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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Member Recalls

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

The Government published our proposals on the recall of MPs last year, and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee then published its report in June last year. We submitted an interim response reaffirming our commitment to establishing a recall mechanism and are now taking the proper time to reflect on the Committee’s recommendations.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that unvarnished answer. Given that one of the justifications for introducing recall is improved confidence in our democracy, what is his view of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s statement:

“We are not convinced that the proposals will increase public confidence in politics”?

The Committee made a number of recommendations about our proposals, but equally it accepted that all parties had made a manifesto commitment to introduce some kind of recall mechanism and acknowledged, as I think everyone does, the difficulty in trying to define serious wrongdoing precisely and determine who should define it and who should set off a trigger for a recall by-election. It is precisely those kinds of difficult dilemmas that we are now trying to address, because we do not want to resile from the commitment to legislate to introduce some kind of recall mechanism.

Parliamentary Constituency Boundaries

The boundary commissions are continuing with the boundary review in accordance with the legislation that requires them to report before October 2013.

Yesterday’s coalition renewal document, “The Coalition: together in the national interest”, includes a vote on the boundary change proposals for constituencies. I know that the Minister is to answer, but I would like to know whether the Deputy Prime Minister will campaign for a no vote.

I think that the parties within the Government have made their positions clear on the matter. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, there will be a vote, it will take place, and I suppose that is that.

Does the Minister believe that it is right to redraw parliamentary boundaries on the basis of data from which millions of eligible voters are missing?

It is the Government’s intention to proceed with the individual electoral registration programme, which will increase and improve the accuracy of the registers we work with. It is really important that we all continue with the support that there is across the House for those proposals.

Can my hon. Friend guarantee that the next general election will be fought according to the new parliamentary boundaries recommended by the Electoral Commission, and that it will be fought with individual voter registration?

I think that the answer to my hon. Friend is best given within the point that there will be a vote on those proposals, as I think he knows. On individual electoral registration, I can confirm that the programme is proceeding as planned, and I am happy to give him further details on that.

If the Lib Dems are still voting against the recommended parliamentary boundary changes, should this House not have the earliest opportunity to vote on the issue, thereby possibly saving unnecessary public expenditure at a time when the public finances are limited, and when should such a vote take place?

Electoral Register

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that under-represented groups are included on the electoral register. (135549)

As I mentioned in my previous answer, it is important that we ensure that all those who should be are included on the electoral register, including the under-represented groups to which the hon. Lady’s question refers.

The Government, politicians, parties, electoral administrators and plenty of others have a role to play in encouraging people to register to vote. The Government are committed to doing all they can to maximise registration, including among under-registered groups. They are looking to modernise the system to make it as convenient as possible and are running various sets of data-related pilots to find out how we can best identify unregistered groups and add them to the register.

Does the Minister agree that the annual canvass is a really important part of ensuring that under-represented groups are on the register and that any attempts to water down the frequency of the canvass, or give powers to Ministers to abolish it altogether, should be avoided?

Our current plans for electoral registration do include the annual canvass, which will continue to be used for as long as it remains the best way to ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

Will the Minister clarify what penalty, if any, will be imposed on those who fail to return an individual electoral registration form?

There will be a set of penalties that relate to those actions. I will be happy to write to my hon. Friend so that he gets the fullest possible detail.

14. When does the Minister expect a national online electoral registration system to be in place? (135560)

Many Members take an interest in that issue. I do not have a specific date to give the hon. Gentleman. The Government are looking at the matter and I shall be happy to discuss it further with him.

We all want a register that is complete and accurate. The Electoral Commission’s recent damning report on the move to individual voter registration in Northern Ireland is extremely worrying, yet the Government have decided to speed up the implementation of individual voter registration and to remove the safeguards that Labour put in place.

All this is happening at a time when local authorities are having to make record cuts, including to the amount that they can devote to electoral registration. Given the criticism levelled by the Electoral Commission’s report, what extra are the Government considering to avoid a repeat in the rest of the UK of the experiences in Northern Ireland, which could see millions of eligible voters dumped off the electoral register?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting some of what the report says. The evidence from the report is that continuous registration is working for the majority of the population in Northern Ireland. The report notes that many of the key lessons from the experience in Northern Ireland have already been addressed by the proposals. It also states:

“The findings from this research do not undermine the principle of individual electoral registration or mean that the introduction of this system in Great Britain will necessarily lead to similar declines in accuracy and completeness.”

