House of Commons
Tuesday 12 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 26 February (Standing Order No. 20).
City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Humber Bridge Bill (By Order)
Second Readings opposed and deferred until Tuesday 26 February at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
3. What his policy is on the creation of new peers. (142515)
As stated in the programme for government, appointments will be made to the House of Lords with the objective of creating a second Chamber that reflects the share of the vote secured by the political parties at the last general election. Any costs associated with appointing new Members will be in line with the current system. The responsibility for increasing the size of the House of Lords must, of course, lie with those who rejected the opportunity to move to a smaller, more legitimate House.
In May 2010, there were 735 peers, whereas as of yesterday there were 810. The Deputy Prime Minister has just indicated that he still wishes to maintain the coalition agreement proposal to increase the number of peers to reflect the votes at the previous general election. How many more peers does he intend to appoint? Will that include United Kingdom Independence party peers and, potentially, even British National party peers, which I would certainly oppose?
As I have said before, we intend to do what the programme for government sets out; we will be making appointments with the objective of creating a second Chamber that reflects the share of the vote of the political parties represented in this House. But we had a proposal before us—we all know what happened—to make the House of Lords both smaller and more legitimate, and it did not make progress.
The previous Government were in a minority in the other place, whereas this Government have a de facto majority of 68 there. Given that they have suffered 64 defeats and counting in the other place, would the Deputy Prime Minister not be better served by trying to improve the quality of the legislation that he proposes, rather than packing the other place with more and more client peers? We would get better laws as a result.
As a matter of fact, there are more Labour peers than peers of any other party in the House of Lords. Under the last Labour Government, 173 Labour peers were created—that was just under half the total. That is not a record of which the Labour party should be proud.
With all due respect to the Deputy Prime Minister, he is talking absolute tosh. The vote on the Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill got the biggest parliamentary majority of this Parliament. It was because he did not want to give the Bill full scrutiny in this House that he did not proceed; it was his decision, was it not, to abandon the Bill?
Given that under the Labour Government 391 peers were created—and selected, in many cases—by the then Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), can my right hon. Friend think of any reasons why the Opposition want to keep the House of Lords frozen the way they left it, rather than allowing it to reflect how the country voted?
My hon. Friend asks a good question. Given Labour’s record in packing the House of Lords for political advantage, it is extraordinary that Labour Members should now seek to lecture others about the reform of the other place, which they baulked at delivering when they had the opportunity to do so.
If a party currently in government were to get annihilated at a general election, should it then keep its peers in the House of Lords, as the numbers would not then be reflective of the position in the House of Commons?
The only thing that is going to be annihilated is the argument for independence for Scotland, which is gaining no currency among the people of Scotland, because the vast majority of people in Scotland and elsewhere want to keep the United Kingdom together.
Devolution of Power
We are devolving power to the most appropriate level through local enterprise partnerships, local government finance reforms, giving local authorities a general power of competence, and city deals. We delivered a referendum in Wales, which resulted in the Assembly assuming primary law-making powers in all 20 devolved policy areas, and we established the Silk commission, which continues its work to review the present financial and constitutional arrangements in Wales. In addition, the UK and Scottish Governments are working together to ensure the smooth implementation of the Scotland Act 2012, which represents the greatest devolution of fiscal powers from London in 300 years.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. In its recently published and much-applauded report, the Silk commission made several recommendations, including giving the Welsh Assembly Government powers to raise taxation and so making it more accountable to the people of Wales. When will the Government introduce legislation to enable those aspirations to be achieved?
As my hon. Friend may know, we are carefully studying the recommendations in the part I report from the Silk commission. We hope to provide our considered response in spring this year, and only at that point will we be able to set out what legislative plans might flow from it. Personally, I strongly support the principle of further fiscal devolution, as reflected in the Silk commission report.
Assuming that the Deputy Prime Minister does not support the creation of an English parliament or elected regional assemblies, does he accept that if devolution in England is to work, local authorities have to be at the heart of the process and not bypassed as the Secretary of State for Education wants? Will he therefore look closely at the proposals from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to put the relationships between central and local government on a proper constitutional footing?
I have a lot of sympathy with some of the assertions made in that excellent report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—namely, that at a time when the “Whitehall state” will be cash-strapped for a prolonged period, it is essential that we give local communities and local authorities greater freedom, including the financial freedom to decide how money is raised and spent. That seems to me the best way to square the circle and to ensure that local growth and local economic innovation continue.
Recall of Honourable Members
The Government have confirmed that we remain committed to establishing a recall mechanism. We are now taking proper time to consider the relevant Select Committee’s recommendations.
I was rather thrown by that reply. What I want to know is whether recall will commence after allegations are well established and the scandal is public, or at the point when there is an admission or finding of guilt. If the latter, how does that differ substantially from what already happens?
As I think the hon. Gentleman knows—if not and if confusion persists, I am happy to take it up with him outside the Chamber—the coalition put forward a set of proposals that included a double set of conditions: first, that the Member should have been found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing; and secondly, that at least 10% of constituents should have signed a petition calling for the recall. In our proposals, the first of those conditions contained two triggers. It is now for the House and the Government to work together to make sure that that works. We must be sure not to trespass on the House’s exclusive cognisance—I think the hon. Gentleman knows that and of course you do, Mr Speaker —and I look forward to ensuring that the process is transparent, robust and fair.
Given that this is the one meaningful political reform the coalition is likely to be able to deliver, please will the Minister explain the delay? It is a simple matter and I have done the work for her by producing a Bill, which is sitting there in the books. Can she guarantee that the reform will go through before the next election?
Like you, Mr Speaker, I am a great respecter of Parliament, so I suspect that I should not guarantee anything, but my intention is to bring forward proposals on which I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and all others who take an interest. As I said, the process ought to be transparent, robust and fair, and I look forward to making sure that it meets that quality mark.
The Government are committed to doing all they can to maximise registration. We have published detailed research, which has informed our plans to use data-matching, targeted engagement with under-registered groups, and new technology to modernise the system as we go into individual electoral registration, to make it as convenient as possible for people to register to vote.
Wigan has had great success in increasing the number of people registered to vote. However, there are still many more people recorded in the census than in the comparable electoral register. Does the Minister therefore agree that drawing the parliamentary boundaries on the basis of census data is a much fairer way of achieving equal constituencies?
My hon. Friend and the House will be aware that only 23,000 out of 4.4 million British citizens living abroad are registered to vote. This is a huge disfranchisement of British citizens. Can my hon. Friend say any more about the committee that may be set up as a result of discussions in the other place on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is a great mismatch between the number eligible to vote and the number who are registered to vote. We all have a duty to seek to get those numbers up, as we do in the context of any category of voter. I look to all the organisations involved in that effort, including the Electoral Commission, political parties and many more, to seek to encourage registration to vote both here and overseas. My hon. Friend will know well that noble Lords in the other place are taking a great interest in this, and I wish a cross-party inquiry all positive results.
Recently an independent watchdog body expressed concern about the accuracy and completeness of the register in Northern Ireland, 20% of which could be inaccurate. As this has serious implications for our democracy, has the Minister been in contact with the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland to find out how that happened and what lessons can therefore be learned concerning the register here?
There are indeed many helpful lessons to be learned from the experience in Northern Ireland. The Electoral Commission notes that many of the key lessons from the experience of Northern Ireland have already been addressed by the principles included in what is now the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.
The Government have said that the official date for the implementation of individual electoral registration is to be December 2016, yet they have also said that they want to bring forward IER by one year. Why are the Government facing both ways on the issue?
It is clear from comments that I have made at the Dispatch Box and that our noble Friends have made in another place that the Government’s implementation plan remains firmly committed to 2015 as the date for transition to an IER-only register. Amendments made during the Bill’s passage through Parliament provide a safeguard that extends the final point for transition to an IER-only register to December 2016. Those amendments, however, do not alter our aim to deliver that register in December 2015. They simply add a safeguard so that Parliament has a say, but I do not expect Parliament to have to make that call because I expect our transition plan to be robust.
Political and Constitutional Reform
The Government continue to work on political and constitutional reform, particularly in support of the wider priority of rescuing, repairing and reforming the British economy. The process of devolution and decentralisation, including the second wave of city deals, is central to this. Work also continues on individual registration, party funding, recall and lobbying reform.
That sounded okay, but we all know that all the big reforms that the Deputy Prime Minister had planned have broadly failed. Across our country numerous public servants with far busier in-trays than the Deputy Prime Minister have been laid off. In the interests of savings to the economy, is it not about time to mothball his Department until it has something significant to bring to us in terms of constitutional reform and that has some prospect of being delivered before 2015?
I do not accept that there is no link between constitutional reform and rebuilding the shattered British economy left in such a parlous state by the hon. Gentleman’s party. The key to that is in the answers to some of the earlier questions. If we are to rejuvenate the British economy, we must breathe life back into our local communities by letting go some of the powers in Whitehall and embarking on an ambitious programme of economic and political decentralisation, the likes of which the Labour party never did in 13 years of government.
On the subject of constitutional reform, the Deputy Prime Minister appears to be breaching the Government’s own recruitment freeze, with 19 new policy advisers and 30 support staff recently advertised at a cost of more than £1 million, for roles including constitutional reform. Can he confirm that constitutional reform is an urgent front-line need, as defined by the Cabinet Office, or is he simply in urgent need of new ideas?
As I said earlier, we will continue to deliver the commitments that we made in the coalition agreement. My hon. Friend should not lightly turn his nose up at the idea of city deals that are giving unprecedented new economic and political powers to create jobs and economic opportunities across the country. Those are a good thing and we are dedicated to delivering them.
Labour Members are extremely proud of the Human Rights Act, which has been used to protect the rights of the vulnerable in residential care homes and those of an Asperger’s sufferer who was to have been extradited to America, and it has given rights to victims of crime and much more.
To be fair to the Deputy Prime Minister and his party, they have been consistent in their support for the Human Rights Act. Now that the work of the Bill of Rights commission has come to an end, will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that no work will be done by his Department, or any other Government Department, towards amending or repealing the Human Rights Act during this term of Parliament?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Commission on a Bill of Rights reported to me and the Secretary of State for Justice. Actually, quite a lot of good work was done on the reform of the European Court of Human rights—the so-called Brighton agenda, which we are pursuing across the coalition.
