House of Commons
Tuesday 4 December 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 11 December (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
We continue to raise our concerns about the recent violence in Rakhine state, as well as the conflict in Kachin and Shan states, with Burmese Ministers and Aung San Suu Kyi. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the plight of the Rohingya community in recent discussions with the Burmese President, stressing the need to resolve their citizenship status. Officials continue to emphasise the importance of our humanitarian aid programmes in Bangladesh and Rakhine with the Bangladeshi and Burmese Governments.
I thank the Minister for that response. Does it not surprise him that Aung San Suu Kyi, the most respected and peaceable person in Burma, has been in effect excluded from steps to resolve the situation in Rakhine? Will he urge the Burmese Government to invite Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Rakhine state as soon as possible to help to calm the situation?
We very much welcome the statement that Aung San Suu Kyi made on 9 November, as chairman of the parliamentary committee on the rule of law, on the situation in Rakhine state. The issue was raised with her by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary when she was here in June, and our ambassador has raised it with her since. I will travel to that part of the world shortly and I will certainly discuss the issue with her, because I believe she has a role in resolving it and, indeed, all the problems facing Burma today.
We hear what the Minister says, but the situation is of great concern to all of us who care about minorities. I have been a critic in this House of the way in which Christians have been treated by Muslims in Pakistan—that is on the record—but this is a question of Muslims being persecuted in Burma. Can the United Nations and this country’s leadership and Government not do something about it?
Of course we remain extremely concerned about the situation in Burma, but we believe that it is moving in the right direction. We welcome President Obama’s recent visit there and I shall be taking a trade delegation on my visit. We believe that engaging with the Government commercially as well as politically is the right way to proceed. We are concerned about the ethnic violence and issues of religion, and we remain concerned—I shall raise these points forcefully when I am there—about the issue of the remaining political prisoners.
The Minister has rightly focused on issues regarding the Rohingya community in Burma, but equally there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh and 20,000 or 30,000 of them in refugee camps. What steps can the Minister take to persuade the Bangladesh Government to begin the registration of undocumented Rohingya refugees and to provide access for non-governmental organisations to the refugee camps?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The issue was raised by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary during a meeting with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on 28 July. The former Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), raised it with Prime Minister Hasina on 12 August. My noble friend Baroness Warsi raised it with the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, in October 2012 and the British high commissioner has also raised it in Bangladesh. It is important that we get aid to that part of Rakhine and that the Bangladeshis make it possible for that aid to reach the people.
The development of democracy in Burma will be successful only if it is pluralistic—a position that has long been held by the British Government. Is the Minister satisfied with the position that is being taken within the European Union, and what discussions has he had with his counterparts about ensuring that the common position does not move too quickly towards removing all sanctions and developing trade with Burma until all ethnic groupings are properly involved in its democracy?
As I have said, we have taken the view that the best way to encourage Burma on the path that we believe the President has set is to engage with them. We have taken a number of trade delegations there and I shall be taking one myself shortly. I have written to the chairman of the all-party group on Burma, the noble Baroness Kinnock, and, when I return from that part of the world—this will be in the new year—I am prepared happily to talk through what I will have learnt on the ground. I think I will be one of the few Ministers to have been to that area, so I will be able to give the hon. Lady a first-hand account of what I think is going on there.
While the focus has been on the Rohingya people and the atrocities that they have faced, including the destruction of a mosque recently, everybody in the area is suffering as a result of these problems. Will the Minister tell us how the humanitarian aid that we are providing will encourage a resolution to the difficulties?
I am pleased to say that we have an extremely good track record in that respect. We are one of the largest aid donors to Burma and have allocated £187 million to it over four years, which includes support for the process of ethnic reconciliation. We announced another £27 million in November for the humanitarian support of refugees and internally displaced people and for peace-building activities, drawing on our experiences in Northern Ireland. We have provided a further £2 million to Kachin, where there are 27,500 internally displaced people. We have a record that is second to none in providing the aid that is sorely needed in that part of the world.
I know from my visit to Burma in July that the country will welcome the trade delegation that the Minister is leading. However, I am concerned that, from feedback I have had and questions I have asked about other trade delegations that have been led by the Foreign Office in recent months, it seems that very little has been said about human rights on those trips. Will the Minister assure me that the plight of the Rohingya, the fate of political prisoners and other human rights issues in Burma will be very much on his agenda when he goes to Burma?
I can certainly give the hon. Lady that assurance. Trade is one part of what we are doing, as I have attempted to outline this morning. We believe in trade because, by engaging in it, we can form relationships and show the people of Burma what future they can have. However, that we are trying to increase our bilateral trade does not mean for a moment that we will ignore our drive for increased human rights and the recognition of different ethnic groups in Burma. I shall make those points to all the politicians I meet there. Indeed, I have made those points to the Burmese politicians I have already met.
My priority for the middle east is to support peace and stability by urging the United States, with the strong and active support of the EU, to take a decisive lead in pushing the peace process forward; ending the violence in Syria; securing a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question; and supporting democratic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his commitment to those matters. Those of us who for the whole of our adult lives have been supporters of the state of Israel and of a state for Palestine were pleased by the decision of the United Nations last week, but dismayed by the response of the Israeli Government, who suggested that settlements should be built to the east of Jerusalem, effectively separating the two parts of the west bank. What does the Foreign Secretary think is the best way of getting the message through to the Israeli Government that that is neither the way to win friends nor the way to win peace?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything that he has just said. We summoned the Israeli ambassador to the Foreign Office yesterday to hear exactly that message from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has responsibility for the middle east. If implemented, the plans that were announced on Friday would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that would make the two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital almost inconceivable, or certainly very difficult to implement. Much as we had misgivings, for some of the same reasons, about pressing for a resolution at the United Nations, we think that that was the wrong way for Israel to react. That message is coming loud and clear from all around Europe and the United States.
Summoning the Israeli ambassador for a stage-managed dressing down will achieve nothing and nor, quite frankly, will the isolation of Israel at the United Nations. Should Ministers not be redoubling their efforts to get Palestinians and Israelis who are prepared to talk to each other and who want to see peace to work together, because that is the only way we will achieve any progress towards a stable, two-state solution with a secure and safe Israel living peacefully alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state?
I agree with the main point of the hon. Gentleman’s question, although I assure him that nothing that the my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does is stage-managed. He imparted very clearly indeed the message that I think the whole House would agree with. The main point of the hon. Gentleman’s question is what I have expressed in all our discussions in the House over the past two weeks. Despite all the events of the past week, we have to achieve a return to negotiations and we particularly need the United States to play its necessary role in that. That is the only way in which we will secure a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one urgent priority must be for his Department to do whatever it can to help to end the indiscriminate carnage of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians by their own regime? May I commend him for persuading his European colleagues that reviews of the current arms embargo must be held every three months and not every year, and will he give urgent consideration to persuading his European colleagues—and, indeed, the Government—at least to allow air defence equipment to be made available to those trying to protect civilian communities throughout Syria?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He is right: last week the Government persuaded colleagues in the European Union that rather than roll over all sanctions on Syria for 12 months, including the arms embargo, we should do so for three months to allow ourselves flexibility to respond to a changing situation. As he knows, I do not follow him all the way in saying that we should supply air defence equipment, although opposition groups in Syria are clearly acquiring a variety of anti-aircraft weapons. The Government will be intensifying further not only our humanitarian assistance but our diplomatic efforts—including with Russia—to try to find a way forward on Syria.
Is not the building of additional illegal settlements, in addition to settlements that already house 500,000 people, a blatant breach of international law, together with the theft by the Israeli Government of huge sums of tax revenues belonging to the Palestinians? When will we take action such as economic sanctions or an arms embargo against this rogue state that is committing criminal acts?
The settlements are illegal and on occupied land, and the latest announcement undermines Israel’s international reputation and creates doubts about its stated commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians. The Government have, of course, strongly advised Israel to reverse that decision. I spoke to the Israeli Foreign and Defence Ministers over the weekend, in addition to what the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has done. We must remember, however, the point made by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin): only successful negotiation will resolve this issue, and that will require the willing participation of Israel as well as the Palestinians.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with our European partners following the General Assembly vote and Israel’s extremely regrettable response, bearing in mind the fact that the European Union is Israel’s most important trading and economic partner?
I am working closely with the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, with whom I spoke over the weekend. That was why the UK and France together summoned the Israeli ambassadors yesterday, and other EU partners then did the same. I have also been talking to the French and German Foreign Ministers about how we can more actively support a US initiative in the area over the coming month, with European states contributing to incentives and disincentives for both sides to return to negotiations.
The Foreign Secretary has shared with the House a number of calls that he has made to Ministers over recent days on the middle east. Given the announcement by the Israeli Government about further expansion of settlements, which we have already discussed, and the summoning of the Israeli ambassador to King Charles street yesterday, will the Foreign Secretary explain how abstaining in last week’s vote at the United Nations enhanced the UK’s influence with either Israel or the Palestinians?
The United Kingdom is in exactly the same position as before regarding influence with the Palestinians and Israel. We have frank but warm relations with the Palestinians and, of course, we are always able to speak to the Israelis. Countries that voted no or yes or abstained were all in the same position over the weekend in disapproving of the Israeli decision and placing pressure on Israel to reverse it. I do not believe that the different ways in which we voted in the General Assembly made any difference to that.
Let me ask a practical question. In the light of the decision by the Israeli Government to withhold £75 million of Palestinian customs duties, what conversations have Ministers had in recent days with international partners on how to sustain a functioning Palestinian authority? In the immediate term, that would ensure the continuing operation of Palestinian security forces on the west bank, but in the medium term it holds out the prospect of credible negotiating partners for the Israelis.
Of course we are in discussions with other countries on this matter. We must assess exactly what the financial implications are. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are already a major donor to the Palestinian Authority and the fourth biggest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The immediate action has been that the consul general in Jerusalem and a Department for International Development team have visited Gaza to assess the situation there, but we must see how we can further assist if there is a deepening financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority.
The Gaddafi regime left a terrible legacy, with many victims both in Libya and in the UK. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I have consistently raised Gaddafi’s relationship with the IRA when we have seen the Libyan authorities.
It is now accepted that Libya provided the Semtex used both at Lockerbie and at the Warrington bombing in 1993. The US Government are vigorously pursuing a claim on behalf of the Lockerbie victims, whereas the UK is more passive in its support for the equivalent McCue case. Will the Minister review our position and undertake to go the extra mile for the UK victims, including those living in Warrington?
I know my hon. Friend’s position and his close relationship with those who suffered in Warrington, not least Colin Parry and his family. It has not been the UK’s position specifically to support individual compensation claims—that has been done privately—but the UK has offered facilitation and support to those making such claims. More important, the UK has also been able to support a process of reconciliation with the new Libyan authorities to make good the comment of President Magarief at the UN in September—he apologised for the crimes of the despot and is looking to try to ensure that things are repaired. We are working continually with the Libyan authorities on that. I am going there next week to help in that process.
With the Prime Minister increasingly marginalised and nobody believing a word that comes out of the Scottish First Minister’s mouth, what can the Minister do to protect the £9.7 billion of exports from Scotland to the EU, and to ensure that there is a credible single market in future?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before he saw the outcome of the European Council at the end of last month. Given the emphasis he places on trade, I am sure he will have warmly welcomed our Prime Minister’s intervention to secure the free trade agreement between the EU and South Korea, which is already delivering opportunities for British businesses. I am sure he will also welcome the British Government’s strong support for the opening of trade negotiations between Europe and Japan, which was agreed last week.
Now that the penny has finally dropped within the eurozone that it cannot have monetary union without fiscal union, which in turn leads to closer political and economic union, what guarantees can the Government give that a caucus within the eurozone will not override UK interests within the single market?
