House of Commons
Tuesday 5 February 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Tuesday 12 February (Standing Order No. 20).
City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 12 February (Standing Order No. 20).
Humber Bridge Bill (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 12 February.(Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are reviewing what is called the incentives and earned privileges scheme to ensure the public can be confident that any privileges earned in prison are gained through hard work and good behaviour. We want this to be a comprehensive review and its findings will be available in due course. I can tell my hon. Friend that, for example, the situation whereby some prisoners have access to Sky subscription TV channels, which many of our constituents cannot afford, will not be allowed to continue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on placing mentoring at the centre of prisoner rehabilitation. My constituent Mary Stephenson is running a scheme called “belief in change”, which is currently under threat from the withdrawal of EU funding. Would my hon. Friend meet me and Mary Stephenson to see whether there is anything we can do to help assist that project?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent. He will be pleased to learn that the system we have in mind for dealing with the rehabilitation of offenders will reward those who have good ideas—ideas that work—in driving down the reoffending rate. He is right that we want to see more mentoring, as we believe it is very effective. Many other things will be affected, too, and we look forward to hearing about them.
The hon. Gentleman knows that what we announced was to investigate the feasibility of a large prison. We also announced that we will build 1,200 places or thereabouts at prisons that already exist. We will look carefully at all proposals made to us for suitable sites for a large new prison. As the hon. Gentleman knows, one possibility is a site in north Wales, which councillors in his area are extremely keen that we consider carefully.
My hon. Friend will know that we are very keen to look not just at direct contracts from Government work but at other work for ONE3ONE Solutions to pursue. We want to make sure, of course, that there is a balance to ensure that ONE3ONE Solutions is not closing out jobs that could be provided to British firms elsewhere. We will want to make sure that it has the maximum opportunities to pursue those jobs within prison that will help prisoners learn skills—both hard skills and soft skills—as this was an agenda that my hon. Friend was successful in pursuing as my predecessor.
Much was made in the Government’s announcement on the prison regime at the weekend of the ability of gay inmates to share cells. As far as I am aware, that is already not permitted, so will the Minister inform us how many gay inmates have been sharing cells with their partners, or is this further evidence of the announcement being designed to chase the headlines?
The point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was making—frankly, I would be surprised if the hon. Lady disagreed with it—was that it is clearly not appropriate for someone to live in that form of domestic arrangement while in custody. It is important that prisons are safe, secure and decent, but it is equally important that their regimes are properly austere and that the public have confidence in the way in which people act while they are in prison.
I think the Minister makes my point for me: the Government do not know the figure, and this was clearly about the headlines. However, while the Secretary of State has been fretting over the weekend about the pocket money, the trainers and the overalls of inmates, he has failed to keep the most dangerous prisoners locked up. Indeterminate sentences help keep offenders inside until they are safe to release. The governor of Whatton prison, Lynn Saunders, told The Guardian:
“I think I am fairly liberal in my attitude—I haven’t come across anyone”
serving indeterminate sentences for public protection—
“in this prison who I didn’t think should have an IPP. Not one.”
Why did this Government abolish indeterminate sentences, putting the public’s safety at risk?
I think the hon. Lady knows very well that we have replaced IPP sentences with extended determinate sentences. We have also introduced a mandatory life sentence for a second very serious violent or sexual offence. Those are entirely sensible sentencing approaches. The position with IPPs had become a disorganised and chaotic one, which we could not allow to stand. I am afraid that that is another classic example of the last Government’s introducing a measures that they had not thought through properly.
I also think that the hon. Lady is entirely wrong to minimise the seriousness of the need to ensure that the regime in prison commands public confidence. If she believes that the public take no interest in what happens to prisoners while they are there and in the privileges to which they have access, I think she is wrong, and if she believes we should leave the position as it is, she should say so.
Probation Service (Low and Medium-risk Offenders)
The proposals in our “Transforming justice” consultation paper are designed to deliver a criminal justice system that punishes offenders properly and helps them to get their lives back on track. We want providers of rehabilitation services to tackle the root causes of offending, and to ensure that they have the right package of support to help offenders to turn their lives around. We will announce further details of our proposals once we have considered the responses to the consultation.
Lower-risk, profitable components of the probation service are to be handed to the private sector. Yet again, the Government are simply putting public money into deep private pockets and bringing additional costs into the system. Given the year-by-year decline in reoffending, why are they intent on unleashing a potentially risky and certainly costly upheaval of the existing system, rather than investing to improve it?
The first point to make is that we do not think that what we propose will be more expensive than the current arrangements. Quite the reverse: we think that it will save the taxpayer money. The second point is that we intend to bring in good ideas from not just the private sector but the voluntary sector, so that we can start to drive down those all-important reoffending rates. The argument for opening up rehabilitation to other agencies, private and voluntary, was advanced by the last Labour Government during the passage of the Offender Management Act 2007: we are simply implementing their idea. However, I note that the hon. Gentleman was not persuaded on that occasion either.
Will my hon. Friend assure us that providers will be commissioned to tackle the root causes of reoffending, and that they will help offenders to turn their lives around by, for example, providing mentors and signposts to employment training opportunities, as well as mental health and anti-addiction services?
There are many reasons why someone might be leading a chaotic lifestyle, and if we really want to get to the bottom of reoffending and to turn lives around, we need to address them. My hon. Friend is right to focus on addiction, and he is also right to focus on employment. We know that one of the most effective ways of rehabilitating people is to get them into work, and that is certainly the sort of thing that we expect providers to do under the new system.
May I ask the Minister about community sentences? If an individual has not performed as he or she should, who will assess, against the usual criteria, whether there has been an actionable breach? Will it be an inexperienced privateer, or will it be a fully qualified probation officer—who, incidentally, will have had no previous contact with the individual concerned?
The straight answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that a public sector probation officer will make the judgment on whether a breach should be subject to action. Those providing interventions will be obliged to supply information about what has happened, but the judgment will be made by the probation officer.
The hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that, in a great many cases, a large number of the interventions provided for those who have been sentenced under community orders are made by the voluntary sector. It is not true that probation officers currently do everything themselves, and the flow of information between them and those who do is generally very good.
The Ministry of Justice recently published the consultation paper “Transforming Rehabilitation—a revolution in the way we manage offenders”, which sets out our plans for reforming the way in which offenders are rehabilitated in the community. The consultation closes on 22 February 2013, and we will announce further details of our proposals once we have considered the responses.
Under the Secretary of State’s proposals, services will be fragmented across a wide range of providers and will be rewarded through payment by results, which will prevent public sector probation trusts from competing for those services. So how will he ensure that the high levels of performance now provided by probation trusts in protecting the public and reducing reoffending will be maintained?
Let us be clear about why we are doing this: reoffending rates in this country have barely changed in 10 years, and it is not true to say that we are getting the kind of performance across the probation service that the hon. Lady suggests. There is good work being done in the probation service, in the voluntary sector and in the private sector, and my aim is to have a package of proposals that brings to bear the strengths of all three in reducing reoffending rates.
