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Commons Chamber

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2013

House of Commons

Tuesday 19 March 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 March (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked

Women Offenders

1. What assessment he has made of the value of the work done by women’s centres with women offenders; and if he will make a statement. (148573)

Women’s centres are a key element in our approach to women in the criminal justice system. Since April 2012, we have been monitoring referrals made by probation trusts to the 31 women’s centres funded by the National Offender Management Service. Feedback indicates that users, staff and magistrates see the centres as a valuable resource.

May I first declare an interest as chair of Commonweal, a charity that established the Re-Unite programme, which helps women offenders to reunite with their children when they come out of prison? The programme is run by many women’s centres and those we have been working with are anxious about their future funding and about the lack of strategy from the Ministry for women offenders and women in the criminal justice system. Will the Minister meet me, together with representatives from the women’s centres, to reassure them about future funding for the wonderful programmes they run?

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady, and I hope to reassure her. During the last few weeks, I have been visiting women’s centres around the country, in Gloucester, Reading and London, and I have been very impressed by what I have seen. Overall, I want to see more provision for women in areas where it does not exist at the moment. I also want existing provision in the centres deepened and strengthened further. Funding may be readjusted for some services; there has to be redistribution and some centres may have to do a little more with less, but I assure the hon. Lady that funding is continuing and we are increasing it by £300,000 for this financial year.

I visited the excellent Dawn projects in Cambridge and Peterborough, where they do a huge amount of work with female ex-offenders and save the state far more than they cost to run. They are both concerned about the future of their funding. The Minister has given some reassurance, but can she give further reassurance that the Dawn project will continue to get the support it needs?

I cannot comment on individual cases at this stage, but we are engaged with all 31 centres. New ones are coming on board too. We are still in the middle of commissioning so it would not be appropriate for me to go into that level of detail.

These excellent centres are facing problems financially, as the Minister appreciates. She will also appreciate that on a cost-benefit analysis, short-term expenditure will pay dividends; it will keep women out of the prison estate, without further costs for children in care and so on. Ultimately it is a great investment.

I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We are determined to see fewer women offending and reoffending. We want to make appropriate provision for female offenders that addresses the root causes of their offending and their specific needs.

Special Educational Needs Provision

2. What progress he has made on improving special educational needs provision within the youth custodial estate. (148574)

The House will know of my hon. Friend’s interest and expertise in the subject, and he will know that a significant proportion of young offenders have some level of special educational needs, which might only be identified once they enter custody. Young people have an educational assessment on entry to custody, and anyone who shows signs of a learning difficulty or disability will be screened so that they can be directed for further assessment and can receive the provision they need. Through our consultation paper “Transforming Youth Custody,” we seek to improve further what we do in that area.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Children and Families Bill is currently making its way through the House, but it has no provision relating to young people in custody. Will he work closely with the Department for Education to ensure that there will be a co-ordinated approach to help young people in custody with SEN?

Yes, we certainly will do that; indeed we are doing it. My hon. Friend will be conscious of the fact that there are specific arrangements, whether educational or otherwise, that cannot be taken with the young person into a custodial environment, but that does not mean that we do not need to work hard to make sure that the transition into, and out of, a custodial setting is managed appropriately for young people.

Does the Minister agree that, given the incidence of special educational needs in our custodial system and the incidence of acquired brain injury there, a lot of young people who are in custody should not be there? Does he agree that there ought to be earlier intervention at an earlier screening, long before they get into custody?

I agree substantially with what the hon. Gentleman has said, and we need to work harder, together with our colleagues in the Department of Health and elsewhere, to ensure that such young people are diverted away from the criminal justice system earlier. However, it is also right to say that we have a responsibility to ensure that provision is appropriate for those young people who do need to be in custody, and that a large proportion of those, as he says, have special educational needs and other issues.

