House of Commons
Monday 7 January 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I regularly meet variously with the Mayor of London, the deputy mayor responsible for policing and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police. However, it is not for the Government to direct the Mayor of London or the Metropolitan police how to deploy their officers and staff.
Since the general election, the number of police officers in London has fallen by 1,700, and it has been reported that nearly half the capital’s police stations could face closure. The Home Secretary is living in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks that this is improving the service for Londoners. Does she accept that having fewer police and fewer police stations is undermining public confidence in the Met and, more crucially, undermining its ability to do the job that needs to be done?
What I accept is that what we have seen in the Met and in most forces across England and Wales is that they have dealt with budget cuts. We have seen some reductions in the number of police officers, but crucially crime has been falling. Visibility, accessibility and confidence in policing are not about certain types of building. They are about police being available to people, and that is exactly what the Met intends to do. It intends to put more constables on the beat and increase their visibility by enabling people to access the police in places such as supermarkets.
There are currently 30 Metropolitan police officers assigned to Operation Alice, dealing with issues relating to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). Another 30 officers are assigned to Yewtree and 170 are dealing with Tuleta, Weeting and Elveden. As well as that, an unnamed number of officers are searching for Ibrahim Magag who went missing just before Christmas. Is the Home Secretary confident that the Metropolitan police have sufficient resources to deal with the bread and butter issues of London, bearing in mind the burden of all these specialist operations?
Yes. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Metropolitan police receive extra funding for the fact that they are the capital city police force. I have every confidence in the Metropolitan police in all the operations that they are undertaking. The number of officers deployed to each of the operations that the right hon. Gentleman referred to is a matter for the commissioner and his officers.
In May 2010 the Met had more than 32,600 police officers. Last April, Mayor Boris Johnson promised us that he would maintain this figure, yet in November the latest figures show us that policing has fallen to just 30,939. Last year the deputy mayor told the Home Affairs Committee that it was a doomsday scenario for London to have only or around 31,000 officers. Does the Home Secretary agree with this assessment, and if so, what does she intend to do about it?
I suggest that the hon. Lady look at the plans that the Metropolitan police have and which they published just before Christmas, which are to maintain officer numbers at around 32,000, to introduce a flatter management structure and to put more constables on the beat. I should have thought the Opposition would welcome the fact that the commissioner, the deputy mayor and the Mayor of London want to ensure that there are more police officers on the beat in London and in the Metropolitan police. That is surely good news.
Seasonal Agricultural Workers
The transitional restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians come to an end at the end of this year. With reference to the agricultural industry, we will look to see whether any further schemes are necessary once the Migration Advisory Committee has reported to us in March this year.
As the Minister knows, the finest fruit and vegetables are grown in West Worcestershire. Can he reassure my farmers that they will be able to face the 2014 growing and picking season with the confidence that, working together with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there will be an adequate supply of people to pick the crops?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In December I met one of the West Midlands Members of the European Parliament, Anthea McIntyre, together with farmers who farm both in Herefordshire and in my constituency in the soft fruit sector. That may be the one respect in which I slightly disagree with my hon. Friend. I have listened to their concerns and will listen to what the Migration Advisory Committee says in its report before we take a decision early this year.
Precisely because of the sort of problems that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) raises, previous Conservative and Labour Governments took a hard look at the Agricultural Wages Board and decided to retain it. The present Government intend to abolish it. Surely that will just exacerbate the situation and leave agricultural workers without even the limited protection that the wages board provides.
I do not think that that is true at all. Those working in the agricultural sector are governed by the national minimum wage legislation, and as well as desk-based research the Migration Advisory Committee will be going out and listening to the sector concerned. I am confident that when it produces its evidence-based report in March, we will be fully informed and able to take a sensible decision for the sector.
As my hon. Friend has made clear, the scheme is incredibly important for farmers and growers throughout the country, certainly in Worcestershire. Can he confirm that throughout its long life the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has lived up to its name and the seasonal workers have returned to their country of origin at the completion of their work?
That is indeed the case. The MAC report will look both at providing labour to the sector and at how the scheme functions in meeting the Government’s commitments on controlling immigration. Both aspects will be important when the Government take the decision later this year.
On 17 October 2011, the former Immigration Minister, now the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), said:
“I believe in free movement. The Government believe in free movement.”—[Official Report, European Committee B, 17 October 2911; c. 18.]
On 21 November 2011 he said:
“Free movement has been, and is, one of the great achievements of the EU.”—[Official Report, European Committee B, 21 November 2011; c. 14.]
Does the Minister agree?
I do not demur from anything that my right hon. Friend has said, but that does not mean that we will not look at how that operates in our balance of competence reviews. Abuses do take place under free movement throughout Europe. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has discussed the issues at Justice and Home Affairs Councils and has found a lot of support from colleagues there. A road map has been set out by Justice Ministers throughout Europe to deal with the abuses that took place and were not dealt with by the Labour party when it was in power.
The Minister paid an extremely successful visit to my county of Herefordshire before Christmas, for which I thank him. Will he reassure me that SAWS will be preserved through the MAC process and that it is not formally part of the immigration figures at all but operates in an entirely separate category?
My hon. Friend correctly points out that it was his constituency that I visited in December. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the work being done by MAC. The whole point is that it is doing some evidence-based work to inform the Government’s decision. It will be looking at whether a successor scheme needs to come into force to ensure that the sector has access to adequate labour when Romanians and Bulgarians have alternative choices after the end of this year.
For the benefit of any uninitiated members of the public, those referring to SAWS are talking about the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, and the MAC of course is the Migration Advisory Committee. I am sure that 57 million people know that perfectly well, but it is as well to remind them.
The Government started collecting data in the crime survey for England and Wales in 2010-11. MCAT has been banned since April 2010 because it is harmful to human health. We should not underestimate the impact of the drug, although consumption appears to be falling. Between 2010-11 and 2011-12, mephedrone use “in the last year” fell from 1.4% to 1.1% among 16 to 59-year-olds and from 4.4% to 3.3% among 16 to 24-year-olds.
Happy new year to you, Mr. Speaker.
I will be reconvening my heroin panel of 10 years ago in the next few weeks, and MCAT is one of the issues that we will be considering. I also wish the Minister a happy new year. Will he agree to meet my panel when it comes down to London and to receive our report on the growing plague of MCAT in my constituency and elsewhere in the country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman through you, Mr Speaker, for that happy new year welcome, which I reciprocate. I will be happy to meet the group. As I said, we do not underestimate the harmful impact of the drug. Its consumption is considerable, and we would like to see it reduced further.
4. What assessment her Department has made of the most recent statistics on net migration. (135581)
Net migration fell by a quarter in the year to March 2012. This shows that our tough policies are taking effect and marks a significant step towards bringing net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament.
I join the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) in wishing you a happy new year, Mr Speaker.
Given that Plymouth is one of the main dispersal centres for asylum seekers, which places strains on local public services, but without significant financial support, are the Government willing to review that policy and, if so, when?
We have no plans to review the policy. At local level, those providing accommodation are contractually required to discuss the local impact with local authorities, education providers and others so that it can be assessed regularly. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration will be visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency in the coming weeks and will be able to see for himself the impact that this is having there and discuss the issue.
Our public services are already overstretched, and there is concern that we will see a fresh wave of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria as the transitional agreements lapse at the end of this year. What lessons have the Government learnt from our experiences in 2004?
The very clear lesson we learned was that we should ensure that transitional controls are placed on any future accession countries, and that is indeed what we will do in relation to Croatia’s accession. As my hon. Friend the Immigration Minister has indicated, we are also taking a number of steps to look at the abuse of free movement and how free movement operates across the European Union.
