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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Constitutional Reform

1. What the Government’s political and constitutional reform priorities are for the remainder of this Parliament. (128848)

The Government have already introduced fixed-term Parliaments, a significant constitutional change, and given people a say on the voting system for this House, as well as overseeing significant transfers of power to both Scotland and Wales. We also have radical measures in train to shift power from the centre to local decision makers, including the recently enacted Local Government Finance Act 2012 and the second wave of city deals, which will accelerate the pace of decentralisation as well as unlocking new and innovative ways to drive growth. Work also continues on party funding, recall and lobbying reform.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer, but he has horse-traded with his coalition partner on Lords reform, electoral registration, our electoral system, and boundary changes. Does he not agree that the country deserves a better collection of policies than those that simply serve an individual party’s needs?

That is a slightly curious allegation coming from a member of a party that had a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the alternative vote yet barely lifted a finger to campaign for it when it was possible to do so, and that has had a manifesto commitment to an elected House of Lords for years but has done even less to make that a reality. Perhaps the hon. Lady should practise what she preaches.

Two weeks ago, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and said that political and constitutional reforms were worth while only when there was a public appetite for them. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think there is a public appetite for any of the proposals he has just mentioned?

Clearly, the priority for all of us is to repair, rescue and reform the damaged British economy—the legacy left to us by Labour—but I have always been of the view that that does not mean that the Government cannot do more than two things at once. Those things could include mayoral elections, police and crime commissioner elections—which I know are close to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s party—or other political reform enthusiasms shared by my party. Those are all things that we have tried to advance over the past two and a half years.

In the light of the Prime Minister’s visit to Northern Ireland today in advance of negotiations in Brussels and other possible announcements, and of the recent report on tax arrangements in Wales, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what discussions have taken place, or will take place, with the Northern Ireland Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Executive?

As the hon. Lady knows, the proposals in Wales have been put forward on the back of the report published by the Silk commission this week, which advocates further tax devolution to Wales. We have said that we will look closely at those proposals. She will also be well aware that there is a long-standing debate in Northern Ireland about the freedom to set corporation tax rates, which would involve an arrangement different from the one that we have now. We have undertaken to look at that very carefully indeed, and there has been a succession of discussions and ministerial meetings on the matter. We will arrive at a definitive conclusion soon enough.

One item on the Deputy Prime Minister’s list of priorities was party funding. Is it not crucial, in the light of the lessons that we can learn from the American presidential election, that the parties in this country should come together and agree on a sensible measure of party funding, so that we can have a balanced electoral system that means all the people getting involved in the elections?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think that anybody, on either side of the House, would want to see our politics being hollowed out by big money as has clearly happened in the United States. That is why cross-party talks are going on at the moment, although agreement has not yet been reached. We are all familiar with the difficulties involved. It will require a bit of political will and a bit of political courage to reach cross-party agreement, but I hope that we will be able to do that as soon as possible.

I note the absence of the elections for police and crime commissioners from the Deputy Prime Minister’s list of his Government’s constitutional reforms. Those elections ended up costing £25 million more because he did not want them to be held on the same day as the May council elections next year. Will he admit that, in order to try to give the Lib Dems a better chance next May, he has wasted an extra £25 million of public money?

I know the right hon. and learned Lady is feeling sore that so many Labour has-been politicians did not get elected. [Interruption.] I know it was not a good day for Deputy Prime Ministers, past or present, and I admit that. Honestly, she knows as well as I do that there were a mayoral contest and Westminster by-elections as well as local by-elections all on the same day. Is she now going to start blaming the November weather for the poor showing of her party at the police and crime commissioner elections? That is beneath her.

I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman is drawing attention to last Thursday’s results because on the showing of his party in the Corby by-election, it will need more than a change of date to save his party’s fortunes. Will he not admit that no one wanted these police and crime commissioner elections, whatever the weather, that they were a complete shambles and that the money should have been spent on front-line policing instead?

If the right hon. and learned Lady dislikes the PCC elections so much, why did her party put up candidates across the country? [Interruption.] I hear “She had to” from a sedentary position, but no one forced her to put up as candidates the recycled Labour ex-Ministers who then failed to get elected. No one obliged her to do that. I really think the Labour party has to get out of this habit of criticising things that are quite close to its own proposals. As I understand it, the Labour party’s position is for directly elected members of the police authority—not a million miles away from the police and crime commissioners. As it happens, that was not my or my party’s policy, but it was a contest that we all entered in good faith. I am only sorry that it did not turn out as the right hon. and learned Lady had rather hoped.

Recall of Members

2. What progress he has made on introducing a process of recall for hon. Members found guilty of serious wrongdoing. (128849)

7. What progress he has made on introducing a process of recall for hon. Members found guilty of serious wrongdoing. (128854)

Last year, the Government published their draft Bill on the recall of MPs for pre-legislative scrutiny by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, whose report was published in June this year. The Government submitted an interim response confirming that we remain committed to establishing a recall mechanism that is robust, transparent and fair. We are now taking proper time to reflect on the Committee’s recommendations.