Rehabilitation of Offenders

3. What progress he has made on introducing payment by results for the rehabilitation of offenders. (148575)

We want to introduce payment by results to incentivise providers to reduce reoffending. It makes sense as a way of improving effectiveness and getting a good deal for the taxpayer.

Our “Transforming Rehabilitation” consultation closed on 22 February 2013. We will respond to it and bring forward detailed plans in due course.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. There is, however, a concern that a payment-by-results approach can favour larger national companies. What measures are being put in place to ensure that local voluntary and charitable organisations, which often have a proven track record built up over many years, will not be squeezed out?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Within the voluntary sector, we find very many of the mentoring skills that I am so keen to harness in preventing reoffending. That is why we have a team in the Cabinet Office working with the voluntary sector to ensure that they are as well prepared as possible for this exercise, and why I am making it absolutely clear that I do not believe that winning contracts can take place without a contribution from the mentoring skills to be found in the sector.

How does he intend to deal with the issue of payment by results in drugs rehabilitation? He will know that the Home Affairs Committee recommended the mandatory testing of prisoners on entry and exit from prisons. Will he look at that proposal, because it is the best way of ensuring that we break the devastating cycle of drug dependency?

I do not underestimate the drug challenge that we face. The right hon. Gentleman is well aware, from the work he has done on his Select Committee, how big a part drug addiction plays in the crime and disorder problems we face in this country. We are working closely with the Department of Health. He will be aware that we have many localised drug treatment pilots using payment by results. It is my clear objective to ensure that what we deliver in the Ministry of Justice synchronises carefully with the work that is being done with the Department of Health.

18. A key objective of Government policy must always be to reduce the number of prisoners, and there is no better way to do that than through rehabilitation, which prevents reoffending. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to target rehabilitation at those who are serving less than 12 months, where it would be most effective? (148593)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the things that I have found most surprising about the system that we currently operate is that we do not currently provide all-round support for those who get sentences of less than 12 months. A central part of our reforms is to change that. It is this group who have the highest propensity to reoffend. It is simply not acceptable that we continue not to provide them with the same level of support as longer-sentenced prisoners when they leave jail.

I do not know whether the Secretary of State has looked at the National Audit Office’s response to his consultation. It says that, in the Work programme, the majority of providers were big private companies. It also says that it is likely that the most difficult, prolific offenders will not be picked and that there will be cherry-picking. So despite his warm words, does he not think that this is going the same way as his failed Work programme? Is he intending to have moved on before this fails as well?

I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but the Work programme is succeeding in getting very large numbers of people into work, and is delivering much better value for the taxpayer than the programmes that we inherited from the previous Government. The truth is that the National Audit Office has contributed some valuable thoughts to our preparations for this exercise. I have listened to its contributions, as I will listen to all contributions, and we will deliver the most sensible, rounded package, particularly one that ensures that no one is left at the fringes of the system and that we provide rehabilitation and support to all offenders.

Reoffending Rates

Reoffending has been too high for too long; 47.2% of those released from custody in the year to March 2011 reoffended within a year.

We want to reduce reoffending and extend rehabilitation services to those who need it. Our recent consultation on reforming the way offenders are rehabilitated in the community set out our plans for this area.

Northamptonshire probation trust has a great record of reducing reoffending, and local probation workers are shocked that the Government intend to put its core work out to tender. Will the Minister confirm whether, if the trust sets up a special purpose vehicle to bid, that will be ultra vires as the National Offender Management Service has suggested, and whether the staff involved would have to resign first?

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that not only would that not be disallowed, the Cabinet Office is providing advice for probation trusts that want to do that.

Does the Minister agree that long prison sentences are more successful in deterring reoffending than short sentences?

Those who are sentenced to less than 12 months certainly have a higher propensity to reoffend—57% as opposed to 47%—but the length of a sentence is dictated by the seriousness of the offence. A failure in the current system, which the scheme that we are introducing will address, is that those who come out after a shorter sentence have no rehabilitation. We will provide that under the new system, and we hope and expect that that will bring down the reoffending rate among precisely the group he complains about.

