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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 558: debated on Tuesday 12 February 2013

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

New Peers

1. What estimate he has made of the cost of implementing the section of the coalition agreement on the creation of new peers. (142512)

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?

No, I think the hon. Gentleman is reinventing history. The decision was taken not to proceed with the timetable motion and that was why the Bill did not proceed. He knows the precise reasons why that decision was taken.

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.

Electoral Register

5. What assessment he has made of the most effective ways of ensuring the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register. (142517)

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?

In short, the census data come out only once every 10 years, which is rather a drawback. There are a number of other differences as well, which suggests that the electoral register is a better source to use.

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.

Will my right hon. Friend make it a priority to introduce transparency into collective ministerial responsibility, which seems to be being set aside without any proper accountability to the public or the House?

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.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within Government, I take special responsibility for 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?

T6. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell me why he thinks that a vote in Wrexham is worth more than a vote in Redditch? (142531)

I do not. That is why we have not repealed the legislation on boundaries. For all the reasons that the hon. Lady is familiar with, we will not be proceeding with that change during the course of this Parliament.

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.

T8. May I encourage the Deputy Prime Minister to say more about the benefits of the Government’s new social care policy and its advantages for a constituency such as mine in Southport or, to use another random example, Eastleigh? (142533)

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.

Since 2010, this Government have created 43 peers per year on average. That is more on average than under any of the last five Prime Ministers. Why?

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

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the establishment of the National Crime Agency. (142501)

Although the Attorney-General and I have frequent discussions with the Home Secretary, there have been no recent discussions on the NCA, which is created by the Crime and Courts Bill. I am currently serving on the Bill Committee.

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.

The second most profitable crime for organised criminal gangs is human trafficking. Does the Solicitor-General agree that the establishment of the National Crime Agency will help this country fight the evil of human trafficking?

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

2. What estimate he has made of the likely saving the Crown Prosecution Service will make by introducing proportionality into the public interest test of the Crown prosecutors’ code. (142502)

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)

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on increasing the Crown Prosecution Service’s conviction rate for rape where the defendant contests the charge. (142503)

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

4. Whether the Serious Fraud Office holds contracts with any companies which are subject to a criminal investigation by a prosecuting agency overseas. (142504)

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)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on increasing the Crown Prosecution Service’s conviction rate for female genital mutilation. (142506)

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.

But is there not an alternative legal viewpoint, which is that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom without Scotland would itself have to reapply for membership of 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?

The United Kingdom Government are not in the business of prejudging the outcome of the referendum.