This is something to which we are giving priority both in the immediate discussions on banking union and in all future negotiations on the future of the EU. I can give some reassurance to my hon. Friend. The requirements of the single market are written into the treaties and the terms of numerous items of EU legislation. On top of that, all 27 Heads of State and Government have made repeated commitments at European Councils that they are committed to defend the integrity of the single market.
But the Minister knows how important access to the single market is to our ability to attract foreign investment in, for example, car manufacturing. Surely he admits that there is a growing resistance in Europe to what is seen as the Government’s à la carte approach to their membership. Does he accept that that is becoming dangerous to our economic interests?
Our colleagues in the EU fully accept that we have taken a sovereign decision, which I thought was supported on both sides of the House, to stay out of the euro. It therefore follows that we do not take part in certain arrangements. However, I also find that my European counterparts are eager to work closely with us on measures to develop free trade further; to strengthen the single market—for example, to cover the digital economy, transport and energy—and to find ways to cut the cost and complexity of regulation, which applies to all European businesses.
There appear to be a number of siren voices now starting to question the value of the single market to the United Kingdom. Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, do some detailed work to set out the exact value to the UK of our being part of the single market, and put that work in the Library?
A lot of this type of information is likely to emerge from submissions by businesses and their representative organisations to the balance of competences review which is now under way. To take one example, British car manufacturers would probably face tariffs of just under £1 billion a year were we to be outside the single market and paying the 10% tariff to export to the EU. Membership of the single market directly sustains jobs and prosperity in places such as Swindon, Solihull and Washington New Town.
During the recent Gaza conflict, I underlined to Israel the need to abide by international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties. I welcome the ceasefire reached on 21 November, and I am urging all parties to fulfil their commitments under that agreement.
Although I welcome the ceasefire, does the Foreign Secretary share my concerns that UN figures show that since 2003 as many Gazans have died during periods of calm as they have during periods of conflict? That appears to show that there has been systemic failure by the Israelis in protecting civilians in Gaza. What he is going to do about that?
Of course we are concerned about the wider situation, including the humanitarian situation—I spoke a moment ago about the visit of the Department for International Development and the consul general. It is why we urge all parties concerned to take the opportunity that might arise from the tragic events of the past few weeks not only to observe the ceasefire but to go on to make agreements that will open up Gaza to trade and to development more effectively, and to end the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. If those things could be achieved, the situation would be much brighter for all the people of Gaza.
During the recent conflict, many of the rockets fired from Gaza never actually left Gaza and injured large numbers of Palestinians. At the same time, the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt appear to have reopened, allowing the Iranian-supplied missiles to be restocked in Hamas’s arsenal. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to stop that practice, so that conflict does not arise again?
My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to those factors. The answer is connected to the answer I gave a moment ago to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin). There is an opportunity for Egyptian-led negotiations to bring the smuggling of weapons to an end, and to open up access into Gaza. That is an opportunity that all concerned must seize. We have strongly encouraged the Egyptian Foreign Minister in that work. I congratulated him on the night of the ceasefire on achieving that. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, who has responsibility for the middle east, has spoken to the Egyptians to encourage this—it is the way forward.
I will be with the Russian Foreign Minister on several occasions this week, including in Dublin on Thursday at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit, so I anticipate holding discussions with the Russians during the course of this week.
The United Kingdom plays a leading role in supporting the political transition efforts in Yemen. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary chairs the Friends of Yemen ministerial group, and our ambassador is in regular contact with Government, the opposition and civil society in Yemen.
I thank the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for giving Yemen their personal attention. I draw his attention to the publication today of the Amnesty International report showing that Ansar al-Sharia might be resurgent in the southern part of Yemen. They were responsible for extra-judicial killings, crucifixions and torture. What support can the Government give to President Hadi to deal with this terrible group?
In return, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his unfailing attention to this, his courtesy in dealing with us and our officials, and the work of his all-party group.
The circumstances in the south continue to cause great concern. I am aware of the Amnesty International report, and we will continue to work in the south to bring the parties together and resolve the political difficulties that are now part of the national political dialogue. However, the re-entry into the area of such an unpleasant and dangerous group will be a focus of a visit to Yemen that I hope to make in the not-too-distant future, when I hope to be able to raise the subject directly with the authorities there.
Will the Minister please ensure that the political settlement process remains as genuinely inclusive as possible? In particular, will he ensure that the temptation to exclude the Houthi group, for being pro-Iranian, or parts of the Hirak, because of their extremism, is resisted and that as many people as possible are at the table?
As my hon. Friend knows from his own recent activities there, the Yemeni process manages to bring together people who, in other circumstances, it might be difficult to get round the table. I have not yet experienced a sense of exclusion of certain parties, but it is always a danger. If there is to be an answer in Yemen—among the many difficulties in the region, the process in Yemen towards a political transition has been more successful than most—it is essential that it comprises all those with a role to play. Certainly, his concerns will be borne in mind by the ambassador and all the rest of us.
We welcome the agreed ceasefire following the crisis in Gaza. The recent violence only highlights the urgent need for the United States, supported by the UK and other partners, to launch a new initiative to push the peace process forward in 2013 to achieve a two-state solution.
Like many MPs, I am sure, I have been overwhelmed by messages from constituents asking me to express their horror and despair at the violence and the casualties in Gaza. What reassurances can the Foreign Secretary offer them regarding the security of civilians in Gaza, and does he agree that there cannot be a two-state solution without secure and viable borders for both states?
Yes, absolutely. The way forward is what we discussed a few moments ago: to make a success of the second stage of the ceasefire negotiations. Egypt did a very good job, supported by the UN Secretary-General and the United States, in bringing about the ceasefire. Now it is important to conclude the second stage, which will bring—we hope—improved access and an end to the smuggling of weapons. The hon. Lady is right to say that secure borders are necessary for Israel, as, too, is having a viable, sovereign state of Palestine. That is what we want for Palestinians.
The Foreign Secretary told the House earlier that the additional settlement building in the E1 area of East Jerusalem announced last week would clearly be unlawful. What prospect is there of prevailing on Israel to comply instead with the requirements of international law?
That is the point that the world is stressing to Israel—that those settlements are illegal, that they are on occupied land and, in particular, that the unfreezing of development in what is known as the E1 block threatens the prospect of a future Palestinian state being able to operate on contiguous land. This point is being made strongly, not only by us and our European partners but by the US and the whole Arab world. I hope that despite the election campaign in Israel—election campaigns affect the politics of any country—it will listen carefully to those points.
I welcome those comments from the Foreign Secretary, but we have been here before, and he must grow weary of repeating to the Israeli Government his condemnation of illegal settlement activity. Given the importance of Europe as a market for Israeli goods and services, which European Ministers shy away from putting economic muscle behind our protestations, and can he assure the House that he is not one of them?
I do not think there is enthusiasm around the European Union for that. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) talked earlier about economic sanctions in Europe against Israel, but I do not believe there would be anywhere near a consensus on that, nor is it our approach. We continue to try to bring both sides back into negotiations. Nevertheless, if there is no reversal of the decision that has been announced, we will want to consider what further steps European countries can take and I will discuss that with my counterparts in other EU nations.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that peace talks would bring added security to Israel and Gaza? What steps does he intend to take to get the parties to the table again? Indeed, what steps would need to be taken to introduce a sanctions regime, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames)?
On the latter point, my reaction is the one I have already given. On the steps that are necessary to resume negotiations, of course this will require all sides to draw back from steps that make entering into negotiations more difficult. We have seen a sequence over the last week that has taken us further away from negotiations, rather than closer to them. This will require the decisive involvement of the United States. Indeed, I have said to Secretary Clinton that it will require from the United States the greatest efforts since the Oslo peace accords—a level of that intensity—to carry forward and restart the negotiation process.
Further to the Foreign Secretary’s earlier reply, now that Iranian-manufactured weapons have been fired from Gaza and have landed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, what urgent action is he taking to stop the transportation of such weapons and how concerned is he about Iran’s role in fomenting conflict in the region?
I am very concerned about Iran’s role, as I think I have said before in the House. Indeed, there is substantial evidence of Iranian involvement and Iranian weapons being supplied, including those fired against Israel. The hon. Lady is quite right about that. Of course, the solution to that is ending the smuggling of weapons in Gaza from wherever they come—from Iran or anywhere else. It is now possible to reach such an agreement, with good will and further effort after the ceasefire agreement on all sides, so our main effort will be supporting that diplomatic initiative.
Is not one of the most offensive features of recent days the fact that the exercise of a legal right by the Palestinians at the United Nations has been met by illegal retaliation by the Israeli Government? Does my right hon. Friend accept that such illegal action serves only to undermine the authority of Mahmoud Abbas—and indeed of the Palestinian National Authority, which he leads—and in addition encourages those Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, who wrongly believe that violence is justified?
The announcement of additional housing units and the unfreezing of development in the E1 block undermines Israel’s reputation, as I said earlier, but it also undermines the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to bring about a two-state solution and could therefore embolden more extreme elements. These are among the reasons why it is an unwise policy and why we will look to Israel to reverse it.
The Foreign Secretary has told us of the representations that he and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), have made to the Israeli Government. Will he tell us something of Israel’s response to those representations? What assessment has he made of the growing legal opinion internationally that anyone who trades with an illegal entity is themselves complicit in an illegal act?
Clearly the Israeli Government have not yet changed or reversed their decision. Ambassadors in these situations take back the representations of the host Government, which the Israeli ambassador committed himself to do at the meeting with the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire. We will continue to make such representations, as will so many other countries, but Sunday’s cabinet did not reverse the decision that was announced on Friday, so we will need to continue with this work.
The answer on trade and sanctions is really the one I gave earlier. Arms exports are covered by our consolidated criteria—we look at those strictly—but it is highly unlikely that wider economic measures in any direction will contribute to peace in the middle east.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a retrograde step to break off diplomatic relations with Israel, especially given that successive Israeli Governments have said that they would withdraw from most of the west bank under a properly negotiated treaty?
We hope of course that that will happen in due course. Diplomacy is what is needed most of all in this situation, so I do not think that we would contemplate breaking off diplomatic relations with any of those involved, but we are going to have to ramp up our diplomatic efforts in various ways. I am not going to rule out any diplomatic options over the coming weeks.
EU Banking Union
I have made it clear to my colleagues in the European Union that while we accept that the eurozone needs a banking union, the detailed arrangements need to safeguard the interests of those member states that will not be part of the eurozone or of the banking union.
I reject the hon. Gentleman’s caricature of our position. We are playing an extremely active and constructive part in the negotiations. We recognise that getting the arrangements for a banking union sorted out is of real importance to our friends and partners who have committed themselves to the single currency, and that their financial stability will be of great benefit to the United Kingdom’s economic interests.
The International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde said at the weekend that a banking union was the first priority in saving the eurozone. If the Minister agrees with that, will he tell us precisely how many EU states agree with his plan for double majority voting to ensure that rules applying to banks in Britain are not dictated by a banking union bloc through the European Banking Authority?
All 27 EU Heads of State and Government said in the conclusions to the October European Council that, in the arrangements for a banking union, there needed to be a “level playing field” between the ins and the outs, as well as safeguards
“in full respect of the integrity of the single market in financial services.”
Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read the blueprint published over the weekend by Mr Barroso, which contains 50 pages of detailed proposals for a full banking, fiscal and, ultimately, political union? Does he think that any of the proposals that this country has made have the remotest chance of being listened to in the context of that document, and of what Mr Noyer said the other day? Lastly, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the European Scrutiny Committee receives an early explanatory memorandum from the Government on those proposals?
I read President Barroso’s comments with interest. He was of course talking not about the immediate negotiations on a banking union but about the longer-term development of the eurozone and how to safeguard its stability. That objective is in the interests of the United Kingdom, but it is true to say that at some stage there needs to be a sensible, grown-up conversation between all members of the EU to work out the right architecture for a future Europe in which some will be members of the single currency and others will remain outside it.