However, the right hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion between those of us who believe that the basic rights and responsibilities offered to every British citizen in the European convention, as reflected in British law in the Human Rights Act, should be a baseline of protection for everybody, and others who wish to see that changed. That disagreement was openly, and in a perfectly grown-up way, reflected in the conclusions of the commission.
As the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed before, collective responsibility prevails where there is a collective agreement and a collective decision on which collective responsibility is based. It is not easy, and certainly not possible to enforce collective responsibility in the absence of a collective decision taken first.
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 the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
I am obliged to the Deputy Prime Minister. I read his speech last week about rewarding work. Three days before he made it, The Independent reported that
“the Government’s figures revealed that child poverty would increase by 200,000 as a result of the”
1% cap on benefit rises. The Liberal Democrat Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), confirmed in a parliamentary answer that “around 50%” of those 200,000
“will be in families with at least one person in employment.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 858W.]
What are the Government going to do to make sure that work is a pathway out of poverty?
The main thing is to make sure that work always pays. That is why we are introducing much-needed reforms, which were ducked by the previous Administration, to the benefits system. We have introduced universal credit, which means that even if someone works for only a few hours a week, it always pays to do so. In that way, we get rid of some of the disincentives to work, such as the 16-hour rule in the benefits system, at the same time making sure that when someone works, even on low pay, they keep more of their money. On this side of the House, we are immensely proud that, as of April, because of the lifting of the point at which income tax is paid, we will be taking 2 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax at all.
T2. We heard earlier that the Deputy Prime Minister is a passionate supporter of devolution and localism. If the West Lothian commission, which reports in the near future, recommends that the House should consider English-only legislation with English-only votes, will he back it? (142527)
I am not going to start declaring how we will respond to a report that has not yet concluded, but of course we will look at the recommendations of the McKay commission with an open mind. As my hon. Friend will know, the essay question, as it were, that has been set for the McKay commission is how to reflect the long-standing, perennial problem of the West Lothian question here in the workings of the House. We look forward to seeing what recommendations the commission delivers.
The bedroom tax is going to hit people all around the country. It is bad enough in my borough of Southwark, but even worse in the Deputy Prime Minister’s city of Sheffield, where 5,027 people will be hit. This is not a policy to tackle under-occupation because these people cannot move, and they have no choice but to pay. That is why it is called the bedroom tax. People only get housing benefit if they are on a low income. Will he admit to the House that this is deeply unfair and will make people on low incomes worse off?
The problem that the right hon. and learned Lady cannot duck is that 1.8 million households are waiting to get on to social housing provision and 1 million bedrooms are standing empty. It does not make sense to have a benefits system that continues to support this mismatch between people needing places to live and empty bedrooms, and that is what we are trying to address. As with so many things in the reform of welfare, why were there no reforms of any meaningful description under Labour yet now Labour Members baulk at every single tough decision that we must take?
This policy will not address the problem of under-occupation unless there are places for people to move to. It is the saving of public money by making people on low incomes worse off. Is not what the Deputy Prime Minister just said exactly the same as what the Tory Prime Minister said from that Dispatch Box last week? They might be two separate parties, but for the families they are penalising with the bedroom tax, they are exactly the same.
The right hon. and learned Lady referred to what is going on in Sheffield. In Sheffield, a Labour council is shamefully cutting people’s libraries while paying half a million pounds to employ trade union officials in the town hall and £2 million to refurbish its meeting rooms. What does that tell us about Labour priorities?
T4. The Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent city deal is expected to create 31,000 jobs over 10 years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring growth to my constituents and those across Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent? (142529)
As my hon. Friend will know, we are in the final stages of announcing the next wave of city deals. I very much agree with him. The city deals that we have already signed and launched are proving to be very valuable for the creation of jobs and prosperity in our local areas. In Sheffield alone, the scheme is worth about half a billion pounds to the people of the city. That represents a fantastic boost for job creation in communities up and down the country.
T3. I have been interested to see local Liberal Democrats in Newcastle campaigning to save public services put at risk by the Government’s disproportionate and unfair funding settlement for Newcastle city council. Will the Deputy Prime Minister therefore confirm that his party will be voting against the local government settlement Bill tomorrow? Otherwise his party and councillors will end up looking extremely opportunistic. (142528)
They are Labour cuts in Newcastle, which if I read the newspapers this morning, I see that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) is intervening to stop in a shameless act of political opportunism and cynicism. The Labour party in Newcastle is closing every single arts and cultural institution, which other non-Labour councils are not doing, and simply pointing the finger of blame at the coalition Government. When is the Labour party going to start taking responsibility for the mess that it created in the first place?
T5. The last census confirmed that there is a serious shortfall between Nottingham’s adult population and the number of people on the electoral register. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister agrees that this is not only a democratic deficit but a serious threat to council finances on top of his Government’s disproportionate cuts. Will he take urgent steps to address the problem of under-registration? (142530)
Yes. I hope that the hon. Lady is aware of the number of initiatives we have undertaken to provide information and, obviously, to design the move towards individual voter registration in a way that we hope will sustain the electoral register to the highest extent possible. It is worth recalling that the reason why we are moving to individual voter registration is partly to make sure that the register is accurate and as complete as possible, but also to bear down on the unacceptable levels of fraud in the register in the past.
T7. Medway council in my constituency has expressed an interest in the city deals initiative. Will the Deputy Prime Minister meet me and representatives from Medway and north Kent to discuss how the area could benefit from the city deals initiative? (142532)
I would certainly be more than happy to make sure that a meeting is arranged with the cities Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I am delighted that there is growing demand for the principal city deals to be spread across the country. I see the early city deals, which we have already entered into with the eight largest cities in the country outside the south-east, as trailblazers for a wider programme of decentralisation across the country.
T9. In the light of the current horsemeat scandal, what advice would the Deputy Prime Minister give to consumers and Liberal Democrat voters who think they are buying one thing but end up with something completely different? (142534)
The hon. Lady may ask that question, but millions of people in this country heard her party claim that they were going to end boom and bust and saw her shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), go on a prawn cocktail charm offensive to suck up to the banks which created the problem in the first place. Perhaps she should account for that.
The benefits of the social care reforms that we announced yesterday are universal. They mean that, for the first time, everybody will have the peace of mind that they will not need to sell their property to deal with the catastrophic costs that can be faced when encountering very high social care costs. We are dramatically increasing, precisely in line with Andrew Dilnot’s recommendations, the means-test threshold so that many more people will be given assistance in the first place. Crucially, if the insurance industry now responds to the incentives built into our proposal to cap the number of costs that can be incurred, we hope that no one will have to make any payments for their social care, because their needs will be covered by insurance policies taken out in the future.
On social mobility, which barrier does the Deputy Prime Minister believe to be the most difficult for my constituents to overcome? Is it kicking people out of their homes as a consequence of the bedroom tax? Is it axing Sure Start, scrapping the education maintenance allowance or trebling tuition fees? Or is it simply his party propping up a Tory Government?
The hon. Gentleman always reads out his questions beautifully; I am sure it took some time to get that one right. [Interruption.] A little spontaneity from the hon. Gentleman would not go amiss from time to time. It is the Government parties that are repairing the banks that went belly up because of the irresponsibility of his party; it is the Government parties that ended the disgrace of the tax system under Labour, which meant that a cleaner paid more on their wages than their hedge-fund-manager boss paid on their shares; and it is the Government parties that are ensuring that someone on the minimum wage in Liverpool and elsewhere will pay the half the income tax that they paid under Labour.
T10. Does the Deputy Prime Minister regret telling Chatham House in November that there was “absolutely no prospect of securing a real-terms cut in the EU budget”?Does he now believe, in fact, that the Prime Minister is on a bit of a roll and may also be successful in achieving the real repatriation and renegotiation of powers from the European Union that will give Britain a better deal? (142535)
The lesson of the highly successful summit last week is that it is important to set out a tough but realisable negotiating position, as we did across the coalition—I spent months making the case for the tough approach that we took with politicians around the European Union—and then to reach out to create alliances with other countries, including the Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes and, crucially, the Germans, and then to win the argument. If we want to reform Europe, we have to get stuck in and win the argument, not simply withdraw to the margins and hope that it will be won by default.
Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that one of his ministerial colleagues in the House of Lords has told the other place that her Ministry is no longer collecting regional data and that that will be a pattern across the country? Is that not a terrible blow in terms of how we treat our regions? Is it not time for a rethink about the regions of our country, which are steadily losing their power and influence? When people come to London, they see that all the power and influence has shifted down here.
Bluntly, ever since the referendum in the north-east failed, the experiment of moving towards a new form of regional governance has been ill-fated. The concept of regional governance did not connect with people’s loyalties locally or at county level. Through the city deals process, we are trying to create economic units that mean something to people and make economic sense. In the wake of the move away from regional governance, I hope that a much more meaningful form of decentralisation will take root.
T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concern, as vice-chair of the North Korea all-party parliamentary group, at today’s news of another nuclear test by that country? What steps will the Government take to condemn that test and to prevent further tests? Equally importantly, what will the Government do to make the Government of North Korea focus on addressing the appalling human rights abuses in that country and the suffering that has been endured by its people for far too long? (142536)
I am sure that everybody on both sides of the House would agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment. The Foreign Secretary has already spoken out in reaction to the tests that took place in North Korea. They not only threaten peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and internationally, but are in direct violation of three UN Security Council resolutions. In accordance with one of those resolutions, we are consulting urgently with other members of the Security Council to determine what robust action we will take in response.
As I have said, if one looks across the years, under the last Labour Government more than 170 Labour peers were created, which is just under half of the total. We have been very clear that our preference is a smaller and more legitimate House of Lords. That has not come about, so we will make appointments to the House of Lords in line with the terms of the coalition agreement.