Will the Minister acknowledge that preventing reoffending among women requires the provision of specialist and specifically targeted and designed services to meet their holistic needs within the context of the criminal justice system? What steps will Ministers take to ensure that the payment-by-results model will protect that specialist provision for women?

The precise point of the payment-by-results system and of bringing new people into the system will be to allow providers with specialist skills—for example, in dealing with women offenders—to bring those abilities, skills and experience to bear so that we have much more targeted and tailored rehabilitation than in the past. Specific groups, including obviously women offenders, will be rehabilitated more effectively in the future.

Seven out of 10 young people released from prison go on to reoffend within 12 months. Despite all the best efforts of those involved in the current system, it is obvious that it is failing. What does the Minister intend to do to improve the situation?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained, we completely agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis that the current system is not good enough. Reoffending rates have been broadly flat for the last 10 years, despite an enormous increase in public spending in that area. We want to introduce payment by results, new ideas, new people and new providers not just so that more people are rehabilitated after they leave prison, but so that the rehabilitation system is better and more targeted.

Crime Prevention (Young People)

Preventing young people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place is vital, and we have made considerable progress in reducing the number of first-time entrants to the system. Police and crime commissioners will provide strong local leadership in preventing and reducing crime and reoffending and addressing community safety needs. Youth offending teams also play a key role, as do cross-Government initiatives such as the troubled families initiative, the liaison and diversion programme and the ending gangs and youth violence programme.

The aforementioned “Transforming Youth Custody” Green Paper brings together the Justice Secretary and the Education Secretary, which rightly recognises that it is not just criminal justice issues that are involved. Does the Minister plan to deepen the work with the Department for Education to reach pre-primary and primary schools following the lead of, for example, Hampshire county council, which has just employed an army of speech and language therapists to work with children with identified communication needs to stop the spiral of poor behaviour starting in the first place.

Yes, and what my hon. Friend says about the importance of early intervention is entirely right. I take this opportunity to thank him and his colleagues on the Select Committee on Justice for the report that they produced last week. It was extremely welcome and we will look at it in detail and respond in due course. What he says about early intervention is important, and we will certainly work with colleagues across Government to ensure that that continues.

What part does the Minister believe that parental responsibility and a stable family unit play in preventing young people from entering the criminal justice system?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Early intervention is crucial and we want to make sure that it looks not just at criminal justice, but at family structures, education and health care. A whole range of different interests across Government must be represented in this exercise if we are truly to get to the bottom of the many problems and often chaotic background that some young people come from.

May I commend to Ministers paragraph 21 of the youth justice report that has just been referred to and the proposal that the Government might legislate as soon as possible to erase out-of-court disposals and convictions from the record of very early, minor and non-persistent offenders at the age of 18? I have constituency cases in which people’s careers have been blighted by a minor infraction for which they got a telling off, but which appears on their criminal record.

I have a good deal of sympathy for what the right hon. Gentleman says and we are considering the matter carefully for precisely the reasons he has given. We will look carefully at the issue of cautions in the round—not only how they are administered, but how long they last and in what circumstances—and report back.

Around 7% of the youth offending team’s budget has been transferred to police and crime commissioners as part of the community safety grant. As there is no increase in the PCC budget, that money has effectively disappeared. With budget cuts totalling 16% and cuts to local authorities and police, how are youth offending teams to prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system, when sleight of hand deprives them of funding of hundreds of thousands of pounds?

Well, there is no sleight of hand here, and it is right to point out that police and crime commissioners can increase the precept if they think it appropriate to do so and bring more money into their budgets, but the hon. Gentleman’s point is about the importance of prevention. We should recognise that youth offending teams are already doing good work in that regard and having considerable success, bringing down the number of people who come into the criminal justice system in the first place. We hope that that progress will continue, but prevention is a key part of what youth offending teams do and it will continue to be so.