Commission on Devolution in Wales

On 19 November, the Commission on Devolution in Wales delivered a thorough and clear analysis of the options for fiscal devolution in Wales. The Government welcome publication of the Commission’s report and will respond formally in due course.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome his welcome for the work of the Silk commission. We have an opportunity to enable our Assembly to be truly accountable—not just for the money that it spends by way of the block grant, but for the money that it raises through taxes, through a partial devolution of income tax. Surely that would be an important facet of a strengthened and accountable National Assembly. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that part 1 of the Silk recommendations will be enacted in legislation during this Parliament?

I can certainly confirm that we will respond in full well before part 2 of the Silk commission proceedings is concluded. We aim to provide our full response to part 1, about the fiscal aspects of further devolution to Wales, by spring this year.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s praise for the report, which is thorough and thoughtful. It is radical; it suggests devolving up to about a quarter of total money spent in Wales to the Welsh Assembly itself. It actually goes further in important respects, notably on varying income tax rates, than the Calman-like process on which it was modelled.

The Silk commission recommended that the National Assembly for Wales should become more financially accountable through being given responsibility for raising tax. Does my right hon. Friend believe that this can happen only after a referendum takes place to secure the support of the Welsh people, even if a firm commitment is made in the manifesto of the party or parties that form the next Government?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Silk commission has on it representatives of all four parties in the Assembly, and it was a unanimously supported recommendation that the change in income tax recommended in part 1 should be implemented only once a referendum had taken place. Obviously, we will look at this very closely. We are acutely aware that it represents a cross-party approach within Wales itself.

Have the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government considered a floor to the Barnett formula to ensure that Wales does not lose out?

As the hon. Gentleman may know, back in October the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made it clear that we would work with the Welsh Administration to look at the convergence or, as is the case at the moment, divergence of funding in Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have also made it clear that while there is a legitimate debate around the future of the Barnett formula, our priority remains the stabilisation of the public finances.

Given the need for change, supported by all parties on the Silk commission, and the Deputy Prime Minister’s enthusiasm, together with that of his party, will he make every effort to ensure that part 1 of Silk is legislated on during this Parliament?

As I said, we all need to take a careful look at part 1 and take a collective decision within the coalition Government on how we respond to it. As Ministers in all parts of the coalition have said, it is an extremely thorough and thoughtful piece of work representing a cross-party approach in Wales, and we will respond to it with similar seriousness before the spring of this year.

Has my right hon. Friend given any consideration to communities that straddle the Anglo-Welsh border—for instance, the Chester economic sub-region, including north Wales and Chester—and the impact that this will have on people who live and work on both sides of the border?

My hon. Friend has identified one of the issues that makes some of the tax recommendations in part 1 of the Silk commission slightly more complicated in certain respects than the devolved tax arrangements in Scotland, principally because the border area between England and Wales is more populous than the border areas between Scotland and England. That is one of the things that we are seeking to address right now in our internal deliberations.

In the very slim mid- term review, a commitment is given to the Government’s responding to the Silk commission, as the Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed this morning. Will he give a commitment that there will be no unilateral reduction in the block grant to Wales?

I think we have done better than that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, back in October the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made it clear that we would work with the Administration in Cardiff before each public spending review to monitor the convergence or divergence between the funding settlements in both places. This commitment has not been made by previous Governments here in Westminster. That is a demonstration of our willingness to respond to some of the concerns about the future funding arrangements within the United Kingdom, particularly as they affect Wales.

Local and Central Government Powers

The Government are clear that we must disperse power in our society. That is why we have initiated a historic shift away from Westminster to put our counties, cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and citizens in control of their own affairs. I look forward to seeing the final report on the relationship between local and central Government from the hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee inquiry as we continue the process of reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister will know that three out of the four nations within the United Kingdom now enjoy some form of devolution; the one that does not enjoy any devolution, effectively protected by statute, is England. Will he engage with local government at the right moment to discuss how devolution can be made effective through local government, and will he also engage with the Select Committee, which is due to report on this very matter at the end of this month?

I certainly stand shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman on his long-standing critique of the over-centralisation of power in Westminster and Whitehall. I know that he has welcomed some of the initiatives that we have taken. They do not provide all the answers, but they are significant steps in the right direction. The retention of 50% of business rates by local authorities is probably the biggest act of fiscal decentralisation in England for several years. The city deals, in my view, are a radical template of a wholesale transfer of responsibilities, ranging from transport and capital investment to skills and training, to local authorities. The question that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee is posing is whether that can be done in a more systematic, neat and formalised way, and I am certainly open to look at any suggestions in that respect. It is the tradition in this country to do things in a slightly more informal and uneven way, but his Committee’s report will be taken very seriously by us in government.

Can my right hon. Friend set out what powers have been devolved from central Government to the big society?