T12. I listened with interest to my right hon. Friend’s answer to the deputy leader of the Labour party. I wondered what he would say to my constituent, Glen, who is paraplegic and lives in a specially converted bungalow with two bedrooms, one of which is used by a carer whom he needs occasionally. He has received a letter from Swale borough council advising him that his rent is to rise by £14 a week because he has too many bedrooms. (142537)
Of course I accept, as does everyone, that there are cases that must be dealt with sensitively. That is why we have set aside £50 million of discretionary funding, which local authorities are entirely free to use as they see fit to deal with the difficult cases that may arise. I very much hope that action will be taken to address the anxieties of the constituent to whom my hon. Friend referred.
There is a rumour that the Deputy Prime Minister let slip to the Liaison Committee last week his support for having a 2030 decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill. Will he therefore be so kind as to encourage his party to support the cross-party amendments tabled by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) and myself to ensure that precisely what he wants is put in place as quickly as possible?
I have never made a secret of that being my first preference and neither has the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. However, others took the contrary view that there should be no decarbonisation target whatever. Very openly, we have compromised such that we will set the decarbonisation target in 2016—the first year of the fifth carbon budget. In the meantime, we will take powers in legislation to set that decarbonisation target. That is the agreement that we have reached in government, we have been open about how we arrived at that position, and that is the position that we will stick to.
T14. If we are to see real decentralisation and power transferred to local government, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that structures need to change, and that part of the structural change should be fewer councillors and fewer councils? (142539)
The key thing is that councillors and all elected representatives should at all times seek to work hard for their constituents. I am not entirely persuaded that there is a magic number of councillors; it is essential that we provide more local accountability for more powers flowing down from Whitehall to our local authorities and communities.
Some 660,000 vulnerable people will be affected by the introduction of the bedroom tax. Two thirds of those people are disabled. A lot of them will be booted out of their homes as a result of the introduction of the tax. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm personally whether or not he supports this pernicious tax against those less well off in society?
It is entirely legitimate to have disagreements on the measure, but to claim that 660,000 will be booted out of their homes—that is simply not true—is outrageous Labour scaremongering. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are a number of ways in which to address the additional £14 for those who encounter it—a £50 million discretionary fund is being made available to local authorities. Why should his constituents who receive housing benefit for use in the private rented sector have to cut their cloth to suit their means according to the amount of space they have available in their homes while those same rules do not apply to those who receive housing benefit in social housing?
Will my right hon. Friend take action against those MPs who use the conflict in Israel to make inflammatory statements about Jews, and does he not realise that his party is getting a reputation—sadly—among some of its senior members for being hostile to Jewish people?
I am unambiguous in my condemnation of anyone, from whatever party, including my own, who uses insensitive, intemperate, provocative and offensive language to describe that long-running conflict. People have strong feelings on one side or the other, but everybody is duty bound to choose their words carefully and tread carefully when entering into that heated debate.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery)? Some 660,000 people will be affected financially by the changes, two thirds of whom are disabled. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think of that?
I have sought to provide an answer—[Interruption.] No. I have sought to provide an answer first on how people respond. That will depend partly on their specific family circumstances; on their working circumstances and whether they can or cannot increase the amount of hours they work to make up the £14; on whether they have taken people in to live in the spare bedroom to make up the difference that way; and on the use by local authorities of the £50 million discretionary fund that we have made available. I am not at all seeking to pretend that there will not be difficult cases that everyone will struggle with, but there is an underlying problem and we must confront it. Lots of people are waiting to get into social housing, and yet 1 million empty bedrooms are subsidised by housing benefit. We have to deal with that mismatch one way or another.
The Attorney-General was asked—
National Crime Agency
Will the Solicitor-General join me in welcoming Gordon Meldrum, the former director-general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, as the new director of the NCA? As the Solicitor-General will know, organised crime happens across the UK, irrespective of borders. Will he outline the scale of the NCA and its budget and give the House an example of why we truly are better off together as one United Kingdom?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, this is a large and important area of the UK economy that is threatened by serious and organised crime, estimated to be £20 billion a year. It is therefore right, as he says, to have a cross-United Kingdom response. Funding for the agency is a matter for the Home Secretary. The indicative budget for the first year is £407 million.
My hon. Friend has made a distinguished contribution to the all-party group that deals with this issue. He is absolutely right that we need to focus on this both at home and overseas, and that is what the National Crime Agency will be very well able to do.
Code for Crown Prosecutors
If the Crown Prosecution Service is to make decisions not to proceed with a prosecution on the grounds of cost or because of concerns about the health of a victim, is it not then right that a proper record is kept of how many and why, so that victims, the public and Parliament can hold both the Crown Prosecution Service and Ministers properly to account?
First, it is important that proportionality has been reintroduced to the Code for Crown Prosecutors. We have all seen examples of the schoolyard scuffle or other matters that should not be prosecuted, and where it is important to achieve a balance. On recording, the CPS keeps a considerable amount of records. Of course, that costs money and so there is a balance to be struck, but I will certainly think over the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I welcome the reintroduction of the proportionality test as part of the wider public interest test. Will my hon. Friend reassure the constituents I represent that the question of cost is but one of eight questions to be asked by Crown prosecutors when applying the public interest test, and that it will not be determined on the basis of cost alone?
My hon. Friend makes the point better perhaps than even I could, but I will just make two short points. First, this is not just about cost, but about assessing cost, the likely sentence, the full circumstances of the case and the other points made by my hon. Friend. Secondly, with regard to effective case management, it is often important in a complex case to concentrate on the main and most serious suspects, and so this gives an opportunity for the prosecution to consider that.
Rape (Conviction Rates)
I meet the Director of Public Prosecutions regularly and discuss this issue, most recently on 23 January 2013. The Crown Prosecution Service remains committed to robustly prosecuting perpetrators of rape and serious sexual assaults. Following an investigation of rape where the defendant contests the charge, the CPS will work closely with the police to build a strong prosecution case and review the matter in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors.
Frances Andrade tragically took her own life during the course of the trial that she described as like being “raped all over again”. What steps will the Attorney-General take to ensure that CPS policy on vulnerable victims and witnesses seeking counselling is enforced, particularly given the worrying allegations that Mrs Andrade was discouraged by the police from seeking support?
There is no doubt that the story of Mrs Andrade is tragic, and I am sure the House will join me in expressing our sympathy to her relatives and family. I take very seriously any suggestion that she might not have received the support to which she was entitled. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Home Secretary announced yesterday that the police were carrying out a review of their role in this matter, and I have no doubt that the CPS will contribute to that process. I can say that on the information I have been given at present, it appears to me that the CPS took all steps that I would have expected to try to support her as a vulnerable victim and witness. However, I would like to emphasise that that is not to say that there may not be lessons that can be learned from this tragic case.
Does it not need to be made very clear that every possible assistance in the courtroom will be offered to witnesses in such a position and that therapy or treatment needed for the mental health of the witness will not be prevented?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Taking the second matter first, let me say that the CPS’s guidelines are crystal clear that a victim or witness giving evidence should not be prevented from accessing the care or counselling they might require. Indeed, I believe that Mrs Andrade was specifically referred to the possibility of counselling when it was seen that she was distressed prior to the case taking place. On the issues in court, protocols are in place to try to familiarise people with the court process and to ensure that the trauma of giving evidence in court is lessened, including of course the possibility of special measures. In Mrs Andrade’s case, however, she made it clear that she did not wish special measures to be introduced.
I draw the Attorney-General’s attention to the comments made by the Surrey police and crime commissioner that seem to contradict what the Attorney-General has just said. Might it be appropriate to write to all PCCs to reiterate what he has just said to the House of Commons?
I am aware of the comment about what might have been said in Surrey, but I reiterate the position of both the CPS and the Greater Manchester police, who investigated this matter: there is no reason someone should not receive counselling and every reason they should, if they need it. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware of this issue being raised; I am obviously aware of it as well, and I can reassure the hon. Lady that we will investigate to ascertain whether there was a failure of communication on the part of anyone in respect of Mrs Andrade.
On the issue of sexual violence, the CPS website states that one in 10 women who experience sexual assault do not report it to the police. What is the Attorney-General’s Department doing, in line with other agencies, to tackle this?
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the CPS gets it references from the police, so unless a case is referred to it, it cannot carry out an investigation. It works closely with the police, however, both to improve the conviction rates for rape—it has been consistently successful in doing that for some years—and to encourage people to come forward by ensuring that the victim support process available provides reassurance that people will be helped.
Has the tragic suicide of Frances Andrade after giving evidence as a victim of rape not shown us that we have a system strewn with high-minded codes, pledges and guidance to victims that are brushed aside in practice? She was refused counselling and, as already stated, her PCC has said that victims will not and should not be referred for counselling until after they have given evidence. That is clearly in breach of the agreed code. Is the CPS in charge of these cases or not? It clearly did not know what was happening in the case of Mrs Andrade. In how many other cases has the victim not been properly supported and does the CPS simply not know what is going on? I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has stated that she will look into this and that the Attorney-General has stated today that he will too, but is it not time that we had a proper review that overarched all the agencies to ensure that we have a decent rape prosecution policy in this country, not one that just looks good on paper?
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns, although I am not sure I entirely share the sweeping generalisations that she derives from them. As I said earlier, the evidence is that, under the last Government and the present Government, through the work of the CPS, the conviction rate for rape has consistently been improving. The House will want to bear that in mind.
On the very serious suggestions that Mrs Andrade was somehow misled, yes that is a matter of concern to me. As I indicated in an earlier answer, the information I have been given supports my view that both the CPS and the Greater Manchester police correctly advised her and recommended routes by which she could obtain counselling. The suggestion that some other organisation or police force might have said something to the contrary is obviously of serious concern and will be looked into.
Serious Fraud Office
The Serious Fraud Office is not routinely informed about the work of overseas prosecuting agencies and where it is properly involved, it would not be appropriate to comment in relation to current investigations or prosecutions.
The Attorney-General knows that at least one contractor of the Serious Fraud Office is being investigated for fraud overseas. Apart from being embarrassing, does this not constitute a conflict of interest? Will he tell the House when he proposes to publish the findings of the Allan report, which was completed in 2011?