Why have the Government come up with the idea that the commissioning of probation services should be done by a national body, rather than a local or regional one, given that that undermines the way in which local bodies concerned with preventing crime can work together and the ability of local and regional voluntary sector organisations to take part?
There are two reasons. First, we do not believe that the expertise exists on a localised basis to procure payment by results in an ambitious way—the kind we are proposing. Secondly, many probation trust management teams are enthusiastic about being part of the contracted-out world themselves, so I hope and expect that we will see some of them forming partnerships and creating new bodies that will take the service forward.
Joint Committee on Human Rights
I have not met the Joint Committee on Human Rights since I became Secretary of State for Justice. I was due to attend an evidence session before the Joint Committee on the Government’s human rights policy on 18 December 2012, but the meeting was postponed and will now take place on 12 February 2013.
I look forward to the Secretary of State’s visit. When we were debating the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, before he took over as Secretary of State, his Department gave a commitment to review legal aid, particularly in relation to immigration and asylum, a year later. The Committee is now addressing that issue in relation to unaccompanied minors. Will he look at the evidence being given, address that issue before he comes to meet the Committee and see whether we ought not to amend the legal aid arrangements so that vulnerable people with immigration or asylum issues get the proper legal support and advice they need?
It seems that the Government’s process on reviewing human rights legislation is, to put it kindly, somewhat slow, at a time when the practical implications are more urgent than ever, not least in relation to gay marriage, which we will debate later. Will the Secretary of State speed up the process, as everyone wants to see that?
As my hon. Friend knows, I feel strongly that we need to make changes to the human rights framework. Unfortunately, it is my belief that there is not a majority in this House for such changes, and it will therefore fall to a future majority Conservative Government to deliver them.
Criminal Proceedings: Delays
We want the criminal justice system to move faster, and deliver justice sooner for vulnerable witnesses and victims. We are looking at how to tackle delays across the criminal justice system to improve efficiency.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Victims of child sexual exploitation, already traumatised by their horrific experience, face gruelling cross-examination in court, often by multiple defence lawyers, in the process of justice. Does she agree that justice for those vulnerable witnesses is not served by lengthy adjournments—I am glad that she does—and that having specialist training in tackling child sexual exploitation would help judges better to balance the needs of victims and the accused in court proceedings?
I fully understand and sympathise greatly with what the hon. Lady has said, and I agree with her that concerns can affect a witness’s willingness to participate in the criminal justice system. That is why the Ministry of Justice is embarking on a strategy to improve efficiency and the effectiveness of the system. That work will look at the entire process, from offence to completion of the case. I have recently written to her about a case in her constituency. I hope she has received that letter and I am happy to meet her to provide further reassurance.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would also add that the special procedure measures that are now available in the form of pre-trial familiarisation visits, support from the witness service, separate entrances, exits and waiting areas, and access to a live link can help to reduce the stress and anxiety of going to court. We are considering what more we can do to improve support, including using new technology to change how evidence is given.
The Minister said in her recent interview with The Times that she believes that the new Victims Commissioner
“feels a wonderful opportunity…to see victims put at the heart of the justice system”.
Is that why the Victims Commissioner will do only 10 days a month and why, two months after the announcement, she still has not started? Is the Minister not guilty yet again of failing victims of crime?
The Victims Commissioner is a very able woman who is able to multitask, like many of us. We have had a number of meetings with her and she, like me, wants to put victims and vulnerable witnesses at the heart of the criminal justice system, where they belong. We are prioritising victims of serious crimes, victims who are persistently targeted and the most vulnerable victims so that they get the support and care they need.
Work Capability Assessment
6. What estimate he has made of the cost to his Department of appeals related to the work capability assessment. (141245)
Some 103,000 appeals against decisions related to the work capability assessment were disposed of between April and September 2012. The estimated total associated cost was £23.5 million. In the previous financial year, 189,000 appeals were made, at an estimated total cost of £45 million.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. As he knows from his previous responsibilities, many of those appeals were a result of incorrect initial decisions in a work capability assessment. Given that Department for Work and Pensions figures that I have obtained show that more than 35,000 people in the support group have to repeat the WCA, including people with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other progressive conditions, does the Secretary of State not accept that there would be less cost to his Department and therefore to the public if we stopped reassessing people who are not going to get better?
Of course, that is really a matter for the DWP. It is my job to provide an appeal route for those who wish to appeal, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that before I left my previous job I asked officials to change how we reassessed people who had been through an appeal so that there was a more sensible length of time between appeal and reassessment.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be far more efficient throughout the entirety of government if the decisions that were made were right the first time? The work capability assessments have not delivered that since they were introduced by the previous Government. Will he talk to colleagues in the DWP to try to ensure that decision making is right first time in the interests of Government efficiency and of the people who undergo a lot of anxiety and worry as they go through the appeals process?
My hon. Friend will know that that was a matter of great concern to me in my previous job. None of us benefits from getting decisions wrong and a huge amount of effort has been put into getting them right. Of course, our Department must provide a route for appeals when they are necessary, but I can assure him that a huge amount of effort goes into trying to ensure that we get decisions right first time.
Magistrates’ Sentencing Powers
We are considering a number of ways to make the best use of magistrates’ courts, including the option of increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers. Our priority in the short term, however, is to extend supervision to short-sentenced prisoners to ensure they receive supervision on release to help them stop offending.
Kettering is fortunate to have an excellent bench of magistrates and the whole nation should be grateful for the tremendous unpaid work carried out by 24,000 magistrates up and down the country. Is the Minister aware that £40 million could be saved in the criminal justice system were he to undertake this simple revision of magistrates’ powers? Justice would be better, cheaper, quicker and more local as a result.
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s high regard for magistrates both in Kettering and around the country. They are indeed volunteers who do a very good job. I am aware of the Magistrates Association’s proposals and the costings and savings that have been suggested. Those proposals bear scrutiny, because there will be second-order effects such as potentially more people in prison and more defendants electing to have a Crown court trial. As I said, the main thing to do is to ensure that people do not reoffend, which is why we have concentrated on extending supervision to short-sentence offenders.
Does the Minister accept that that puts pressure on jury service? A constituent of mine—an elderly 69-year-old lady who is not ill but slightly infirm—has been asked to do her third stint of jury service, and she has to take three buses to get to court. Is there anything the Minister can do about pensioners who have been asked numerous times to do jury service, are not capable of doing it, and do not want to do it?
I am slightly confused about why the hon. Gentleman is asking that question in relation to magistrates courts, which do not have juries. As the question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) might well have the effect of more cases being heard in Crown courts, there would be more demand for juries. Jurors such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) would be more in demand, so I am not entirely sure that his question is in accordance with the original question.