As my hon. Friend knows, whether it is in planning, control over business rates, significant powers over skills, transport and capital investment in our cities or in the enactment of a general power of competence—whereby we recognise in law for the first time the general power of competence for local authorities—I believe that, in all of those areas, as well as, of course, the new referendum powers available to local neighbourhoods and local authorities, we have made a significant step towards creating a more decentralised nation.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within Government I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

Yesterday the Government, in their mid-term review, reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of a cap and reform of means-testing to end the care lottery in this country. Will the Deputy Prime Minister now go further than just considering principles and commit this Government to introducing legislation, through the draft Care and Support Bill, during the life of this Parliament to give effect to that cap and give people the peace of mind they deserve?

I can confirm that in the coming weeks we will publish our detailed response, which will address the issue of how to avoid individuals and households having to face catastrophic costs in funding their care. We have said all along that we believe in the principles and the basic model set out by Andrew Dilnot. Of course there is an issue about how to pay for this in the future, but as my right hon. Friend has rightly identified, the first step is to enshrine that approach in legislation, which we will seek to do during this Parliament.

If the Deputy Prime Minister votes for the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill tonight, he will be voting to make millions of low-income families worse off. Will he confirm that two thirds of the people who will be hit by the Bill are not lying in bed with the curtains drawn—which, anyway, is no way to speak about unemployed people—but are actually in work?

It is obvious that a measure that deals with both out-of-work benefits and tax credits affects people both in and out of work. The challenge for the right hon. and learned Lady and her colleagues is to explain to this House and the British public, first, why she could support a 1% limit on the pay increases for doctors, nurses and teachers in the public sector, but not take exactly the same approach in this area, and secondly, where she is going to find the £5 billion that this measure will save over the next three years. Would she take it from the NHS? I know that Labour’s health spokesperson thinks that increasing spending on the NHS is irresponsible. We do not. Would she take it from schools? Would she take it from social care? Those are the kinds of answers that this House deserves from the Labour party before the vote takes place tonight.

Even the right hon. Gentleman should be able to work out that 1% if someone is earning more than £100,000 a year is a great deal more than 1% if someone is struggling on a low income. His Government are failing on the economy—that is why they are borrowing £212 billion more than they had planned.

On fairness, will the right hon. Gentleman admit that tonight’s vote will mean that, while someone earning more than £1 million a year will be better off by £2,000 a week because of their tax cut, a working couple on tax credit will be worse off because their increase of 38p a week will be wiped out by inflation? The Government have failed on compassion as well as on competence, so why will he not vote with us against the Bill tonight?

The biggest tax measure, which will benefit more than 20 million basic rate taxpayers, is about to take place in April. A two-earner household on the basic rate of tax will be £1,200 better off because we are increasing the tax allowance by the largest amount ever. I would have thought that the right hon. and learned Lady would welcome that. It means that someone on the minimum pay will have had their income tax slashed by half.

On the upper rate of tax, the right hon. and learned Lady’s party makes great play of the 50p rate. It is worth putting it on the record that the 50p upper rate of tax existed for only 36 days of the 13 years that her Government were in office. I know that they had a deathbed conversion to the 50p rate, but they pretend that they were believers all along. Actually, the upper rate of tax under Labour was 40p. Under this Government, it will be 45p. Justify that!

T5. Like many hon. Members, I read the mid-term review with great interest. Much of it is welcome, but I was concerned by the line on page 32 that states that“provision is made for Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on proposals to introduce transferable tax allowances for married couples.” Why will the Deputy Prime Minister not support that common-sense proposal, which would help hard-working families across the country? (135567)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a carbon copy of the wording in the coalition agreement. My party has always taken this stance because I have always struggled to explain to people why someone who happens not to be married should pay more tax than someone who happens to be married. If such a measure were put before the House, it would be very difficult to explain to people why those who are not married should be stung with higher tax. That does not seem to me to be right.

T2. When the Deputy Prime Minister entered the coalition, did he foresee that at the halfway stage there would be a sixfold increase in the number of people using food banks, there would be predictions that half a million more children would be living in absolute poverty by the end of the Parliament and that he would champion legislation described by the Child Poverty Action Group as “poverty-producing”, as he will later today? Is he not thoroughly ashamed of his record? (135564)

I am proud that this coalition Government have come together to clear up the monumental mess left by the hon. Lady’s party. After all, it was her shadow Chancellor who went on the prawn cocktail charm offensive in the City of London to suck up to the banks, which created the problems in the first place. It was the Labour Government who presided over the shocking tax system in which a hedge fund manager paid less tax on their shares than their cleaner paid on their wages. It is this coalition Government who have ended that scandal.