I shall start by dealing with the first part of the question and then deal briefly with Sir Alex Allan’s report. I am not in a position to comment on what is or is not being investigated. That is a private matter for the Serious Fraud Office. When it takes on an investigation, wherever it can, it publishes that on its website, but there are sometimes circumstances where it cannot do so without prejudice to the investigation. If I may say to the hon. Lady, such conflicts of interest can arise quite frequently, but there are a whole series of protocols in place in prosecutorial organisations to ensure that that does not impede their efficiency or ability to carry out such investigations.
As for Sir Alex Allan’s report, the hon. Lady knows from what I have said previously in the House that I would very much like to see as much of its contents as possible published, but there are issues in respect of data protection. When I have worked through those, I hope to be able to satisfy her wishes in that respect.
Prosecutions for Burglary (Northamptonshire)
5. How many successful prosecutions were carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service for burglary in Northamptonshire in the latest year for which figures are available where the defendant had (a) previously been convicted for at least one other criminal offence and (b) no previous convictions. (142505)
Two-hundred and twenty-seven defendants were successfully prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service for burglary offences in Northamptonshire in 2011-12, at a conviction rate of 89%. No central records of a defendant’s previous convictions or non-convictions are maintained by the Crown Prosecution Service.
I congratulate the Crown Prosecution Service in Northamptonshire on prosecuting 227 burglars. Burglary is an horrific crime, and I strongly suspect that most of those 227 had previous convictions of one sort of another. May I encourage the CPS to collect those data, so that we can head off more potential burglars in future?
The Crown Prosecution Service is not the organisation that maintains the database of convictions, and that is unlikely to change. However, in the period 2009 to 2012, the number of defendants prosecuted for burglary offences increased by 6.4%, compared with the national fall in prosecutions of 8.9%, so he can be assured that burglary is being given proper attention.
Female Genital Mutilation (Conviction Rates)
The Director of Public Prosecutions regularly briefs the Attorney-General and me on the issue of prosecuting for female genital mutilation and on the action plan that was developed following the Crown Prosecution Service round table on 28 September 2012.
I very much welcome the DPP’s action plan, which is a positive step forward. May I urge the Solicitor-General to look at the work being done in Bristol with young women from affected communities? They have been really brave in speaking out—they have even developed a two-part storyline for “Casualty”, which will be shown later this year. Does he agree that ensuring that such work is community-led as well as Crown Prosecution Service-led is an important way of dealing with the problem?
I certainly agree with that. The inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which is chaired by the Home Secretary, is taking a particular interest in those sorts of approaches, so I commend the hon. Lady on mentioning it in the House, and she is absolutely right. Finding the right evidence and having the support of the community—and, therefore, support for the victim—is vital.
Further to that answer, has the Solicitor-General any measures in mind that would make it easier for people to report this dreadful crime? I am thinking in particular of the language barrier, which is often a factor in cases of this kind.
The action plan that I have mentioned contains a number of proposals to improve the situation and to make it easier for people to come forward. The main obstacle is not so much the language barrier. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can imagine that many of these cases involve young girls from particular communities, and that there are cultural and other taboos that make this very difficult for them. The real point is the approach mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) involving getting community support. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, however.
Scottish Independence (EU Membership)
7. Whether he has had discussions with the European Commission on the legal status of Scotland’s membership of the EU in the event of a yes vote to independence. (142507)
I have not discussed with the European Commission the legal status of Scotland’s membership of the EU. The United Kingdom Government’s position is that the most likely outcome is that Scotland would have to join the EU as a new member state. That position has been backed up by comments from the President of the European Commission and by the President of the European Council.
We have a phrase in the Scottish language, “Facts are chiels that winn’a ding”, which means “Facts are children who do not lie”. Despite the wonderful report by Professor James Crawford of Cambridge university and Professor Alan Boyle of Edinburgh university—which includes the quote on page 8 from the President of the Commission that has just been referred to—on which the Government have based their most recent document, may I plead with the Attorney-General to get engaged in this issue? We need to get to the point at which the legal officers in this Chamber and the majority of the people in my party, representing the people of Scotland, are dealing with facts, not with assertions. Will he please get involved with the interrogation of the Commission and set down the legal facts on what will happen? I think that that would support Barroso’s position.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s message. The view that I express is the view of the United Kingdom Government, and it is backed up by the advice of Professor Crawford and Professor Boyle. The overwhelming weight of international precedent is that, in the event of independence, the remainder of the UK would continue to exercise its international rights and obligations, and that Scotland would form a new state. In those circumstances, Scotland would have to apply to join the European Union.
The Electoral Commission has specifically recommended that the UK Government and the Scottish Government should agree jointly the processes that should follow either outcome of the referendum. Will the UK Government accept the Deputy First Minister’s invitation to prepare a joint submission to the European Commission setting out a transition process in the event of a yes vote? If not, why not? What are they afraid of? Or do they prefer scare stories?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about our work to ensure the highest standards of integrity in the police.
We are fortunate in Britain to have the finest police officers in the world. They put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public, they are cutting crime even as we reduce police spending, and the vast majority of officers do their work with a strong sense of fairness and duty. But the good work of those thousands of officers is undermined when a minority behave inappropriately.
In the last year, we have seen the Leveson inquiry, which cleared the police of widespread corruption but called for greater transparency in policing, and the shocking report of the Hillsborough independent panel. We have seen the sacking of PC Simon Harwood and the investigation of several chief officers for misconduct, and yesterday I told the House about the investigation now being led by Chief Constable Mick Creedon into the work of undercover officers from the Metropolitan police.
I want everyone to understand that I do not believe there is endemic corruption in the police, and I know that the vast majority of police officers conduct themselves with the highest standards of integrity. This was confirmed by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in its report last year, but that does not mean that we should ignore the fact that when it does occur, police corruption and misconduct undermines justice, lets down the decent majority of officers and damages the public’s confidence in the police.
We need the police to become much more transparent in their business. We need clearer rules for how officers should conduct themselves. We need to open up the top ranks so policing is less of a closed shop. We need to make sure that officers who do wrong are investigated and punished, and that the organisations we ask to police the police are equipped to do the job.
Many of our existing police reforms address those challenges. The new College of Policing will improve the quality of police leadership and drive up standards. Police and crime commissioners are making the police more accountable to their communities. Direct entry into the senior ranks will open up the police to talented outsiders. HMIC is more independent of the police and for the first time it is led by a non-policing figure.
These reforms will help, but we also need to take further specific measures to root out corruption and misconduct from the police. First, in line with the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson, national registers of chief officers’ pay and perks packages, gifts and hospitality, outside interests, including second jobs, and their contact with the media will be published online. Secondly, the college will publish a new code of ethics, which will be distributed to officers of all ranks. In addition, the College of Policing will work with chief officers to create a single set of professional standards on which officers will be trained and tested throughout their careers.
Thirdly, to prevent officers who lose their jobs as a result of misconduct from being recruited by other forces, we will introduce for the first time a national register of officers struck off from the police. The list will be managed and published by the College of Policing. Fourthly, to introduce a sanction for officers who resign or retire to avoid dismissal, hearings will be taken to their conclusion notwithstanding the officer’s departure from the force. Where misconduct is proven, these officers will also be struck off by the College of Policing.
Fifthly, the college will establish a stronger and more consistent system of vetting for police officers, which chief constables and police and crime commissioners will have to consider when making decisions about recruitment and promotions. Every candidate for chief officer ranks will need to be successfully vetted before being accepted by the police national assessment centre.
Sixthly, Lord Justice Leveson’s report made several recommendations in respect of policing, focused on providing greater transparency and openness. The Government accept what has been recommended, and the College of Policing, the Association of Chief Police Officers and others have agreed to take forward the relevant work that falls to them. I will place in the Library of the House details of the Government’s response to each of the Leveson report’s recommendations on policing.
Finally, I want to make sure that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is equipped to do its important work. Over the years, its role has been evolving and the proposals I announce today develop it further. Public concern about the IPCC has been based on its powers and its resources, and I want to address both issues.
Regarding its powers, last year Parliament legislated, with welcome cross-party support, to give the IPCC the ability to investigate historic cases in exceptional circumstances. In the same legislation, we gave the IPCC the power to compel police officers and staff to attend interviews as witnesses. In addition, I have already said that we will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to give the IPCC the power to investigate private sector companies working for the police, along with other powers that the IPCC has asked for to improve its effectiveness and increase public confidence. I am prepared to consider any further legislative changes that the commission says it needs.
I believe that the main difficulty for the IPCC is its capacity to investigate complaints itself. Last year, the commission investigated just 130 of the 2,100 serious or sensitive cases that were referred to it independently, while supervising or managing another 200. Individual police forces investigated the remainder, but 31% of appeals against forces’ handling of complaints were successful. That is simply not acceptable. I will therefore transfer to the IPCC responsibility for dealing with all serious and sensitive allegations. I also intend to transfer resources from individual forces’ professional standards departments and other relevant areas to the IPCC in order to ensure that it has the budget and the manpower that will enable it to do its work.
The Government’s police reforms are working well, and crime is falling. Corruption and misconduct are thankfully the rare exception and not the norm among our police. However, that does not mean that we should not act. I believe that this is a comprehensive plan to address public concern about the integrity of the police, and I commend my statement to the House.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving me a copy of her statement. This is an important issue, and many of the measures that she has outlined are sensible in principle. However, I shall press her for more detail on how they will work in practice, and there are a couple of areas where I believe that she has not gone far enough.
The whole House will wish to recognise and show support for the international reputation of British policing, which is respected globally for low levels of corruption, high standards of integrity and our tradition of policing by consent. As the Home Secretary said, the vast majority of police officers join the force to help the public and keep people safe from crime and harm, and they take great risks when they do so. We think of the two police officers who were shot down when answering a routine 999 call in Greater Manchester, but also of officers who go the extra mile every day to help the public—perhaps stepping in to rescue people and save their lives; perhaps sitting with bereaved parents whose teenager has been killed in a traffic accident.