I declare an interest, as my wife is a magistrate. Occasionally, she comes home in tears of frustration, because she and her colleagues have not been given the powers to enable them to do the job in the way in which they wish to do it. Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider extending sentencing powers so that they can take some of the waiting and the queues out of justice in future?
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the queues, as he put it, in Crown courts in particular are coming down. We will consider the proposal from the Magistrates Association and others to increase the maximum sentencing length, but that has to be considered along with many other reforms that are needed to improve the process of justice throughout the criminal justice system.
I think that that sounded like a no to extending magistrates’ powers. In addition, a third of indictable offences of violence were dealt with by issuing cautions last year, rather than their coming to court. While the cautioning of violent and dangerous criminals is being dealt with outside court, minor offences are being sent to the Crown court. Does that not look incompetent, even by this Government’s standards? What does the Minister have against magistrates, and why is he treating them with contempt?
That is the most absurd interpretation of what I have just said—that I was considering the proposal originally made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). May I tell the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), given his way with the facts, that the use of cautions has come down considerably since the Government of whom he was a supporter were in power?
Retaining the expertise and dynamism of the voluntary and community sector within the justice system is central to our approach. We have already announced an extra £500,000 of grant funding to support voluntary sector organisations, helping them to compete for contracts. My team and I are meeting a large number of such bodies early in this process to ensure that they are as fully on board as possible.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply. His recent statement on transforming rehabilitation has the potential to be hugely positive for the voluntary sector, but it is crucial that charities can compete for contracts on a level playing field. What action have the Government taken to make sure that charities are not at a disadvantage when competing for contracts on a payment by results basis?
I would make two points to my hon. Friend. I absolutely agree with his premise but, first, the cash-flow element of the proposals that we have introduced will not be as tough as that for the Work programme. Part of the task is to pay for the requirements of the court, so the cash-flow situation will be rather different. Secondly, I am making sure that we really engage the social investment sector, which can play an important part in ensuring that voluntary sector organisations can compete on that level playing field and win on it.
The Secretary of State will know that we privatised and contracted out hospital cleaning, and that led to MRSA. We privatised and contracted out school meals, and that led to turkey twizzlers. Why does he think that in relation to the probation service—such an important service—privatising and contracting out will lead to a better end?
If I am not mistaken, the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the previous Government who introduced the legislation that makes these changes possible. The Opposition say one thing one day and another thing the next. The truth is that reoffending rates in this country have barely changed in a decade, despite extra money being spent, and I want to bring those rates down.
Our strategy for the prison estate is to replace accommodation that is old, inefficient or has limited long-term strategic value with cheaper modern capacity. We also have a rolling programme of maintenance that prioritises our investment across the prison estate.
Stafford prison was built in 1794 and is one of the most cost-effective in the estate. Last week the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and I visited Stafford and heard from prisoners of the work done by Joanne Tomlinson on anxiety management and how it had transformed their lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that modernisation is more about what goes on inside prisons than about the bricks and mortar?
I certainly agree that what people do is just as important as where they do it, and I congratulate those involved in the work that he described at Stafford prison. However, very often what people do is despite the environment in which they are working, rather than because of it, and my hon. Friend will accept readily, I am sure, that where we can provide newer accommodation, it will make it easier for people to do the good work on rehabilitation that he and I both support.
Does the Minister agree that with 800 or 900 prisoners a year from north Wales going outside north Wales, there is a need for prison accommodation in north Wales, but that the debate that he is having now would be better served by more discussion, more plans and a meeting with Members of Parliament to see whether we can reach some consensus?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for a prison in north Wales. He might want to discuss the matter with his hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who may not necessarily agree with him. It would be wise for everyone to consider very carefully the proposals that will come forward for suitable sites. We will do that. We have identified north Wales as one of the places where there is a strategic need, so we will consider carefully any proposals that are made.
Prisoners: Drug Addiction
A survey of 1,435 prisoners sentenced to between one month and four years in 2005 and 2006 showed that 45% of prisoners reported having taken a class A drug in the four weeks before custody. No recent estimate has been made of the proportion of prisoners leaving prison with an addiction to a class A drug.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I gently suggest that it would be worth while to have more recent estimates and to address the situation of offenders as they leave prisons? Has she ruled out suspicions of collusion by any prison staff in explaining why access to drugs in prisons is so widespread?
We cannot break the devastating cycle of drugs unless we deal with the issue of drugs in prisons. Why does not the Government adopt the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee, which are simple: mandatory testing of prisoners when they enter the prisons, and mandatory testing when they come out of prisons? That will give her all the figures she needs in order to deal with this serious problem.
We feel that investing in comprehensive testing may not be the best way to tackle the problem, but the Government welcome the Home Affairs Committee report, “Drugs: Breaking the Cycle”, and we will of course give careful consideration to all the findings and recommendations.
The Minister will be aware that at Ford prison in my constituency the independent monitoring board has reported that 85% of the prison population is involved in the use of spice, a synthetic cannabinoid. I am not convinced that current orthodoxies in the Prison Service to combat drugs in our prisons are working: is she?
Our plans to transform rehabilitation will radically change the way in which we manage offenders, and they will also provide much more effective support for offenders on release. Fewer prisoners are testing positive for drugs than at any time since 1996. However, there is still much more to do, and that will involve our working very closely with the Department of Health and others to provide the best possible recovery services.
18. I am provoked by the very complacent answers that we have had. All the Government are offering is warm words on this. They say they have no recent evidence, but we all know from our own experience that not one single prison in the whole of Britain is free of illegal drugs. If the Government have no evidence of people going in as shoplifters and coming out as heroin addicts, the rest of society does have it. Should not the Government adopt a policy that is at least robust and realistic and look at the traffic between prison officers and prisoners on drugs? (141257)
As I made clear, we are looking carefully at the excellent report by the Home Affairs Committee. However, we genuinely believe that our transforming rehabilitation plans will provide much better continuity of care and help to get prisoners off drugs in the long term.
The offence came into force only on 1 September 2012, but early indications are that it is being enforced, and reports suggest that it is deterring would-be squatters from occupying other people’s homes.
There are indications that as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 squatters are increasingly targeting commercial properties. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to evaluate the size of the problem of squatting in commercial premises nationally and to take action to amend the law if necessary?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are monitoring this closely, because it is possible that displacement squatting, as it were, is happening. We are in the early stages of collecting evidence. If he has specific examples from his own constituency of squatters occupying non-residential buildings, we will look at it very carefully, because squatting is a damaging offence.
The Ministry of Justice has published evaluations of the effectiveness of community orders and custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. Reoffending rates are still too high, and that is why we have set out plans to transform rehabilitation.
While there has been a very welcome fall in crime and antisocial behaviour, many victims still feel alienated by the justice system and its impenetrable sentencing guidelines. Will the Minister speed up the move to restorative justice so that victims can feel much more engaged and the community will benefit from the justice system?