I welcome the Government’s progress in reducing net migration to a level that is in our national interest. Many of my constituents, however, are as concerned about EU migration as they are about non-EU migration. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress the Government are making as part of the review of competences, in sharp contrast to the previous Government’s failure to apply accession controls?
Absolutely—it is this Government who are willing to look at the issues, make the tough decisions and take action to put tough policies in place. In relation to the balance of competences, we will be looking in detail at free movement. That work has not yet started but will start in the not-too-distant future. There are other things we are doing outside that work. I am working across the European Union with other member states to look at how we can ensure that we reduce the abuse of free movement—through sham marriage, for example—and we are also looking at the pull factors that encourage people to come to the UK, rather than other member states, such as access to benefits.
As the hon. Lady knows, the whole question of the legacy case load was looked at recently by the chief inspector. He found some problems with the way the UK Border Agency has dealt with that. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with the precise number of people in the category she describes. There are problems with how that was dealt with and we are working through them.
The Home Secretary will know that Scotland recently recorded its highest ever population figure, something we very much welcome, and much of it is down to immigration. However, we still have massive demographic issues, with an ageing population and a diminishing active work force, so will she detail how UK immigration policy is helping Scotland to address those?
Of course we look at immigration policy across the whole United Kingdom. I believe that we have the right policy and that what we need to do across the United Kingdom is control immigration. Of course, the hon. Gentleman, given his desire for a separatist Scotland, will need to answer in future what Scotland would do in relation to immigration in those circumstances.
To return to net migration, can the Home Secretary confirm that what is actually happening is that more British nationals are leaving the UK and fewer are coming back and that half the fall in immigration last year was the result of fewer students coming here, which is costing UK universities millions of pounds?
Over the past two to three years, European Union and British migration, emigration and immigration have been, roughly speaking, in balance, and the increase in net migration has come from those from outside the EU. We have seen falls in all categories in terms of the number of people coming into this country. The hon. Lady refers to the numbers of students coming into the country. We have tackled the abuse in the student visa system that grew up when the previous Government abolished one of the tiers in the point-based system and we saw a significant increase in students who were in fact people coming here not to be educated but to work. We are tackling that abuse, and it is good that we have a Government who are willing to do so.
Capita has a contract with the UK Border Agency to clear the migration refusal pool and make sure that people leave the country when they are supposed to. However, as the Home Secretary will be aware, people who are allowed to stay have also been contacted and told to leave, including British citizens. Is this a problem with Capita or with the UK Border Agency’s continuing problems with its record keeping? What action will she take on the agency?
UK Border Agency
Timely dealing with correspondence is obviously something that the UKBA takes very seriously. It has not always been perfect in the past and it is very well aware of the need to improve in future. It has therefore implemented a new national operating model, particularly to deal with MPs, to improve things.
I am not entirely certain which cases the hon. Lady is talking about. If she is talking about the issues that were raised in the chief inspector’s report when he found some unopened post, she will know that he has confirmed in his report that that has now all been cleared and those cases are being dealt with.
The new family immigration rules are expected to reduce burdens on the taxpayer, promote integration and tackle abuse. That was clearly set out in the impact assessment that we published in June 2012. We will of course keep the impact of the rules under review in terms of how we are achieving those objectives.
Children’s well-being may be at risk if the family migration rules perpetuate family separation by preventing a parent from joining his or her family here in the UK. What is the Minister doing to monitor the impact of the family migration rules on children’s well-being?
The purpose of those rules is very straightforward—it is to make sure that people who wish to bring somebody who is not a British citizen into the country are able to support them out of their own resources rather than expecting them and their family to be supported by the taxpayer. That seems perfectly reasonable to me, and it was very well supported in the consultation, but we will keep its impact under review, as I set out in my earlier answer.
I strongly welcome this change. Although this measure has been denounced by some as hard-hearted, may I suggest to my hon. Friend that, in practice, in many cases it will still let people come in who will require a very significant subsidy for their housing, so it is only a first step in the right direction?
The income limit that we set for spouses wishing to bring their family members into this country is based on evidence that the Migration Advisory Committee put forward, having looked at the level at which people were largely not able to claim income-related benefits. As I said, the premise is very simple: if someone wants to bring their family to the UK, they can, but they are expected to support them rather than expecting the taxpayer to do so. That seems perfectly reasonable.
8. What steps the Government are taking to tackle antisocial behaviour. (135586)
9. What steps the Government are taking to tackle antisocial behaviour. (135587)
14. What steps the Government are taking to tackle antisocial behaviour. (135593)
We have just published a draft Bill setting out measures to put victims at the heart of the response to antisocial behaviour. They include the community trigger, which will ensure agencies take persistent problems seriously; the community remedy, giving victims a say in the punishment of offenders out of court; and, overall, faster, more effective powers so that front-line professionals can better protect the public.
Between June 2011 and June 2012, more than 2.5 million incidents of antisocial behaviour were recorded in England and Wales. Under Labour, half the people who breached antisocial behaviour orders went to jail. Why is the Minister replacing Labour’s tough sentencing with much weaker, last-resort injunctions, such as activity orders and supervision requirements, and demanding that local authorities pay for them?
The short answer is that we are replacing them so that we can have more effective measures in place. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to a recent quotation from the Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee:
“I very much welcome the Government’s decision to overhaul the statutory framework for tackling anti-social behaviour. We must ensure that the new Act is more robust than the original ASBO legislation, which has been amended every year since it was passed in 1998.”
The complacency of Ministers in this area and the fact that it has taken two and a half years to get to this point offer no reassurance to those who face daily fear and intimidation because of antisocial behaviour. Those in my community whose lives are blighted by this want to know why Ministers appear not to be on their side and are instead seeking to weaken the powers available to the police to tackle antisocial behaviour.
Let me make two brief points. First, we take antisocial behaviour extremely seriously. I think that MPs of all parties see the terrible effect that antisocial behaviour has on decent, law-abiding citizens and we want to help them. Secondly, the measures are designed to be quicker and more effective than those previously in place. If they were not going to achieve that objective, we would not be bringing them forward.
The Minister has given warm words about his desire to tackle antisocial behaviour, but why is it that my constituents and people up and down the country who suffer antisocial behaviour will now get no action unless they complain three times, not just once?
The hon. Lady misunderstands the intention of the policy. Our hope is that the police and other authorities will respond instantly when concerns are raised about antisocial behaviour. The problem in the past has been when the same concern has been raised repeatedly and no response has been forthcoming. What we are putting in place is a defined measure to make sure that that no longer happens.
The latest figures show that in North West Leicestershire 92% of people who complained about antisocial behaviour were at least satisfied with the service they received from the police. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Leicestershire police force on the work it is doing in combating antisocial behaviour?
I do congratulate Leicestershire police force. It is coming up to eight years that I have been a Member of Parliament and I observe that my own police force in Avon and Somerset is making a more concerted effort—I am sure that this is true generally—to deal with antisocial behaviour and to respond quickly when concerns are raised. We want to make that service even better across all police forces in the future.
16. We all know that, often, where Enfield leads other areas of the country follow. Certainly, lessons will be learned from Enfield, where there has been a 50% reduction in antisocial behaviour as well as in serious violence in key gang areas as a result of hard-hitting call-ins. That has been recognised recently, not least by the Minister when he awarded the Tilley national award to Enfield for its good progress. (135595)
I have fond memories of Enfield, Southgate from when I stood, unsuccessfully, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. That gave me extra reason to be pleased to present the Tilley award to Enfield, which was fitting recognition for all the hard work that has taken place in his borough.
Was the Minister as pleased as I was to read in The Daily Telegraph on 3 December 2012 the following quote from a Government Minister:
“New measures are planned to cut the number of criminals who carry knives”?
Is this a welcome sign that we now have a Government who are willing to make the punishment fit the crime?