Police officers themselves are deeply concerned about serious cases that undermine confidence in policing: hacking, the Hillsborough tragedy, the problems with undercover officers, and cases in which policing has failed to protect the public or to deliver justice. That is why the vast majority of police officers also want action to be taken against officers who let their force and the public down, as well as action to improve standards.
Many of the Home Secretary’s measures are sensible. We support the implementation of the Leveson recommendations, and also the introduction of greater transparency. We support the establishment of a code of ethics and higher professional standards, and we support stronger action when those are breached. We have also argued for stronger action in relation to retired officers when things go wrong. The Stevens commission on the future of policing has taken evidence on issues involving codes of ethics, national registers, the role of the College of Policing and proposals for striking police officers off, and is likely to make new proposals in that regard.
However, can the Home Secretary clarify what she means? Will there be a national professional register that all police officers must be on, will there be standards that they must meet, and will they be struck off from the register if they do not meet those standards? If so, by whom will they be struck off? Will it be the IPCC or the College of Policing, and will that be underpinned by legislation? Or does the Home Secretary simply propose to put together a list of officers who have already been sacked by their local forces?
I do not believe that the Home Secretary is going far enough on the IPCC. As she will know, I have argued for the last 12 months that it does not have enough powers and resources to deliver for the public. I welcomed the action that she took and the legislation, which we supported, to strengthen powers, but her reforms of the IPCC still seem to be incremental. Increased resources are welcome, but will she tell us how much there will be and where it will come from? Is she top-slicing the budgets of police forces across the country, and if so, by how much? How many extra police officers does she think those forces will lose as a result?
During the passage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, Ministers argued that more cases should be dealt with by individual forces rather than by the IPCC. In the Act the Home Secretary downgraded the IPCC’s capacity, halving the minimum number of commissioners. Now she seems to be saying that more cases should be dealt with by the IPCC rather than by individual forces. Has she changed her view since the passage of the Act, and can she clarify her proposals?
I am also not convinced that the Home Secretary is doing enough to strengthen the powers and the culture of the IPCC to restore public confidence and ensure that lessons are learned. Nothing is being done about the confused and overlapping bodies that are supposed to act when policing goes wrong. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, the IPCC, individual police and crime commissioners, police and crime panels and, now, the College of Policing all have a role, but it is still unclear who does what, and as a result, who should act when things go wrong and ensure that lessons are learned. I therefore think that the Home Secretary has not been sufficiently radical. May I urge her to look again at the possibility of replacing the IPCC altogether with a new police standards authority, along with a new, coherent framework of standards and accountability?
Finally, I hope that the Home Secretary agrees that the best way to ensure rising police standards is to have well-motivated, professional police officers who are keen to do a good job and serve the public. She will know that there is a massive problem with low morale among police officers, who do not feel valued, and I am keen to hear how she intends to address that.
Police officers do a vital job every day on our behalf, and our duty in this House is to make sure that they get the support they need and to have a proper framework of accountability to keep standards high. The Secretary of State’s statement is welcome and responds to many of the concerns that we have raised, but I urge her to look at the proposals again as I remain concerned that they do not go far enough and will not be sufficient to deliver what the police and public need.
I welcome the shadow Home Secretary’s support on a number of the issues I have addressed today, most significantly the implementation of the Leveson report recommendations, the code of ethics and action on retired officers. She asked two key questions. First, on the national register, the College of Policing will look at how best to address the issue in terms of its general work with police officers and others on standards and development. I expect that there will at least be a list of those officers who have been struck off, and whom one would not expect other police forces, here in the UK or elsewhere, to take on. It is for the College of Policing to decide the form in which to publish that list, and it will consider that matter very shortly.
Secondly, the right hon. Lady said there were a lot of overlapping organisations, and she mentioned the HMIC and the IPCC. HMIC does not investigate individual complaints against individual officers; that is the job of the IPCC. HMIC has a different role. It looks at the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces; it looks across the force, not at individual complaints. Those two bodies do two different jobs.
The right hon. Lady referred to the changes and comments we made during the passage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. We have indeed put more low-level complaints to the individual forces, but the point I am making today is that we want to ensure the IPCC can handle all the serious and sensitive allegations made against police officers. Last year, just 330 out of 2,100 such cases were independently investigated or supervised and managed by the IPCC. I think it should be able to look at all the serious and sensitive allegations against police officers, which is why we are looking to transfer resources from police standards departments in police forces to the IPCC. We will look at any manpower or funding implications and ensure that the IPCC has sufficient resources to be able to deal with all the cases we feel it should be dealing with.
The right hon. Lady asked why we do not just scrap the IPCC and set it up again with a different name. Today, I have set out the key issues of substance that will make a difference to the ability of the IPCC to do its work. The question that she has to answer is whether she is interested merely in rebranding something, or whether she is genuinely interested in agreeing with me on what the IPCC needs to be able to do its job properly.
The Home Secretary has probably done more to reform the police than any Home Secretary since Robert Peel. Many police officers are concerned, however, that their profession has come to be held in less respect. Does she expect the College of Policing to be the basis, through professional standards, on which the police can reclaim their self-respect?
I expect that the College of Policing will make a real difference. I believe setting up a professional standards body for the police that will set standards and take on many of the ACPO business areas in looking at those standards, as well as dealing with the ethics of policing for the area that it covers and with the training and development of officers, will give a boost to officers in terms of their professionalism and the regard in which they are held. I am pleased that Professor Shirley Pearce, former vice-chancellor of Loughborough university, is the chairman. We also have a very energetic chief executive in Chief Constable Alex Marshall, and I am pleased that members of the police force at all ranks are part of the college, including members of police staff. It is important that it covers everybody.
As the Home Secretary who established the IPCC in the first place, may I welcome the announcements by the Home Secretary today, which seem a sensible development of those powers? I have two questions. First, the chair of the IPCC, Dame Anne Owers, served for seven years as an extremely effective and independent chief inspector of prisons and I have confidence in her work and ability to take forward the IPCC. Since the Home Secretary has not mentioned Dame Anne, would she like to do so?
My second point concerns the relationship between the professional standards units of individual forces and the IPCC. I understand that at a time of limited resources, money has to come from somewhere and that some transfer is sensible. However, will the Home Secretary take care to ensure that professional standards units in individual forces are not so denuded that they cannot do their crucial initial work of identifying early possible bad police officers, and of investigating complaints that may start at a low level but turn into more serious matters that need to be allocated to the IPCC?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and, indeed, I see this as a development of the IPCC. Its role over the years has been changing and this is a necessary and important development. Dame Anne Owers has done an excellent job since becoming chairman of the IPCC. The role is changing slightly from the one she first came to, but she is addressing it with great distinction and commitment, as one would expect from her. Indeed, in her time overseeing prisons she built up a reputation for herself and her independence, and it is good that we have somebody with that reputation as chair of the IPCC.
On the transfer of services, the point is that work will be transferring from professional standards departments to the IPCC, so it therefore makes sense to transfer resources. We are not talking about not having professional standards departments at all, and a discussion will be had with forces about the level of that transfer and where the boundary appropriately falls.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great unanswered questions in the sorry saga of phone hacking is how although the police had evidence taken from Glenn Mulcaire in 2006 that suggested widespread lawbreaking was taking place, not only was nothing done about it, but it was denied that such evidence existed? That matter was intended to be examined by Lord Justice Leveson in part 2 of his inquiry. Will the Home Secretary confirm that an investigation will still take place to answer those questions?
My understanding is that that will indeed be part of the second part that will take place, but as my hon. Friend knows, there has always been a question about what can be done. A great deal was done by Lord Justice Leveson on issues that he needed to consider at the time of other police investigations. Of course, those police investigations are still continuing.
I warmly welcome the excellent statement from the Home Secretary not just because it implements Leveson, but because it accepts many of the recommendations made by the Home Affairs Committee over a number of years. I share her ambitions for the College of Policing, and as she knows, Alex Marshall will be appearing before the Committee this afternoon.
Will the Home Secretary say whether police officers will still need to seek the permission of their individual chief constable before taking up a second job, and therefore before they are put on the register? Will she consider looking at police and crime commissioners? We still have no central register on which they can declare their outside interests, and since she is full of reforming zeal, in that same mode will she please ensure that that issue is also considered?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks about my statement. On his first point, yes, I would still expect individual officers to seek that permission before taking a second job, but a public document would make it clear which officers had second jobs, alongside other things. He and I have a slight disagreement on police and crime commissioners. Each individual PCC is required to publish information on their interests so that the electorate in their area know where they stand and what their interests are—just as we require others who are elected to register their interests appropriately. It is appropriate for that to be done at local level, rather than maintaining a central register.
I, too, welcome this statement, which implements not only the recent Home Affairs Committee report, but the Liberal Democrat policy motion on empowering the IPCC, which was passed last year. I especially welcome the commitment that the IPCC will cover private providers. As Nick Hardwick, the former chair of the IPCC, said,
“if it looks like a police officer, talks like a police officer, walks like a police officer, the IPCC should investigate it.”
Will the Home Secretary confirm that she has spoken to Dame Anne Owers and the IPCC about resources, and that it be well-resourced enough to deal with serious cases and also look at private contractors?
In other circumstances, I might say that I was now worried, Mr Speaker, but we are in coalition, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. It is important that private companies working for the police are included, but that will require changes to legislation for which parliamentary time would have to be made available. I am sorry, but with all the banter I have forgotten the second point.
These reforms are welcome; they could go further, but let us give praise for what is to be done.
Does the Home Secretary accept that there is a good deal of dissatisfaction with the IPCC? One factor in that is undoubtedly the number of former police officers, some of whom have held senior ranks, investigating the police. That gives the impression that the complaints body is not as genuine as it should be. Should that be looked into?
It will be for the IPCC, in discussion with the Department, to decide on the sort of people it wishes to employ in increasing its investigative capacity. In a sense, there is a slight Catch-22 situation because the very people in this country who are used to investigation, and have the skills and experience in that regard, are police officers.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Will she clarify how being struck off will affect an individual police officer’s eligibility to claim their pension? There has been concern over officers retiring early when facing disciplinary procedures in order to claim their pension.