At the recent European Union Council, the UK held a quadrilateral meeting with the Danes, the Dutch, the Swedes and the Finns. Will the Minister take this opportunity to outline the areas of common interest with those nations, and to underscore the importance of joint working with our northern European neighbours?
We talk to our northern European neighbours and, indeed, to other member states about the whole range of issues on the agenda of any particular European Council meeting. The countries that are not in the single currency certainly have a common interest in ensuring that whatever arrangements the eurozone may agree—they are some distance from agreeing among themselves about the right design at the moment—they take proper account of the integrity of the single market and the interests of those who are not part of the euro.
Following the failure of the Government’s too little, too late approach to the recent EU budget negotiations and given the Government’s isolation in Europe, there are now indications that the Prime Minister is preparing to cede powers and influence over the eurozone banking union in return for minor tweaks to the EU budget. Is there not now a real risk that the Government will neither secure a good deal for British taxpayers nor deliver safeguards to British business on the banking union?
That was another script written before the European Council concluded. I have to say to the hon. Lady not only that this Government have a confirmed commitment and record of working to secure the national interest of the United Kingdom, but that that record sits in stark contrast with the record of the shadow Foreign Secretary, who gave away £7 billion of the United Kingdom’s rebate when he held this office.
Order. I gently say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has now left the Chamber and for whom I have the highest regard, that it is a courtesy to remain within the Chamber until all exchanges on the question posed have been completed. I feel sure that the hon. Member for Stone is as interested in everybody else’s opinions as he undoubtedly is in his own.
The humanitarian situation in Syria is dire. We have provided £53.5 million of assistance so far and are urging others to increase donations to the UN appeal.
Forty thousand dead, 2.5 million internally displaced, 200,000 refugees and, yesterday, more people killed in Syria by the Ba’athist regime than were killed in the whole of the Gaza conflict. President Obama has talked about “serious consequences” if Assad uses chemical weapons. Why are there no serious consequences already from the international community about what is going on in Syria, and what does President Obama mean by “serious consequences”?
The hon. Gentleman is familiar with the policy we have pursued towards Syria. There is no military solution in Syria; we are seeking a peaceful, political and diplomatic solution. We continue to do that, while recognising the new national coalition of the opposition, giving it increased but non-lethal assistance and delivering humanitarian aid on the scale I have described. I want to reiterate what President Obama has said—that any use of chemical or biological weapons would be even more abhorrent than anything we have seen so far. We have made it clear that this would draw a serious response from the international community. We have made that very clear to representatives of the Syrian regime and have said that we would seek to hold them responsible for such actions.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement a few minutes ago that he will shortly have further discussions with Russia. How will he respond if the Russians make it clear that they are not going to allow a western-backed Sunni rebellion to overthrow the Alawite regime?
My right hon. Friend’s question poses a number of questions. As we have discussed before, the motivations of the opposition in Syria are very complex. Yes, there is of course a lot of Sunni influence, but people of many different religious affiliations are involved in the opposition. They are not merely western-backed—they are particularly Arab-backed, so I would not want to define them as a western-backed opposition. It is in Russia’s interest to agree to a diplomatic solution for a transitional Government in Syria, and I hope the Russians will see the arguments for that at the meetings this week and subsequently.
16. What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Rwanda on violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (131115)
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have pressed Presidents Kagame and Kabila to work together to end the crisis. When I spoke at the United Nations in September, I made it clear that external support for the M23 rebels must stop. We welcome the communiqués that were issued recently by the Presidents of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, but it is crucial that they are translated into action to achieve sustainable stability in the eastern DRC.
The final report from the United Nations group of experts on M23 and the DRC has been publicly released, and the Prime Minister himself has said that the international community cannot ignore evidence of Rwandan involvement with M23. In view of the report, does the Secretary of State think that the decision of the former Secretary of State for International Development to reinstate budget support was wise?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the subject of the report from the UN group of experts, which has formed part of the information that the International Development Secretary has considered in reaching a decision about the aid budget and direct support for the Rwandan Government. However, the communiqués issued by the Ugandan, Rwandan and DRC Presidents stipulate that there must be a solution to the problem in the eastern DRC, which means not just a resolution of the conflict now but longer-term measures to ensure that the cycle of conflict is broken.
In September, when the former International Development Secretary gave £21 million of aid to Rwanda, what advice did the Department offer ahead of his decision? What advice did it offer last week, when the current Secretary of State cancelled the money? Was it different from the advice that was given in September?
Before the decision made in September by the former Secretary of State and the decisions made by the current Secretary of State, the Foreign Office and other relevant Departments were consulted, and the decisions were made across Government with the full agreement of those Departments.
Today I shall attend the NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels, where I shall support Turkey’s request for NATO to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey. Tomorrow I shall host a trilateral meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss Pakistan’s support for the stabilisation of Afghanistan.
I think that we were right to argue that pressing a resolution at the United Nations at this juncture—at this very moment—could lead to fresh complications, that we were right to argue that its amendment would have mitigated the consequences, and that we are right to argue now that Israel should not expand settlements on occupied land. All those positions are, I believe, correct.
T4. Do Ministers consider it a possibility that next year it could be a UK Government priority and a European Union priority to seek to end the division of Cyprus once its new President has been elected in February, given the good will that I understand exists in both communities in Cyprus—in part—in Turkey, and, I hope, in Greece? (131128)
I certainly hope that that will prove possible, but clearly a major new initiative must await the outcome of the Cypriot presidential election in February. I hope that whoever is elected will set ambitious goals, working with Turkish Cypriot leaders, the guarantor powers, the United Nations and others to bring about a settlement that would be profoundly in the interests of all communities on the island.
In view of heightened international anxiety about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, the United States has indicated that it is preparing contingency plans. Can the Foreign Secretary say whether the British Government’s assessment of that potential threat has been heightened in recent days, and whether the United Kingdom is contributing, or has already contributed, to international contingency planning?
Yes, our understanding of the threat has been heightened in recent days. We have seen some of the same evidence as the United States. I cannot give any more details, but I can say that we have already reacted diplomatically. We have expressed in no uncertain terms, directly to the Syrian regime, the gravity of any use of chemical weapons. In our view, as the Prime Minister has said before, that would require us to revisit our approach to Syria. I cannot, of course, discuss contingency plans in any detail, but we in the UK, including those of us in the Ministry of Defence, are always ready with a wide range of such plans.
T5. As chairman of the all-party group on Azerbaijan, yesterday I met representatives of the Azerbaijan Foundation of Democracy Development and Human Rights Protection. They made clear to me their strong desire to see the development of a free press in Azerbaijan. What can Britain and the British Government do to promote a free and unregulated press in Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus? (131129)
I share my hon. Friend’s view that a free press is integral to democracy in any country. The British Government have provided funding for professional training for journalists in Azerbaijan, and we support vigorously the work of the Council of Europe, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to encourage and promote media freedom both in Azerbaijan and more widely in the southern Caucasus region.
The EU is actively considering whether the voluntary labelling scheme that has been in existence in the United Kingdom for some time might be extended to other countries. This matter is frequently taken up by our representatives, and discussions are ongoing.
The alarm bells are ringing over President Morsi of Egypt’s vast expansion of powers by presidential decree. A generous interpretation is that he is trying, by hook or by crook, to get the constitution on to the statute book; less charitably, it could be seen as a path to an Islamic state without the involvement of, or consultation with, Christians, liberals or women. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment?
My hon. Friend’s question illustrates the arguments on both sides in Egypt, and we have taken the view that it is not helpful for us to give a day-to-day commentary on a political controversy or struggle within that country. We are, of course, calling for effective dialogue between all the parties involved in Egypt, and we have expressed our concerns about a democratic constitution not being agreed that is satisfactory to most of the country, but there will be a referendum, now scheduled for 15 December, and it is interesting to note that as of yesterday the Salafists, who are on the more strongly Islamic wing of Egyptian politics, are threatening to boycott the referendum because the proposal is not Islamic enough.
T6. Is it not clear that the Netanyahu Government are completely impervious to words of condemnation or even the summoning of ambassadors, and that the time has come for action? Uncharacteristically, the Secretary of State dodged earlier questions about trade with the illegal settlements. Will he now take the lead in Europe by implementing a ban on all trade with the settlements, which, as he himself has repeated again in this House, are illegal? (131131)
My reaction to calls for economic sanctions of various kinds has not changed, but I also want to stress another point I made earlier: we will be discussing with other EU nations what our next steps will be, because the Israeli Government have not yet responded favourably to the representations we and other countries have made. We will be discussing that with other European Governments, therefore, but I would not want to raise the right hon. Gentleman’s hopes that there would be enthusiasm around the EU for such economic measures.
I know the Minister will join me in welcoming the premiers, chief ministers and Heads of Government of the British overseas territories, who are in London this week for the first overseas territories ministerial council. Will he update the House on the progress the Government are making with our overseas territories following the publication of this year’s White Paper?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, and I congratulate him on the important work he has done in ensuring there are strengthening ties between the UK and the overseas territories. As he said, most, if not all, the overseas territories leaders are in London this week for the first joint ministerial council, at which we will be exploring how the UK Government, and most of the UK Government Departments, can strengthen ties in respect of financial and fiscal responsibility, building capacity in the Governments of the overseas territories and, importantly, strengthening environmental and economic and trade ties.
T7. In the light of the increasing instability in the middle east and concerns about a possible nuclear arms race in the region, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what pressure the British Government are exerting on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? (131133)
This is a long-running issue, on top of all the other issues concerning Israel and the middle east that we have discussed today. Israel has maintained a position over decades of not signing the NPT. In the last review conference of the NPT we strongly encouraged the idea that there should be a conference dedicated to the middle east, and a Finnish facilitator of that conference has now been appointed. Disappointingly, the conference is not taking place this year, but we hope it will take place soon.
May I support the Government’s work towards an arms trade treaty? Does the Minister agree that as we seek to build a more sustainable economic model, we would do well to think about selling to the fastest-emerging nations our leadership in science—in agriculture and medicine—rather than arms?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for our work on an arms trade treaty, and we head towards a final conference at the UN next March seeking a robust, effective and legally binding one. His point about extending our opportunities through life sciences to growing economies—the USA, Canada, Brazil and India—is well taken. UK Trade and Investment is working hard on this matter and has already supported life science conferences in Abu Dhabi, Brazil and Germany this year.
T8. Why was the Foreign Secretary unsuccessful in stopping the former International Development Secretary’s decision to restore aid to Rwanda, despite the breach of the memorandum of understanding between the UK and Rwanda—or was he fully in favour of that decision? (131134)
The hon. Gentleman is trying to rewrite history. The previous Secretary of State for International Development first suspended direct budgetary support to Rwanda in July. He then, through detailed consultation with the Foreign Office and other Departments, partially restored it in September. The report by the group of experts, whose evidence we find compelling and credible, came out and we analysed it. As the partnership agreements between DFID and the Rwandan Government were also clearly not being honoured, the decision was made by the International Development Secretary, in consultation with Departments, to suspend direct budgetary support to Rwanda.
Rape is a pernicious weapon of war. Given the violence inflicted on women in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo by the M23, what conversations is the Minister having with his counterparts in Rwanda to get them to use their influence to end such violence?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this very important issue. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has instigated a policy and a determination to instil a preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative to end immunity. I have had discussions in the region with senior Ministers in the Rwandan Government and with the President of the DRC to try to encourage them to engage with this very important initiative, to stop not just the rapes, but having child soldiers in the eastern DRC.
Ministers have been careful not to accuse the Burmese Government of orchestrating the violence towards the Rohingya. Last night, al-Jazeera released new evidence to suggest that the Burmese authorities, the military, the security services and local government officials have been involved in that sectarian violence towards the Rohingya. Will the Minister examine that evidence? If he finds it compelling, will he make the strongest possible representations to the Burmese Government that this violence has to end and that the Rohingya should be granted citizenship?