The community trigger has been described as a new and improved way to deal with repeat complaints of antisocial behaviour. Brighton and Hove is one of the pilot areas, and in the first quarter of its pilot there were more than 7,000 recorded incidents of antisocial behaviour. During that same period, the community trigger was successfully triggered just four times. Is that rate a success?
It is difficult to respond definitively because absolute success would mean never having to use the trigger at all. That would constitute a very responsive set of authorities. This is a serious measure and I am sure that Members from all parts of the House approve of it. We must all be familiar with people in our constituencies who have raised a concern repeatedly, but who do not feel that it has been taken sufficiently seriously and want greater action to be taken. We want to empower them to ensure that their lives are no longer blighted by antisocial behaviour.
Between March 2011 and March 2012, the West Midlands force had the greatest reduction, 435, in the number of front-line police officers. It also had, in the year to June 2012, a 13% reduction in overall recorded crime compared with the previous 12 months—one of the largest falls of any force in England and Wales.
Will the Minister explain to my constituents why Merseyside is having to cut 552 police officers when Surrey, through the new grant system, can employ another 49 police officers? Is it because the Government are fiddling the figures and the grant system? Will he set up an independent body to look at the funding of the police?
The grant system is exactly the same as it was under the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. I am happy to tell his constituents that crime in the Merseyside area was down 6% from 2011 to 2012, and that victim satisfaction with Merseyside police is 88%, which is higher than the average for England and Wales. I hope that he and his constituents will join me in congratulating their local police on how well they are doing.
In my constituency, people are worried and angry about the cuts, not just because Greater Manchester police have already lost 650 police posts, but because there are 850 more losses to come. The report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary says that the police are already less visible and accessible. Is it not time that we had not just a relaunch but a rethink of these police cuts?
I can only give the hon. Lady the facts. In the Greater Manchester police area, crime went down by 10% over the past year. Her constituents’ streets are safer than they were a year ago, two years ago and three years ago, and 84% of the public say that they are satisfied with Greater Manchester police. On the specific point that she raises, the HMIC report states that the force will save money through collaboration, but that
“the public will not notice any difference in the service they receive in their community.”
Will the Minister join me in commending Adam Simmonds, the new police and crime commissioner for Northamptonshire, who, in his draft crime plan, commits himself to retaining at 1,220 the number of police officers that he inherited, while at the same time creating a new large-scale reservist police force of up to 200 officers, each of whom will be required to give 20 days a year?
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the police and crime commissioner for Northamptonshire on some of the innovative ideas that he is bringing forward to make the streets of Northamptonshire safer. That is precisely why we should have police and crime commissioners. We now have people all over the country who are able to respond to local needs and demands in a way that is much less top-down and centralist than under the previous system.
Student Visas (India)
There were 21,295 sponsored tier 4 student visa applications from Indian nationals in the year ending September 2012. We have cut the abuse of student visas, but continue to attract the brightest and best students from around the world.
No, that is not what we are doing. We want to attract the best and brightest students to the United Kingdom. However, we want to combine that with dealing with the education providers that in the past were not providing education but were in effect selling immigration permits. We have dealt with the abuse and will continue to do so, but we want students from around the world to come here to use our excellent universities. The latest figures show that those numbers are up.
The Minister will be well aware that London Metropolitan university has been affected by a decision that the UK Border Agency made last year. I understand that discussions are going on between the UKBA and the university with a view to seeing whether a system can be brought into place so that tier 4 status can be returned. May I urge the Minister to interest himself in that, to ensure that we get good overseas students into this country and benefiting from higher education here?
The hon. Gentleman raises the case of London Metropolitan university, and he will know that it was not carrying out its responsibilities as a tier 4 highly trusted sponsor, which was why its licence was revoked. He will know that the Government put in place a taskforce to ensure that all the legitimate students were able either to transfer to another education provider and stay in the country or to finish their course at London Metropolitan university. They were all written to last Friday, so they should all shortly be aware of their status in the coming months.
Deputy Police and Crime Commissioners (Salaries)
Not every police and crime commissioner has appointed a deputy. Whether PCCs decide to have a deputy, and what salary that person should be paid, is for the PCC to decide. They must publish that salary. PCCs are accountable to the public, and it will be for them to justify their deputy PCC’s salary.
The maladroit election timing, the sinfully wasteful funding, the creation of cronyism and the sapping of democracy make the setting up of police commissioners one of the most egregious examples of political incompetence, and it will be seen in the future as an example of the coalition’s signature policy in creating its ineptocracy.
The hon. Gentleman, apart from having a way with the English language, is slightly confused. The idea that having directly elected posts is in any way anti-democratic seems perverse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) illustrated, we now have police and crime commissioners in operation all over the country. Indeed, several former colleagues of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) are now PCCs, and I wish them all well in their new jobs.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the cost of the deputies. The highest-paid deputy at the moment has been appointed at £68,000 a year—[Interruption.] I am interested that Labour Members are shocked by that figure, because that was an appointment of the Labour PCC for Northumbria, Mrs Vera Baird, QC.
Deputy PCCs are accountable to their PCC as a member of staff. They may have delegated functions and powers that other staff may not, for instance that of appearing before the police and crime panel. They are the only members of staff who are not politically restricted, and they may support the PCC politically. All other employees are politically restricted.
Gang and Youth Violence
Large areas of Government policy are having a positive impact on the matter. Specifically, we are supporting 29 local areas that face problems of gang and youth violence. That includes tackling young people possessing knives, which we were talking about a moment ago. We have also recently announced that we will provide practical support to another four areas.
I thank the Minister. I have become aware of some particularly appalling examples in my constituency of young girls being drawn into gangs, and there are high levels of sexual violence associated with that. What work is being done to understand that, and in particular, what further work might be done to provide exit strategies for girls drawn into gang culture?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to an under-reported aspect of the problem, which is the involvement of girls and young women in gangs and the exploitation of them. We are supporting financially young people’s advocates around the country to support girls at risk of suffering from gang-related violence. More generally, we are having a reasonable impact, including through reductions in the past year in homicides, the use of knives or sharp instruments and gun crime, and that impact benefits everybody.
The Minister will be aware that just over 18 months ago there was widespread arson, looting and violence, which emanated from my constituency and spread across the country. Given that context, does he view with alarm the Mayor’s decision to shut half of London’s police stations? In particular, is he concerned about the closure of Tottenham police station and the withdrawal of the police officers stationed in it? Is this not just open season for London’s thugs, gang members and hoodlums?
No; I do not accept that characterisation at all. Perhaps I could draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to a recent quote from Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, who said:
“If we ended up with less people but better technology, and ended up being better at fighting crime, I’d say that wouldn’t be a bad thing”.
The right hon. Gentleman will note that in London, the Metropolitan police reports that serious youth violence has fallen by 34% since the launch of the new Trident gang crime command less than a year ago, in February 2012.
Police Officer Numbers
Home Office Ministers and officials receive regular representations on policing issues, including on the number of front-line police officers. The most recent representations received were questions 10 and 18 this afternoon.
How many PCSOs should be employed by a particular police force is a decision that will be taken by that police force. The Metropolitan police force has indicated that it wants to change the number of PCSOs in order to increase the number of police constables it has available.
Will the Home Secretary join me in paying tribute to the young police officer who sadly died on his way to an emergency call on Saturday? In recognising this tragic loss, will she also take the opportunity to recognise the role that rural police officers play in sparsely populated areas such as North Yorkshire?
Yes, I indeed pay tribute to PC Andrew Bramma, who, as my hon. Friend said, died following a collision while answering an emergency call. Once again, this shows the dangers that our police officers face on a day-to-day basis. Our sympathies are with him, his family and his colleagues. I would also like to offer my sympathies to the family of PC Tony Sweeney, QPM, who died on 27 December after falling ill on his return from work. Our police officers bravely go about their duties day by day; we owe them a great debt.