My statement today does not cover anything related to pensions, but the importance of a police officer being struck off once found guilty of misconduct is that any other police force to which that officer applies will see that they have been struck off and are therefore not suitable for employment. Perhaps my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will recall PC Simon Harwood. Issues were raised about his behaviour during his employment by one force, but he then left that force and was re-employed by another. The register of struck-off officers will exist to stop that sort of issue happening.
The Home Secretary referred to the quality of police officers, and in that context I want to acknowledge the service of Constable Philippa Reynolds, who was killed in the line of duty in my constituency at the weekend.
How will the Home Secretary ensure that the standards and safeguards she has referred to today will also apply to the National Crime Agency with its constabulary powers and special constables? Can she assure the House that the NCA’s engagement with the press will be to the Leveson standard?
May I join the hon. Gentleman in sending sympathy and condolences to the family of Constable Philippa Reynolds, who sadly died in that traffic incident at the weekend? May I also commend the officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland for the work they do, day in, day out, to keep people safe in Northern Ireland?
On the Leveson requirements, we will be discussing with either ACPO or the College of Policing, where relevant, how each of those can best be implemented. Lord Justice Leveson reflected in his report that the police landscape had changed over the time during which the evidence was taken, so we need to consider how best to ensure that the requirements can be implemented properly in the new policing landscape.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although we are all aware that there have been some unacceptable relationships between certain police officers and journalists, the press often provides invaluable assistance in helping to solve crime? Post-Leveson, many police forces are seriously restricting contact between police officers and journalists. Is there a danger that that could become too heavy-handed and counter-productive?
Of course we all accept that there will be occasions when the police wish to talk to the press to enlist its help in a particular investigation that is taking place. We accept that such occasions do occur, but it is right that we say to the police that they have to be more considerate of the implications of their talking to the press in other circumstances. That is why ACPO had, prior to the Leveson report—this is picked up in the report—been looking at what appropriate relations are between the police and the press. Having transparency is a great way of ensuring that people can see that these discussions are being held where they are appropriate. It is the transparency element that Lord Justice Leveson was keen on and that we will be taking forward.
There is much to commend in this statement. In other countries where wages and conditions are poor, the result is often that police tax rather than arrest criminals. Is the Home Secretary absolutely certain that her cut in wages for new police constables, meaning that they now earn less than a trainee manager at McDonald’s, will not have an impact on police standards in this country?
My right hon. Friend has already declared that she intends to invite talented outsiders to step forward to be considered for senior positions in the police. What sort of person is she considering? May they have no police experience whatsoever?
We have picked from, and are putting into place, different proposals as a result of the Winsor review recommendations. One is to have direct entry at superintendent level, where it would not be necessary for the individual to have police experience, but it would be necessary for them to go through an appropriate training period before they were able to take on their tasks as superintendent. Another is to open up the opportunities for chief constables to those with relevant policing experience—such experience would be necessary in those cases, but in a common law country. My hon. Friend asked what sort of people we might see coming in on this direct entry, and I say to him that perhaps ex-military people might be interested; I do not know, but he may very well want to forge a path.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) yesterday raised the tragic and appalling case of Frances Andrade, and the Home Secretary said she would reflect on it. To give victims and witnesses reassurance about the integrity of the police and the advice they get from the police service, will she reassure the House that she will urgently write to police forces to ensure that, in line with existing guidance, victims and witnesses can have the counselling and care they need and deserve?
Obviously, this issue was raised yesterday and I addressed it yesterday. It is important, and one thing that the College of Policing will be examining across the board of policing, in due course, is how police officers deal with, and how it is appropriate to deal with, certain types of crime and certain types of victim. A huge amount has been done in recent years to improve the way in which police forces deal with allegations of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and rape, but of course, as I said yesterday, we will be looking at the lessons that can be learned from that particular case.
May I echo the Home Secretary’s remarks about the quality and standards of our officers? There are organisations, both public and private, that are benefiting from the new ideas brought in by key people with fresh experience and additional areas of expertise. Does she agree that there are no reasons why policing should not benefit in the same way?
I very much agree. There has been the concept over the years that someone had to come in at the bottom and work their way up. We need to change that, both by enabling the fast-tracking of individuals who are obviously talented when they enter the police force and by opening up, as he says, to new ideas, cultures and experiences, which can only benefit policing. I am very much of that view.
Constable Reynolds, who was mentioned by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) a moment ago, was a constituent of mine, and I extend to her parents and the family circle my sympathy at this time of their bereavement.
I am sure that the Home Secretary will agree that police officers are like the community they serve, in that they are not without failure or mistake, and that it is vital that the police work to the highest standard of integrity. However, does she not also agree that we must be careful that we do not tie their hands with regulation so that they are not able to do the duty they are supposed to be doing—protecting the community?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we ensure that we have the appropriate structures, frameworks and codes for the police to work with, but their job requires them to do extraordinary things and we do not want to tie them up in regulation such that they are not able to do that job in cutting crime and protecting the public.
When we are looking at police integrity, can we also look at the integrity of those people who suggested that the Government could not make difficult financial decisions and carry out reforms without crime going up? The reforms the Government have made have ensured that the level of crime has fallen.
Yes, our police reforms are working. As my hon. Friend says, we were told by the official Opposition that the only thing that would happen when the reforms and the cuts in police budgets took place was that crime would go up, but of course exactly the opposite has happened and we have seen that crime continues to fall.
Although we all welcome a system that will ensure and uphold the integrity of our police, will the Home Secretary reassure my constituents that the already overstretched local police budgets will not endure any further cost pressures as a result of today’s statement?
As I have explained in response to another hon. Member who was questioning me on that issue, what I have announced today is that we will be transferring certain pieces of work from police forces to the IPCC, so there will be less work in that area for professional standards departments and others to do in police forces. We will be talking about how resources should appropriately transfer to the IPCC to ensure that it covers the work that it, rather than police forces, will now do.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments, and I support the move to transfer serious and sensitive cases to the IPCC. Will she ensure that the definition of “serious and sensitive” is as crystal clear as possible, so that the work of the IPCC can be enhanced and we can avoid potential ambiguities in determining what is serious and what is less serious?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. There is, of course, currently a working definition of “serious and sensitive”, but we need to ensure that in the new arrangements the definition is as clear as possible, so that there is no confusion between forces and the IPCC.
The Home Secretary’s statement says that, “to introduce a sanction for officers who resign or retire to avoid dismissal, hearings will be taken to their conclusion, notwithstanding the officer’s departure from the force.” Will she confirm that any pension payment or severance payment due will be frozen until those proceedings end? If that does not happen, there is no point in introducing the first sanction.
As I said earlier, my statement does not cover any arrangements in relation to pensions. The issue of police officers subject to misconduct proceedings being able to resign or retire from a force and then those proceedings not being taken through because there was no sanction is one of the things that annoys the public considerably. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman makes a gesture; I am not quite sure how Hansard will interpret that, but I think that he is indicating, “Money.” Of course the sanction we propose potentially will have an impact on officers, because misconduct proceedings will be taken through to their conclusion. If they are found guilty of misconduct, they will be placed on the list of officers who have been struck off, and that will impede their ability, for example, to get a job in policing or a similar field abroad or in the United Kingdom.
I declare my interest as a serving special constable with the British Transport police.
Some of the best, most common-sense policing in our country is done by ordinary community beat bobbies at police constable rank, by police sergeants and by police inspectors—people who are not seeking promotion but who love their job and have been doing that job for many years, perhaps decades. Although it is right that scrutiny of the police improves all the time, I do not feel that these individuals get the pat on the back that they should get often enough. What can we do to recognise and reward those long-serving officers for the skills they bring to their job?
My hon. Friend may not be aware that one of the matters that has been referred back to the Police Negotiating Board and that will be considered by the College of Policing is rewarding individual officers’ skills and development. The first and second parts of the Winsor review proposed an interim arrangement that did indeed suggest that recognition for neighbourhood officers be looked into. The Police Arbitration Tribunal did not feel it was appropriate to take forward those proposals and I accepted the PAT’s recommendation, but further work will be done on ensuring that there is appropriate payment for skills that are developed.
One of my local police officers, Inspector Hillary, regularly tweets as he goes about his business in the area. Although the Home Secretary’s statement is at the hard end of accountability and particularly redress, does she agree that that everyday form of engagement and accountability is important to giving the public confidence in their local police officers, and does she welcome that initiative? She has avoided the question three times, but will she say specifically how much these changes will cost local constabularies? She is going to swipe money away—she says it is work, but that is people’s jobs. How much money is she going to swipe from Northamptonshire constabulary to pay for this?
The use of social media by police officers is one of the matters that HMIC considered when it was looking at integrity. Social media can be used extremely positively, and a number of forces are making active use of Twitter to get messages across to members of the public and interact with them. If Inspector Hillary is doing it in that way, I commend that officer. HMIC picked up some evidence of inappropriate use of Twitter, so it is important that forces make clear to officers what is and is not acceptable.
I have answered the question about resources several times: we will be discussing with forces and the IPCC what the appropriate level of resources is and what it is therefore right to transfer from individual police forces. I have to say to the Opposition that the concept is a simple one: work is being done in police forces that in future will be done in the IPCC, so it is appropriate to transfer resources.
As the third north Northamptonshire MP in a row to be called, may I associate myself with the kind comments about our local force made by the previous two Members? I congratulate the Home Secretary on her statement, not least because she made it first to the House and not to the media.
I have found in my constituency surgeries that the thing that annoys people when they have a serious complaint about the police is not actually the investigation, but the fact that it is conducted by the home force—by Northamptonshire police. Will the Home Secretary assure the House that, in future, all serious cases will be investigated by people from outside the local force?