Of course the Burmese Government have set up an internal review into what has gone on in Rakhine, and we await the outcome of that. I can say to the hon. Gentleman only what I said earlier in the House: I shall travel to the area shortly and on my return I shall make myself available to the all-party group on Burma, when I will be able to pass on first-hand experience of what I have found on the ground, rather than some of these stories coming out of Burma at the moment.
There are substantial opportunities for trade with Brazil as it prepares for the Olympics and World cup. Being able to speak Portuguese is a big advantage in doing business in Brazil, so will my right hon. Friend outline what progress is being made in improving foreign language skills for the purpose of boosting trade?
We are very keen to improve foreign language skills, not least in Brazil. I was there on a visit with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a few months ago, and one of the things we discussed was getting more people to learn English in Brazil. We have had some extremely successful visits to Brazil by the sports Minister and others in the run-up to the Rio Olympics. As my hon. Friend says, our bilateral relations with Brazil are extremely good, and we hope that we can look forward to a period of increased trade.
Actions speak louder than words and despite the Foreign Secretary’s comments that our vote last week at the UN made no difference to our negotiation position, I can assure him that the UK’s failure to back the Palestinian resolution has severely undermined our credibility in the middle east. What actions are the UK Government taking to end the growth of illegal settlements and end the siege and blockade on Gaza?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will visit the Gulf over the weekend and I think that we will find that UK influence is as strong as it was. It has grown considerably in recent years, and that will continue. We are making efforts, which I have described throughout this Question Time, to support the work of the Egyptian Government on Gaza, to deliver an unequivocal message to Israel and to encourage all back into negotiations, including Palestinians, without preconditions.
The Secretary of State constantly confirms that the occupation of Palestinian land is illegal under international law. What does he think the difference is in the mind of the Israeli Government between something lawful and something unlawful but unenforced by the international community? What is the difference?
I think the hon. Gentleman would have to direct that question to the Israeli Government. We are clear that the settlements are illegal and on occupied land, but we are also clear, as we have discussed in this House several times over the past few weeks, that we will resolve that only through a successful negotiation. I have not heard anybody argue that there is any other way to resolve it other than Israelis and Palestinians succeeding in negotiation together. We must encourage that process, which of course constrains us in many other things that people advocate that we do.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, the Home Secretary met the deadline for appeal to the Court of Appeal in respect of Abu Qatada. She also wrote to me that rather than seeking to uphold the test confirmed by our own highest court, under which she could deport Qatada:
“A decision was taken to adopt the test laid down in January by the Strasbourg court, essentially because we considered the domestic courts were bound to follow it”.
Is it not the duty of Ministers to uphold the law as passed by this House and interpreted by our highest court rather than to surrender to Strasbourg?
Although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s extreme strength of feeling on this matter, I do not see a point of order there. I also think he is in some danger of veering or trending into areas that are essentially sub judice and I would urge him to be cautious about that. I know that he will find other ways in which to pursue his concerns on this matter and I am sure that will happen.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You said that owing to the limitations of time a number of Members could not be called and we all understand that. We cannot change time. You will have heard the strength of feeling, however, on the Palestinian/Israeli issue that was expressed from Members on both sides of the House about what the Israelis intend to do, which is totally unacceptable. Will there be an opportunity before the Christmas recess to raise that question, as the next Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions will take place well into next year?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. There are various possibilities. First, there is the business question on Thursday morning, at which Members can seek an assurance from the Leader of the House about debating time before Christmas. Secondly, it is open to any hon. Member to apply to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate in short order. Thirdly, there are other mechanisms open to Members if they seek to engage Ministers in further exchanges on such matters. I say that without prejudice, but I hope that it is a helpful reply to the hon. Gentleman. I am certainly conscious of his strength of feeling and a wider sense of it within the House.
Human Rights Act 1998 (Repeal)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998; and for connected purposes.
The Human Rights Act 1998 gives effect in UK law to the rights and freedoms under the European convention on human rights and makes available in UK courts a remedy for breach of a convention right. Under section 2 of the Act, a court or tribunal in the UK determining a question that has arisen in connection with a convention right must take into account any judgment, decision, declaration or advisory opinion of the European Court of Human Rights. Under section 3, primary and subordinate legislation must, so far as it is possible to do so, be read and given effect in a way that is compatible with the convention rights. This applies to any primary and subordinate legislation whenever it was enacted.
Section 3 also states that this provision does not affect the validity of any incompatible legislation, although it is also true under section 6 that it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible with a convention right. As we have seen, the view of successive Governments over the years has been that when a UK law is found to be incompatible with the European convention, it is the UK law that gives way to secure compliance with the convention.
Indeed, the Human Rights Act conveniently supplies a fast-track procedure to facilitate this happening quickly. Under section 10, a Minister of the Crown may make such amendments to primary legislation as are considered necessary to enable the incompatibility to be removed by the simple expedient of making an order. In effect, because the accepted practice is that the United Kingdom observes its international obligations, a supranational court can impose its will against ours. In my view this is fundamentally undemocratic.
However, there is no point in belonging to a club if one is not prepared to obey its rules. The solution is therefore not to defy judgments of the Court, but rather to remove the power of the Court over us. The fundamental point is that one cannot alter the political nature of a decision by changing the location where the decision is made. Judges do not have access to a tablet of stone not available to the rest of us which enables them to discern what our people need better than we can possibly do as their elected, fallible, corrigible representatives. There is no set of values that are so universally agreed that we can appeal to them as a useful final arbiter. In the end they will always be shown up as either uselessly vague or controversially specific. Questions of major social policy, whether on abortion, capital punishment, the right to bear firearms or workers rights, should ultimately be decided by elected representatives and not by unelected judges.
Let us take the recent example of prisoner voting. The view of the Court is that, although the Council of Europe member states has a margin of appreciation in deciding how far prisoners should be enfranchised, a complete ban on voting was outside that margin. The fact that we do not have a blanket ban on prisoners voting does not seem to have troubled the Court, even though the Attorney-General went out of his way to point this out in person when he appeared before the Court. There are several categories of prisoner who have the vote now—prisoners who are on remand, prisoners who are sentenced but not convicted, and prisoners who are in prison for defaulting on fines. But the Court is in effect saying, “Sorry, we don’t like your arrangements. We prefer ours.”
Although I personally object to the idea of prisoners having the vote, my much more fundamental objection is to the idea that a court sitting overseas, composed of judges from among other countries Latvia, Liechtenstein and Azerbaijan, however fine they may be as people, should have more say over what laws should apply in the United Kingdom than our constituents do through their elected Members of Parliament. Some may say that that is what the UK signed up to, to which I would only reply, “Precisely.” That is why we need to repeal the Human Rights Act and resile from the convention.
The idea that that would make us a pariah state is simply nonsense. For example, Canada is a member of the Organisation of American States, the equivalent of the Council of Europe for the Americas, but has not signed up to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court, without becoming in any sense a pariah state.
Some might say that it would raise all kinds of other legal problems, that everything from the United Nations convention against torture to the Good Friday agreement is predicated upon our membership of the European convention so that it would be impossibly difficult to change things. I do not find that persuasive. It was not that many years ago that people said that a Bill of Rights of any kind would be impossible in the United Kingdom because of parliamentary sovereignty. The truth is that if one wants to do something badly enough, one can find a way to do it, and to do it legally—that is precisely what one keeps clever lawyers for. Goodness, if one wants something badly enough, it turns out one can even go to war in defiance of both world opinion and international law and find a lawyer to say that it is perfectly lawful.
I particularly commend the second Kingsland memorial lecture, given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who is a sponsor of the Bill, in which he set out the argument at much greater length. His central point, with which I agree, is that on prisoner voting, as on so much else, we should not defy the ECHR, but resile from it altogether.
I will end by reflecting on the comment of Judge Learned Hand:
“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it… What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few”.
In my view, our best check is not unelected judges, but the spirit of liberty in the hearts of the elected representatives in this House. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am most grateful for the opportunity to respond to the motion. The Human Rights Act is a statute that rarely receives a good word and is subject to more than its fair share of the bad, yet it is one of the most important pieces of legislation passed by the previous Labour Government. Here I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who was instrumental in the formulation and implementation of the policy and remains one of the most coherent voices on the role and, crucially, limitations of the Act. I am also incredibly grateful to him for his advice in preparing for this speech; he has been generous with his time and counsel.
Despite what some newspapers and, it appears, some Government Members claim, the Human Rights Act is not some badly drafted and rushed piece of legislation, a Dangerous Dogs Act for civil liberties. Rather, the opposite is true. The legislation benefited from three years of development in the mid-’90s while Labour was in opposition, on a cross-party basis and with the assistance of the Liberal Democrats. It was further improved by careful consideration in this Chamber and the other place.
The Act is noticeable as a piece of legislation by the very fact that, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn and Lord Irvine are rightly known as its midwives, its DNA draws from a far wider and deeper genetic pool. That is an incredible strength of the Act and undoubtedly one of the reasons why it has not been seriously challenged in the 14 years since it received Royal Assent.
It is interesting that in the eight years since Michael Howard first declared that the Tories wanted to repeal the Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, not one significant step of progress has been made by the Conservative party in developing a coherent alternative. That is testament to those parliamentary draftsmen working at the end of the last century.
The Act itself can be seen as a key plank of the constitutional framework built by the Labour Government alongside devolution. It sets out in clear and unambiguous language those human rights that our nation holds to be dear and that we rightly regard as vital in any modern free society: the right to life; the prohibition of torture, slavery and forced labour; the right to liberty, security and a fair trial; no punishment without law; the right to respect for family and private life; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of speech; the right to marry; the freedom of assembly and association; and the prohibition of discrimination.
The Act also does something profoundly important for our democratic system—it writes into law the supremacy of Parliament over the courts and the Executive. It places limitations on how far the Executive can interpret their powers without the consent of Parliament. In essence, it requires the Executive to seek and obtain the agreement of Parliament before they may implement new policies. It is therefore no surprise that many Secretaries of State on both sides of the House have expressed irritation at the Act or bridled at the limitations imposed on their authority. Equally, though, the Act is clear that it does not prevent a Secretary of State from ultimately achieving their goal, provided that the Government are prepared to seek parliamentary approval through legislation; it merely prevents a Government from unilaterally setting a new policy without the endorsement of the people through their elected representatives or without due regard for the law. It is bizarre that in our modern democratic system some politicians, particularly one as well regarded as the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), would seriously propose to repeal this safeguard.
Moreover, the Act places limitations on the power of the courts. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn was careful in his drafting so that it merely requires that the legislature should be “mindful of”, not “bound by”, court decisions. The Act has provision for Parliament to set aside court rulings if it sees fit. For example, in 2005 British courts, through the Law Lords, ruled that it was inhumane and degrading to deny some asylum seekers the right to earn a wage to support themselves and simultaneously deny them the right to receive any benefits from the state—in effect, to place them in destitution without any support apart from charities and churches. As my right hon. Friend has said, this was one of those decisions of our courts which could be classed as inconvenient to the Executive, and I recall that it caused quite a stir at the time. However, if we, as the then Executive, had decided to ask Parliament to pass primary legislation that said in plain, unambiguous terms that certain categories of asylum seeker were indeed to be rendered destitute, and Parliament had agreed, that would have been it—the end of the matter—as far as the British courts were concerned.
Some argue, legitimately, that Parliament should not seek to overturn court decisions. Others argue, erroneously, that in the United States the Supreme Court is indeed supreme and the defender of its constitution. However, the US Congress, with the support of states and the White House, may overturn the Supreme Court through constitutional amendments, as has already happened 27 times in that nation’s history.
On prisoner voting, which the hon. Member for South Norfolk mentioned, the Human Rights Act is perfectly compatible with the principled decision taken by this House. The House voted—and voted overwhelmingly—to remove from convicted prisoners the right to vote in elections, and thus they have no recourse under the Act. Our membership of the European convention on human rights has forced this issue to the European courts. Indeed, another strength of the Act is that it has provided a mechanism whereby British courts may seek to influence the working of the European courts.