T6. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing forward legislation on the succession to the Crown. However, does he think that it is necessary to push it through in one day as if it was emergency terrorism legislation, when Parliament has a job to do to ensure that it is correctly drafted and that any concerns or unforeseen difficulties are addressed properly? (135568)

Making a small, concise amendment to an Act that has been on the statute book since 1701 is hardly acting hastily.

I am being corrected by the historians on the Opposition Benches. None the less, this is something that has been on the statute book for more than 300 years. Let us remember that this is a very specific act of discrimination against one faith only. The heir to the throne may marry someone of any religion outside the Church of England—Muslim, Hindu and so on—but uniquely not a Catholic under the terms of the Act of 1700 or 1701. This is a precise change and it is being co-ordinated precisely with all the other realms that have to make the identical change in their legislation.

T3. The last former East Midlands MEP, who had a radio show, soon disappeared into political oblivion. When will the Deputy Prime Minister give the voters of Sheffield, Hallam the opportunity to vote on recalling him? (135565)

It is always a pleasure to answer the hon. Gentleman’s somewhat incoherent but none the less punchy questions. I do not want to disappoint him, but I am afraid there are not millions of people hanging on his every word spoken in the Chamber. I think that as politicians, we should go out to be where people are rather than expect them to come where the politicians are. I make no apology for making myself available to members of the public on the radio or in town and village halls up and down the country, as I do every week.

T8. Given the huge distortions in the current parliamentary boundaries, does the Deputy Prime Minister really believe that by reviewing boundaries only every eight to 12 years we will have a fair and unbiased electoral voting system? (135571)

As I have said before, my own view, in light of the events that have disrupted the package of political reforms to which the coalition Government had committed in the coalition agreement, is that we should delay the implementation of the next set of boundary reviews by a full parliamentary cycle.

T7. Support through the tax system for families in Scotland with their child care bills amounted to a miserable 1p a day in the past year, and the Resolution Foundation says that half the benefit of the Deputy Prime Minister’s current voucher plan for child care goes to people in the top fifth of the income bracket. Is he not going to have to do a lot more than his complete absence of plans yesterday to prevent the second half of the coalition from being as big a disaster for families’ child care costs as the first half? (135570)

I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman is commenting in detail on plans that have not been published yet. We have not yet finalised the details of our new investment in support for families facing high child care costs, but we will do so in the weeks to come. I point out to him, though, that it is this Government who have introduced 15 hours of free pre-school and child care support for every three and four-year-old in this country, which no Government have done before. It is also this Government who, from this April, for the first time ever, will be providing 15 hours of free pre-school and child care support to two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged families in this country. Government Members are proud of that.

Why is the fact that an Act has been in existence for more than 300 years an argument for amending it, together with the Bill of Rights and the Act of Union with Scotland, in a single day? I would have thought the argument was very much in the opposite direction.

As I sought to explain to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) earlier, we are removing one specific, highly discriminatory provision from the law, on the faith of people whom heirs to the throne may marry. That discriminatory provision was introduced in the early years of the 18th century in response to the activities of Louis XIV of France, and I simply do not think it is necessary now in 21st century Britain.

T10. The Deputy Prime Minister is starting to have the same trait as the Prime Minister of not answering questions. May I try again? Is it not the case that after the vote this evening, 3,900 people in my constituency who claim in-work benefits and do the right thing will be worse off while millionaires get a tax cut of £2,000 a week? (135573)

As I said before, the Labour rate for top taxpayers was 40p, so the hon. Gentleman needs to justify his support for 13 years for a lower rate applied to millionaires than will be introduced—[Interruption.] I know Opposition Members do not like it, and they are shrieking at the top of their voices, but the record shows that for the whole time of the Labour Government, apart from 30 days towards the end, the upper rate was 40p. We are introducing an upper rate of 45p. That is the first point.

The second point is that I hope the hon. Gentleman would celebrate with his constituents the fact that as of April this year, every single basic rate taxpayer in his constituency will be £600 better off because of the changes in the income tax allowance that we have introduced since the general election.

T9. There is no doubt that the Government have to make some tough decisions, but what comment would my right hon. Friend make on the overall impact of Government policies on social mobility? (135572)

One thing we have learned is that if we could shift social mobility by pouring billions of pounds into the tax credit system—the Labour party’s approach—that would have worked a long time ago. In fact, despite a huge transfer of money through the tax credit system, social mobility barely budged during 13 years of Labour government. That is why we are investing more in early years initiatives and providing more child care support, and why we are giving more support to two, three and four-year-olds and—most importantly—providing £2.5 billion through the pupil premium to help the education of the most disadvantaged children in the country. We believe that that is the way to promote social mobility over time.