Government pilots show that restorative justice programmes have caused a 14% reduction in offending. What steps are the Government taking to roll out schemes more widely throughout the country? Will the Minister give a specific pledge to protect funding for projects such as the Sycamore Tree foundation at Haverigg prison in Cumbria?
Does the Minister agree, though, that we have far too many people in prison and that when they get to prison not enough is done to turn them into good citizens? Is there not plenty of evidence that effective treatment outside prison, in the community, works? Can we not improve those alternatives, because the probation service is crucial in helping to make them effective?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good and interesting point. Obviously, who goes to prison is a matter for the independent judiciary. Prison is absolutely the right place for some offenders, but I agree that for other offenders credible punitive community sentences can be a more appropriate disposal.
Yes, I have considered that very carefully. Indeed, I have visited a number of facilities. I visited a wonderful facility in Gloucester a couple of weeks ago and will visit Alana House in Reading on Thursday to look at the exact issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Community sentences must, however, be credible as sentences and with the public. They cannot be fluffy options. They should have a punitive element and they should absolutely challenge the woman, or the man, to change her life. That is why the Crime and Courts Bill will require every community order to have a punitive element.
13. What plans he has for the provision of prison places. (141252)
We will always ensure there are sufficient prison places for offenders sentenced to custody by the courts, and we will seek to do so increasingly in cheaper, more modern accommodation. We intend there to be at least as many adult male prison places at the end of this Parliament as there were at its start.
We will consider all reasonable bids. My hon. Friend knows that we have looked, and are looking, into the feasibility of a new large prison. We have identified three parts of the country where we think there is a particularly strong case, but we will look carefully at any reasonable bids.
Do let us remember whose bad idea it was. We are not resurrecting it; we are talking about a prison that is economically viable and that will save the taxpayer money, but it may not and almost certainly will not be exactly what a Titan prison was. There are many ways of doing this. We could, for example, have a number of smaller institutions on one site and still achieve the same economies of scale. The hon. Gentleman should not believe that this Government will make the same mistakes as his made.
Prisoner Transfer Agreements
We are working hard across Government to remove foreign national offenders from this country. Last year we removed more FNOs under prisoner transfer agreements than the year before. We recently made our first transfer under the European Union PTA and signed a compulsory PTA with Albania, which is the first time we have done so with a high-volume FNO country.
They have. We signed the agreement with Albania earlier in January, which is very recently indeed. We hope that we will start making returns under that agreement very shortly. As I have said before, it is important that the agreements, wherever we can negotiate them, are compulsory prisoner transfer agreements so that prisoners do not have the choice about going back.
As set out in our recent engagement exercise “Judicial Review: proposals for reform”, our policy is to reduce the burden on public services of ill-founded judicial review applications, while protecting access to justice and the rule of law. We are working with the judiciary to ensure that we achieve that balance.
Has the Secretary of State not seen Liberty’s response to his consultation on judicial review, which finds no statistical or any other evidence that it impedes growth or stifles innovation? Why does the Secretary of State believe it is right to remove rights from local communities and vulnerable people in immigration cases just to find an excuse for why this economy has not grown in five of the past nine quarters?
The problem with judicial review is that it has mushroomed beyond any expectation. It started with a few hundred cases when it was first introduced and there are now more than 10,000 a year. Often, those judicial review processes are based on a public relations exercise or an attempt to derail the reform temporarily by using a technicality. Judicial review should be a genuine process to challenge the public authorities when they get it wrong; it should not be an excuse to fly a kite.
Employment and Support Allowance
The provision of feedback on reasons for tribunals’ decisions is a matter for the judiciary. However, as the hon. Lady will remember, in my previous role we put in place new arrangements last year. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is now working with the DWP to evaluate the findings so that decision making can be improved wherever we can do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. However, his successor as employment Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), told the Work and Pensions Committee that it was important to expand the reasons given by tribunals far beyond those on the dropdown menu, so that opaque statements such as “cogent oral evidence” are not given as the reason for an appeal being upheld. Will the Secretary of State confirm that those reasons will be expanded greatly?
Of course, the intention of the change was to identify relevant information that would improve decision making. We have learned quite a lot from the dropdown menu. The two Departments will of course discuss any improvements that will increase the quality of decision making and reduce the number of appeals.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (141265)
Since becoming Justice Secretary, I have embarked on a programme of delivering more for less and of boosting public confidence in the justice system. We are consulting on transforming rehabilitation and will shortly be considering reforms to youth justice.
In the past, my Department has routinely undertaken 12-week written consultations in some areas, including legal aid. I want to be clear that although the Government still want to hear the views of stakeholders and the public on many matters, they should no longer expect a 12-week consultation, even where that has been the practice in the past. Instead, in line with the new Cabinet Office principles, we will take a fresh look across all areas at whether, how and for how long we should consult, according to what is appropriate and proportionate in each case.
I only wish that I had received a good answer from the Justice Secretary. He has been busy in recent weeks chasing headlines with general statements on everything from Titan prisons to spartan prisons, and from gay prisoners to smacking children. May I ask him about the specifics? I note that his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), could not answer earlier, but then he did not do the media appearances. When will the first Titan prison open, where will it be and how much will it cost?
We are not planning to build a Titan prison. We have a very good model for prison development in Oakwood, which opened recently in the west midlands. That site has multiple blocks and first-class training facilities. To my mind, it is an excellent model for the future of the Prison Service. We are looking at a number of sites and hope to reach a decision in the next few months on the best option. I would like to open a new generation prison as quickly as possible, because it will save the taxpayer money and the facilities will be better.
Four weeks ago, the Justice Secretary announced to the BBC, Sky and anyone else who would listen that he was going to open new super-mega Titan prisons in the near future and that he would undertake feasibility studies. Given his comments on Sunday, can he tell the House how many current prisoners are gay and are sharing a prison cell with another gay person?
I do not know how many people in prison are gay. I want to ensure that the regime in our prisons is appropriate, commands the confidence of the public and provides an appropriate environment for rehabilitation and training. We must have a prison system in which everyone can have confidence.
T3. An increasing number of international companies are looking to the UK for its legal services. That trade creates billions of pounds for our economy. Will the Minister tell the House what plans there are further to promote British legal services abroad? (141267)
As my hon. Friend knows, our legal firms and educational establishments are great assets to this country. The Ministry of Justice continues to work very closely with UK Trade & Investment and the profession to promote those wonderful services overseas. I am sure that my hon. Friend would take great joy in looking at the Unlocking Disputes campaign, which is a good example of recent fruitful activity.
T4. The Teesside coroner takes almost twice as long as the national average to conclude inquests, causing further anguish to grieving families. This matter has been raised many times with the Ministry. Why on earth, given his failing and unprofessional service, is the coroner still in post? What steps will the Secretary of State take to remove him? (141268)
I will not give a detailed response in the Chamber but I am happy to discuss the issue with the hon. Gentleman. I take seriously any concern about the effectiveness of the judiciary—which is, of course, independent—and I also take seriously my responsibilities as Lord Chancellor. I will look into the issue.