Devolved Administrations (EU Third Pillar)

6. What discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations on the proposed opt-out from the EU third-pillar arrangements. (148581)

Before the Home Secretary’s announcement, on 15 October last year, of our current thinking, my officials were in regular contact with colleagues in the devolved Administrations to inform the initial analysis of the measures subject to the 2014 decision. Those discussions have continued, and I was in Belfast in February meeting the hon. Lady’s colleague, the Justice Minister, David Ford, to discuss that very issue.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but he will be aware that, as Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border, moves to opt out of the third pillar could affect the effective operation of the European arrest warrant system between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Will he assure the House that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Justice Minister will be fully engaged in the issue, given its importance?

I can absolutely give the hon. Lady that assurance. I very much recognise the issue that she mentions, which was discussed at my meeting with David Ford. I can reassure her that we are mindful of the situation in Northern Ireland and giving it due consideration as we reach our decision.

Why are Ministers not engaging properly with the House on those opt-in decisions, given that the five memorandums promised for mid-February have not yet been produced and the Government appear to be discussing with the Commission important opt-ins without having discussed them with important Committees of the House?

I can give my right hon. Friend, and indeed the House, a clear assurance that this Government will go further than any Government in ensuring that the House is involved in the decisions that are taken, and that as we reach agreement within the coalition on the way forward, we will need fully to engage Parliament, his Committee and, indeed, all the Committees with a vested interest in the matter, so that they are able to express a proper view on it.

Victims of Crime

For many years now, victims have felt completely overlooked and unsupported by the criminal justice system. As victims Minister, I am determined to put that right. That is why we are implementing a range of reforms that will put victims at the very heart of the criminal justice system, which is where they belong.

Two weeks ago, The Sunday Times revealed that investigations of sexual abuse in Rochdale are faltering because police are failing to win the trust of victims. Does the Minister believe that a higher conviction rate would be achieved against the predators if Greater Manchester police had more officers with better skills for supporting vulnerable victims?

I cannot comment on individual cases, especially those that are at a sensitive point in the investigation, but I can assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that the Government are committed to bringing forward changes that will help to support victims of sexual abuse at every stage of the criminal investigation.

Reports by the organisation Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad consistently highlight the fact that more support is required for bereaved families—those who have lost loved ones through murder and manslaughter abroad. What steps is my hon. Friend the Minister taking to address those shortcomings?

We do a considerable amount of work, and we provide funding for families of homicide victims. I attended a conference run by a gentleman called Frank Mullane to discuss what he does for families who go through that appalling difficulty. I am happy to talk further with my hon. Friend about what measures are being taken and what else we are doing on those issues.

I have to tell you, Mr Speaker, that this Government have failed to implement the main recommendation made by the last victims’ commissioner, Louise Casey, before she left her post 18 months ago, which was to implement a victims’ law. The Government have also slashed the compensation available to victims of crime. During the last Justice questions, we heard that the Justice Secretary believes that it is the fault of the victims of rape that so many men receive cautions for rape. Does the Minister believe that it is possible to have a criminal justice system that is on the side of victims while her party is in government? If so, when will it happen?

The Government are absolutely committed to looking after victims and witnesses of crime. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we currently spend £66 million on victim services. Not content with that, we want to raise even more money for victims—up to £50 million—through the victims’ surcharge. We are also raising money through the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996, giving victims a louder voice through the appointment of Baroness Newlove as victims’ commissioner and clarifying victims’ entitlements through reform of the victims’ code, on which we will consult in due course.

On the victim surcharge, what is being done to ensure that all the fines are being collected so that they can be used to support victims?

The victims surcharge is potentially a large amount of money that will be raised for victims and witnesses. As Minister with responsibility for courts as well as for victims, I assure my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service will continue to prioritise collection of financial penalties, including the surcharge.