As we have seen again today, one of the greatest challenges that the Act must constantly overcome is urban myths and misconceptions. No one could forget the powerful speech delivered by the current Home Secretary to last year’s Conservative party conference when she said:
“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act...about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.”
Unfortunately for the Home Secretary, whoever wrote her speech had in fact made it up. In the case of the cat, it appears that the Home Office lost a reconsideration case after the initial verdict was successfully appealed because it failed to meet the requirements set out in the UK Border Agency guidelines, not because of the Human Rights Act. So the hon. Gentleman might have been better served by introducing a human rights education Bill which would involve mandatory attendance by the Cabinet.
In the final analysis, the single strongest argument against repeal is that this is the decade in which we hope to welcome more countries, particularly our neighbours to the east of Europe and Asia, and to the south of Europe, into the family of democratic, civilised nations. To turn our back on, tear up and cast aside the Act that enshrines in law the fundamental human rights that we ask others to respect would remove the legitimacy of our position. How can we ask developing countries—the new democracies—to respect human rights when we seek to remove them from our statute book? I urge the House to reject this Bill.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
Public Service Pensions Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in Public Bill Committee
Before I call the Opposition Front Bencher to move new clause 2, I should tell the House that I have revised my provisional selection of amendments and moved amendments 29 to 31 and amendment 33, tabled by Dr Eilidh Whiteford, to the third group from the first group. A revised list will be circulated shortly. I hope that that information is helpful, not only to the hon. Lady, but, indeed, to the House.
New Clause 2
‘(1) Scheme regulations for a scheme under section 1 shall provide for the provision of annual benefit statements to all members of the scheme.
(2) Benefit statements under subsection 1 shall show the following information—
(a) the member’s pension benefits earned to date;
(b) the projected annual pension and lump sum payments if the member retires at his normal pension age; and
(c) the member’s and employer’s current contribution rates.’.—(Chris Leslie.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 3—Fair deal—
‘A member of a public service pension scheme is entitled to remain an active member of that scheme following—
(a) the compulsory transfer of his contract of employment to an independent contractor; and
(b) any subsequent compulsory transfer of his contract of employment.’.
Amendment 11, in clause 3, page 2, line 25, at end insert—
‘(5A) This Act shall not apply to scheme regulations relating to local government workers in Scotland unless the Scottish Parliament approves its application.’.
Amendment 12, in clause 7, page 4, line 29, at end insert—
‘(3A) A scheme under section 1 which replaces a final salary scheme may only be established as a career average revalued earnings scheme or a defined benefits scheme of such other description as Treasury regulations may specify.’.
Amendment 4, in clause 12, page 8, line 9, after ‘scheme manager’, insert ‘and employee representatives’.
Amendment 19, in clause 16, page 9, line 36, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
‘(1) New scheme regulations made under section 1 and 3 shall replace existing schemes’ current regulations and shall take effect on the amendment date.
(1A) Following the implementation of new scheme regulations under subsection (1), benefits shall only be provided in accordance with those new regulations.’.
Amendment 20, page 10, line 5, leave out ‘closing’ and insert ‘amendment’.
Amendment 21, page 10, line 6, leave out ‘1 April’ and insert ‘2 April’.
Amendment 32, page 10, line 7, after ‘scheme,’, insert—
‘(aa) 1 April 2016 for a Scottish scheme,’.
Amendment 22, page 10, line 8, leave out ‘5 April’ and insert ‘6 April’.
Amendment 23, page 10, line 10, leave out ‘(1)’ and insert ‘(1A)’.
Amendment 24, page 10, line 21, leave out ‘(1)’ and insert ‘(1A)’.
Amendment 25, page 10, line 23, leave out ‘closing’ and insert ‘amendment’.
Amendment 26, page 10, line 27, at end insert ‘regulations’.
Amendment 27, page 10, line 28, leave out ‘(1)’ and insert ‘(1A)’.
Amendment 28, page 10, line 28, leave out from ‘benefits’ to ‘includes’.
Government amendment 35.
Amendment 7, in clause 28, page 15, line 12, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.
Amendment 8, page 15, line 12, after ‘new’, insert ‘defined benefit’.
Government amendments 36 to 39.
Having spent a considerable number of weeks serving on the Bill Committee, I am pleased that we now have the opportunity to press the Government on questions that remain unanswered and largely unaddressed. Considerable changes are being made to many of the public service pension schemes as a result of Lord Hutton’s report on the future shape of those schemes. The report was largely welcomed throughout the House and that has contributed greatly to the improvement of the reforms. However, a number of the report’s aspects have not been adopted in full by the Government in this Bill, and we are concerned about that.
New clause 2, the first in a considerable group of suggested changes specifically to pension schemes, would implement recommendation 18 on page 132 of the Hutton report that
“public service pension schemes should issue regular benefit statements to active scheme members, at least annually and without being requested”.
At present, defined benefit public service schemes are obliged to provide such information only if they are requested to do so. That limited obligation is set out in the Occupational Pension Schemes (Disclosure of Information) Regulations 1996, but normal occupational pension schemes that do not have an arrangement for either a final salary or career average payment at the end of the scheme are obviously a different state of affairs from defined contribution schemes. New clause 2 would simply implement Lord Hutton’s recommendation and ensure that public service workers have a better understanding of the benefits that they have accumulated to date and what they stand to receive if they continue working until their normal retirement age.
We had a very healthy debate on this matter in Committee, where the exchange of views did not follow the usual to-ing and fro-ing of partisan speechmaking. A number of Members agreed that it would be very healthy if we improved the information and transparency for employees to enable them to make more informed decisions in planning for their savings and their financial future. For example, members of the schemes would be better able to judge whether they were saving enough for their retirement. The new clause is therefore compatible with the aim of reducing people’s need for state benefits in retirement—something that many Members across the House want to achieve.
When we tabled a similar amendment in Committee, it gained quite a degree of vocal support. The hon. Members for Bedford (Richard Fuller) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who are in the Chamber today, helpfully pressed the Minister to resist his usual logic, which says in big block capital letters, “This is an Opposition amendment; thou shalt resist this devious device by Labour Members to do something nasty in the legislation.” That was not our intention. We actually wanted to implement Lord Hutton’s recommendation and bring defined benefit schemes into the modern age, especially in respect of communicating more regularly and effectively with scheme members. I live in hope that those hon. Gentlemen will chip in and offer their support again, because surely the goal of improving people’s understanding of their pension and helping them to plan more effectively for their retirement should find favour on both sides of the House.
I will give way. In fact, I was just about the quote the hon. Gentleman. He said:
“If we want people genuinely to prepare for their pensions, we need to give them the maximum amount of information. Just suggesting that it is good practice without putting in place any requirement is the wrong thing to do.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2012; c. 455.]
It gives me great pleasure to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am flattered that the shadow Minister should pay such attention to my words. Does he agree that it is rather perverse that when taking out a pension, particularly a private pension, a customer has to read reams of documentation about the risks, the forecasts, the potential growth rates and what might or might not happen, but when one has a public service pension, that level of detail is not provided and, most importantly, the annual statement provides scant information, even if it is requested?
That is an anachronism that has to change. The hon. Gentleman is correct that just because somebody is in a public service scheme or a defined benefit scheme does not mean that they should not think through carefully what the financial consequences will be for them on retirement. This Bill is the perfect opportunity to take that small but significant step forward.
In Committee, the Minister initially went into rebuttal mode and said that we could not have the new clause for a number of reasons. At first, he said that there were different ways of providing information to members of the scheme, that we did not want to be too prescriptive and that legislation was not necessary. However, the new clause does not prescribe the manner in which the information is provided; it would merely ensure that annual statements were provided in some form.
The Minister’s other objection in Committee was that defined benefit schemes in the private sector are not obliged to provide annual statements, so it would not be right for public sector schemes to do so. However, Government Members again disagreed. I cannot do better than to quote again the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green:
“We have a pensions problem in this country, and saying that private sector schemes are not required to provide statements—though many do…—is not a good enough reason for not requiring public sector schemes to provide them.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2012; c. 455.]
Amen to that excellent argument. The Minister said at the time that he would consider the issue further.
Last week, I wrote to the Minister saying that it was our intention to table new clause 2. I rather hoped that he would table his own variant. Usually, there are accusations that the Opposition have not thought through the drafting of the phraseology of an amendment and there is some technical reason why it cannot be accepted. However, we have offered the Minister the chance to correct that. It is a matter of great regret that the Minister did not come forward with his own new clause. Perhaps I should be more optimistic and assume that that means that the Minister will stand up and accept new clause 2 straight away. That would be fantastic.
It is worth noting that all defined contribution pension schemes are required by the 1996 occupational pension schemes regulations to provide much more detailed statements than those proposed in the new clause. There is therefore no reason to think that there would be any problem in implementing the arrangements.
It would be helpful if the Minister made this change. If he wants to do it in the House of Lords when the Bill gets down there, we could probably accept that, but I think that most Members would accept the change.
In Committee, we also talked about the risk of people with public sector pensions making the perverse decision not to contribute to their pension because they feel that the contribution rate is going up significantly, missing the fact that a significant contribution is being made to their pension scheme by the taxpayer. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the new clause would assist members of public sector pension schemes in identifying what a large contribution the taxpayer is making, and therefore help to reduce the number of people who take the irrational step of opting out of the pension scheme?
Even though the quality of the scheme has been eroded, as we saw with the unilateral imposition of the average 3% increase in employee contributions—that might even have been before Lord Hutton reported—they are still good defined benefit schemes and we encourage public sector members to stay in them. We have debated our concerns elsewhere over whether the viability of the schemes will be jeopardised by employees being deterred from joining or deciding to opt out. However, we encourage members to stay in the schemes. Unfortunately, the 3% additional contribution is not part of this legislation, so it would be outwith the scope of the Bill to table amendments on that or to debate it. That is a great shame.
It is important that annual benefit statements include not only the employee’s contribution, but the employer’s contribution, as set out in the new clause. If the defined benefit schemes are good, there is no reason not to have that level of clarity and transparency. I have no problem with accepting that that should be part of the information that is given to scheme members. I hope that the Minister will accept that.
New clause 3 is one of the most important proposals in this group. The Government promised to implement what is known as the new fair deal, which is one of the most important aspects of the agreement that was reached in the negotiations between the employee side and Government or employer side of the scheme. The new fair deal would ensure that all public service workers who were compulsorily transferred to an independent contractor, be it a private company, a charity or another third sector body, would be entitled to remain an active member of their public service pension scheme. That is a basic requirement and it was a core part of the agreement. We were glad that the Government committed to it.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirmed the Government’s commitment to the new fair deal in a written statement in July, which stated that
“the Government have reviewed the fair deal policy and agreed to maintain the overall approach, but deliver this by offering access to public service pension schemes for transferring staff. When implemented, this means that all staff whose employment is compulsorily transferred from the public service under TUPE, including subsequent TUPE transfers, to independent providers of public services will retain membership of their current employer’s pension arrangements.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2012; Vol. 547, c. 54WS.]
That is an improvement on the current fair deal arrangements, which ensure that outsourced staff receive broadly comparable arrangements to those under the public service schemes. The Government’s promise to implement the new fair deal was central to the rationale and at the heart of why many public service workers agreed to support the new proposed pensions reform, even though aspects of it were detrimental to them.
A few months ago in the Open Public Services White Paper, the Government expressed enthusiasm for transferring services to voluntary organisations and social enterprise—we have not heard so much about that recently. If that is to work, however, is it not particularly important to have the proposed provision on pensions?
Many public service workers whose services have been transferred to independent providers, whether they have been outsourced, find themselves in the voluntary sector or wherever, still want to ensure that their deferred wages—that is what pensions are—will be protected in a particular way. That was a positive development in the negotiations, but to what extent has such protection found its way into the Bill? That is why the Opposition are concerned and have tabled new clause 3.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the fair deal arrangements introduced in 1999 by the Labour Government were not statutory. Why was he happy to support and serve in a Government who had a non-statutory approach to the fair deal, but in opposition he seeks to make that approach statutory?