As I indicated earlier, I intend to bring forward shortly a consultation paper on the youth estate. Our challenge at the moment is that across the youth estate we are detaining a small number of young people at a very high cost and with an unacceptably high reoffending rate—something like 70%. I want to see whether there is a better way of doing things to reduce that reoffending rate and help turn the lives of those children around.
T5. This morning I met Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. Despite what the Minister said in response to an earlier question, I was assured that there has been a sharp increase in cautions for serious offences, including sexual offences and violent assault. That is soft on criminals and harsh on victims. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Bill Waddington to discuss the issue? (141269)
I take seriously the issue of cautions being administered for serious offences. Indeed, one of the first things I did as Justice Secretary was commission work on the issue, and I am due to meet senior police officers to discuss it in the next few days. I do, however, caution the House to be careful. For example, we would all view a caution for rape as completely unacceptable, but in some cases where the victim is absolutely unwilling to give evidence it may be the only way to get something on the record about an offender. We must be careful about this issue and try to get it right.
We recognise that prisoners have a variety of causes for their offending and my hon. Friend is right to highlight one of them. We want to ensure that prisoners have access to the necessary schemes and interventions—both in prison and through the gate to the outside—to deal with whatever their issues may be. I will certainly look carefully at what my hon. Friend says about gambling and at whether more can be done.
T6. Just when MPs of all parties are seeing growing demand for housing, including as a consequence of the Government’s welfare and benefit changes, eight Shelter housing advice centres are scheduled to close. Those centres are lifelines to those in housing need, often at a time of crisis in their lives. Will the Secretary of State meet me and hon. Members from all political parties who are concerned about how to support those in housing need in their constituencies? (141270)
We will always discuss concerns that Members of this House have about their constituencies, but Labour Members must understand that we are dealing with an unprecedented financial crisis. We inherited from them a situation in which this country was borrowing £1 for every £4 that it spent. That inevitably means tough decisions that they may not always like.
Magistrates courts in Swindon and Wiltshire are about to make important decisions about the allocation of crime and family work. Will my right hon. Friend work with me and those on local magistrates benches to ensure that very long journeys in order to access justice do not become the norm?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. Like me, I am sure that he will welcome the work done by the Courts Service to produce alternative ways in which people can give evidence—video links and so on—which mean that some unnecessary journeys and waiting times in courts can be removed.
We take the whole issue of sexual offences very seriously, which is why one of the coalition commitments is to expand the availability of rape crisis centres. I visited the team running one such centre in Devon last week, and I pay tribute to them for their work. The Government will do everything they can to ensure that offenders and people who commit serious sexual offences are brought to trial. Any ideas that come through our rape crisis network of ways we could do that will be listened to.
I want to refer to the Justice Secretary’s proposals to reform the probation service. I have received a communication from the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire who expresses grave concern about the degree of consultation prior to that announcement, and about the level of involvement and discretion that the commissioners will have in providing those services locally.
T9. Most people accept that there is a need for change in the motor accident claims sector, but is the Secretary of State satisfied that new plans to raise the small claims limit from £1,000 to £5,000 will ensure that accident victims continue to find adequate independent local advice and access to justice? (141273)
I think the new plans will do that. Indeed, I think there is a case for saying that the small claims court limit of £5,000 is too low. I am keen for people to have access to a proper legal process, but the benefit of the small claims court is, in part, arbitration. The plans make the process simpler and cleaner for people who have been through a difficult time.
Last month in Bradford, Qamar Malik was one of the last people to be locked up on an indeterminate sentence for public protection. Malik is a dangerous, predatory paedophile who was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assaulting a six-year-old girl and of twice attempting to abduct a 12-year-old girl. Under his IPP, he will not be released until he is considered safe to be released, but under the Government’s new regime people such as Malik will be released whether or not they are safe to be released. How does that make my constituents any safer?
My hon. Friend knows how I hate to disagree with him, but he needs to recognise that we are replacing IPP sentences with measures that are just as tough and a lot more effective. The truth is that if someone is convicted of offences of a very serious nature, the judge has the option of passing the ultimate indeterminate sentence—a life sentence—if that is merited. We are therefore taking measures to protect the public. We are replacing an ineffective sentencing regime with a much more effective one.
As the Minister progresses his plans for probation services, what consultations has he had with the devolved Administration? When did he last meet the Justice Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and were probation services on the agenda?
Given the renewed threat that convicted terrorists will pose to society on release and the amount of security and intelligence resources that will have to be devoted to monitoring them, will the Minister confirm that the use of automatic early release would be entirely inappropriate for them?
Further to that question, the Minister recently confirmed in a written answer that 12 terrorists convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Terrorism Act 2006 will be released from prison this year. How does he intend to ensure that the probation trusts responsible for their supervision have the necessary additional resources?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the arrangements made for offenders of that nature will be multi-agency public protection arrangements. We want to ensure that local authorities and all other agencies responsible for joining in under MAPPA have the support they need. We will look carefully at what he has said and ensure that that happens in each of those examples.
Magistrates courts play a key role in the administration of justice in the UK, but too often their operation can be deeply chaotic—it can be unclear when cases will be heard, cases start and stop, and it is hard to follow proceedings. Will the Department consider reorganising how magistrates courts work so we get efficient and clear administration of justice in them?
I am at one with my hon. Friend on that. I visit magistrates courts and was at Maidstone recently to see a very well run magistrates court—it is well run not least because the court officials and those feeding the court can use new technology, which, increasingly, will speed up the process.
I thank the Ministry of Justice for granting the appropriate licence to the university of Leicester to exhume the remains that have turned out to be those of Richard III. Will the Minister confirm that under the terms of the licence, it is up to the university to decide what to do with the remains and that the university has handed them to Leicester cathedral and that Richard III will be buried there?
On behalf of the whole House, I congratulate all of those who have been involved. It is an historic occasion and an extraordinary piece of history. I hope everyone will come together for a proper service to mark the occasion, and for a formal internment in the cathedral.
I have been in touch with the Youth Justice Board about the decision to change Ashfield young offenders institution into an adult prison. I am told that young offenders from the Bristol area will now be sent as far away as Feltham. I am concerned about their contact with their families, chances of rehabilitation and so on. What reassurance can the Minister give me that those facts will be taken into account?
The hon. Lady puts her finger on one of the great difficulties we have with the youth justice estate. As numbers drop, it is inevitable that we will need to re-roll capacity, and that could mean young offenders and their families being further away from home. However, we will do everything we can for each reallocated young person to ensure that they are as close to home as we can make it. She will recognise that not everybody at that young offenders institution comes from the Bristol area, so it may be that some will be nearer to home.
