, a robust application of the law. There is no special law for journalists in this context, but there are public interest considerations which, as the DPP has shown in the guidelines, will be taken into account.
As I read the guidelines, it is unlikely that they will make much difference to two of the ways in which social media have been horrifyingly used for criminal purposes. One is paedophiles using Twitter and the other—perhaps not criminal, but certainly shocking to large numbers of our constituents—is the use of YouTube to mock Islam. What more has the Attorney-General done to prevent that kind of crime, as opposed to prosecuting it?
Crime committed on social media is crime. I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that if there are examples of criminal behaviour taking place on social media—incitement, sex crimes or incitement to religious or racial hatred—it is for the police to investigate initially, as she will appreciate. However, if that evidence is then brought to the Crown Prosecution Service, it would be surprising if it were not in the public interest to bring a prosecution. As she will be aware, there are already instances of individuals who have committed crime on social media having been successfully prosecuted.
Advanced Language Solutions
6. What progress Advanced Language Solutions has made on reporting to the Crown Prosecution Service the results of checks to ensure that all of its interpreters have been security vetted. (122180)
Advanced Language Solutions has completed its review and has provided assurances to the Crown Prosecution Service that a full audit trail is now held in respect of the 1,100 interpreters on its list and that all vetting information has been fully verified.
The Government have overseen a shambles in the provision of interpreting services. They have procured an IT system, at a cost to the taxpayer of £42 million, to ensure that interpreters turn up in court, but they are not turning up. Justice is being delayed, and in many cases it is being denied. What action is the Attorney-General taking to ensure that the Ministry of Justice is taking proper action to ensure that justice is not ill served by such chaos?
It is important that there should be strong performance in this area. There has been a major improvement since the early months of the contract, when there were the problems that the hon. Lady has rightly outlined. The picture is one of improvement and one where the Government are saving £15 million a year, so we are also ensuring good value for money. There has been an improvement, and we will continue to monitor the area closely.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position and thank him for that answer. Does he believe that fewer prosecutions will be brought if the new offence of using grossly disproportionate force, which the Justice Secretary intends to introduce, is brought in?
Is there any systematic review examining the causes where prosecutions fail? Obviously it could be quite right that the court should find a person not guilty, but sometimes there is a failure to pursue the prosecution adequately, either because witnesses do not match up or the case is not properly put, so is there any systematic review of where prosecutions fail?
Yes, this is something in which the Director of Public Prosecutions takes a particular interest. As Law Officers, we are in the position of superintending the process, and we ask the sort of probing questions that the hon. Gentleman would wish us to ask.
European Court of Human Rights
Good progress has been made in clearing the backlog of inadmissible cases before the Court. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government have approached the need to reform the European Court of Human Rights through the Brighton declaration. Reaching agreement on the declaration represents a substantial step towards realising the Government’s ambitions, particularly on the extent to which the Court should get involved in questions that national courts have already fully considered. We need now to ensure that the reforms are implemented swiftly. The first key step—preparation of a draft protocol to reflect the required amendments to the convention—is due to be completed by April 2013.
I thank the Attorney-General for that answer, but will he give a complete and categorical assurance to the House that there is no question of Britain withdrawing from the European convention on human rights? Doing so would mean being the only country, alongside Belarus, that was not part of the convention, which has performed an important role in promoting and defending human rights across every one of its member states. We should be part of that process, not turn away from it.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is no question of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the convention. We helped to draft it and we support it strongly. It has already contributed to widespread changes across Europe, including the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the recognition of the freedom of religion in the former Soviet countries, the prevention of ill treatment in police stations and elsewhere, and the removal of military judges from civilian courts. Those are all very good reasons for it continuing its very good work.