For some, life in politics can be a bit like a jungle, and a popular vote may help to decide whether or not someone should stay. When a Member of this House is found guilty of serious wrongdoing and does not walk away themselves, should not a popular vote by their constituents provide a chance to “get them out of there”?

Obviously, the devil is in the detail, and the issue is how we as a House define what serious wrongdoing is. I never thought that disappearing to a jungle on the other side of the planet would be one of the things we would have to grapple with on this recall issue. I very much hope to make progress, and we are certainly working actively in government to achieve it. It was a manifesto commitment of all the main parties in this Parliament to introduce a recall mechanism, but to do that we need to arrive at a common understanding of what constitutes serious wrongdoing and what does not.

If I may press the Deputy Prime Minister a little further, does his reply not suggest that it is up to Parliament to define serious wrongdoing, which might give the impression to constituents that it is a case of the poacher turning gamekeeper? Surely it should be up to the majority of our constituents, perhaps through some sort of referendum, to decide what constitutes wrongdoing. Whether it be crossing the Floor, disappearing and not helping constituents, being found guilty of fraud or whatever, it is surely our constituents’ job to determine that.

We have said that there is a sort of double trigger. First, whether in law or otherwise, we need some kind of approximate understanding of what constitutes serious wrongdoing. I do not think anyone would want this recall mechanism to be triggered for frivolous reasons or for partisan point scoring. The second trigger is that 10% of constituents sign a petition calling for a by-election. It is that basic design that we are still working towards.

It is almost as serious as destroying the British economy, which is of course what the Labour party did when it was in office.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister have any plans to extend recall to other posts such as police and crime commissioners? In north Wales, for example, an independent elected last Thursday subsequently turned out to be a member of the Liberal Democrat party. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that that would constitute grounds for recall?

I know the right hon. Gentleman thinks otherwise, but being a member of the Liberal Democrats is not yet a crime. By the way—[Interruption.]

Order. This is Question Time; Members cannot divide the House now. There is no opportunity for that.

This is Labour illiberalism pushed to new extremes—and at least, by the way, it was not necessary for Greenpeace to film that candidate secretly before we knew what his views were, which seems to have been the case elsewhere.

We believe that the principle of recall should be extended—for instance, we should like it to be extended to the European Parliament—but, as I have already said in answer to earlier questions, we must first get the mechanisms and the definitions in the Bill right.

Individual Electoral Registration

The Government are fully committed to delivering individual electoral registration. In the coalition agreement we promised to speed up its implementation to improve the integrity of the electoral register, and that remains the Government’s policy.

Given how critical the Deputy Prime Minister said the Bill on individual registration was, why has it now disappeared?

It has not disappeared, but, as you know, Mr. Speaker, by convention we in this House do not comment on the workings of the other place.

Before I ask my question, may I just say that Labour did not do enough to increase electoral registration during our 13 years in power?

May I ask the Minister, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, what we can do together—as Members of Parliament, as political parties and as democrats—to put the 6 million unregistered voters on to the register and to improve democracy?

I truly welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think it is of concern to everyone in the House that, for example, 36% of people—according to a recent Electoral Commission survey—believe that electoral fraud is a problem. We are introducing safeguards to ensure that the maximum number of people can be individually registered. That includes the use of techniques such as data-matching, phasing in the transition over two years, a write-out to all electors in 2014, and a programme of work to maximise registration among previously under-represented groups.

One of the lowest rates of electoral registration is found where it should perhaps be the highest, namely among our armed services. What can individual voter registration do to help to increase the number of soldiers, sailors and airmen who are registered to vote?

My hon. Friend is right. Much needs to be done to make it easier for those people to register and to place their votes. As I have said, we are undertaking a comprehensive programme of reforms through individual electoral registration. We are also interested in looking into methods such as online registration, which might help the community whom my hon. Friend holds so dear.

The Government told us that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which would introduce individual electoral registration, was a priority and must be introduced as quickly as possible, but we have now been told that the Conservatives are delaying it in the other place. What is the reason for that delay? Has it anything to do with parliamentary boundaries? Yes or no?

Again, Mr. Speaker, you would no doubt remind me not to discuss the workings of the other place here. I have every confidence that the hon. Gentleman can read for himself the speeches of my noble Friend Lord Strathclyde, who made clear what that place must do with potentially inadmissible amendments. I also think it is clear that the programme designed by the last Government—a voluntary version of individual electoral registration—would have led to confusion and significant extra cost, and I therefore do not think it right for Opposition Members to lecture us about such matters.

Royal Succession

Discussions with the other Commonwealth realms are ongoing, but legislation can be presented only when all the necessary arrangements are in place in all 16 Commonwealth nations.