You have not disappointed me, Mr Speaker. The prisons Minister misunderstood the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on the issue of a prison for north Wales. Will he meet north Wales MPs of all parties to discuss this important issue, in the interests of clarity?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is interested in clarity, because Government Members have been somewhat confused about what the Labour party in north Wales wants. Perhaps it would help if the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were to meet their local councillors and decide what the Labour party in north Wales wants. We will then be happy to talk to them.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on whether it is appropriate for a Minister to refuse to meet hon. Members to discuss important matters relating to their constituencies. It seems extraordinary that a Minister has refused three times to meet elected Members of Parliament, who should be given respect.
Even if something is extraordinary, that does not necessarily render it disorderly. It is not a matter for the Chair; it is a matter between the Minister and the Member. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. If the Minister wants briefly to respond, he can.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker, because I want to ensure, in the interests of clarity, that the hon. Gentleman understands what I have just said: once he and his colleagues have worked out what it is they want, I am very happy to meet them.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm that right hon. and hon. Members have only two privileges that are not available to every citizen in this country? One is freedom of speech in this Chamber, subject to your rulings, and the other is access to Ministers.
I am reluctant to enter into a debate on this matter. The first point is unarguable; the second is something about which I have just opined. I know that the right hon. Gentleman would not seek to lure me further, because that would be unfair and the right hon. Gentleman would never knowingly be unfair.
Building Regulations (External Retaining and Load-Bearing Walls)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Building Regulations (2010) to include regulation of external retaining and load-bearing walls; and for connected purposes.
On 26 July 2008, the lives of my constituents, Peter and Lindsay Burgess, were changed for ever. At the time, the Burgesses were living in Meliden, in Denbighshire, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is in his place. Mrs Burgess, accompanied by her three-year-old daughter Meg and 18-month-old son Wilson, had been for a walk to the local shop.
On the way home, while Mrs Burgess pushed Wilson in his pram, her daughter, Meg, followed a few steps behind. With no warning, a 72-foot-long section of wall collapsed, spilling tonnes of rubble, breeze-blocks and earth over the pavement and burying Meg. Mrs Burgess screamed, pulled at the rubble with her hands and tried to pull Meg out, but unfortunately Meg was declared dead 10 minutes after arriving at Glan Clwyd hospital in nearby Bodelwyddan. Tragically, Meg was crushed to death as a 5-feet 2-inch wall fell on top of her. The 72-foot-long wall was built of 9-inch breeze-blocks right next to the pavement, and fell pretty much in one piece under the weight of 26 tonnes of rubble piled up behind it.
This was not a typical garden wall; it was a large-scale engineering project, but the materials used to build it were not adequate for its purpose. The wall had not been properly anchored into the ground, no measures had been taken to protect pedestrians walking along the pavement, and it collapsed just moments after it had been backfilled. The builder, George Collier, was found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence at Mold Crown court in October and was given a two-year jail sentence. Officially, justice has been done, but Meg should never have been killed in the first place, because the wall should have been built safely.
The pain and anguish that Mr and Mrs Burgess have dealt with these past four years are unimaginable to everyone in the Chamber, yet they have carried themselves with incredible dignity and strength, and now that they have achieved justice for Meg, they are determined that no one else should have to go through what they have been through. That is why they have set up Meg’s campaign, which seeks to license the domestic building trade in the UK and to bring free-standing, load-bearing and retaining walls within the scope of building regulations. Today’s motion seeks to address one part of Meg’s campaign, and I hope that it finds favour on both sides of the House.
Meg is not the only person to have been killed or injured by a collapsing wall. The exact numbers are difficult to quantify, but a written parliamentary question I asked last year revealed that, on average over 10 years, more than 1,000 injuries a year were caused by the collapse or partial collapse of exterior walls. Significant numbers of people are injured every year, yet changes to building regulations have not been forthcoming.
On behalf of Mr and Mrs Burgess, I would like to express gratitude to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), for meeting us in December to discuss the intricacies of Meg’s campaign and to thank him for the promises he made and for his commitment to ensure that local authorities are fully aware of their current responsibilities in relation to dangerous structures.
Nevertheless, more needs to be done. As things stand, retaining and load-bearing walls are not covered by building regulations. There are centrally available guidelines about how a retaining wall should be built, but sadly they are not always adhered to. A Department for Communities and Local Government consultation document published in January 2012 revealed that more than 50% of small builders surveyed did not follow any form of official guidance for building walls.
The fact is, Mr Speaker, that you and I could go out this afternoon, watch a video on YouTube, erect a 5-foot wall and pile up tonnes of rubble behind it, and there would be no obligation on us to seek official guidance or consult experienced structural engineers and building control would not need to inspect our work. In Meg’s case, despite the builder’s 30 years of experience in the groundworking trade, he chose to cut corners and build a wall without the structural integrity required to retain the weight he planned to pile against it. Had the builder followed the guidelines, Meg would still be alive today.
That is the crux of the issue. Although the builder clearly did not follow construction guidelines, at no point did anyone check whether he had done so. Had retaining walls been included in building regulations, the property owner would have had to submit plans for the wall to the local authority for approval and to indicate its purpose as a retaining wall, the design would have had to incorporate the additional strengthening measures required for it to carry weight and the work would have had to be inspected before any earth was piled against it. Any building inspector would have instantly seen that the proposals for the wall were not up to scratch and that it would be unlikely to support its own weight, let alone the weight of rubble and earth piled up behind it. Any building inspector would have been able to see that the wall was not strong enough. No earth would have been piled up behind the wall, and Meg would still be alive today. Instead, Mr Collier thought he could get away with saving a few hundred pounds on materials, and a few hours of labour. As a result, a young child is dead.
This motion would enable a Bill to come before the House to bring retaining and load-bearing walls within building regulations. This is a simple, straightforward proposal for which other countries across the world have seen fit to legislate. In Australia, for example, any retaining wall over 1 metre in height requires development approval. They have also been legislated for in a number of US states, for instance in Colorado, where any retaining wall over 3 feet high requires a site plan to be submitted and a permit to be obtained from county planning departments. In the Republic of Ireland, planning permission is required for retaining walls over a certain height, depending on the local authority responsible.
Regulation of retaining walls is not without precedent in the UK either. Section 5 of the Hastings Borough Council Act 1988 states that
“no retaining wall shall be erected otherwise than in accordance with plans, sections and specifications approved by the Borough Council”.
Therefore, in the borough of Hastings—indeed, in the borough of Hastings alone—by Act of Parliament, anyone who wishes to erect a retaining wall over 1.5 metres in height must have their plans approved by the borough council.
Although I understand that local authorities may object on the grounds of increased work load, the Hastings Act shows how simple and straightforward it would be for them to administer such a proposal. I am totally supportive of the Government’s red tape challenge, but this is a potentially life-saving measure that could, and should, be adopted as soon as possible.