T13. The Labour-controlled Welsh Assembly is not implementing tuition fees, and Liberal Democrat Assembly Members support that. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with his Liberal colleagues in Wales? (135576)

We have a devolved approach to higher education in both Wales and Scotland. Under the new system introduced in England—unlike that over which the right hon. Gentleman presided during Labour’s time in office—students will not pay any up-front fees at all. That includes thousands of part-time students who for the first time do not need to pay any up-front fees. Because of the way we are introducing what is, in effect, a time-limited graduate tax, all graduates will pay out less from their bank account every week and month—even if for longer—than they did under the system introduced by Labour.

T11. I welcome the second wave of city deals for the next 20 largest cities, but what about smaller cities such as Carlisle? Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that they too will have the opportunity to reach a deal with the Government to have increased powers devolved to them? (135574)

As my hon. Friend will know, the first wave of city deals applied to the eight biggest cities. We then invited 20 cities and communities to submit bids for the next wave, on which we hope to decide in the coming months. I very much hope that the city deals will not be just a one-off experiment in devolution but that they will act as a template for further devolution across the country.

The coalition agreement states that the Government will introduce

“extra support for people with disabilities who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials.”

Will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on progress with that?

As the hon. Lady may know, there is a £2.6 million access to elected office fund, and the wider access to elected office strategy was launched in July last year to deliver on the coalition agreement commitment to provide extra support to tackle the obstacles she mentions. The fund will be open for applications until the end of March 2014, and so far there have been 11 applications, including from independent candidates.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure the House that the Succession to the Crown Bill will give the public confidence that the relationship between Church and state will be unaltered, even if a future monarch should marry a Roman Catholic and the ensuing child is a Catholic?

I can give the hon. Gentleman complete reassurance that the provisions in the Bill will not in any way alter the status of the established Church in this country and the monarch as head of that Church. We have had monarchs who have married Catholics. I think Queen Anne of Denmark was married to James I of Scotland—I may be corrected by our historian, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), from a sedentary position. There is absolutely nothing in the provisions that will alter the status of the Church in the way feared by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner).

The coalition agreement commits the Government to the appointment of new peers to create a second Chamber that is more reflective of votes cast at the 2010 general election. Is the Deputy Prime Minister seriously saying that he will appoint 24 new UKIP Members of the House of Lords and 16 new peers to represent the British National party, or is it more about stuffing the other place full of Tory and Lib Dem cronies?

With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman has grasped the wrong end of the stick. The coalition agreement says that the appointments we make to an unreformed House of Lords—pending the long-awaited, and now even more long-awaited reform of the other place—will be made according to the proportion of votes won by parties at the last general election. That is precisely what we intend to do.

I wish the Deputy Prime Minister a happy new year. Was one of his new year resolutions to decide that, if he thinks a policy is right, it should be rushed through in a day? Will he answer properly a question he has been asked before? Why will the succession Bill be rushed through in a day under emergency legislation procedures? Those procedures should be used only for emergency legislation, which the succession Bill is not.

I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy new year too—and Mrs Bone. It is important to stress that the Bill is not a capricious legislative initiative on behalf of the Government. It was solemnly agreed at the Commonwealth summit in Perth by all the Commonwealth realms. It has also been subject to extensive discussion between officials in the Cabinet Office and the royal household, and between Governments and officials of this country and of the Commonwealth realms. We have said that we will take the lead in setting out the legislative provisions for the other Commonwealth realms. The legislative change is very precise, which is why we are keen to proceed as quickly as possible.

Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister would like to take this opportunity to enhance his concern for people in difficulties. More than 60,000 people have signed a petition asking that the Government carry out a proper cumulative impact assessment of the changes to disability benefits. Will he ensure that that happens?

I am curious to know whether the hon. Lady believes that those impact assessments were delivered in full under the Labour Government—I do not recall them. She will know that we are on the verge of introducing a very significant change in the way in which disability benefits are administered in the years ahead, from the disability living allowance system to the personal independence payment system. That change will mean that many who have received disability benefits for years when there has been no check on whether they need it will finally, for the first time, be asked to be subject to certain objective tests. The change will also mean that people who do not currently receive benefits or support for their disabilities will receive it for the first time. We have been transparent in setting out our proposals.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Serious Fraud Office (Senior Staff)

1. What steps he is taking to recover payments made to former senior staff at the Serious Fraud Office that were not properly authorised. (135612)

3. What steps he is taking to recover payments made to former senior staff at the Serious Fraud Office which were not authorised by the Cabinet Office or Her Majesty’s Treasury. (135616)

As set out in my statement to the House on 4 December 2012, on learning of these agreements and payments, the new director of the Serious Fraud Office sought legal advice on whether the arrangements might be reopened and on whether money might be recovered. The advice he received is that the agreements, although entered into without the necessary approvals, are binding on the Serious Fraud Office.