There will be much rejoicing on the streets of the Kettering constituency if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are blessed with a baby girl and she succeeds to the throne even if she has a baby brother. When does the Deputy Prime Minister expect legislation to be presented to us, and what is the legislative timetable likely to be in those other Commonwealth realms?

I am sure all of us would share the joy of the constituents of Kettering if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a baby girl—or, indeed, a baby boy. If it were a baby girl, the key thing to remember would be that the change to the rule of male primogeniture came into effect from the point of the Perth conference last year, so even if we had not secured all the necessary legislative changes in all the realms, we would none the less be able to proceed on the basis that the outdated rule of male primogeniture no longer prevails. A de facto change has already been introduced pending the legal changes that now need to be made.

It is now more than a year since the Perth agreement, and I appreciate that the Deputy Prime Minister has put a lot of work into this. It is now in the hands of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, however, so will the Deputy Prime Minister consider visiting New Zealand—

Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider visiting New Zealand to try to speed up this process, because it is taking a long time and there is all-party agreement that it should be concluded as soon as possible?

One Member of this House on the other side of the planet is, I think, enough. I do not intend to take a long voyage myself, although I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind suggestion. Thankfully, we do not need to travel around the globe to communicate with each other these days. We have other means by which we can liaise with colleagues and friends in the New Zealand Government—and indeed, with the other realms. As I have said before, I am as impatient as the right hon. Gentleman to see the end of the outdated and discriminatory rule of male primogeniture and also the bar on the monarch or the successor to the throne marrying a Roman Catholic. I am as anxious as the right hon. Gentleman is to see those rules updated and modernised. It just takes a bit of time and a little bit of patience to make sure that all the realms are properly aligned, as they need to be to make this change happen.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister—and the Prime Minister of New Zealand—bear in mind that, but for our law of male primogeniture, the German Kaiser would also have become King of England, which would have produced almost as interesting a coalition as the present one?

We always rely on my right hon. Friend for such erudition and grasp of history, which he possesses but unfortunately I do not. I am grateful to him for pointing that historical quirk out to us, but I hope he will agree that that is not reason enough not to modernise the rules of succession and bring them into line with the 21st century.

We can so rely on the right hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), which is one of the reasons why I particularly enjoy calling him.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives, and within the Government I take special responsibility for our programme of political and constitutional reform.

What are the Government doing to promote access to public office for people with mental health problems? With that in mind, will the Deputy Prime Minister join me and other Members in growing a moustache for Movember, which is not only raising funds for the prostate cancer charity, but raising important issues about men’s health, including mental illness?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and I would be very happy to pay him to take his moustache off as soon as he wishes to do so. [Interruption.] Well, these are the times of austerity, so we will have to be modest.

On the first point, I think there has been a real sea change in how we debate and talk about mental health not only in society but, as we have movingly seen recently, in this House. The taboo has been broken and politicians now speak about mental health problems, which afflict one in four families in this country. That is a very healthy development, and we are seeking to reflect it in legislation by removing the bar on those with mental health problems being in office and remaining as Members of this House.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the House of Lords will tomorrow consider Government plans to allow Ministers the right to have civil actions against them held in secret, thus depriving claimants of the chance to see the evidence. Can he explain to the House why he and the Conservative party are right on this, and the Cross-Bencher Lord David Pannick QC, the Labour party, the Lib Dem peer and former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Ken Macdonald, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Liberty, Reprieve, Justice, the Lords Constitution Committee and other legal experts are so utterly wrong?

This is a very important issue and I am looking forward to the Labour party’s revealing what it believes on this, as on so many other issues. If the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the Bill were accurate, I would agree with him. Of course I would; no one wants to see evidence and matters heard in open court decanted into closed material proceedings. Let me make it clear that the Government’s view—it is certainly mine, as I would find this unacceptable otherwise—is that the provision will apply only to those cases where at the moment the evidence is not heard at all. It is not a question of a choice, with evidence held in open court being moved into closed court, as nothing will be heard—[Interruption.] The judge decides on how the procedure is conducted.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I want to pick up on that if I may. As he knows very well, the Committee has tabled an extensive range of amendments to improve the Bill. I am very sympathetic to a lot of what the Committee says, and the Government are considering its amendments with an open and, in many respects, sympathetic mind. I hope that we will be able to amend the Bill to allay those concerns in line with many of the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

T2. In the interests of fairness, my right hon. Friend is making the case for higher property taxes above a certain threshold. Will he also consider the issue of second, third and fourth homes that might fall below any such threshold? (128864)

On taxational levies on higher value properties, it is no secret that there is a difference of opinion in the coalition Government. There is no point in pretending otherwise. My view is that a police officer seeing 20% cuts in the policing budget, a teacher whose pay has been frozen or someone whose benefits are being reduced would find it very difficult to understand why we are not asking people in large multi-million pound homes to make an additional contribution as we have to tighten our belts further. I do not think that most ordinary people in this country think that it is fair that a family living in a family home, working hard to provide for themselves, has to pay the same council tax as an oligarch living in a £5 million mansion. That is why we will continue to make the case for a fairer approach to taxation. As we tighten our belts, and as I have said on numerous occasions, we should start at the top and work down, rather than the other way around.