My hon. Friend has homed in precisely on the crucial change we are making. I too have looked at cases where people within a force investigated serious complaints against that force, and I think that that is not appropriate. The IPCC has not had the resources to do that job, but we will give it the resources it needs so that serious and sensitive allegations will be investigated by people from outside the force concerned.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement to the House and welcome the announcement that the national register will be made available to police forces in other regions, in particular the PSNI. Will she confirm that the register will be made available in relation to other security positions, in particular civilian policing of Ministry of Defence installations in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman raises a specific point. I will reflect on that, if I may, but we will certainly discuss with the College of Policing the availability of the register of those who have been struck off and how that is most appropriately dealt with, and I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s point into account during those discussions.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rarely raise points of order, but this one is about a reply I received to a question I put to the Home Secretary, which was answered by the Minister for Immigration. I tabled a question asking how many times the Home Secretary has visited Romania and Bulgaria, and how many meetings she has had with Romanian and Bulgarian Ministers on the subject of immigration—a fairly standard question. Over the past 26 years, I have tabled questions to Ministers asking about their visits to other countries and have always received a factual reply. On this occasion, however, I received a reply stating that Home Office Ministers have meetings with a number of partners, but ending with these words:
“As was the case with previous Administrations, it is not the Government’s practice to provide details of all such meetings.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 123W.]
I have served in government and since receiving that answer I have talked with others who have served, and none has said that they refused to disclose a meeting between a Minister in this country and a Minister in a foreign country. I have friends in the Romanian and Bulgarian Parliaments and I can ask them to table questions asking how many times the Home Secretary has visited, but this is the bread and butter of the work of Members of Parliament.
There is a question about whether Parliament has been misled, even inadvertently, by the answer given. I like the Minister for Immigration and I am sure that he would not have done that deliberately, but we should be able to ask Ministers how many times they have been to foreign countries and about the overall nature of discussions. We do not want to know what the Home Secretary did in Bucharest, whom she met or what she discussed; we just want to know how many times she has visited Romania and Bulgaria. That is a simple question to answer and it is one that every other Government Department is able to deal with. Mr Speaker, I seek your guidance on whether the answer is in order, or whether this is a new practice.
The response the right hon. Gentleman received has clearly provoked his curiosity and, in a notably mild-mannered Member of the House, a degree of consternation. I will happily offer a statement on the matter, but as the Home Secretary has courteously remained in the Chamber during the point of order relating to her Department, she is very welcome to offer a remark, if she so wishes.
She does not wish to do so. In that case, I will say to the right hon. Gentleman that the content of ministerial answers, notwithstanding the practice in previous Parliaments, is not a matter for the Chair. If he is dissatisfied with the answer he has received, or what he regards as the lack of an answer, he may wish to raise the matter with the Procedure Committee.
I note in passing that, on the back of his nearly 26 consecutive years of service in the House, the right hon. Gentleman is as canny as most in the deployment of opportunities open to Members to eke out of Government information that is important to him. Moreover, as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, he may be aware of other means by which Ministers may be held to account, and is perhaps in a position himself to apply those means. We will leave it there for now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister did not intend to mislead the House when he incorrectly claimed, in response to my question at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions this morning regarding the local government settlement to Newcastle city council, that it was shutting all arts venues in Newcastle. That is blatantly not true. Owing to the very difficult local funding settlement, the council has proposed a variety of cuts to grants awarded to arts organisations, which represent roughly 15% of the funding stream, which is no doubt a difficult decision, but it is far from shutting all arts venues in the city. Given the alarm that such a statement could raise among my constituents in Newcastle upon Tyne, could you advise me on how best I may go about correcting the record in regard to the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I can say with confidence that the Deputy Prime Minister would not deliberately mislead the House, for that would be a serious transgression and I know that he would not commit it. Whether he has done so is not altogether obvious to me, but the Deputy Prime Minister will have heard, or if he has not done so, will very soon come to hear of the content of the hon. Lady’s point of order, and if in the light of it he judges that the record needs to be corrected, it is open to him to do so. On top of that, she has put her concerns on the record and it is open to her, if she judges it necessary, to pursue the matter with the right hon. Gentleman in correspondence and in other ways. That is the best guidance I can give her for now.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it not the case that by asserting that Newcastle is closing all its arts venues, the Deputy Prime Minister is insulting the people of Newcastle and our long tradition of supporting the arts even in the worst of times and under the worst of Governments? Would it not therefore be in order for the Deputy Prime Minister to offer an apology to the people of Newcastle?
The question whether the people of Newcastle, whom we are not in a position now to consult, feel that they have been insulted or affronted is a matter for the people of Newcastle. In answer to the hon. Lady’s inquiry whether it would be in order for the Deputy Prime Minister to apologise, the answer is that it would be if he judged it appropriate to do so, but it is not for me to decree that he should. I hope that is helpful. All points of order on the matter have now been exhausted.
Gift Vouchers and Insolvency
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 Insolvency Act 1986 to make purchasers of gift vouchers preferential creditors during the administration of a company; and for connected purposes.
Christmas has been described as the season when we buy this year’s gifts with next year’s money. HMV nearly rewrote that proposition, as the season when we buy this year’s gifts with next year’s money, and end up with no gift. I bring forward this proposal for consideration in the light of the recent experience of all our constituents in relation to the well-publicised case of HMV and gift vouchers. For a short time HMV refused to honour gift vouchers. That position was quickly reversed by the receivers after a public outcry, and gift vouchers will now be accepted, but it led me to look into the matter in more detail.
The issuing of vouchers is widespread in the retail world. Last month we sadly saw the demise of another respected company in our country. The photographic firm Jessops also issued gift vouchers, and on the administrators’ website, the following message is displayed:
“If you are owed money by Jessops (e.g. due to vouchers not honoured, deposits, returns, pre-paid courses etc) you can register an unsecured creditor claim with the administrators using the form below. Please note, there is no guarantee that there will be any payment to unsecured creditors of the company. If there is a dividend paid, this will be in many months time and is likely to be only a small proportion of the claimed amount.”
The last two sentences of the message are emboldened, with the intention, it appears to me, to deter claims. The message is that people can claim if they want, but they probably will not get anything for months, and even if they eventually do, it will be peanuts.
Jessops and HMV are by no means the only companies in this country to issue vouchers. Every high street or out-of-town shopping chain has its own scheme. Let us remember that in 2012 other high street names went to the wall, including Comet, JJB Sports, Game, Peacocks and Blacks Leisure. Supermarkets now have racks of vouchers that shoppers can choose from. Some of the names have had difficulties in the past, but are thankfully back in business and offering vouchers to the public. We might expect that names such as Marks and Spencer will be with us for ever, but who would have predicted a year ago what would happen to some of the well-known names that I mentioned earlier?
HMV, for example, was a solid high street name, established in 1921, with its first store in Oxford street, which grew to a business of 235 UK stores, a number of live music venues and around 4,350 UK employees. That is a key point, because if HMV can go under, so can any of the other big names that invite us to part with our money in return for a promise that they will honour future purchases that we wish to make. The HMV vouchers were estimated to be worth around £7 million, and the company’s debts totalled £176 million.
The gift voucher industry is worth a reported £4 billion per year, and in the first half of last year that business grew by around 5%. That is a significant contribution to the retail sector, worth around £220 billion a year, and means that consumers are now advancing the sector around 2% of the value of sales in the form of prepaid vouchers. That is clearly a benefit to the cash flow of retail businesses, but it raises the question of what security consumers get in return. What guarantee do they get that, if they part with their money in this way, they are going to be in any stronger position than those punters who on Derby day a few years ago placed their bets on the hill with a certain John Batten, only to find that he had run off with all their money, without paying any bets out?
The law on insolvency does not seem to provide any protection at all. My aim in introducing the Bill is to strengthen the rights of consumers in this area so that if and when companies unfortunately fail, consumers are not left high and dry, or at the mercy of administrators who decide whether or not to honour the commitments entered into when those vouchers were sold. We should remember, too, that most vouchers are bought as gifts for family members, and it is particularly unfortunate that in those circumstances a gift meant to mark a birthday or other significant event ends up disappearing into the miasma of administration.
It has been pointed out that there must have been people in charge of the companies concerned who knew that the writing was on the wall before the final collapse, and who must also have known that there was a very strong possibility that vouchers would not be honoured, yet the companies continued to sell them. Leaving aside the morality of such decisions, one must consider the negative impact on the rest of the industry. The mere suggestion of this amendment to the legislation has prompted a response from those involved in insolvency, which would give greater consideration to consumer protection. The Association of Business Recovery Professionals, known as R3, has been in touch with me with suggestions for ways in which consumers could be protected in the event of a business collapsing, including purchase of protection bonds by the company, putting money into a separate client account, or including responsibility for vouchers as part of the transfer of business obligations.
R3 does not seem to have come down in favour of any of these proposals, and even if it does back one or more of them, it will take some time for the proposals to come into effect, but something should be done now. This amendment to the legislation would provide for an additional category of preferential creditors who, in the winding up of any company, go higher up the queue for the distribution of any remaining assets. Those categories currently include a range of tax, excise and national insurance liabilities, and remuneration of employees, including holiday pay. But the ordinary consumers, who have given their money to the company in good faith, are not currently included in the list of preferential creditors.
That seems a regrettable omission, no doubt accounted for by the considerable growth of this form of payment in the past decade or so. Certainly when the Insolvency Act was conceived in 1986, the voucher industry was barely in its infancy, and may not therefore have seemed a sufficient issue to be included in the priority list. However, that is no excuse for failing to prioritise the issue now. By way of analogy, only last week, the Trading Standards Institute announced that its approved codes of practice for consumers will require retailers
“to ensure that the gift cards…are protected in the event that the business fails.”
The TSI has accepted that there has been a lacuna in its provisions on vouchers and we should also accept that the provisions on insolvency need to be updated to reflect the current retail environment.
I seek the support of the House in bringing forward legislation that will rectify the situation. The advantage will be greater confidence that, when the inconceivable happens, there will be some protection for the unfortunate consumer. Administrators may well become more willing to see vouchers honoured, which should help to restore confidence in the sector.