The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that most non-EU immigrants come to study. In reforming every route of entry for non-EEA migrants, we have cut the abuse while continuing to attract the brightest and best. The latest figures show that our policies are working.
On a recent trade mission, which I happened to lead, to Nigeria, it became clear that people who are educated in this country help British businesses. When we try to go to those countries, the English language is already established and there are links with this country. Although we should try to cut down on immigration and although students who finish their studies should go back to their countries of origin, is it not important to recognise that educating foreign students in this country is greatly beneficial to British business?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course it is important that students should actually be coming here to be educated. We need to deal with the abuse whereby they are really coming here to work instead of study, which happened all too frequently under the previous Government, but he is right: there is a real benefit to Britain in having those students come here. That is why I am pleased that the latest statistics saw an increase in the number of international students coming to our excellent UK universities.
Of course we all want to see an end to bogus colleges and it is right that the Government have taken action on that, but the reality is that legitimate colleges and universities have seen their numbers reduced. If the Minister says I am wrong, will he publish the figures from each university for countries that have sent students in the past but are now not sending them?
The hon. Gentleman simply is not right to say that our university sector has not seen an increase. The latest figures show an increase in international students coming into the sector, and I am pleased that that is the case. The Government will continue to work with our excellent universities to encourage international students to attend them at every opportunity.
I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave some moments ago.
The Home Secretary will be aware that, between 2001 and 2010, more than 50% of the increase in the population in England and Wales was the result of immigration. Do the figures that she gave in her earlier answer demonstrate that she now has control of a problem over which there was previously no control at all?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that immigration was out of control under the last Labour Government, and that it is this Government who have taken the tough decisions to bring it under control. We are able to attract the brightest and best to the UK and, as the Minister for Immigration has just said, the number of overseas students applying to and being accepted by our universities has increased. At the same time, we are driving out abuse. The fall in the net migration figures shows that it is this Government who are dealing with the issue of immigration and bringing it under control.
The Minister’s Department has not made a decision on the asylum support rates in this financial year. He has therefore frozen the rates by default, without coming to the House to announce that decision. I understand from an announcement made in another place that a review is ongoing, but does he accept that kicking the matter into the long grass for a further year simply will not do?
I said in my answer that we keep the matter under review. There is no statutory provision to make an annual uprating, but we keep this under review and look at the figures. I have listened carefully to what the hon. Lady has said and I will consider the matter.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. (135602)
I referred earlier to the deaths of the two police officers that occurred over the Christmas period. I also wish to extend my sympathies to the family of the 13-year-old girl who died following a traffic accident involving a police patrol car on Sunday night. That matter is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Following a year in which we saw crime fall to the lowest level since the British crime survey began, we saw net migration fall significantly. I should like to thank officials, the police, the Security Service and all those involved in delivering the successes of last year, including of course a safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic games. I look forward to 2013, in which the National Crime Agency will become operational and in which we will continue to tackle robustly immigration as well as working with the new College of Policing further to professionalise our police forces to meet the challenges ahead.
I identify myself and my constituents with everything the Home Secretary has said about the fatalities that occurred over the Christmas season, and extend my condolences to the bereaved families.
I also want to ask the Home Secretary about the Communications Data Bill. I had the privilege of serving on its pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, which produced a unanimous report raising points for her to consider carefully, particularly in relation to the cost of the exercise. Will she tell us what discussions have taken place between the industry and her Department on the cost of the proposals, and what her latest estimate of the cost is? Will she also tell us where the money is to be found, given that the Treasury has made it clear that no new funding has been agreed for the proposals?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and all the Members of this House and the other place who served on the Communications Data Bill’s pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. He is right to say that the report contained a number of recommendations, and we will accept the substance of all of them. We are currently working on the details. This includes talking to the industry, and discussions about the costs started before Christmas. We will obviously look carefully at those discussions, but it would not be right to opine on the question of the costs until we have spoken to all those in the industry that we wish to consult.
T2. A business-friendly visa service can be key to unlocking exports and investment in our economy. In Melksham, a multi-million pound investment in Stellram followed the securing of a visa for someone from Mexico with specialist skills, yet in Chippenham, Merganser is threatened by a lack of UK Border Agency accreditation for teachers from Turkey applying for its highly regarded training courses. What is the Minister doing to convert the UKBA from an obstacle into a partner for businesses building a stronger economy? (135603)
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. The first part of it related to a very successful enterprise in his constituency, which had had good support from the UK Border Agency, while the second part showed less good support. On that second point, I would be happy if he would like to write to, or meet, me to discuss that particular issue. I have made it clear to the UK Border Agency generally that it needs to see itself as a partner for businesses that are trying to do the right thing and to attract good people to come to Britain and skilled workers to work here. If any Member knows of examples when that is not the case, I would be happy to hear from them.
I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to those police officers who have lost their lives. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) was right to pay tribute to the officer who lost his life in her constituency while rushing to help others in an emergency call. We also extend our sympathies to the family of the 13-year-old; it is right for that tragic case to be investigated.
Ibrahim Magag absconded from his TPIM—terrorism prevention and investigation measure—on Boxing day. This is someone who the Government believe has attended terror training camps in Somalia, has raised funds for al-Qaeda and is sufficiently dangerous to warrant a TPIM. He has disappeared for the last 12 days. In the final four years of control orders, when relocations were extensively used, the Home Secretary will know that no one absconded. The independent reviewer, David Anderson, has asked of Mr Magag:
“Could he have absconded so easily from the West Country where he was made to live when under a control order?”.
What is the Home Secretary’s answer?
I thank the right hon. Lady for the remarks she made about the fatalities of police officers and, indeed, that of the young girl at the weekend.
National security is our top priority and the police are, of course, doing everything in their power to apprehend this individual as quickly as possible. The right hon. Lady has, however, been very careful in her use of statistics. She has quoted a period in which there were no absconds from control orders, but as we know, under the whole six years of those control orders—and, particularly, their first two years—seven absconds took place. I am afraid that the right hon. Lady cannot therefore argue that control orders were stopping people absconding while TPIMs are not.
But the Home Secretary is not dealing with the crucial issue of relocation. No one has absconded since 2008 under the extensive use of relocations. The Home Secretary took the personal decision to rule out relocation for Ibrahim Magag and for every other terror suspect, even though the judge who reviewed Mr Magag’s control order said specifically:
“It is too dangerous to permit him to be in London even for a short period”.
The Home Secretary told the House that she was “confident” that her policies—TPIMs and extra surveillance —would be sufficient. They have clearly not been, so will she admit that she got it wrong on relocations; will she instigate an urgent review by David Anderson into how Mr Magag has absconded; and, in the interests of public protection, will she now change course and put the legislation right?
Just to be absolutely clear, the right hon. Lady has put this case in certain terms, which I believe do not reflect the reason why the TPIM was originally put in place—to prevent fundraising and overseas travel. We do not believe that Magag’s disappearance is linked to any current terrorist planning in the UK, and it is important to put that point on the record. As the right hon. Lady will know, the TPIM regime introduced rigorous measures to manage the threat posed by terror suspects whom we cannot yet prosecute or deport by limiting their ability to communicate, associate and travel. The new regime was complemented by funding to the Security Service and the police, so we are maximising the opportunities to put these individuals on trial in an open court. The TPIM regime is, as the right hon. Lady knows, a package. To return to my earlier point, there were a number of absconds under control orders, so it is not right for her to contrast control orders and TPIMs in the way that she has.