T5. The Deputy Prime Minister will at least be pleased that last Thursday his party won the by-election in Wallsend, even though the turn-out was low. As the public largely boycotted the police and crime commissioner elections, which cost £100 million, does he think that it would have been better for his party’s fortunes if that money had been spent on the 3,000 front-line police he promised in his election manifesto? (128867)

I am grateful for a carbon-copy question of one asked earlier. I would suggest a little liaison—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is waving a piece of paper provided to her by her Whips, but I suggest that she cross-checks against the questions asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) from her Front Bench. As I said, there were PCC elections, a mayoral election, local by-elections and Westminster parliamentary by-elections. There will be more Westminster parliamentary by-elections in a couple of weeks’ time. Is she really suggesting that when the clocks change we should stop elections? I do not think that she is, and that would not be a realistic way of proceeding.

T3. The Deputy Prime Minister will know that we have dozens of different deposits for elections, ranging from £500 to £5,000. In this post-PCC world, would now not be a good time to review that, as some of them have not been looked at for about 30 years? (128865)

That is not something that we have considered, but I am more than happy to ask officials to provide information about whether there is something erratic or illogical about the levels of deposit in different electoral contests.

T7. What reaction has the Deputy Prime Minister had from the Secretary of State for Scotland on his reported plans to evict the Scotland Office from Dover house, and why would the Deputy Prime Minister’s small Department apparently want to move there? (128869)

T4. There is much discussion about constitutional reform, especially in Scotland and Wales. However, there is little discussion of arrangements in England, particularly with regard to local government. Lord Heseltine’s recent report recommends that we should move away from two-tier local government to unitary authorities, which would be hugely welcome in Cumbria. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with Lord Heseltine’s recommendation? (128866)

As it happens, I agree with much of what Michael Heseltine set out in his report. Not only do we have a highly over-centralised political system in this country, but we have an economy that has over-relied on the City of London and the south-east, whereas we need to spread prosperity. He is very supportive not only of the regional growth fund and the localisation of business rates, but crucially and perhaps most radically of all, of the new city deals that we are entering into. I do not agree with him, as it happens, on the one point that my hon. Friend raises—moving all of local government on to a unitary basis, but I am well aware that that divides opinion across all parties.

T8. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that figures from Gingerbread and the Library of the House show that 115,000 lone parents in work and on tax credits in Scotland will be worse off working full time than part time when the universal credit is introduced next April and housing and child care costs are taken into account? Would this not completely undermine the Government’s promise to make work pay, and what is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about it? (128870)

First, we are going to improve the provision of child care, which is why as of April next year this is the first Government ever who will provide 15 hours of free child care and pre-school support to the children from the poorest families in the country. Secondly, we are raising the point at which people pay income tax, taking 2 million people on low pay out of income tax. Rather than brandishing figures, the hon. Gentleman should wait and see the details of how the universal credit will work, because the interaction between the universal credit and those tax changes will be some of the most progressive changes that have been introduced by any Government in living memory in order to make sure that work pays.

T6. Yesterday the Silk commission recommended that tax-raising —tax-varying—powers be granted to the National Assembly for Wales, a big decision requiring the approval of the people of Wales. If the party or parties which form the next Government have clearly and openly included this as manifesto commitments, will a referendum be needed? (128868)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Silk commission is divided into two parts. The first report, provided just this week, advocated a substantial change in the fiscal arrangements and the fiscal powers enjoyed by the Administration in Cardiff, analogous to what happened under the Calman process but in some important respects, particularly on income tax, going even further than the Calman design in Scotland. That will then be supplemented by a second report on the wider constitutional future of Wales. Only at that point will we be able to decide exactly how all those proposed changes will be adopted and possibly sanctioned by the people of Wales.

T12. Talking to people last Thursday, I found that few supported the introduction of police and crime commissioners, and even fewer understood why they might be necessary. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that he totally failed to make his case to the electorate? Will he now answer the question that has been asked twice already—would not the money have been better spent on more police officers or the building of affordable houses to kick-start the economy? (128874)

Surely the people who failed to make the case were all those Labour has-been politicians who did not get elected. I am still mystified. Even by Labour’s modern, contorted standards—let me get this right: the hon. Lady does not like police and crime commissioners, but she likes them enough to have Labour candidates. Then, when they do not win, she says that Labour never agreed with the introduction of PCCs in the first place. Who is she kidding?

T10. Many of my constituents think it is somewhat unwise for a Member of Parliament to disappear off to the jungle for a number of weeks. Will my right hon. Friend share his views on whether it is wise or not and, if he thinks it is a wise decision, whether he would disappear off on a reality television show, and which one he would choose to go on?