If one of our constituents is overpaid on tax credits, or on their housing or council tax benefits, which often occurs through no fault of their own, the state claws the overpayment back, yet the Serious Fraud Office has made unauthorised redundancy payments to bureaucrat fat cats—some of nearly £500,000—but seems to be doing nothing to recover them. What, therefore, will the Attorney-General do to get the money back? Perhaps he could get a new lawyer, but he could also take action against those responsible for irresponsibly giving away public money.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s disquiet about what has happened. Nevertheless, it is the duty of the director of the Serious Fraud Office, who is the accounting officer in this context, to take legal advice and to observe it when he receives it, and the legal advice he has received is quite clear. It is perhaps worth making one further point. The vast majority of the sums paid out would have been in line with the civil service compensation scheme. In my judgment, some payments may well not have been in line with the scheme, but the majority were—I would stress the totality of the sums involved. Should there be any further developments, I will inform the House of them. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I do not consider the matter to be satisfactory—it causes me disquiet, and the Public Accounts Committee may well wish to look into it.

I thank the Attorney-General for his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar). In that spirit of openness, will he publish the findings of the independent investigation into the payouts commissioned by the current director of the Serious Fraud Office? Will he also indicate whether any legal or disciplinary action will be taken against the individuals responsible?

On the first point, my office and the Serious Fraud Office have received requests for this information, and we are currently considering whether any further information can be released. I would like to see as much of the information released as possible.

On the second point, it is right to make it clear that the person responsible for making these payments is no longer working in the civil service.

Does the Attorney-General realise that this is merely a symptom of something seriously wrong with the Serious Fraud Office in terms of its leadership, culture and record over recent years?

May I recommend that the hon. Gentleman look at the report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate on the Serious Fraud Office, as he will see that it has many laudatory things to say about the way in which the SFO has operated and sees it as capable of achieving significant outcomes in challenging cases? That is not to say that I do not think that there is room for improvement—I certainly do. A new director, David Green, has been appointed, and I have every confidence that he will be able to make the necessary changes. For example, he will be implementing the changes that the inspectorate recommended, and it will of course make a follow-up report to track that progress.

While we are on the subject of the efficiency of the Serious Fraud Office, may I ask the Attorney-General how it is that, despite the appalling behaviour of some bank staff in some British banks and the enormous fines that have been imposed on those banks by the regulatory authorities in both New York and London, no senior banker in this country has yet been prosecuted for complicity in serious criminal banking offences?

I know that in respect of this question the right hon. Gentleman will have in mind fraud in particular, which properly concerns the Serious Fraud Office. He did not say it, but I know that is what he meant.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, in whichever context. The Serious Fraud Office is carrying out a major inquiry and investigation into the LIBOR scandal. The conduct of the investigation is obviously a matter for the SFO, but the matter has not been ignored.

The Attorney-General has referred to the report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. I have read it, and it says that the Serious Fraud Office needs to improve its performance and appears to be suffering considerable resourcing problems. Will he consider the suggestion by the director of the SFO that the agency be allowed to retain more of the proceeds of crime that it confiscates? Might that be a way in which it could increase its funding?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting question which may turn out to be a good subject for debate in this House at some point. There is clearly potential for changing the rules on the retention of the proceeds of crime by prosecuting agencies, but it is equally right to point out that it is not an uncontroversial subject. Disquiet is expressed about prosecutors being dependent on asset seizure for the way in which they operate, and that also raises some profoundly difficult ethical issues. For those reasons, I would counsel caution about whether that is necessarily the right way forward, although I am open-minded about any improvements that can be made on funding.

Tax Evasion

2. How many successful prosecutions for tax evasion the Serious Fraud Office has completed in each of the last five years. (135615)

It is the Crown Prosecution Service rather than the Serious Fraud Office that prosecutes tax evasion cases. The records of the Crown Prosecution Service show that in 2008-09 there were 226 convictions, and the latest figures, up to November 2012, show 349.

We had a major debate on tax avoidance yesterday, and I think the country and Parliament want us to be very tough on tax evasion. Can the Solicitor-General assure us that the Government and the Crown Prosecution Service will concentrate on large national and international companies, and not on the small fish, so that ordinary people realise that they are not being singled out when much bigger prizes are available from much naughtier people?

I can certainly give my right hon. Friend the assurance that from top to bottom the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has given us a target of increasing prosecutions fivefold, and all parts of Government will tackle this issue hard. From the point of view of the Attorney-General’s office, my right hon. Friend may be interested to know that we have been referring cases where sentences are unduly lenient to the Court of Appeal. It has recently been established that seven years’ imprisonment should be the starting point for significant tax fraud cases.