T3. This morning, on their way back into work, all MPs will have walked past the continued encampment on Parliament square. The banners, the flags and the tents were supposed to be removed by the time of the jubilee, yet they are still there today—over halfway through the lifetime of this Parliament. When does the Home Secretary intend to use the powers given to her by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to remove these final eyesores, so that the square can once again be fully used by the public? (135604)
The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act introduced new powers prohibiting the use of tents and related items in Parliament square, while safeguarding the right to peaceful protest. The use of the powers is an operational matter for the police and Westminster city council, but they were used in January last year to clear the square of tents.
T5. I think that ordinary decent people out there will be absolutely staggered by the Home Secretary’s complacency about Ibrahim Magag. The difference between the first two years and the last four years of control orders is that no one absconded during the last four years because the power to relocate was used, and that is the power that the Home Secretary got rid of. Ibrahim Magag was in London, where his friends were, and was able to abscond, because the Home Secretary had given him a travel pass. We all hope that he does not do any harm, but if he does, I think that people out there will hold her responsible. (135606)
T4. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Sussex police on the work that they have been doing in tackling laser pen attacks on aircraft operating from Gatwick airport, which have the potential to endanger hundreds of lives in the air and on the ground? What additional work is the Home Office doing to address the problem nationwide, and, possibly, to reclassify laser pens? (135605)
I am, of course, happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating his local force on its work in dealing with this very serious matter. Although we currently have no plans to classify lasers as offensive weapons, we are determined to ensure that best practice is shared between forces. I hope that my hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that one of the five objectives of the newly established College of Policing will be to identify what works in policing, share best practice, and ensure that that best practice is adopted.
Can the Home Secretary shed any light on the Prime Minister’s thinking, as expressed yesterday, about the removal of Abu Qatada?
The Prime Minister and I are of one mind on that, and I think that the majority of the public and Members of Parliament are as well. We want to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan. We are working on two tracks: we are continuing to work with the Jordanian Government to establish whether anything can be done to deal with the issue raised by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in relation to our inability to deport him, and we have sought and been granted leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal. The case will be heard next month.
T6. As a result of a written question that I tabled on 9 November, it emerged that, on average, three babies a year are born with an addiction to class A drugs. Given that the national health service is spending half a billion pounds on the treatment of people who are addicted to class A drugs, does the Home Secretary agree that the police should make it a priority to prosecute dealers, and that those dealers should face the severest of sentences? (135607)
My hon. Friend has raised a particularly tragic aspect of drug abuse, namely its effect on newborn children. This is part of a wider effort to reduce the harm caused by drugs. I am pleased that over the past decade there have been substantial falls in the consumption of illegal drugs—including the more harmful ones such as heroin—but the problem is continuing to evolve, especially in relation to legal highs. We are constantly thinking about how we can do more to prosecute those who trade in drugs, and how we can reduce the harm caused by them.
A freedom of information answer from the Metropolitan police revealed that some 4,000 front-line police officers covering the London boroughs had been lost during the Government’s first two years in office. How does the Minister think that that is helping to tackle gang violence and antisocial behaviour—which is causing growing concern—and does he think that it may have contributed to the riots in any way?
No, I do not think that, and nor does anyone who has investigated the riots.
I want to make an overall point about policing in London, which is extremely difficult but hugely important not just to Londoners, but to the whole country. In this time of financial stringency, the reason for which the hon. Gentleman will understand —it is because of what his Government did—recorded crime in the Metropolitan police area over the past 12 months was down by 3%. London is becoming safer. I wish that Opposition Members who have raised this matter a lot would look at the facts of what is happening on our streets—they are becoming safer.
T7. The accident and emergency unit at my local Stepping Hill hospital has had an 11% spike in admissions, much of it, sadly, driven by the misuse of alcohol. The Government’s alcohol strategy is very welcome, but will the Minister assure the House that the current consultation will not simply be used to kick things into the long grass? We need serious action quickly. (135608)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Alcohol-related harm costs the country about £21 billion a year. Absolutely the alcohol strategy is not designed to delay anything. As he knows, it sets out a range of measures to tackle binge drinking, to cut alcohol-fuelled violence and disorder and to reduce the number of people drinking at damaging levels. Just as the Government overhauled the Licensing Act 2003 to give local authorities the tools they needed to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder, so we will take further measures as and when necessary.
Over the Christmas and new year period, there seemed to be an abundance of adverts and public information campaigns telling women how they could avoid being raped or sexually assaulted—for example, by not drinking too much or dressing in a certain way. Does the Home Secretary agree that this gives out entirely the wrong message—that victims are somehow responsible for the crimes being perpetrated against them—and that we ought to be sending out the message that it is never okay for men to assault women?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that we need to send out a very clear message that sexual violence against men or women is wrong. These are abhorrent crimes—rape is an abhorrent crime—and we should be doing all we can to stop them. I also agree that, although it is necessary to ensure that women, particularly young women, are aware of the potential dangers and circumstances in which they could be at risk and that they take appropriate action, it is the perpetrator of such crimes whom we should be bringing to justice. It is the perpetrator who is at fault, and we should never forget that.
T8. Further to the last question and given the entirely justified outrage internationally at appalling cases of violence against women, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that both cultural and other remaining attitudes are challenged and that all allegations are properly and effectively investigated? (135609)
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. As I said, violence against women and girls is an abhorrent crime and we are committed to ending it. We have taken a number of steps: we have ring-fenced up to £40 million across the spending review period as stable funding for specialist local services, support services and national helplines; we have published a cross-Government strategy that includes an action plan; we have announced our plans to criminalise forced marriage in England and Wales; we have introduced two new stalking offences; we have piloted new ways of protecting the victims of domestic violence; and crucially—in relation to the cultural issues he raised—we have launched prevention campaigns to tackle rape and relationship abuse among teenagers, including through some very effective advertising. Internationally, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), is taking forward an international campaign against violence against women.
The Home Secretary might recall that when he gave evidence to the TPIMs Committee of the House, Stuart Osborne, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said that the relocation power
“has been very useful for us…Without that relocation”
“and depending on where people choose to live,”
“could be significantly more difficult”––[Official Report, Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Powers Public Bill Committee, 21 June 2011; c. 5, Q10.]
for us to monitor and enforce the orders. Does she now regret the deal she did with the Liberal Democrats to abolish the power of relocation, which has led to a diminution of security for people in this country?
I say to the right hon. Lady that, during the transition from control orders to TPIMs, both the police and the Security Service made it clear that there should be no substantial increase in risk and that appropriate arrangements would be in place to manage an effective transition and to manage individuals under TPIMs. Of course we take extremely seriously the abscond that has taken place, and the police and others are working to apprehend the individual who has absconded, but TPIMs were put in place as a series of legislative measures, together with the package of extra funding that went to both the police and the Security Service. As I said, both the police and the Security Service were clear that there should be no substantial increase in risk.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware that the Cabinet Office has today tabled a written ministerial statement entitled “Coalition Government mid-term review”. I have with me the relevant document, “Together in the national interest”; there is nothing like starting the new term with a bit of comedy, and the TV over the Christmas period has been pretty poor in comedy terms. Could you give me some advice, Mr Speaker, because there has been a press conference in Downing street today, where the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have been answering questions on this document and the Government’s future programme, but nobody in this House has had the opportunity to ask any question of the Executive about this document? This is supposedly a further relaunch of the Government, so why is no Minister here to answer questions on the failure of this coalition Government to implement their policies in their first two and a half years? Why is there not a Minister here answering on this document?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his attempted point of order, which may find some resonance with the Telford Bugle or some other similar purveyor of information to the public. [Interruption.] I am grateful to hon. Members for drawing my attention to the Shropshire Star, which is an extremely illustrious newspaper. He will have an opportunity to raise this during questions to the Deputy Prime Minister tomorrow and questions to the Prime Minister on Wednesday. It is a review document, but if there are substantive policy announcements to make flowing from it, individual responsible Ministers will doubtless make them to the House ere long.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you advise the House as to how the leaking of that document in television studios by Ministers, or even perhaps the Prime Minister, is in order with the announcing of new policy to this House first?