I do not claim that this measure alone will provide all the necessary guarantees to reassure those who buy vouchers in good faith, but it would be a start. The voucher industry itself needs to do more, but a modest change in insolvency legislation could provide a fillip to the economically pressed British public. It will reflect changes taking place elsewhere—in trading standards codes, for example—and show that the House takes seriously the concerns expressed by constituents of Members from all parties about the issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Michael McCann, Pauline Latham, Jeremy Lefroy, Steve Rotherham, Hugh Bayley, Mr Ronnie Campbell, Mr Ian Davidson and Chris White present the Bill.
Mr Michael McCann accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March 2013, and to be printed (Bill 136).
[17th Allotted Day]
We now come to the main business. The first of the two Opposition day debates is on a motion about horsemeat in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
Before I call the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to move the motion, I should say that given the number of people seeking to contribute from the Back Benches, the likelihood is that there will be a limit on Back-Bench speeches of eight minutes or thereabouts. However, the length of that limit depends on the length of the Front-Bench speeches. My successor in the Chair or I will give a ruling on the matter when we see how long Front Benchers have taken to develop their points.
I shall try to bear your comments in mind, Mr Speaker.
I beg to move,
That this House notes that up to 100 per cent horsemeat has been found in supermarket and branded processed meat products and that horsemeat has been found at the premises of a UK meat processing plant; notes with concern that seven horses which tested positive for phenylbutazone (bute) contamination have entered the human food chain, including one in England; further notes that meat supplied to UK prisons, labelled Halal, has tested positive for pork DNA; recognises that the Irish government and Northern Irish Executive have called in the police and specialist fraud units to tackle the problem of horsemeat adulteration; further recognises that thousands of jobs depend on consumer confidence in the UK and Irish meat industries; and calls on the Government to ensure that police and fraud specialists investigate the criminal networks involved in horsemeat adulteration, to speed up the Food Standards Agency official tests so that results are back in 14 days and restore consumer confidence in the meat industry by working with the food industry and other EU member states and EU institutions to define new testing, labelling and traceability standards for the meat industry to protect consumers from fraud.
It is four weeks to the day since the Irish authorities told the UK Government that they had discovered horsemeat in burgers, and 10 million suspect burgers were withdrawn. Products from Tesco, Iceland, Co-op, Lidl and Aldi have all tested positive for horsemeat. The burgers came from Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, subsidiaries of the ABP Food Group. A third company—Liffey Meats in County Cavan in Ireland—was also found to be supplying products with horse DNA.
Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to correct comments that she made in column 612 of yesterday’s Hansard? She said that 70,000 horses are unaccounted for in Northern Ireland and being sold in the lucrative horsemeat trade. That is not the case; the evidence relates to the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland. The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a responsible organisation and made the claims not about Northern Ireland but about the Republic. Will she join me in a cross-party promotion of Northern Ireland’s red meat sector, which produces among the best, most traced and tastiest food in this country? I would be delighted if she agreed that our border is more secure than a slip of the tongue on the Front Bench.
I am happy for the record to be put straight on that; in the heat of the debate, I made a slip of the tongue. I am the granddaughter of a cattle farmer in Northern Ireland, so it is incumbent on me to recommend the meat of the good cows of Northern Ireland.
I am most grateful to my fellow Yorkshire MP for giving way. May I ask her to correct another part of the record? I think she will find that no contamination was found at Dalepak in north Yorkshire.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the motion, but it lacks one thing—whether on purpose or by accident, I do not know. There is absolutely no reference to the British meat trade; its fresh, processed or frozen parts have not been implicated. We do not want any collateral damage to our excellent trade, which meets the highest standards of traceability, welfare and good food.
I believe that traces of horse DNA were found in products that emanated from the Dalepak plant in Hambleton; if the hon. Lady has information to the contrary, I am sure that she will take the opportunity to put the record straight. The British meat industry is not mentioned in the motion because now is not the time to be talking down the British meat industry, as she says.
Burger King, which sells a million burgers a week, gave “absolute assurances” that its burgers were fine; two weeks later they tested positive. Representatives of TRG, or the Restaurant Group, which runs Frankie and Benny’s, revealed last Monday that they had discovered a batch of meat at Rangeland Foods that tested positive for horse.
Furthermore, last Monday, the Irish authorities discovered a 900 kg block of mostly horsemeat sitting in the cold store of a Northern Ireland burger producer, Freeza Meats. The meat had been impounded during a routine inspection five months ago. I congratulate the inspectors from Newry and Mourne council, who on a routine inspection had concerns about that meat’s packaging and quality and about the absence of labelling on some products. If meat does not have a label, we have absolutely no idea where it has come from.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her leadership on this issue. She and the highly respected Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have said that they would not currently eat processed beef products. Does she share my amazement that Ministers are still encouraging people to do so?
A range of mixed messages has been coming out of the Government. The Secretary of State said on Friday that he would be happy to eat processed beef products, but said on Sunday that doing so could be injurious to human health—[Interruption.] Well, he said that substances could be found that could be injurious to human health; I remember him saying it on the Iain Dale radio show.
The issue is difficult because yesterday the chief medical officer said that testing had never been done, because nobody wants to test humans to find out who is susceptible to the serious blood disorder aplastic anaemia—of course, it would be completely unethical and impossible to conduct such a test. The Government are in a difficult position. They may be trying to minimise public concern, but there is no safe dose of bute in humans.
Does the hon. Lady agree that as the responsibility now lies with the retailers to help restore confidence, there should be an aggressive campaign by all of them to assure their customers that all the beef that they buy from now on will be British? What more can be done so that customers have confidence that they really are eating British beef?
The beef on sale right now in UK supermarkets is probably of a higher quality than ever. Lots of local and independent butchers have seen a spike in trade lately as a result of what has happened.
I said that there was no safe dose of bute for humans. I am not a medical expert, but bute can cause serious adverse side effects so should be consumed only under medical supervision—[Interruption.] Government Front Benchers are chuntering already, Mr Speaker; that is not a good sign.
The positive test on Freeza Meats led the inspectors to the meat trader, Martin McAdam, who admitted to buying the meat from a UK company, Flexi Foods, in Hull last July. A spokesman for Mr McAdam said:
“That shipment was the first one that came to light. Subsequently other tests identified other shipments of meat.”
He has identified the names of other companies involved, and on Friday I received that information. These UK food companies may or may not have supplied suspect meat products to Mr McAdam, but while there is a question mark over them, the food industry has a right to have that information.
On Friday I wrote to the Secretary of State offering to share that information with him. When he replied to me yesterday, he urged me to hand it over to the police and to the Food Standards Agency, as I already had done, and I assume that he now has it. On Saturday, however, after a conversation with one of the food industry representatives, I realised that the Secretary of State had not revealed the names of those firms to the food industry at the meeting. Yesterday, when I asked him why not, he failed to answer. Why did he not tell the food industry where to look? Why has he not released those names to the public so that we can have full transparency on this problem? If the Government want the industry to test on the basis of risk, why did he not share the names of the companies at Saturday’s meeting?
In the FSA advice to the public sector issued at 10 o’clock on Sunday night, the Secretary of State laid the responsibility for food safety squarely on other people’s shoulders. He said:
“We are reminding public bodies (schools, prisons, hospitals, armed forces) of their responsibility for their own food contracts. We expect them to have rigorous procurement procedures in place with reputable suppliers.”
If he knows that there are problems with some UK-based companies, why has he not told head teachers, local authorities and hospital bosses about the companies that are being investigated? I am happy to give way now if he would like to intervene.
I am very happy to do so. I have been restraining myself, Mr Speaker, because of your injunction to be as brief as possible. The Food Standards Agency, set up by the hon. Lady’s party when in government, has been quite clear in giving advice to all those who supply to public institutions such as prisons, schools and hospitals. As I said yesterday in my statement and will say again in a few minutes, food suppliers have the ultimate responsibility for the quality of what they sell.
We are none the wiser about whether the Secretary of State knows the names of these companies, which prompts the question of whether the FSA has told him or whether he has asked it. Perhaps he will clarify that.
On Friday the FSA said that the police were involved, and I thought that things were under control. However, on Friday night the Met police said that they had had talks with the FSA but there was no live criminal investigation. Will the Secretary of State tell us what action the FSA has taken against these companies? Has it been into their premises and seized evidence, and why have the police not been called in? If there are no problems with these companies, will he say so clearly now, on the record?
Last Thursday, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced its statutory testing regime, with 28 local councils purchasing and testing eight samples each. However, the Secretary of State cannot seriously expect people to wait 10 weeks for the results. Does he think that surveying just 224 products across the country rises to the challenge of this scandal when he has asked the supermarkets to test thousands of their products by Friday? How many of the 10 million withdrawn burgers have been tested? Are there any plans to test them now? If they had been tested when they were withdrawn, Ministers would able to reassure us or tell us the extent of this scandal, but because they were paralysed by fear or incompetence, or both, we are still in the dark. Will the Secretary of State confirm that only a fraction of the supermarket tests will be completed and reported by this Friday?
Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many products the large public sector catering suppliers will test and how many product lines members of the British Meat Processors Association will test? Yesterday I asked him which members of the British Hospitality Association and the British Retail Consortium have withdrawn their products as a precaution and whether any of them have withdrawn products that may have gone to schools and hospitals. Is he prepared to answer those questions today?
As a crofter and a producer, I should refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am pleased to say that the butchers in Stornoway have seen an upturn in trade as a result of this problem. It surely beggars belief that it has happened given all the tagging that has been going on in the industry. When I send a couple of beasts—lambs—to my cousin to be slaughtered, the vet has to see them. Surely we should now be pressurising the supermarkets and major retailers to stock from as close to source locally as possible—the best of Scottish lamb, beef, or whatever—to make sure that we do not have a repetition of this situation.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns for the British meat industry. As he says, we have one of the strongest food traceability systems in the world. The British Retail Consortium’s food traceability system and authorisation of processing plant is recognised to global standards. What I worry about is the very large worldwide web that has led to some Findus products coming in from Romania via Cyprus, the Netherlands and a company in south-west France. It is inexplicable to me why that meat is being transported to all those different areas and what is happening there. Every time it is transported, there are moments of risk when it can be interfered with. That is where the problems arise in the meat trade rather than at the stage that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.