The situation now is different because of the level of trust on which public service employees feel tested when looking at significant changes by the Government. Employee contributions were unilaterally increased by 3% without consultation or discussion—that was simply imposed, even though Lord Hutton was putting measures through. The evaluation arrangement was unilaterally changed from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. A typical public service employee must have said, “Hold on a minute. Are we supposed to just take this on faith? We are glad that the Government are in negotiations, but as we know, Ministers are here today and gone tomorrow.” In no way do I cast aspersion on the Economic Secretary who I am sure will remain on the Front Bench in days to come. However, we cannot simply rely on statements from particular Ministers at a particular point in time.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about trust, which is critical following the experience of many public service workers and Government decisions on pensions. Does he not underplay the importance of the fair deal? He described it as a positive development in the negotiations, but for many public service workers and their unions it was not just a positive development but a deal maker that allowed them to accept a package which, as he said, was detrimental in other areas. It was important that people took that provision as a clear guarantee, but doubt has now been cast on it, which underlines the importance of including it in the Bill and therefore the importance of new clause 3.
My right hon. Friend is correct. When we get a sense of the Government pulling the odd thread here or there or watering down elements of the provision—if I may mix my metaphors—it is no wonder that people start to question whether the words of Ministers at a particular point in time will carry through into what should be a 25-year commitment as set out in legislation. The provision was part of those negotiations but it has not found its way into the Bill.
Even more worryingly, the Economic Secretary made some peculiar statements in Committee about something that we thought was a done deal. He said:
“it is important that we consider in full the views of all stakeholders, including of course those who will be affected, through further consultation before making a final decision on the issue. It would therefore be inappropriate to include the fair deal policy in the Bill.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2012; c. 459.]
It is as though negotiations had not been completed or decisions reached. Indeed, it sounded very much as if the Government were reneging on their commitment.
The Government need to lay to rest any suggestion that they are going back on their promise, and the only way to do that is to accept new clause 3. Failure to do so risks reopening debates and potential disputes with public service workers who will—justifiably—feel they have been misled.
Part of the concern and need to write such provisions into the Bill comes from the fact that no one predicted clause 3. It has been described as a Henry VIII clause, as it gives sweeping powers to Ministers to legislate on schemes through statutory instruments or even retrospectively.
Indeed; we will debate some of the worst aspects of clause 3 later. It feels as though when writing the Bill Ministers did not consider it as enshrining an arrangement involving give and take on both sides. They have included certain things to the advantage of the employer, but there are scant—if any—safeguards of sufficiency and longevity for the employee, and that is causing anxiety.
My hon. Friend is making an important argument in response to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). It is not just that the Bill includes certain things that advantage employers; the measures are principally to the advantage of the Treasury, which is given the whip hand and ultimate say over schemes that should be run by their members and managers accountable to them.
My hon. Friend quoted the Economic Secretary in Committee. When the Minister rises to his feet, is it not important that he explain the discrepancy between what he said in Committee and what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said to this House in December last year? He said:
“Because we have agreed to establish new schemes on a career average basis, I can tell the House that we have agreed to retain the fair deal provision and extend access for transferring staff.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 1203.]
There is a big difference between those two statements and the Economic Secretary needs to explain himself on that point.
Order. Before the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) replies, let me say that although I have indulged the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) on this occasion I hope he will not repeat such a long intervention. I do not want him to induce the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) into following bad habits. That would be a very undesirable state of affairs.
It may be a bad habit but it was a jolly good intervention. I do not often do this, but I commend my right hon. Friend for quoting the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. What is the difference between the Chief Secretary and the Economic Secretary? Well, one is a Liberal Democrat and the other a Conservative. However, my right hon. Friend should take that with a pinch of salt, as I too have a quote from the Chief Secretary, who said that
“establishing a relationship of trust and confidence between the Government and public service workers is critical to the success of these reforms.”
How long will this coalition Government persist? What we need is not just a commitment from a Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury whose parliamentary and ministerial career might not endure. We need to know what would happen should there be the dreadful set of circumstances of a Conservative majority Administration. Would a promise on the new fair deal, given only verbally by Ministers, endure in such circumstances?
Given the Minister’s trajectory and career momentum, I want to hear a commitment from him to the new fair deal on behalf of the Conservative party. That might mean something, although I would still prefer to see it in the Bill. It would be invidious for the Government to speak against new clause 3, let alone vote against it if we decided to test the opinion of the House. I am conscious of the time so I will move on.
Amendment 11 relates to issues of local government workers in Scotland and would exclude the Scottish local government pension scheme from the Bill, unless agreed to by the Scottish Parliament. Primary legislation on public service pension schemes has always been reserved to the UK Parliament. Scottish Ministers have had responsibility for regulations for public service schemes but those have been subject to Treasury approval and have tended to mirror arrangements for England and Wales. The exception is the Scottish local government pension scheme, which is a funded scheme that has not been subject to Treasury approval in the past. The Bill extends certain prescriptions to the design of the Scottish local government pension scheme that, in practice, have previously been left to Scottish Ministers to negotiate and decide—most importantly, they negotiated and decided on normal pension age; that benefits should be based on career-average revalued earnings and not final salary; on the cost cap, as it is known; and on rules for governance and fund valuations.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if the Scottish Government can find the ways and means to fund their pensions, they should be free from penalties from the Treasury at Westminster?
That comes down to how the legislation is drafted. There are different financial consequences for local government pension schemes than for other public service pension schemes. That is why we need clarity in the legislation. I am conscious that the Scottish National party Government in Scotland have argued that there is no need for a legislative consent motion to cover the matter because, in theory, the UK Parliament always had primary legislative power over the local government pension scheme in Scotland but has hitherto chosen not to use it. The Government in Scotland have been quick to accept the UK’s proposals, which is unusual, because they normally argue that more power should sit with Holyrood. The movement of the regulation-making powers means that the Scottish Government will not need to grapple with difficult decisions on the reform of certain pensions, but the Opposition feel it would be better for Members of the Scottish Parliament to have an opportunity to scrutinise and debate the application of the legislation to the local government pension scheme in Scotland. Amendment 11 to clause 3 would mean that the Bill would not apply to the local government pension scheme in Scotland unless that is explicitly approved by the Scottish Parliament. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and others have tabled parallel amendments—I gather they are in the third group, so we will probably return to this debate later.
Amendment 12, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), relates to another key Government promise made to public service workers. It seeks to enshrine in the legislation another Government promise made to public service workers—the Government promised that their final salary schemes would be replaced with career-average revalued earnings schemes. That would ensure that public service workers continue to receive a defined benefit pension.
The Bill does not explicitly honour that promise, and clause 7 provides that schemes created under the Bill can be defined benefit or defined contribution schemes, or any scheme of any other description. That is fundamental to the arguments on the Bill, but it is also fundamental to the arguments that Hutton made and the agreements that were reached. All schemes were supposed to be succeeded by career-average defined benefit schemes. In some cases, the Government might like to continue small defined contribution schemes, but the amendment would not affect those; it would apply only to final salary schemes and ensure that they are replaced with another defined benefit arrangement. The amendment therefore simply seeks to put the Government’s promise to public service workers on a statutory footing.
A similar amendment was opposed in Committee, but the reasons given by the Minister were concerning. He claimed that the Government intended to replace the final salary schemes with career-average schemes, but that “the flexibility embedded in” the Bill
“could be helpful to scheme members in future.”
He added that
“it would not be appropriate for this Government to tie the hands of future generations and pension scheme members who might decide that, subject to the protection offered by the enhanced consultation and reporting obligations of clause 20, defined benefit schemes were no longer the most appropriate for public service workers.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions Public Bill Committee, 13 November 2012; c. 291-92.]
That is not the first time we have heard the Minister’s bizarre argument that legislation could bind the hands of future Governments. No Government can bind the hands of their successors in that way. Unless the Minister has an insight into changes in the democratic process of which we are unaware, that remains absolutely the case.
Therefore, the argument that clause 7 provides welcome flexibility to scheme members now or in future is, in the Opposition’s view, potentially misleading. In the rare circumstances that a defined contribution scheme is better than the defined benefit one, and scheme members and the Government wish to change schemes to defined contributions schemes, clauses 19 and 20 allow that to happen. Clause 7 provides no flexibility that does not exist in clauses 19 and 20. If we do not make the amendment, we allow the Government to go back on their promises. We seek to keep them to their word on those arrangements.
I know that many hon. Members wish to speak to proposals in this large group, so I shall make my final point on the question of closing local government pension schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) and the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), among others, have had extensive experience of local government schemes. In Committee, there was anxiety that the Bill mentions closing existing LGP schemes and beginning new ones. The problem with closing schemes is that there can be unintended and adverse consequences. We heard in Committee about triggering debts which might need to be crystallised on closure. Of course, not just big local authorities but small academies, charities and others are members of such schemes. They might find that they suddenly need to shell out one great lump of money simply because an existing scheme closes and the deficit needs to be dealt with there and then.
The Minister assured us that regulatory provisions did not require such crystallisation, and that there could be protections. The Opposition are not massively happy with that, but even if we accept the Minister’s word that closure does not mean closure, thousands of employers in the local government pension fund have individual admission agreements governing the terms of their participation—the agreements are not necessarily in a standard form, meaning that there could be thousands of different admissions contracts for the schemes. It is likely that at least some of the agreements will set out various powers for local authorities in the event of closure, including the power to collect a debt from the employer equal to its share of the scheme’s deficit. That would put a massive strain on participating employers and could put some of them out of business.
The Minister gave assurances on some of those points in Committee, but he missed the problem that the Bill allows local authorities to close their funds. The Government cannot prevent them from doing so under the Bill. The problem of triggering debts therefore remains substantive. There is also the question of whether closure means closure or continuing a scheme. The Opposition believe that a different approach is needed and that the Bill needs better drafting, which is why we have tabled amendments 20 to 28. We are not trying to add costs to the public purse and are keeping the Government’s proposals, but we are saying that it would be better to amend an existing scheme rather than to close and reopen it. They are in some ways technical proposals, but it would be better to err on the side of caution and provide that new regulations can amend scheme rules to ensure that all future benefits are accrued according to the provisions of the Bill and negotiated arrangements.
Those are essentially my comments on the Opposition’s proposals. My hon. Friends and others have tabled amendments in this group, but I shall let them make the case for them.
I rise to speak briefly to Opposition new clause 3, which is on fair deal arrangements. Hon. Members will be aware that fair deal arrangements were originally addressed by Lord Hutton in his interim report in October 2010. Hutton was concerned that the arrangements at that time created barriers to the plurality of public service provision. He said:
“At present, when employees are transferred to non-public service bodies, the organisation they move to is required to ensure that there is ‘broadly comparable’ pension provision for future service, through the Fair Deal provisions…This arrangement has maintained the level of pension provision for those compulsorily transferred out of the public sector. However…this can make it harder for private sector and third sector organisations to provide public services because providing a ‘broadly comparable’ defined benefit pension scheme can be significantly more expensive and risky for private sector organisations than for public sector employers.”
That was the starting point of the debate. In box 1.A—a shaded box, the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) will be intrigued to know—Lord Hutton concluded:
“Ultimately, it is for the Government to consider carefully the best way of moving forward with Fair Deal in a way that delivers its wider objective of encouraging a broader range of public service providers while remaining consistent with good employment practices.”