I think my response to the hon. Gentleman is substantively the same as my response to the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). It is a review document—I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), but I have not yet read it and I have no immediate plans to do so—but if there are substantive new policy announcements flowing from it, of course Ministers must make them to the House. We will leave it there for the time being. The hon. Gentleman has that cheeky grin on his face which suggests to me that he knows that he was slightly pushing his luck.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Only about once every two or three centuries does this House consider the supremely important matter of the succession of the Head of State. The Government propose to rush the Bill through both Houses in a single day, so it will not be possible to have a proper debate on the new clauses and amendments. The anxiety about this matter is not confined to commoners.
I note what the hon. Gentleman tells me, but I know that he will appreciate that the programme motion for such matters is not a matter for me. He may be very genuinely concerned about the length of time available for debate on these issues and his concerns will have been heard, but, to put it bluntly, there is nothing I can do about it now and I am not sure that there is anything I can do about it at any stage. However, he has vented his displeasure and I hope that that at least gives him some satisfaction.
Trusts (Capital and Income) Bill [Lords]
Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
Queen’s consent signified.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
This is a short technical Bill that implements, with minor modifications, the recommendations of the Law Commission. The Government are grateful to the Law Commission, the Charity Commission and the leading experts and stakeholders who have worked with them and the Ministry of Justice to prepare the reforms. The provisions of the Bill are to be brought into force on a date or dates to be specified by order made by the Secretary of State and I will make a statement on the timing of commencement following Royal Assent.
The Bill will simplify and modernise the law and I commend it to the House.
I do not wish to add a great deal to what the Minister has said. The Bill started its life under the previous Labour Government, which in itself means that it must be well founded. It is of course a Law Commission Bill and has therefore been subject to special procedures. Indeed, when it was considered in the other place and in Committee in this House, it was not amended. There are no amendments today and I have heard no adverse comments from any source outside these Houses.
I merely repeat what I said to the Minister in Committee: if the Bill is found in practice to have any unintended consequences, to cause any problems or to do anything other than follow the processes we wish it to use, I urge her and the Government not to tarry in any way in bringing it back to the House to give us the opportunity to correct it at the earliest opportunity. I wish to add nothing further.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.
Business without Debate
Statute Law (Repeals) Bill [Lords]
I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman was hovering, although I am sure his hover was well intentioned. We shall move to the vote.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 58), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, That the Bill be not committed.—(Mr Syms.)
Question agreed to.
I thank the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) for rising to move the motion; the choreography is everything in these matters.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.
Commission Work Programme 2013
[Relevant document: The Twenty-first Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 86-xxi.]
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 15691/12 and Addendum, a Commission Communication on the Commission Work Programme 2013, and welcomes the Work Programme as a useful summary that enables the Government and Parliament to plan their engagement.
I welcome the fact that the European Scrutiny Committee has referred this subject for debate. Today’s debate on the 2013 work programme of the European Commission provides us with a timely opportunity for both Government and Parliament to look ahead and plan our consideration of forthcoming European Union business.
As is always the case, the work programme sets out the European Commission’s priorities, in this instance for 2013 and early 2014; and it may be the last substantial work programme under the current Commission, whose term ends in October 2014. The substance of the Commission’s plans is contained in the annex, which previews 58 initiatives, making it shorter than previous work programmes. However, we know that the list of initiatives is unlikely to be exhaustive; previous experience suggests that reactive work will arise. As the House is aware, various European measures from previous Commission work programmes are already in the system, and work on those will be ongoing over the next 12 months or so.
We could spend a fair time debating exactly what went wrong and the extent to which fault should be laid at the door of European institutions or of various national Governments who failed to implement the right economic measures to inculcate greater dynamism. I make no bones about the fact that the European Union as a whole would benefit from focusing—perhaps not to the exclusion of everything else, but ahead of all other priorities—on the urgent need for Europe as a whole to rediscover economic dynamism and economic growth through trade and open markets, because in the face of a dramatically changing global economy, that is the only way Governments of European nations can ensure that future generations enjoy both the material standards of living and the degree of social protection that we have come to take for granted in our day.
I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether there is provision in the Commission work programme to deal with the new relationship for the United Kingdom that I believe the Prime Minister will be sketching in his forthcoming speech.
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend finds it hard to contain his excitement at the prospect of the Prime Minister’s speech. He will, however, understand if I decline to be drawn into speculating about the contents of that speech today. I am very confident indeed that when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister makes his promised speech on European policy, it will address the important issues facing both the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole, and will chart a way forward that is in the interests of the people of this country in particular and the peoples of Europe more broadly.
I do not know whether that was a bid from the hon. Gentleman to be involved in the No. 10 drafting team. The Prime Minister will prepare his speech in the way he normally prepares such speeches within Government. The hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long to see the speech and I am sure that he will be first in the queue to express enthusiasm and a warm welcome for what my right hon. Friend has to say.
Again, I have to say that the hon. Gentleman must wait to see what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has to say in his forthcoming speech, but I am sure that the answers to the questions that he and other Members have about the speech will be answered in full when my right hon. Friend makes it.
Further to the questions from Opposition Members, can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Prime Minister will look at the Fresh Start project manifesto that he and other colleagues on the Government Benches received in draft form over the Christmas recess? It proposes significant reforms to Britain’s relationship with the EU.
My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I follow closely the work that my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) and the Fresh Start group are doing. We think that their ideas represent an extremely creative and valuable contribution to the debate about this country’s future in Europe.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to allow me to continue. Perhaps he could try to intervene later; I will seek to give way to him then.
Overall, we agree with the Commission that the No. 1 task facing the European Union is to tackle the economic crisis, return Europe to growth and enable its member states to compete in the global economy. Globalisation means that the EU faces increased competition from rapidly developing countries outside Europe, but it also brings us opportunities to build new markets for our products and services. To meet those challenges, the European Union should prioritise the promotion of trade, within the EU and outside it. It should seek to free private enterprise and enable businesses to compete, and it should support those priorities by ensuring that the limits of EU power are respected. I would therefore like to highlight three cross-cutting themes that are of the highest importance to the Government: growth, better regulation, and safeguarding the interests of the United Kingdom. I shall deal first with growth.
The Minister is talking about the importance of European Union member states competing in the world, and indeed with each other. The only way that they can do that fairly is if they have an appropriate value for their currency. They cannot have that when they are fixed inside the euro.
I think that this country’s decision to stay outside the euro was right. I am certainly not in the least tempted to see the United Kingdom abolish sterling and participate in the euro, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that we, as a democratically elected House, have to respect the sovereign decisions of other European democracies that have chosen, for reasons of their own that they have explained publicly, to commit themselves to the single currency project.
Will the Minister explain to the House how the work programme will fit in with the principles of the presidencies that will take place this year? As he knows, Ireland has taken over the presidency, and has presidency priorities. In six months’ time, another country will take over. How will that fit in with what the Commission intends to do?
The way this works, as the right hon. Gentleman will know from when he held my position, is that the Commission, under the treaties, has the right to initiate legislation, but even in the post-Lisbon world, the rotating six-monthly presidency chairs the various sectoral Council meetings and working groups, and has considerable influence in determining the relative priorities given to particular measures. A presidency may choose to try to fast-track a particular measure, and use its diplomatic resources to seek early agreement on it; it may place another measure, about which it cares less, on the back-burner. There is negotiation between the presidency and the Commission in that respect.
The Government have long argued for the Commission to come forward with measures to help boost growth, through agreements with important trading partners, and by strengthening and deepening the single market. I am sure that the House will welcome the news that, last month, the European Union successfully concluded a free trade agreement with Singapore, which will create new opportunities for United Kingdom businesses, particularly in the export of services, green technologies, automotive, electronic and pharmaceutical items, and medical devices. There are also opportunities to bid for public procurement contracts in Singapore.