I am delighted by the huge number of hon. and right hon. Members who have chosen to pack this Chamber for this ten-minute rule Bill motion. I hope they will all join me in supporting the motion and in urging the Minister to consider carefully the merits of bringing retaining and load-bearing walls within the scope of building regulations. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Stephen Mosley, Chris Ruane, Chi Onwurah, John Stevenson, Stephen Metcalfe, Sarah Newton, Mr Alan Reid, Pamela Nash, Graham Stringer, Andrew Miller, Jim Dowd, Mike Weatherley present the Bill.
Stephen Mosley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March 2013 and to be printed (Bill 132).
Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill
There is a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, and 71 Members want to speak. We will do our best to accommodate them all, but it will be appreciated if Members do not keep coming up to the Chair asking whether, and if so, when, they will be called. They shall just have to be patient. We look forward to the debate.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Mr Speaker, you and I know that every marriage is different—indeed, any husband or wife of a Member of this House has a distinct set of challenges to face every day—but what marriage offers us all is a lifelong partner to share our journey, a loving stable relationship to strengthen us and mutual support throughout our lives. I believe that that should be embraced by more couples. The depth of feeling, love and commitment between same-sex couples is no different from that depth of feeling between opposite-sex couples. The Bill enables society to recognise that commitment in the same way, too, through marriage. Parliament should value people equally in the law, and enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current differentiation and distinction.
There is no single view on equal marriage from religious organisations. Some are deeply opposed to it; others tell us that they see this as an opportunity to take their faith to a wider community.
Will the right hon. Lady give the House a cast-iron guarantee that, if the Bill becomes law, no religious denomination, no place of worship and no clergyman—or equivalent in other religions—will be forced through legal action in the courts or in the European Community to carry out weddings against their wishes?
The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts some of the later parts of my contribution. I can tell him that we have taken seriously all the points that he has raised about the need for protection. He will see how we have put those measures in the Bill in some detail.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the letter that was written to hon. Members by Lord Carey of Clifton on the issue of equality between same-sex and different-sex couples? In it, he talks about
“the failure of the Government to address the important issues of consummation and adultery. While these concepts will continue to remain important aspects of heterosexual marriage, they will not apply to homosexual marriage. On the one hand, this does nothing to promote the ideal that marriage is both equal and should be a lifelong union.”
My hon. Friend will know that there is already no legal requirement for consummation. Our provisions will mean that adultery stays as it is and that couples will have the opportunity to cite unreasonable behaviour, as do many already. The issues that he raises are dealt with very well in that way.
As I was saying, there is no single view on equal marriage from religious organisations. I also know that some colleagues in the House feel that they cannot agree with the Bill for principled religious reasons, and I entirely respect that stance. I do not think that it is the role of the Government to tell people what to believe, but I do think that Parliament and the state have a responsibility to treat people fairly.
I very much support the Bill, but I regret that it is being programmed. Consideration should be on the Floor of the House and there should be two days for the Second Reading debate so that those on both sides of the argument can fully express their views.
My hon. Friend knows that I take these matters very seriously indeed. We have to ensure that there is sufficient debate, and I think that we have made sure through the usual channels that that is the case. I hope that he will be pleased with the progress that we have made on that.
I should like to make a little more progress. I will take some more interventions in a moment.
Some say that the Bill redefines marriage, but marriage is an institution with a long history of adaptation and change. In the 19th century, Catholics, Baptists, atheists and many others were allowed to marry only if they did so in an Anglican Church, and in the 20th century, changes were made to recognise married men and married women as equal before law. Suggestions that the Bill changes something that has remained unchanged for centuries simply do not recognise the road that marriage has travelled as an institution.
Will the Minister bear in mind the fact that there was a great deal of opposition to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967? I voted for the Bill, but there was much opposition to it. Does she agree that today hardly a single Member would wish to return to the situation prior to the 1967 Bill and that it is possible that if this measure is passed it will be generally accepted in the same way within a few years?
I am going to support the Bill tonight because I think the principle is right: I am not sure why I should enjoy a right or a privilege that is denied to others. But why has the Minister not confined herself to civil marriage? Would that not be a much easier area for Parliament to deal with?
The hon. Gentleman will know that many religious organisations have expressed an interest in being able to undertake same-sex marriages. We believe it is right for them to be able to do that. That is why the Bill contains provisions for them to do that, if they so choose.
If hon. Members will allow me to make a little more progress, I shall take more interventions later.
As we have heard, marriage should be defended and promoted in every way. To those who argue that civil partnerships exist and contain very similar rights, that marriage is “just a word” and that this Bill is unnecessary, I say that that is not right. A legal partnership is not perceived in the same way and does not have the same promises of responsibility and commitment as marriage. All couples who enter a lifelong commitment together should be able to call it marriage.
I will vote for the Bill’s Second Reading because I support the principle that the Minister has just enunciated, but the last intervention made an important point about ensuring that we legislate carefully on those things that the state can deal with, which is civil marriage, and not trespass on religious beliefs. Will she make it absolutely clear that she will be open both in Committee and on Report to amendments that might give us a much better balance and be capable of reassuring many more people?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. What I can do is reassure him that we have been working very closely with the Church of England and the Church in Wales, and both organisations feel that there is a set of protections, which the Church of England in particular said it did not want to see changed.
On religious organisations, the Minister will know that 5% of the UK population is Muslim. What proportion of the Muslim community responded to the consultation? How many were for it and how many were against it? My understanding is that not a single mosque responded by supporting the redefinition of marriage.
My hon. Friend will know that this issue is not about numbers; it is about working together and providing protections to make sure that individuals from whatever faith group can continue to be assured that they can practise according to their faith. That is the point of today’s debate.
I very much welcome the Bill, but does the Minister understand the disappointment of those who believe that the Church of England is not being given the choice accorded to other faiths to marry same-sex couples if they so choose and that far from being forced to marry same-sex couples, the Church of England is being forced not to marry them, even if some elements would like to do so?
I can give the hon. Lady complete reassurance today that this Bill is not in any way trying to treat the Church of England or indeed the Church in Wales differently. The end result for the Churches will be exactly the same as for other religious institutions. The difference, of which I am sure she will be aware, is that the Church of England and the Church in Wales have different duties under common law to marry people in their parishes. The canon law of the established Church of England is part of the law of the land, so we need different measures in place to recognise those differences. I absolutely assure her that if either of those organisations chose to opt in to same-sex marriage, the provisions of the Bill would allow them to do so.
If hon. Members will allow me to make a little more progress, we can have further interventions later.
It is clear from the contributions we have just heard that there is no doubt about the fundamental importance of faith in this country today, but I do not believe that as a country we have to choose between religious belief and fairness for same-sex couples. It is important to remember that religious views on same-sex marriage differ, too. The Quakers, the Unitarians and the liberal Jewish communities have all said that they want to conduct same-sex marriages. Indeed, Paul Parker, who speaks for the Quakers, said that the first same-sex marriage in a Quaker meeting will be
“a wonderful day for marriage, and…religious freedom”.
We have to respect and take note of that.