My principal concern, fresh from the doorsteps of Corby, is for the many individual members of the pension scheme. In his extensive piece of work, Lord Hutton considered the future of public service reform and the relationships between the public and private sectors. What I am most concerned about in the debate today and in supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) on the fair deal, is giving an assurance to those individuals in Corby and East Northamptonshire—cleaners and nurses and so on—that the goalposts will not be constantly shifted away from what they expect from their pension. From the 3p in the pound change to the RPI to CPI change, they feel buffeted by huge changes that are really affecting them at the moment. That is why we need the assurance in the Bill.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on his election to the House. His intervention indicates the seriousness with which he takes his new role. I am grateful for that and I take his point. All of us on the Government Benches want to ensure that we have sustainable, good-quality defined benefit pensions in the public sector, but to achieve that there has to be major reform to public service pensions for a raft of reasons to do with longevity, cost, poor performance of the stock market in the past 12 years and tax changes that occurred in 1997. For all those reasons, if we are to have good-quality, defined benefit pensions for public service employees, there have to be major reforms.
The Government have been clear, open and transparent in the negotiating process, and an ample number of documents are circulating that set out precisely the conclusion to the negotiations, not least the proposed final agreements. The idea that without changing primary legislation the Government can somehow slip through major changes to the quality of benefits to the employees, which the hon. Gentleman is talking about, is just not in the real world. All Governments have to behave reasonably, and this Government are no different from any other. Not only have they behaved reasonably in these negotiations, but, I believe, they have given rise to high-quality public service pension arrangements that offer benefits way beyond the arrangements in the private sector. That is a sign that the Government recognise the important contribution that public sector employees make to our society.
I point the hon. Gentleman to the consultation on the new deal that took place between March and June 2011. That was a broad consultation, to which there were more than 100 responses. In July this year, in a written ministerial statement, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated:
“the Government have reviewed the fair deal policy and agreed to maintain the overall approach, but deliver this by offering access to public service pension schemes for transferring staff…this means that all staff whose employment is compulsorily transferred from the public service under TUPE…to independent providers of public services will retain membership of their current employer’s pension arrangements.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2012; Vol. 547, c. 54WS.]
That is on the record and should provide the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House with the assurance they need.
Alas, I no longer speak on behalf of the Government, but that is a commitment given by Ministers of this coalition Government. The hon. Gentleman is trying to create a division between the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats in our approach to public service pension reform, and there is no such division. There is no such difference in attitude between the two parties on public service reform.
I rise to support the hon. Gentleman. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East, the House and the public have a right to take at face value the words of a Chief Secretary—a Chief Secretary is a Chief Secretary is a Chief Secretary. That is a statement of Government policy and of coalition Government intent. Therefore, I think the onus is not on the hon. Gentleman, but on the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to explain why his statement is different from the Chief Secretary’s statement.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend and to the Chief Secretary and I did not find any difference. My hon. Friend was addressing whether particular matters should be in primary legislation; the Chief Secretary was setting out the case for the policy.
On teachers’ pensions, there was anxiety that the current arrangements, under which teachers in the independent sector can be members of the teachers’ pension scheme if their employer signs up to the scheme, might be put in jeopardy by the words of Lord Hutton’s interim report, so the Chief Secretary’s statement was welcome news to teachers. Paragraph 8 of the proposed final agreement states:
“the Government agrees to retain Fair Deal provision and extend access to public service pension schemes for transferring staff. This means that all staff whose employment is compulsorily transferred from maintained schools (including academies)…under TUPE…will…be able to retain membership of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme when transferred.”
That is welcome news. The agreement goes on to state:
“The Government’s decision on Fair deal means that…independent schools which already have access to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme will continue to do so (for existing and new teachers); and new teachers and independent schools will continue to be able to join the scheme under the existing qualifying criteria.”
When we debated the issue in Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham East conceded that the new fair deal
“is an improvement on the current fair deal arrangements”,
but, as he has just now, he complained that
“the promise does not appear in the Bill.”––[Official Report, Public Services Pensions Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2012; c. 458.]
He will be aware, however, that the fair deal arrangements were non-statutory when they were introduced in 1999, and that they remained non-statutory when they were revised in 2004. Notwithstanding the fact that the new fair deal arrangements are an improvement on the old ones, if it is good enough for a Labour Government for the policy to be non-statutory, it ought to be good enough for the hon. Gentleman. As my hon. Friend the Minister made clear in Committee, the recently published Government response to the fair deal consultation included draft guidance setting out how the new policy would work in practice. Given all the public statements by my hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and the published guidance and consultation documents, the hon. Gentleman should be assured by the commitments given.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand the sense of anxiety that many public sector employees feel? Their trust was shattered because of the unilateral decisions on RPI to CPI and the 3%. They are saying, “Don’t we need more safeguards?” Can he understand why they would want safeguards now that might not have been necessary in the past?
Of course, that is an assertion by the hon. Gentleman. I do not recognise that crushing of confidence. What the Government had to do when they came into office was tackle a huge public sector deficit of £156 billion, and they have done that. As a consequence of the difficult decisions the Government have taken, the capital markets have been assured that the Government are getting the public finances under control. That itself should assure beneficiaries of public service pensions that the Government will put the public finances in a stable condition and so avoid the need for the sort of draconian changes to public service pensions being implemented in other European countries as they seek, rather belatedly, to tackle their public deficits.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that that is a comfort, given that, as far as we can see, the Government’s deficit reduction plans are failing and debt is rising? In the light of that, many public service workers might well expect another bite at the cherry.
I fear that we are straying slightly from new clause 3 and the group of amendments, but I believe that the Government’s economic strategy is right. It is a judgment call, but one that I believe has been proven right by the fact that the Government’s borrowing cost for 10-year bonds, as they seek to fund the deficit, which has been reduced by a quarter over the last two and a half years, is 1.8%. That is a tribute to the difficult judgments Treasury Ministers have made, and they should be given credit for their achievements. As a consequence, however, there have had to be increases in the contribution rates of active members of public service pension schemes. In addition, Lord Hutton believes that even if there was not a deficit, major reform of public service pensions would still be needed, if they are to be sustainable in the long run.
The Government’s commitment to sustainable public finances is of more concrete value than a proposal from a party with a track record of undermining the public finances. Ultimately, in a pay-as-you-go public service pension scheme, the quality and assurance that members want will depend on the ability of the Government to maintain stable public finances.
I rise to speak to the amendments in my name: amendments 4, 7 and 8.
Throughout the progress of the Bill, I have tabled a series of amendments with a central thrust—the same one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie)—which is about trust. The amendments would ensure that at each stage and for each grouping, there would be full consultation with and the full involvement of representatives of employees and scheme members. I apologise: I should have declared an interest as a member of the local government pension scheme. Nevertheless, each amendment would address the issue of confidence and secure a recognition, as promised by the Government, that employees will be fully consulted and represented and kept fully informed of changes to their pension schemes, which has not been the case up to now.
It is worth remembering that the pension deal was not a deal for a large number of unions; for more than 1 million workers, it was imposed. The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, the National Union of Teachers, the Public and Commercial Services Union, the Prison Officers Association, the University and College Union and Unite did not agree to the deal or the heads of agreement; instead, the deal was imposed upon them. There is deep scepticism amongst workers, and if Government Members do not recognise that, they are not living in the real world, or encountering the same constituents I am, or receiving the letters I get from police officers, teachers and local government workers across the piece.
Even organisations that signed up to the heads of the deal are now expressing concerns. The British Medical Association, whose briefing Members will have received, thought it had signed up to an assurance from the Government, which I remember being made, that there would be a 25-year guarantee of no change around a number of protected issues. The Government said:
“This means that no changes to scheme design, benefits or contribution rates should be necessary for 25 years outside of the processes agreed for the cost cap. To give substance to this, the Government intends to include provisions on the face of the forthcoming Public Service Pensions Bill to ensure a high bar is set for future Governments to change the design of the schemes. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury will also give a commitment to Parliament of no more reform for 25 years.”
Yet clause 3, described in briefings by the Royal College of Nursing, the BMA and others as a Henry VIII clause, gives extraordinary powers to the Secretary of State to return to these issues, introduce further reforms and make fairly significant changes through statutory instruments, not primary legislation to be debated in the House. Consequently, there is a lack of confidence in the words of Ministers, particularly given that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East said, those words are contradictory, not just across Government, but within the same Department. It is extraordinary.
Others also signed the deal. The RCN wrote to us explaining its concerns:
“Clause 3(3) is a Henry VIII clause which enables the Government to amend the Act at a later date through the use of secondary legislation. The RCN is concerned that, as a result, the Bill gives powers to the UK Government to amend and make retrospective provisions to any other related legislation without sufficient member consultation or scrutiny by Parliament.”
I also received a letter from Mary Bousted of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which also signed up to the deal. She wrote:
“As you may know, the ATL accepted the Government’s proposed final agreement on changes to the teachers pension scheme as the best that could be achieved through negotiations. We now find the Bill contains additional elements that go beyond what was agreed in March 2012 and believe that the proposed changes could adversely and unfairly affect the quality of education that the nation’s children receive in our schools.”
Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern among police officers, highlighted last week in an excellent Westminster Hall debate led by our right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)? Many police officers feel that the arrangements they have made for their later life and approach to retirement—for doing things such as helping their children to get into housing or paying their university fees—have been completely undermined by changes that have pulled the rug from under them right at the end of their working life, after they have made an incredible contribution to keeping our communities safe. It is those kinds of people we must think about today as we make these changes. As my hon. Friend says, we must give them much greater confidence and assurance.
I fully concur with my hon. Friend. I received—perhaps he did too—an e-mail from Inspector Nick Smart, who wrote:
“I am a serving police inspector in West Yorkshire of 17 years. I am about to see my life plans thrown into chaos with the proposed pension changes, with my retirement age extended by at least two years plus a 20% cut in my lump sum—about £40,000—and a significantly worse annual pension.”
It is no wonder that people are demoralised and do not trust the Government. They thought there was at least a 25-year guarantee, but we now know that that is not the case, because the Government are giving themselves the power to change schemes at will in the future.
The hon. Gentleman, like other hon. Members, will be aware of the indication that teachers will be asked to pay 50% of their contributions up until 2015, and they are not even safeguarded beyond 2015. Does he agree that, if the Government are not careful, they will create a breeding ground for discontent among teachers?
Exactly, but I think it is across the piece. Whether or not we agreed with the last negotiations, or whether they were imposed or signed up to, at least some people felt there was some security for the future. People are becoming demoralised, which is why it is important that we insert in the Bill provisions for full consultation and agreement with organisations representing employees and for full openness and transparency. That is why new clause 3, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East, is critical. As has been said, at least in the private sector there is full display and transparency in what people sign up to, but there is no display or transparency in the public sector, particularly now that the Government have given themselves these powers.
Given the comments about the police pension scheme, I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands the wish of the Scottish Police Federation that police pensions be controlled independently in Scotland. For England and Wales, however, does he feel that in future Governments should act more morally in relation to the terms of agreements that were made years before and under which police officers expect to retire, while also understanding, of course, that in Scotland they want clear of the system?
I can fully understand the feelings of police officers in Scotland, as I can those of officers across England and Wales. People now just want safety and security in their pensions, which are theirs—they have paid for them and contributed to them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East said from the Front Bench, they are nothing more than deferred wages.
I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s point. He is absolutely right that firefighters, prison workers, doctors and nurses contribute to their pensions, but so do taxpayers. Indeed, a considerable amount of most public pensions is paid for by the taxpayer. If he wishes to push the point about certainty, does he agree that the Government should have considered a fully funded pension scheme, rather than rely on future taxpayers to pay for future pensions, with all the uncertainty about whether they will be able to afford it? Should the Government not have grasped the nettle and gone for a fully funded pension scheme now?
The local government scheme is fully funded, yet the Government seek to interfere with that, too. If we are to open up the debate, let us do so; however, the Government seem to be making piecemeal reforms for their own economic objectives and then not even standing by them. The problem is the uncertainty.