We will continue to work on many more such agreements. I hope that it will be possible to conclude the proposed EU free trade agreement with Canada in the coming weeks, to open negotiations between the EU and the United States by the summer, and to take forward free trade negotiations with Japan. We will also continue to support efforts to achieve EU free trade agreements with India, Malaysia and other countries.
On free trade agreements with the United States, does the Minister agree with me and with many commentators that the chances of the European Union getting effective agreement with the United States will be significantly less if the UK is not part of the negotiation, and that it is in the UK’s interests that the European Union is able to negotiate effectively with the United States and other countries, which would not be possible if we were outside?
I have always taken the view that if the United Kingdom were to walk away from the table, the most ardent and most influential champion for free trade and open markets would be removing itself. I am quite clear in my mind, particularly with the pressures that we can observe globally for protection rather than free trade, that it is important that we continue to bring our influence to bear within the European Union and within other multilateral organisations to promote greater freedom of trade across the world.
My right hon. Friend, in line with many other members of our party, is deeply committed to the idea of free trade, but given that the European Union has exclusive competence in relation to trade, and with the qualified majority vote and with our having only 8% now, and only 12% even when the Lisbon treaty proposals are introduced in a few months, how will we be able to exercise the degree of influence that he claims, and how will we maintain bilateral trading relations, which will be the answer to all these problems?
I have more confidence than does my hon. Friend in our ability to form alliances with other countries to achieve the objectives that he and I share. Our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already discussed at length with Chancellor Merkel their shared objective of an ambitious free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. The leaders of our country and of Germany recognise that the prize at stake is not only the phasing out of tariff barriers but the elimination of non-tariff barriers, thereby establishing, in effect, global regulatory standards agreed on a Euro-Atlantic basis, which would have to become the model for the rest of the world and which other parts of the world would find it difficult to challenge.
It is often said that if this country were to leave the European Union, we would get all the disbenefits of all the European laws, without any of the benefits implied. Will he tell us, therefore, how many EU laws Singapore has adopted, or any EU laws that the United States will adopt if a free trade agreement is arrived at?
The arrangements for dismantling barriers, for the mutual recognition of each other’s standards or for a common standard are negotiated and set down in writing in the terms of a free trade agreement. I am happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the EU-Singapore free trade agreement if he wishes, so that he can inspect this in detail.
I am grateful to the Minister, who is being extremely generous. I have great concerns about Colombia and the move towards EU free trade with the Colombian regime, as I refer to it. Under President Santos there are ongoing human rights abuses and there is a huge issue concerning the current peace discussions with the FARC. When considering the work programme, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the huge problems with Colombia?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, there are standard human rights clauses in all EU free trade agreements. I am aware that these human rights issues, particularly the rights of trade unionists in Colombia, have long concerned politicians and Ministers not just in the UK but in a number of other European countries. This is a live issue and it is one that we raise bilaterally with our friends in Colombia.
The European Council has called on the Commission to publish the proposals already identified in its communication on the Single Market Act II by the spring of this year, and it is encouraging that the work programme includes measures to improve the single market in both services and digital, such as those on access to regulated professions, reducing the cost of broadband deployment and e-invoicing.
We also welcome measures that aim to put the EU economy on a more sustainable long-term footing, including through innovation and the green economy, such as a new climate and energy framework up to 2030. We also support measures to improve transparency and customer protection and to tackle systemic risks in financial services. Better financial regulation is necessary to financial stability, and common rules are essential to safeguard the single market and the competitiveness of the UK’s financial services sector.
However, the Commission also needs to ensure that its proposals on complex financial services dossiers are properly worked out through the legislative process and that new proposals do not simply add to the existing backlog. We believe that the Commission should prioritise only the most important issues to ensure that sufficient time and expertise can be devoted to them, and that proper consultation takes place with practitioners in that sector.
We are concerned about the potential impact of a relatively small number of measures that are labelled as growth promoting. Those include the review of the institutions for occupational retirement pensions directive, which could significantly increase the cost of occupational pensions and reduce investment.
Right across the range of single market and other measures, we are working closely with the Commission, other member states and the European Parliament to encourage them to follow smart regulation principles. This brings me to the second important theme for the Government in the work programme.
Tackling regulatory burdens on business is vital for boosting economic growth. While EU regulation is needed in some areas—for example, in eliminating barriers to the single market—we need to reduce unnecessary costs to business from EU regulation. Our chances of heading off or shaping new EU regulations are much higher if we influence the European Commission before it has published a formal legislative proposal, so the Government use the Commission work programme to identify forthcoming proposals, and challenge the Commission about these in the early stages. We share feedback from British businesses on the potential impacts of proposals and build alliances with other member states so that we speak with a louder voice in Brussels.
I am grateful to the Minister for recognising that it is extremely important that Select Committees of this House are made aware at an early stage of developing legislative proposals in Europe in time to influence them, and I hope that he will continue attempting to ensure that the invaluable help that comes from UK representatives to Select Committees is strengthened and that they are enabled to do this vital job.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he says. It is true that the departmental Select Committees of this House can play an important role complementing the work of the European Scrutiny Committee by trying to look ahead of formal legislative proposals being tabled for scrutiny. The sort of work that the Select Committees can do in taking evidence from those business sectors that may be affected by a particular Commission initiative, producing evidence-based reports, can help better to inform the Government’s negotiating position and, on occasion, can have a direct impact on thinking within the European institutions themselves. I welcome what my right hon. Friend says and I hope that other Select Committee Chairs will look to the example that he and, in fairness, a number of others have set.
My right hon. Friend will know that the European Scrutiny Committee is currently holding an inquiry into European Scrutiny Committee matters. Does he accept that timing is very important? What my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has just said is, of course, extremely welcome, but does the Minister not accept that unless the Government are prepared to release the information they have early enough, it could turn out to be far less valuable? Therefore, could not the Government ensure that we all get the information as early as they do?
I am always willing to explore how the Government can help to make information available to Parliament, particularly its Committees, in a way that enables a better informed debate and allows Parliament an input at the earliest stage in proceedings. As my hon. Friend will be the first to understand, there is always a balance to be struck between our wish on the one hand to do that and our concern on the other hand not to divulge ahead of negotiations all the details of our negotiating position, including on those areas that are the highest priority objectives and those on which we might be prepared to make concessions. However, I am always happy to look at concrete ideas for improving how we do business.
In the interests of better scrutiny, does not my right hon. Friend also agree that it would be a good idea for this House to consider whether we ought to have European business questions periodically, rather than just on these unusual occasions? Without wishing unilaterally to promote him, should not it also be considered whether Secretary for Europe should in fact be a Cabinet post?
Mr Speaker, the Whips on duty hear everything.
Overall, the Government have achieved some success in trying to shift the Commission away from a culture of regulation. Our reform agenda has widespread support and 12 other member states joined us in November in backing a 10-point plan for EU smart regulation. On 12 December the Commission published a new better regulation strategy, which includes a proposal that the Commission should use EU common commencement dates, which ought to help businesses plan for changes in regulation. It has also promised to introduce summary sheets for impact assessments to make it easier for businesses to assess the cost of new legislation.
Has not the EU been legislating all my lifetime? It has far more regulation than anyone could conceivably want. Why does it not have a year off? How can the Minister possibly say that it is going our way when all we see is more and more needless, time-consuming and costly regulation?
To be fair, that is a charge my right hon. Friend has levied not only at the European Union but at successive Governments in this country. I certainly agree that too often the European Commission’s first instinct—to be fair, too often it is the first instinct of Departments of State in this country—is to measure its activity and political success by the number of new legislative measures it invents and takes through the legislative process. Often—I certainly believe this is true at European level—more could be achieved more effectively and significantly more cheaply through a sensible exchange of best practice, by looking at what works in one member state but perhaps does not work in another and seeing whether it is possible to encourage the dissemination of best practice rather than always looking at legislative measures as the first step.