(128872)

I have been invited to go to New Zealand and it has been suggested that membership of the Liberal Democrats should be made illegal; I am not going to supplement all of that by commenting on where I end up in a reality TV show. Of course I think it is unwise. Whatever party we come from, we are all elected to do a job for our constituents. That is what people rightly expect of us, and it is no wonder that people have been so unhappy about the decision of one Member of this House to eat insects in the jungle instead.

T13. It was claimed last week that one of the reasons why we had police and crime commissioner elections was that police authorities had no democratic legitimacy—indeed the Conservative party chairman said that PCCs are 5 million times more legitimate than police authorities were. If that is the case, what legitimacy is held by Ministers of State who have no direct democratic input from this country but who are, in fact, appointed in a way that is much less transparent than appointments to police authorities? Where is the legitimacy for any Minister of State? (128875)

If I understand it correctly, the Labour party’s position is that there should be direct elections to police authorities, so it agrees that there should be a change in the arrangements to give the public a greater democratic say in how policing is organised in their local area. The policy happens to be one that was not advocated by my party, but it was, rightly and understandably, in the coalition agreement, having been brought in by the Conservatives, so it is right that we should deliver it. I remain nonplussed that the hon. Gentleman is now so critical of the policy when the posts were so ferociously contested by numerous—failed, as it turns out—Labour politicians last week.

T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Prime Minister, the House of Commons and the majority of the British public that prisoners should not get the right to vote, and will he oppose the will of the European Court of Human Rights on this matter? (128873)

As the hon. Lady well knows, this is a vexed subject. We have the Court ruling that, in its view, the blanket rule is not consistent with the law, and it set a deadline. The House has made its contrasting views very well known, and I know that the Secretary of State for Justice is to set out the next steps on the whole issue very shortly.

T14. I know the Deputy Prime Minister is an avid reader of the ConservativeHome website, written as it is by his coalition partners. In a recent article about the Boundary Commission review, and with particular reference to his party, it said:“the next election is our best opportunity in a generation to significantly cut their numbers. While they are down…we shouldn’t show mercy. We must finish them off.”Given those views from his coalition partners, can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House that his party’s Commons votes cannot be bought for some sort of short-term deal on state funding? (128877)

The hon. Lady does not normally welcome my views on most issues, but I will do as she asks. My view is that because of the failure to deliver the wider package of constitutional reform we entered into, it is entirely reasonable—a deal being a deal—that other parts of the package are not proceeded with. That is why my party wants the implementation of boundary changes to be delayed beyond the next general election, and that is how we will vote when the opportunity arises.

What progress has the Deputy Prime Minister made on additional support for disabled people to achieve elected office, and might that be in place by the 2015 general election?

I know that a great deal of work has been done across party boundaries to make sure that people with disabilities have greater access to this place. In July, we launched the access to elected office strategy, with the aim of doing just that; a new £2.6 million fund will help disabled candidates to meet the additional costs they face; we have three paid internships for disabled people on the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme; and there is new guidance for political parties on making reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of disabled members and candidates.

While the Deputy Prime Minister continues to discuss getting additional support for disabled people to achieve public office, which is an important matter, will he also ensure that impediments are removed from polling stations where disabled people wish to exercise their right to vote?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that local authorities and returning officers have an obligation to ensure unimpeded access for all voters so that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, can exercise their right to a democratic vote.

We now elect police commissioners, yet up and down the country, including in my constituency and in the Yorkshire dales and the Lake district, we have national park authorities, which, in effect, perform the function of a local council but are totally unelected by, and unaccountable to, the people they serve. Is it not time the Government looked at making our national park authorities democratically elected, too?

I, too, have a significant chunk of a national park in my constituency and know that this issue divides opinion among those who are familiar with our great national parks. I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s view that it would be a good thing if local people’s preferences were reflected more fully in the way national parks are governed, and I know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is actively looking at the issue.

In view of the miserable turnout at last Thursday’s elections for police and crime commissioners, will the Deputy Prime Minister and other members of his Government give a cast-iron guarantee that never again will they bleat about the turnout at trade union elections, which on average is more than double what we saw last Thursday?

The big difference is that police and crime commissioners do not write parliamentary questions for Government Members, which is what the trade union bosses do for Opposition Members, spoon-feeding them questions while funding 90% of all the Labour party’s financial needs. Police and crime commissioners do not fund either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat parties. That is quite a difference.

It is not just national park authorities that are unaccountable; many quangos up and down the country make decisions that affect many of our constituents. Does the Deputy Prime Minister have any plans to ensure that more of those decisions are made by elected representatives, rather than unaccountable bodies?

I think that the general principle that there should be greater legitimacy when people take decisions in the name of the public and which affect the public is an important one, and it is not one that found a great deal of favour across both sides of this House when we debated it as it applied to the House of Lords. We have made considerable efforts to streamline some of the extraordinary blizzard of unaccountable quangos that developed under Labour. I know that various Ministers have made considerable efforts in their Departments to reduce the number of quangos and introduce greater legitimacy in public decision making.