Let me turn to the detail of amendment 4. As those of us who have been involved in pension negotiations will know, one of the most important elements is ensuring that the valuation process is right, because that is what determines not just the future payouts from the scheme, but its future security; there are also probity issues. I am concerned that the legislation as drafted would give no role to employees or their representatives in the revaluation system. My amendment 4 is a mild-mannered amendment to provide that the valuation report should be sent not just to the scheme manager and the employer, but to the employees’ representatives. That would promote at least some openness and transparency, which might reassure participants in the scheme.
Few pension decisions are more important to employees than the contribution levels, which stem from the valuation process. We have seen a unilateral change in contribution rates, which I think, to be frank, will deter many people from participating in those schemes and may throw the long-term future of those schemes into jeopardy. If there has been a valuation, the report should be sent to the employees’ representatives. It should be open and transparent, and it should then be possible to have a discussion about the valuation. That is what amendment 4 seeks to do. It simply says that the report should be sent not just to the scheme manager, but to the employee representatives, and that the terms of the revaluation should be mutually agreed. It is simply about participation.
Would the hon. Gentleman, like me, put this issue in the same area as transparency and giving information to people in pension schemes, which will help people to make better judgments? Just as we heard when new clause 2 was being moved, the provision of information about what is in their pension or how that is assessed helps people to make rational decisions.
That is exactly right. There has to be openness and transparency. The point has already been made, but some of us will now have to go out there and campaign to keep people in these schemes. The way to do that is by having openness and transparency about what they are paying in, the benefits being made and, I agree, the overall contribution made by taxpayers.
I fear for the future. We have seen the Fire Brigades Union survey of what would happen if there were increases in pension contributions to those workers’ scheme and also a reduction in benefits. Some 30% told the survey that they would question whether they wished to continue in the scheme. A 30% withdrawal rate would undermine some of those schemes. That is why openness and transparency are important. One of the key areas for openness and transparency is in the valuation process, with the terminology and methodology agreed with the employee representatives, so that they have confidence that the process is being conducted fairly, openly and, to be frank, professionally. In addition, once the revaluation is done, the report should be provided to the employee representatives. I can see nothing in that with which the Government could disagree.
The hon. Gentleman is right that many of us might well have to campaign to ensure that people invest in and stick with these schemes, but even if we get valuation and transparency right, is there not a “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza” syndrome with these Henry VIII powers? People will say, “You can say all that, but you can’t promise that it will be so when I reach pension age.”
I fully agree. What concerns me is that the Henry VIII powers in clause 3 are retrospective. This is another reason why the valuation process is so critical: if there is not full openness, transparency and consultation, in particular with employee representatives, the Government could in future use the valuation process to withdraw some of the benefits of the scheme or increase the contributions retrospectively. People can sign up to a scheme and pay into it for 20 years, but then be told that the benefits are different—although I think that will be tested in law, because I believe that legally we are talking about accrued rights that are protected under European legislation. The Government do not accept that argument, but it is a critical point. That is why I have tabled my amendments. The Government underestimate the anxiety and fears out there—particularly among trade unions, but also in other organisations—which arise from the lack of confidence in the future management of the schemes in the best interests of employees and members.
Let me turn to my amendments 7 and 8. The Government’s reform was meant to change the nature of the schemes, so that they would be based on career averages, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East said from the Front Bench. However, that is for a defined benefit scheme, not a defined contribution scheme, yet the Government have not committed themselves to that in the legislation. That is why I have tabled amendments 7 and 8, so that where a scheme is rearranged or staff are transferred into a new scheme, they must be defined benefit schemes, because that is what was promised in the negotiations with the trade unions. It is argued that we are binding future Governments, but all legislation is meant to bind future Governments, and any future Government could revisit this matter. At the same time, we need to try to give at least some security and ensure that the promises given by the present Government are adhered to. That is not much to ask, and it is all my amendments are designed to do.
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger exactly on the issue: insecurity for future pensioners. That, combined with ever-growing inequality in our society and the economic multipliers that we might see operating, means that people who are now living quite comfortably might be facing penury in their old age, due to the root insecurity at the base of this Bill, which he is doing a good job of exposing.
In part, this is linked to other reforms that the Government are introducing—my hon. Friend the shadow Minister touched on this. Where changes have been made to the delivery of public services—some of this relates to outsourcing, reorganising government or delivering direct services through new Government agencies or public bodies—people understood that there would be a commitment from the Government that they would be transferred into the same scheme they are in now, which would be a defined benefit scheme. That is not in this Bill, which is why I have tabled my amendments.
The amendments put the onus on whatever bodies are established—non-departmental public bodies or whatever—to ensure that they offer a defined benefit scheme. If they do not, they are breaking the commitment that the Government gave. In addition, it will create a disincentive. When staff transfer, they transfer into the new scheme that will be established. Many people now in a defined benefit scheme—whatever its nature, whether final or average salary, although we are moving towards average salary—fear that if at some stage they move, they will be offered only a defined contribution scheme. That is why I want more certainty in the legislation. The amendments propose that whatever happens in the future, whatever restructuring the Government bring in and whatever new schemes are established, the Government will adhere to their promise that there must be a defined benefit scheme. I do not want to be cataclysmic about this, but if that does not happen, the legislation could undermine the whole provision of public service pensions. People could start to withdraw from the schemes because they did not have the certainty that they thought they had when they entered them.
The amendments might seem relatively minor, but they are absolutely key. If we do not bring the employees with us, if we do not consult their representatives, if we do not involve them in the valuation process and if we do not stand by the guarantee of a defined benefit scheme that they have been given, we will break down people’s confidence in the public sector pensions system overall, and we will certainly break down their confidence in this Government’s ability to adhere to their promises. This is not the 25-year guarantee of no further reform that we were given from the Dispatch Box only a matter of weeks ago.
I have worked it out; it must be well over 30 years in chambers of one kind or another around London. We do not always come to the same conclusions, but I take on board the expertise that he brings to this topic. I agree with his point that it is important, when dealing with the schemes that he and I have been involved with, to give the members of the schemes an assurance that they will have a secure pension in future.
I have spent most of my life dealing with the local government pension scheme, and I am going to talk about that today. Indeed, I should declare an interest as a member of that scheme. I recognise that change often raises concern and creates a measure of insecurity, and it is the job of those of us who have governance of these schemes, locally and nationally, to deal with that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) pointed out, however, the biggest cause of insecurity and the biggest risk to scheme members would be the lack of a secure financial basis for the future of the scheme. That is why the Government’s reforms are necessary; that is the most important reassurance that we can give to people.
There are other important points that we can take on board in the context of the amendments, and I want to talk about the local government schemes in particular. It has already been recognised in the House that they fall into a different category because of their substantially funded nature, which places them in a different position, and because of the considerable diversity within the sector. There are a number of schemes involved, and they generally have a good management track record and a system of management that creates transparency and democratic accountability. I hope that we can ensure that the regulations that will finally embody the schemes will recognise those differences.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) that we should take at face value the assurances given by those on the Treasury Bench, and I have no hesitation in doing so. I put it as gently as possible when I say that there has been a degree of needless raising of concern among scheme members, perhaps—dare I say it?—for partisan reasons. That is unhelpful.
The hon. Gentleman is urging us to take at face value the statements from those on his Front Bench. Let me tell him what the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said in Committee about the concerns over the fair deal. He said that
“it is important that we consider in full the views of all stakeholders, including of course those who will be affected, through further consultation before making a final decision on the issue.”––[Official Report, Public Services Pensions Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2012; c. 459.]
I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, taken at face value, that suggests that the final decision has not yet been taken, contrary to the agreements reached with the trade unions on pensions reform.
The right hon. Gentleman will know, as a former local government Minister, that there has already been considerable consultation and discussion on the shape of the local government schemes. In any event, there is to be a formal consultation as well. I do not read the same connotations into the Minister’s words as the right hon. Gentleman does. That is not my reading of the discussions to which I was party when I was a Minister. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that we should be as transparent and upfront as possible in our discussions with scheme members.
We need to move from our previous position, which was not financially sustainable, towards a better place. It is perfectly reasonable for my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues to be doing precisely that. I hope that, in so doing, they will recognise that the local government employers and unions have come to an agreement that meets the Government’s cost parameters. In my judgment, it also broadly reflects the particular circumstances and differences of the scheme.
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that, even though the scheme will, for perfectly legitimate public policy reasons, require the sign-off of the Treasury, the ultimate shape of the scheme will be strongly informed by the particular expertise that exists in the local government world and among those who advised me in the Department for Communities and Local Government on the particular nature of these pension schemes and the best way to take these matters forward. I am prepared to accept that that can be done, and it is important that it should be done. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure us on that point.
The other short points that I want to make involve technical issues. There is still time for us to consider some potential unintended consequences of the legislation, which it would not be inconsistent with the objectives of the Bill to resolve.
I should have declared my interest as a member of the local government pension scheme when I first intervened. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that one of the technical issues, as those on our Front Bench have pointed out, is that the language we use should allude to the amendment of the schemes rather than to their closure? If the local government pension schemes that are currently in deficit were to be closed, the employers involved would immediately become liable to pay those deficits. That could have a hugely disruptive effect not only on the people receiving pensions now and in the future but on the local authorities themselves and the public services that they provide.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his arrival in the House. I have been dealing with him in the local government world for many years. I did my best to prevent him from coming here, but it clearly was not quite enough! He anticipates one of the technical issues that I was going to mention, and it is perhaps the most substantial one. Chronologically, it is not the first in relation to the Bill, but I might as well deal with it now for the sake of completeness.
I read with care the assurance that my hon. Friend the Minister gave in Committee. I entirely accept that it is not the Government’s intention to create crystallisation. However, I note that the finer details of the proposals are being considered, and we should look carefully at that. The Minister said that there was no requirement for the funds to be wound up, and I accept that, but I hope that he will consider the issues that have been raised by the Local Government Association about legal ambiguity.
I do not doubt that the Minister has no intention of creating a closure that would crystallise the debts of a scheme. That was always the basis on which I approached such negotiations when I was a Minister, and I am certain that nothing has changed in that regard. However, this was one area in which some of the nuttiest legal advice needed to be obtained—[Interruption.] I should have said “knottiest”. There is sometimes a risk of legal ambiguity, and that must be avoided at all costs. I would therefore urge my hon. Friend and his advisers at the Treasury to take on board the work that has been done in the DCLG and other Departments to find a means of resolving this issue. We all know where we want to end up, and I am sure that there is a means of achieving that. I know that the Minister’s skills and abilities will get us there. It is right to point out that some issues still need to be addressed, but they are not insurmountable in the context of where the Government want to get to. It is an important area to clarify to the maximum extent.
The other issue I want to touch on is governance. I hope that the Minister will consider the concerns raised by the Local Government Association and the unions about the lack of segregation between the scheme manager and the scheme board. Again, I do not think there is any dispute between us about where we want to end up, but it is a fact that the local government schemes have a good record in their management and a good record on transparency. When experienced representatives of local government employers raise concerns that the two functions of the scheme manager and the scheme board are difficult to reconcile within the same body, those concerns should not, in my judgment, be lightly dismissed. I note that the Minister sensibly and properly took on board the fact that there are still developments going on here and that proposals are still being developed. I hope that that will continue to be the case, and when he responds to the debate, he may be able to update us and reassure us that continuing discussions will take place with the experts in the local government sector to make sure that we get the best possible design for those matters.
Finally and more generally, I ask the Minister not to be deterred by undue reference to Henry VIII clauses. When I was taking the Localism Bill and the Local Government Finance Bill through the House, if I had £5 for every time I was criticised about Henry VIII clauses, I would have retired to some tax haven as a very rich man. [Interruption.] I probably would not have not done that actually as I enjoy being here so much. However, it is part of the knockabout banter we get here that Oppositions always say that there are excessive Henry VIII clauses, but when one looks back, one finds that when the Opposition move into government, they construct Bills with exactly the same sort of clauses. That is why I urge the Minister not to be put off by that; it is necessary to build in the flexibility that such clauses provide in any piece of legislation of this kind. What are important are the statements of intent about the manner in which those claus