Tax fraud is estimated to cost the Government £3.3 billion. What steps are the Serious Fraud Office and the Department taking to address that?

The Crown Prosecution Service, with the police, is working extremely hard on tax evasion cases to ensure that as many as possible are brought to court. As I mentioned, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has set the target of a fivefold increase in cases. The figures I read out show that since 2008-09, there has been a major increase in the number of convictions.

Child Abuse Victims

The Crown Prosecution Service takes all allegations of child abuse very seriously. Supporting victims of child abuse is vital to successful prosecutions. The CPS works closely with the police and voluntary sector agencies to ensure that proper support is provided to victims at all stages.

In the past two years, reports of child abuse have shocked the entire country. Currently, at least 13 inquiries are taking place, including three BBC inquiries into Jimmy Savile, a Department of Health investigation into Broadmoor, a CPS inquiry, and inquiries into child protection in Rotherham and Rochdale. What discussions has the Minister had with other ministerial colleagues to ensure all that work is pulled together, and to ensure that all victims of child abuse receive the support and protection they deserve?

The Director of Public Prosecutions is working closely with all other authorities and took a personal lead in September by holding a round-table to consider how child sexual exploitation offences can be tackled. Witness care units are important and new Crown Prosecution Service guidance on child sexual exploitation is due in the new year. A great deal is being done, and special measures are being put in place to help witnesses give evidence.

My hon. Friend is probably aware that a small team is looking into the history of cases of child abuse complaints in Northern Ireland. One member of the team is an ex-senior inspector in the Metropolitan police who explained to me that, looking back at cases from 1920, believe it or not, one stark fact is the astonishing lack of support for victims, including from the Crown Prosecution Service. Would my hon. Friend be interested in meeting him at the right time to consider whether there is anything from his expertise and research that would be of help?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that offer, which I will certainly take up. He is right to say that support for witnesses is crucial to enable them to give their evidence in a confident and effective way. That is why the witness care units, the use of the voluntary sector supporters and the other work going into special measures at court to make it easier for witnesses to give evidence are all important. I look forward to the meeting.

I welcome the steps taken by Keir Starmer and Nazir Afzal to try to reorganise how the Crown Prosecution Service deals with these matters. However, the fact remains that in relation to Rotherham there have been no prosecutions this year in the whole of south Yorkshire, despite 600 victims having been identified in the past few years. Does the Solicitor-General share my concern? Can we please see more prosecutions of the perpetrators?

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, it depends on the police investigating cases thoroughly and then on the Crown Prosecution Service reviewing them to see what evidence is needed. A full review was carried out after the Rochdale case, which was particularly concerning. That was last autumn, since when the CPS has been working on the new guidance, which I hope will lead to more prosecutions. I accept the need for more prosecutions in this area, but we want to establish best practice, and that guidance will be out soon.

On another form of child abuse—female genital mutilation—there have been no prosecutions whatsoever in this country since it became illegal. Does the Solicitor-General share my hope that the Director of Public Prosecutions’ robust new action plan will lead to more progress in this area?

Yes, I certainly do. I have personally raised and discussed this subject with the DPP and was delighted that he held the round-table last September, which led to the robust action plan that my hon. Friend mentions. That is about improving the evidence available, identifying what is hindering investigations and prosecutions, exploring how other jurisdictions deal with these cases and ensuring that the police and prosecution work together closely on what are very difficult cases.

Human Trafficking

5. How many prosecutions for human trafficking there have been in the most recent period for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement. (135618)

The Crown Prosecution Service charged and prosecuted 64 cases where human trafficking was the main offence between 1 April 2012 and 2 January this year, and has prosecuted other human trafficking cases using other legislation. The CPS is working with law enforcement and other agencies to improve investigation and prosecution and to encourage victims.

Those figures sound a little better than the ones previously published that suggested to me that out of 25 European countries Britain had fewer prosecutions for human trafficking specifically than all bar Malta, Slovakia, Estonia and Finland. What effect does the Solicitor-General believe the relatively low level of prosecution for specific human trafficking offences has on the potential for future human traffickers?

Of course, it is very important that we prosecute cases of this kind, but I make the point to the hon. Lady that the figures I read out and which are often quoted relate to cases where human trafficking was the main offence, but quite often with human trafficking, as she will know, the main offence is a violent assault or a rape, and it is the more serious offences that are flagged. In another 111 cases, in addition to the 64 I mentioned, human trafficking was one of the offences, but the main offence was a rape or major conspiracy.