The Deputy Prime Minister has taken an admirable position in relation to the Leveson inquiry. Would it not be in the interests of transparency for all the e-mails between Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, while he was working at No. 10 Downing street and corresponding about the future of the licence fee and many other issues, to be in the public domain before the inquiry publishes its findings?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister has made it quite clear that he has provided all the e-mails and information required of him by the Leveson inquiry. On the inquiry generally, the hon. Gentleman also knows that my view has been for some time, given that we established the inquiry, which the previous Government did not do, that if the recommendations are workable and proportionate, we should proceed and seek to implement them.

Attorney-General

The Attorney-General was asked—

Specialist Rape and Child Abuse Prosecutors

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128878)

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that the CPS’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128883)

9. What steps he is taking to ensure that the CPS’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128886)

The prosecution of rape and child abuse is and will remain a key priority for the Crown Prosecution Service and will continue to be funded accordingly.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that rather brief response. Will child abuse cases always be prosecuted by specialist advocates or, as is now the case in rape trials, only when the specialist happens to be available?

That is not correct. All Crown Prosecution Service advocates have been trained in how to deal with domestic violence cases. Some 800 have been fully trained as rape specialists, and they are always involved in any rape case, so it is not right to say that that is not so. A network has been set up, under Mr Nazir Afzal, the chief Crown prosecutor for the north-west, to look at child sexual exploitation and improve prosecution, and it is proving successful.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has indicated that the Crown Prosecution Service’s failings in child grooming cases go well beyond Rochdale, and he said that a whole category of crimes has not been well treated by the criminal justice system. Does the Solicitor-General know how many cases the DPP is referring to and whether any of them will now be revisited by the CPS?

Whenever a case is the subject of further evidence or it is suggested that the right prosecution decision has not been made, the CPS takes that very seriously, and, as the hon. Lady will know, it reviews cases as appropriate. It is worth making the point that the CPS is improving its performance in rape and sexual abuse cases. Rape convictions are up by 4% year on year, and that is continuing in the current year, and there is an improvement across the area of sexual violence generally.

Rape convictions may be up, but they are still woefully low. Given that next Sunday is international day to end violence against women, will the Solicitor-General expand on his earlier comments about the number of specialist prosecutors? The key question is whether there are enough of them for justice to be pursued swiftly, which makes things better for the victim and more likely that a prosecution will be secured.

The hon. Lady is right to say that this is a key priority. It is extremely important that the Crown Prosecution Service deals effectively with these cases, which are so important. That is why a huge effort is going on, with improvements to guidance and ensuring that prosecutors are properly trained in this area. As she may know, the Director of Public Prosecutions himself led the training for prosecutors in the past year and made sure that particular reference was made to supporting witnesses. This is an area of vital concern. I could go on for hours, but I will not.

Does the Solicitor-General share my concern at the delay in prosecutions being brought in North Yorkshire because of the lack of a sexual assault and rape centre? Will he use his good offices to ensure that we have one at the first available opportunity not only to enable counselling to be given but forensic evidence to be taken to enable rapid prosecutions to take place?

It is important to have very good arrangements for the support of witnesses. As somebody who has prosecuted rape cases, I can say that they are not easy. It is very important that witnesses feel confident that they can give their evidence, and that is all about support. I will certainly look into the situation that my hon. Friend has mentioned, but she should not think anything other than that the Government take this extremely seriously, as does the Crown Prosecution Service.

Deferred Prosecution Agreements

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements on the level of economic crime. (128879)

It is not possible to quantify exactly what the effect of the new deferred prosecution agreements will be on the amount of economic crime, but we do believe that they will contribute to the welcome trend of an increase in self-reporting by organisations. That will enable the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service to obtain better evidence so that prosecutors will be able to bring more cases and restitution will be obtained, and this could lead to a reduction in the amount of economic crime.

What steps will the Minister take if the proportion of cases resolved by the CPS creeps higher than the Government have forecast in the impact assessment? Does he agree that a sunset clause of five years would be a sensible safeguard?

It is certainly important to recognise that this is not an alternative to prosecuting in serious cases, and the SFO and the CPS are very anxious to ensure that that is the case. It is particularly important that individuals should not feel that they have any way out of their liabilities, but this relates purely to organisations. A sunset clause is not contemplated at present, but the hon. Lady has put the idea forward and of course I will look at it. I thank her for making that important contribution.

But all too often directors of companies are, in effect, complicit in what has been going on when economic crime is involved in their organisation. They want to protect the company rather than self-declare. Indeed, this surely must lead the Crown Prosecution Service to take very seriously the idea, when directors are negligent, of bringing prosecutions under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 or the Data Protection Act against the body corporate—for instance, News International.