Our proposals will ensure that all religious organisations can act in accordance with their beliefs because equal marriage should not come at the cost of freedom of faith, nor freedom of faith come at the cost of equal marriage. We are capable of accommodating both. This Bill does so in a very straightforward manner.
Will the right hon. Lady assure us that, if at any time in the future the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a church not wishing to conduct a gay wedding ceremony was in breach of a discrimination Act, we would defy the European Court and not try to placate it as we did over prisoner voting?
Let me make a tiny bit of progress before taking further interventions.
I shall now deal with the Bill’s provisions. As hon. Members will know, it has three parts. Part 1 enables same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies and allows religious organisations to opt in, while protecting those that do not. It also protects religious ministers and allows for the conversion of a civil partnership to a marriage. Part 2 enables an individual to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage. It also provides for overseas marriages in consulates or on armed forces bases. Part 3 allows for the standard final provisions, including secondary legislation.
As hon. Members will have seen when they studied the detail of the Bill, I have been true to my word and ensured that there is clear protection of all religious organisations and ministers who are opposed to this measure. All religious organisations—whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Christian or any other—will be able to decide for themselves if they want to conduct same-sex marriages. The Bill provides for and promotes religious freedom through the Government’s quadruple lock. These protections are absolutely carved on the face of the Bill and are the foundation on which the legislation is built.
Will the Minister explain why the Government are bringing this Bill forward now when it was not in the Queen’s Speech, when it has not been the subject of a Green or a White Paper and when the Government promised to do other things, such as bring in married couple’s tax allowances, that they are not doing? Is not the truth of the matter that this is about low political calculation and detoxifying the Tory brand rather than anything to do with principle?
The right hon. Gentleman and I will have to disagree on that. What we are doing is clearly an important part of the way in which we can make this country a fairer place in which to live, and the measure was clearly flagged up in our document “A Contract for Equalities” at the time of the election. I can tell him that we will continue to work with our colleagues in Northern Ireland to ensure that there is the right recognition of English and Welsh same-sex marriages in that part of the United Kingdom as well.
The Minister has referred to the protections in the Bill, but we have already seen the case of Mr Adrian Smith, who lost his job, spent an enormous amount of money on legal fees, and suffered a 40% cut in his salary after making a private comment on a Facebook site. How, in future, are we to protect people such as Mr Smith who are working in the public sector up and down the country?
My hon. Friend, who I know takes a deep interest in these matters, is entirely right to raise that point, but the case he has highlighted proves that individuals can express their religious beliefs. The court found in that individual’s favour, which I think is important and should be noted by employers throughout the country.
The Minister has spoken about protections for religious ministers. Can she offer the same protections to registrars? Given that the number of mixed-sex marriages should not be expected to fall, can registrars be confident that even if they decline to take on and preside over the new same-sex marriage registrations, they will not lose their jobs or experience negative employment consequences?
As my hon. Friend will know, civil registrars are public servants. Recent court rulings have made clear that they must balance carefully their right to a religious belief with their equal right to ensure that they provide services in a way that does not discriminate against individuals. It is a very difficult issue, but I know that he has raised it for the right reasons, and I am sure that it will be considered very closely in Committee.
My right hon. Friend failed to answer the question put by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Can she tell the House, and the people of this country, where she has a mandate to inflict this massive social and cultural change? It was not in our party’s manifesto, and the Prime Minister told Adam Boulton on Sky that he had no plans to introduce it. There are many major issues with which the country needs to deal. This is an irrelevance, and it should not be pursued through the House, least of all with a three-line Whip on a programme motion that gives us no real opportunity to debate it.
My fellow Hampshire Member and I know that we disagree on this matter, but we do so in a very fair and even-handed manner, and I want to ensure that that fairness and even-handedness are present in all aspects of the Government’s policy. I think that there is an extremely strong argument for the Bill to be passed, and I am presenting it today. The purpose of parliamentary debates is to discuss such matters in more detail.
I think that I should make a little more progress. I will take further interventions in a moment.
I know that for many of my colleagues, the crux of the issue lies in the protections that I have mentioned, particularly the protections for the Church of England and the Church in Wales. They have a unique position because of the legal duty of their clergy to marry their parishioners, and furthermore, because the Church of England is the established Church, its canon law is part of the law of the land. As I said to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), the Bill provides for no disadvantageous or, indeed, favourable treatment for the Church of England or the Church in Wales. It simply provides a pragmatic way of putting them in essentially the same position as other religious organisations. If they decide that they want to marry same-sex couples, they can do so.
We have worked hard with a wide range of religious organisations, including both those Churches, to ensure that the protections in the Bill work. Indeed, the Church of England has commented on the constructive way in which we have consulted it about effective legal safeguards, ensuring that its concerns are properly accommodated. The Church in Wales has confirmed that the Bill gives it protection, while still enabling it to make its own decision on same-sex marriage.
Let me now turn to an issue that has already been raised many times today: the question of legal protections and the European convention on human rights. There has been much discussion about the powers of the European Court of Human Rights, but I believe that its case law is clear: the question of whether—and if so, how—to allow same-sex marriage must be left to individual states to decide for themselves.
“It is simply inconceivable that the Court would require a faith group to conduct same-sex marriages in breach of its own doctrines.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the eminent QCs Lord Pannick, Baroness Kennedy and Lord Lester.
The belief that the Court would order the UK to require religious organisations to marry same-sex couples in contravention of their religious doctrine relies on a combination of three highly improbable conclusions. The first is that the Court would need to go against its own clear precedent that countries have wide discretion in the matter of same-sex marriage. The second is that the Court would need to decide that the interests of a same-sex couple who wanted a particular religious organisation to marry them outweighed the rights and beliefs of an entire faith and its congregation as a whole. The third is that the Court would need to discount the importance of article 9 of its own convention, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion. That would be rewriting the rules not just for one religious organisation in England and Wales, but for all religious organisations in all 47 states of the Council of Europe. I believe that such an outcome is inconceivable.
I hope that Members will forgive me if I make a little more progress. As you have said, Mr. Speaker, there is a great deal of interest in participating in the debate.
Members also need to understand the wider consequences of the Bill. The introduction of equal marriage will not marginalise those who believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman—that is clearly a mainstream view—but neither will it continue to marginalise those who believe that marriage can, and should, also be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. We will not allow one belief to exist at the expense of the other. No misguided sense of political correctness will be allowed to impinge on that. It would be deeply divisive if, in righting a wrong for some, we created a wrong for others.
No teacher will be required to promote or endorse views that go against their beliefs. No hospital chaplain or worker will have to believe in a new definition of marriage. No religious minister will have to conduct same-sex weddings. The changes that we are discussing will not affect anyone more than they are affected already by choosing to live in a society that values tolerance and respect among its citizens.
Can my right hon. Friend think of anything in the Bill that would harm or disadvantage any heterosexual person, be they of faith or not, in any way whatsoever?