There have been relatively few prosecutions for human trafficking involving forced labour, compared with, say, sexual exploitation, although there have been major successes in my own county of Bedfordshire and, just before Christmas, in Gloucestershire. These forced labour exploiters often earn enormous sums of money. What can we do to take some of that money to help the police fund these complex and difficult investigations?

My hon. Friend will know of the Connors case, which was finally concluded yesterday —an appalling case involving vulnerable people being forced to work by the criminals concerned. It is important that we tackle these cases, but the main offence was introduced only in 2010 and related to events that occurred after that date, so we are very much at the early stage of bringing these cases to court. The Connors case is one of the first. An agreement has been reached with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, however, to refer cases to the police, and other steps are being taken to toughen up on internal trafficking.

Has the Solicitor-General had any indication of the number of cases where files were submitted and the decision was taken not to prosecute, or of the number of decisions that were based on concerns about the witness capacity of the victims?

I will look into that and am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, because I do not have the information here. The Crown Prosecution Service is anxious to prosecute in this area if the evidence is available. All too often it is difficult to obtain the quality of evidence from overseas that one would want in order to prosecute effectively. There is also the problem that victims need a great deal of support and encouragement. All these matters are being addressed, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman on his point.

I welcome what the Government are doing in this field—they are being very proactive—but does the Solicitor-General share my concern that there is a temptation for the Crown Prosecution Service to choose lesser charges for which it is easier to secure a conviction, such as immigration offences, which results in traffickers getting a lower sentence than if they had been prosecuted for human trafficking?

I would dispute that. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), many human trafficking cases involve other offences, which are often more serious. With sexual exploitation cases, where there are continual rapes and serious offences of that sort, it is right to charge for rape as the principal offence because it is more serious in some ways. I therefore do not accept that the Crown Prosecution Service is going for lower charges. This is a matter that we in the Attorney-General’s office keep under review.

Law of Contempt

6. Whether implementation of the recommendations of the Leveson report will affect the enforcement of laws of contempt. (135619)

Lord Justice Leveson has provided detailed recommendations on how best the press might be regulated in future. Those recommendations and their implementation will be considered by the Government and Parliament. Whichever regulatory model is finally chosen, the law of contempt remains applicable. When appropriate, I will continue to bring proceedings against publications that create a substantial risk that the course of justice in proceedings will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.

What consideration has the Attorney-General given to Lord Leveson’s view that further guidance is needed on press coverage of police investigations and that

“save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances…the names…of those…arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press or the public”?

I have noted what Lord Justice Leveson has said and it may be something to be incorporated in press regulation. The current position on the law of contempt is that proceedings are active from the time of arrest. Those considerations are not identical to those that Lord Justice Leveson was considering, but they raise the issue that after arrest the press has to have in mind the possible impact on the fairness of the trial process thereafter. That could include naming a suspect; equally, it might be perfectly acceptable to do that.

There is continuing concern, nevertheless, about the almost habitual naming of suspects after arrest, which in the minds of many of us has the potential to cause real prejudice. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all he can to monitor the current situation and ensure that the law is prosecuted to its full effect?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am certainly mindful that in many of the contempt matters brought to my attention the problem has arisen in the period between arrest and charge. Of course, if the House were minded to change the law on anonymity, which has been floated previously in private Members’ business, that could be done by enacting legislation. However, let me make it quite clear that this would need a legislative solution, not one that I can in some way “magic up”. The law of contempt has to be applied free of all political considerations, and that is what I try to do as best I can.

I would not want the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) to feel socially excluded, so we will accommodate him, but he needs to be very brief.

Serious Fraud Office

8. What recent assessment he has made of the Serious Fraud Office’s ability to conduct a succession of large-scale inquiries. (135621)

The recent report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate demonstrates that the Serious Fraud Office has the ability to conduct large-scale inquiries, although there is scope for improvement. Funding for the Serious Fraud Office is kept under constant review. There is a set budget for the SFO, but as the Prime Minister has previously made clear in relation to the LIBOR investigation, if the SFO needs more resources, they will be provided.

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that none of the additional funding promised for the LIBOR investigation has been received by the Serious Fraud Office, and will he explain why? It is envisaged that the investigation will take three years. Why so long?

The undertaking is for up to £3.5 million for each of the next three years to be made available as and when required. When the SFO requires it, it will be made available.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General. I remind the House that, in addition to the two urgent questions granted today, there is a statement followed by a very heavily subscribed Second Reading debate on the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill. The UQs will therefore be run strictly to time, but depending on the level of interest, it might not be possible to accommodate all colleagues who are interested. I shall do my best, and I invite the House to do the same.