I clearly cannot comment on a particular case, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is important that this should be about self-reporting by companies. That does not let individuals off the hook, but it means that the business and jobs can continue and that these business entities have certainty, while ensuring that they are on tough conditions. The whole point of this is that a company should pay a penalty and be on tough conditions that will be monitored by a judge, to ensure that it cleans up its act and provides all the information necessary to the prosecution authorities.

Hillsborough

4. What recent representations he has received on an inquest into the death of Kevin Williams in the Hillsborough disaster; and if he will make a statement. (128881)

In relation to the death of Kevin Williams I have received a number of representations. I acknowledge the significant public support for Kevin Williams’s case to be accelerated. However, the evidence that supports a new inquest into Kevin Williams’s death is basically the same as that in relation to the deaths of all the other victims of Hillsborough. My duty is to act in the public interests of all the victims of Hillsborough and I consider that the wider public interest requires a single application to be made in relation to the inquests. I have made good progress on preparing an application to the High Court for new inquests in these cases and I expect to make the application in December.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will he join me in recognising the role that Mrs Williams has played in fighting for justice for the 96 in setting up the charity Hope for Hillsborough?

I entirely acknowledge her key role in this matter and am particularly troubled to hear of her ill health. As I have said, I will do everything I can to take this process forward as quickly as possible, but I have to consult properly. There are a number of things that I simply cannot short-cut. I am endeavouring to do it as fast as possible and, as I said a moment ago, I hope that I can stick to the timetable that I have identified.

I know that the families will welcome what the Attorney-General has said about making an application in December and I thank him for that. Anne Williams is seriously ill and all she wants is official recognition of why her son died. I know that the Attorney-General understands that, but could I urge him to do all he can to grant her wish before it is too late?

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he must also appreciate that my application is to quash the existing inquest verdict and, if that happens, for the court to order a fresh inquest or inquests. Once I have carried out my task of presenting the case to the court, my function will be at an end and I obviously cannot predict the time it would then take for the fresh inquests to take place. I have no doubt that, if the original inquest verdicts are quashed, it would be greatly in the public interest for the matter to move forward as quickly as possible, although, as I have told the House before, some criminal investigations might affect the time scale.

The e-petition calling for a speedy new inquest into Kevin’s death has passed the 100,000 mark in the past hour. May I add my voice to those of Government and Opposition Members calling for a speedy inquiry into Kevin’s death?

I fully appreciate the good reasons why many would sign such a petition. I acknowledge that entirely. I can only do my job properly and professionally. As I have said, a number of things have to take place, such as consultation with each individual family. Medical evidence also has to be reviewed so that I can reassure the court that any new inquest could reach an informed decision on the cause and time of death even on the basis of the paper documentation available. For that purpose, I have retained the services of an expert forensic pathologist. That just gives the House a flavour of what I have to do.

Could the Attorney-General assure the House that he has all the resources available to him to expedite this matter as quickly as possible?

Yes, this is not a resource issue; it is a mere time issue. We have written, for example, to the families—we have to consult them—and I think it is reasonable to give them a calendar month in which to respond, and that date has not yet expired. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that no short-cuts can be taken to take the matter to the court.

Prisoner Voting Rights

5. Whether he has given legal advice to the Secretary of State for Justice on the potential financial penalties the European Court of Human Rights could impose on the UK in respect of its policy on prisoners’ voting rights. (128882)

By long-standing convention observed by successive Governments, the fact and substance of advice from the Law Officers is not disclosed outside government. I hope that my hon. Friend will therefore understand why I cannot say whether I have given any legal advice in relation to this matter.

It may be helpful for my hon. Friend to know that the Strasbourg Court can order the payment of compensation and of legal costs and expenses, but cannot impose any other financial penalty. Non-financial sanctions are a matter for the Committee of Ministers and, ultimately, for the Council of Europe itself.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does he agree that this instance of judicial activism by the European Court of Human Rights seeks to undermine the democratic mandate of this House? Does he recognise that talk of the UK meeting its international obligations with respect to the Court’s judgment seems a bit premature when one considers that hundreds of unimplemented judgments are pending review by the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe?

No, I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. I do not believe that the democratic mandate of this House is challenged. Parliamentary sovereignty remains. It is open to Parliament to decide not to change the law. However, if Parliament chooses not to implement the judgment, it would be a serious matter, because it would place the UK in breach of international obligations to which it is a signatory. I accept that other countries are in breach of their implementation obligations, but that does not provide an excuse for not honouring our own.

In addition, it is right to point out that only one other pilot judgment, besides the Greens and MT judgment, has not been implemented. That is in a case concerning Ukraine. There are, of course, many hundreds of judgments at various stages of implementation, but that is a slightly different issue.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s answers are invariably works of scholarship, from which no matter that he judges could be of any conceivable interest would ever be excluded.

Does the Attorney-General agree that there are two good reasons why we should implement legislation on prisoners’ voting rights? Firstly, we would be adhering to our obligations under the European convention on human rights. Secondly, it is a useful part of the rehabilitative process that prisoners do not lose all their rights when they go to prison, but rather lose their liberty. The opportunity to vote is actually quite helpful, as the South Africans have found out now that they have universal voting rights for prisoners.