I do not want to exaggerate the extent to which the Government have been able to shift a deeply ingrained culture that looks to legislation, but I think that it is important that the House appreciates that we have managed to secure some changes that none of our predecessors, of either party, managed to secure. Last year we got agreement to a measure under which businesses with fewer than 10 employees should be exempt altogether from any new EU legislative proposals unless there was a good reason for their inclusion. This is the first time in the EU’s history that the default position has been that there should be an exemption from regulations rather than the inclusion of all companies within them. Agreement was reached, too, that lighter regimes should be developed for those occasions when such businesses needed to be included. For example, in March last year agreement was reached that exempted up to 1.5 million UK small businesses from certain European Union accounting rules.
The hon. Lady makes a perfectly fair comment. That is why at European Council after European Council my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister keeps coming back to the charge and saying, “We all agreed as Heads of State and Government two or three months ago that the Commission should come forward with a set of proposals on smarter regulation; now we want to see what it has actually been doing in the meantime.” One of the key objectives of the Prime Minister and of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is to ensure that we do not simply relax having achieved a paragraph in the conclusions of a European Council that commits everybody to a measure of deregulation but follow it through so that in all our conversations with the Commission, in our work with MEPs, and in the work that we do bilaterally with other member states we try to co-ordinate a more growth-friendly approach across the European Union. These high-level declarations need to be nailed down in terms of concrete action, and the Commission should be expected to report back. We are making progress on that. I am the first to say that there is still a great deal more to do, and we will encourage the Commission to consider further and more ambitious measures.
I suggest that the Minister uses the word “ambitious” because annexe 2 of the programme refers to “simplification” and “administration burden reduction initiatives”. There are three of those, two of which are legislative and one non-legislative. If one turns to the rest of the work programme and goes through the entire list, one finds that 48 of the 58 are new legislation. I am afraid to have to say to my right hon. Friend that ambition is one thing and vanity is another.
My hon. Friend displays his usual prescience in these matters, because I was about to refer to the list that he recited. The Government welcome the inclusion in the work programme of a list of simplification measures, but we need to be vigilant to ensure that they deliver genuine savings for business. The list of 14 withdrawn proposals that the Commission has published is disappointing, because those measures are obsolete already or are due to be replaced by further proposals. The Commission needs to do much better than that to remove unnecessary or excessive legislation from the statute book, and not only the Government of the United Kingdom but the Governments of a significant number of other like-minded member states are committed to achieving that.
On the commitment to reducing the burden of these legislative measures, does the Minister have any idea of how many we would like to get rid of? Are we suggesting that anything is dropped instead of just waiting for the Commission to show us what it is proposing?
Yes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills keeps returning to this point. The working time directive is one example that the Prime Minister mentioned again in his television interview on Sunday. The best thing I can do for my hon. Friend is to undertake that I or one of my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will write to her with more detail on this point.
A third important theme for the Government is safeguarding the United Kingdom’s interests as a sovereign state. As set out in the coalition agreement, we will not participate in the establishment of a European public prosecutor and the UK will not exercise its opt-in for this measure, which is proposed in the Commission’s work programme. Several other measures in the area of justice and home affairs will also trigger opt-in decisions. These will be considered on a case-by-case basis, with a view to maximising our country’s security, protecting civil liberties, preserving the integrity of our criminal justice and common law systems, and controlling immigration.
We also have concerns about subsidiarity in relation to a small number of items in the work programme, such as those with regard to standardising VAT forms throughout the EU. Parliament, of course, has an important role to play in this regard, not least in deploying the additional powers that it has under the Lisbon treaty to issue a reasoned opinion when it considers that a proposal is not consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.
I hope that today’s debate will set the tone for close consultation between Parliament and Government on European Union issues in 2013 and beyond. We consider Parliament’s role to be vital in strengthening democratic oversight of EU activity and, more broadly, in improving trust in the decision-making process between citizens, Parliament and Government, and fuelling a well-informed public debate on EU matters.
Of course, responsibility for most of the measures in the work programme lies with other Government Departments and not the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I will be happy to discuss further, both with the European Scrutiny Committee and departmental Select Committees, how best to engage in a deeper dialogue about EU issues during all stages of their development. The scrutiny of EU legislation by Parliament is vital to the robust functioning of democracy.
It is right to say that it is delivery time, but that means that it is delivery time for Parliament as well as for Government. It has to be for each of the relevant Select Committees to decide the way in which they should give, perhaps, a higher priority to their EU responsibilities, which are, after all, included in their terms of reference under Standing Orders. The Government are taking their responsibilities seriously and I look forward to working with not just my right hon. Friend but the other Committee Chairs in successfully providing the level of scrutiny and debate on European matters that I think we all wish to see. That is why I welcome the opportunity for debate today and I commend the motion to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the European Commission’s work programme for 2013. In opening, I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and the House for missing the first couple of minutes of the Europe Minister’s speech, but I promise him that I listened attentively to the rest of it.
As set out in the European Scrutiny Committee report, the work programme follows on from the Commission President’s annual speech last September and serves as a blueprint for the Commission’s activities over the next 12 months. I agree with the Committee’s assessment that the work programme is a useful tool for the departmental Select Committees. The Liaison Committee has underlined that examining Commission proposals is one of the core tasks of the departmental Select Committees, and as such the proposals in the work programme will, I hope, be a useful starting point for further scrutiny.
I echo the Europe Minister’s welcome for the 2013 work programme’s improved coherence and greater strategic focus compared with previous years. Last year there were 129 policy initiatives; this year there are 58. It is right that the Commission focuses on the areas in which it can be most effective. The initiatives are largely grouped into seven strategic areas and I will start by considering the first and most important of those areas, namely the establishment of a genuine economic and monetary union.
The eurozone crisis will rightly continue to dominate the EU’s thinking and activities in 2013. Last year ended with some positive steps towards banking union being taken at the December summit, and the measures set out in the work programme will build on those positive steps. Putting the single currency on a stable long-term footing is in the interests not only of eurozone countries, but of non-eurozone countries such as the UK. It is therefore right that that is a priority.
The eurozone crisis was triggered by a crisis in the global financial sector. Concerns remain about the solvency of some of the larger medium-sized European banks, so it is necessary to establish the means to separate the link between weak and undercapitalised banking systems and sovereign debt. Such an agreement will help to build confidence in the eurozone and bring about greater long-term stability. We therefore support the progress towards building a genuine economic and monetary union in the proposals contained in the work programme for 2013. Within that process, it is crucial that the interests and rights of non-eurozone member states such as the UK are respected, and that the integrity of the single market is protected. We welcome the Commission’s commitment in the same section to
“take action to fight tax fraud and evasion, including an initiative on tax havens”.
I turn to the Commission’s proposals on deepening the single market. The European Union’s single market is a great success story. In a world dominated by economic giants such as the US, China and India, countries around the world are co-operating more closely with their neighbours. Increased regionalisation has become a defining force. For example, south America has Mercosur and south-east Asia has the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The European single market is often a model from which others take inspiration.
The European Commission is right that to remain competitive in the global economy, the single market must continue to adapt and develop. Without reform, the potential of the single market will not be realised. That is why we continue to support the completion of the single market, particularly with regard to the digital economy and the services sector. It is our view that the progress in those areas is often too slow.
I imagine that the hon. Lady does not recall the White Paper published by the European Commission in June 1985—a huge great thing about an inch deep—on completing the internal market by 1992. Here we are in 2012, some 30 years later. Does she believe that there has been progress?