On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman may be correct. That is a matter for robust debate, which this House has had and may well continue to have on this subject. On the former point, it is right to say that the UK has always, in modern times, adhered to its international obligations. There are good reasons why a country should adhere to its international obligations, such as to set an example and to provide international confidence. Ultimately, of course, it is a matter for the House to determine.

Law on Contempt

In February 2011, an undertaking was given to the House that I would conduct an informal review of the law on contempt. As part of that process, I started consultations with various interested parties. However, my review has been overtaken by recent developments: Lord Neuberger’s report on super-injunctions, the Leveson inquiry and, of particular significance, the Law Commission’s review of the law on contempt. This last is a detailed and comprehensive formal review and the commission’s findings will doubtless inform what, if any, action is required from the Government.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that jurors are made aware of the sanctity of the jury room at the start of their jury service, and that possible offences under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, including use of social media, will be followed up?

Yes, I share my hon. Friend’s concern. The judiciary makes it clear to jurors that they must respect the sanctity of the jury room and avoid research on the internet. That message has been reinforced by a number of contempt proceedings that I have brought, including in the cases of Mrs Fraill, who revealed details of the jury’s deliberations, and Dr Dallas, who conducted research on the internet. Both received terms of imprisonment. I can also confirm that yesterday, the president of the Queen’s bench division issued a protocol on jury irregularities, which provides guidance to the judiciary and practitioners on how best to address contempt committed by jurors.

Jimmy Savile

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of cases referred to it in 2009 involving alleged sexual assaults by Jimmy Savile. (128885)

Neither I nor the Attorney-General have yet had discussions directly with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the case. This week, the Attorney-General was briefed by the principal legal adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Levitt QC, on her draft review, and I understand that that draft review is now with the director for consideration.

What consideration has been given to proposals by the Director of Public Prosecutions that the Crown Prosecution Service should be able to refer cases to other relevant agencies—such as social services—where it concludes that there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution?

The hon. Lady is right and it is an important point. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering its policy on how it shares information with other relevant agencies. It is, of course, important that disclosures and information that may be helpful in protecting a vulnerable person are shared where possible, and the Attorney-General and I feel that that process should be considered carefully and in a positive way.

Serious Fraud Office

I have appointed a new director to the Serious Fraud Office who started work in April. David Green QC has restructured the office, made high-profile appointments and built in layers of quality control. He has clearly restated the intent and purpose of the SFO, and I am confident that, as a result, we will see improved efficiency and performance. I have placed in the Libraries of both Houses the report of the inspection of the SFO by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, which I requested. I thank the chief inspector and his team for that helpful report, and confirm that the new director of the SFO has accepted all its recommendations and is already implementing them.

I thank the Attorney-General for that helpful reply. Does he agree that the SFO has a vital role to play in the drive against crime linked to corruption and bribery, but that UK exporters must know where they stand and be treated fairly? Can he confirm that the current guidelines are fit for purpose and that no major or fundamental changes will be made to them?

Bribery and corruption are serious offences. Guidelines have been published to help companies in that respect, and I have every confidence that no company will be prosecuted unless it has committed a serious offence. I cannot, however, give an undertaking that the guidelines will not be subject to review. The guidelines will evolve over time, and they are just that—guidelines. Ultimately, it is for the director of the SFO and the Director of Public Prosecutions to make a decision based on an evidential test and the public interest.

Two weeks ago we were astounded to learn that the former chief executive of the Serious Fraud Office had received an unauthorised send-off of £440,000 for just two years in the post. Last week we learned that the outgoing chief operating officer struck a confidential deal similar to that offered to Ms Williamson. What is the scale of that second payment and can it be stopped? Who knew about both payments, and when? Is this negligence, incompetence, or a deliberate bypassing of the system? Finally, what guarantees can the Attorney-General give the House that he is no longer asleep at the wheel?

First, neither I nor anyone in my office was aware of the irregular payments that were made. They came to light subsequently on the appointment of the new director, and are a matter of great concern to me, as are all irregular payments. I am satisfied that the new director has put in place all necessary measures to ensure that such a matter will not occur again. The hon. Lady asked about dates. I would be happy to write to her so that she is aware of exactly when the matter came to light, although I am afraid I do not have that recollection in my mind at the moment. I will ensure that her point about the chief operating officer is also answered.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that a request for further resources for the SFO to investigate the LIBOR scandal will be met favourably by the Government?

I reassure my hon. Friend that the matter has already met a favourable response from the Government in terms of ensuring that adequate funds are made available. My hon. Friends and colleagues in the Treasury will want reassurance that the money is being well used, but I am quite satisfied that money and resources are available for the SFO. The director and I are also quite satisfied that he has the necessary resources to carry out the investigation properly.