Rehabilitation of Offenders

8. What representations he has received from the voluntary and charitable sector on his proposals to introduce payment by results for the rehabilitation of offenders. (148583)

We want to open up rehabilitation services to a more diverse market and harness the expertise of the voluntary sector in dealing with the complex difficulties that repeat offenders face. We received more than 500 written responses to our recent consultation, including from the voluntary and charitable sector. We are considering them carefully and will introduce detailed plans in due course.

Charities and the voluntary sector can play a big part in the rehabilitation of offenders. What information will be made available to bodies in the sector so that they have an opportunity to introduce effective strategies?

In April we will launch a justice data lab, which will allow all kinds of organisations involved in the issue to access data on reoffending so that they can be clear about the effectiveness of their work. We will do everything that we can to help them identify that impact in a way that encourages them in the role that they intend to play.

17. One consequence of payment by results is that it creates working capital problems for many charitable and voluntary organisations. Social impact finance is one solution to bridging that working capital gap. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with Big Society Capital and others about promoting social impact finance in that area? (148592)

I have met personally with representatives of Big Society Capital and other organisations in the social finance sector. I believe that this is an enormous opportunity for the sector, and I want it to be involved in the work that we are doing. Combining the skills of the voluntary sector with the social finance sector could play a powerful part in what we are trying to achieve.

Confiscation of Unauthorised Property

Prison governors or directors have the power under prison rules to confiscate any unauthorised item found in the possession of a prisoner or elsewhere within a prison. In addition, following the excellent stewardship of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), the Prisons (Property) Act 2013, which received Royal Assent on 28 February, will, when commenced, provide prison governors and directors with a statutory power to destroy or otherwise dispose of unauthorised property confiscated from a prisoner.

Many of my constituents in South Staffordshire believe that many prisoners have far too many home comforts in their cells, and that there is far too much contraband in the prison system. What action has my hon. Friend taken to make sure that we run a spartan regime, and not a holiday camp?

My hon. Friend can reassure his constituents that prisoners will no longer watch Sky subscription television channels, and they will no longer watch 18-rated DVDs. As my hon. Friend knows, we are looking comprehensively at the incentives and earned privileges scheme in prisons to make sure that prisoners earn any incentives and privileges that they receive.

European Convention on Human Rights

As a coalition Government, we remain committed to the European convention on human rights, and we are also closely involved in the process to reform the Strasbourg Court. Individual political parties will choose what approach to take at the next general election.

The Home Secretary wants to leave the European convention on human rights; the Justice Secretary has said that he is not too sure, but he wants to abolish the Human Rights Act. Apart from being another omnishambles, does that reflect their lack of commitment to human rights, the fact that they want to leave the European Union, or both?

What I think is far more shameful is the complete resistance by the Labour party to any measures designed to stop a situation in which terrorist suspects with a clear goal of doing damage to the citizens of this country can use human rights law to try to defend their right to stay in this country.

This is ludicrous equivocation from the Government on the ECHR, which was written by a Conservative Home Secretary in the 1940s and 1950s. How can we possibly say to countries such as Turkey and Russia, where British citizens need to have their rights protected, that they should adhere to the ECHR when the Justice Secretary cannot even stand up for justice?

When I was younger I was a human rights campaigner, and my idea of human rights is not providing artificial insemination to prisoners in our jails. It is up to the Labour party if it wants to defend that. I am going to carry on arguing for change, and I hope that when we are a majority Government we will deliver it.

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the ECHR has done a great deal to improve the lot of people who were discriminated against and abused in many countries across Europe. It is an important statement of intent by a large number of countries. Can he not just get behind the principle that human rights are universal? The universal declaration is important, and the European convention was a major landmark in improving human rights around the world?

The issue is not about the original convention, which contains a sensible balance of rights and responsibilities. The issue is about how far we have moved over 60 years from the original intentions of those who wrote the convention. That is why a change is desperately needed.

Probation Service

The transforming rehabilitation consultation closed on 22 February 2013. Our proposed reforms will help reduce reoffending by opening up the provision of probation services to a wider range of providers and by extending rehabilitative provision to those serving less than 12 months in prison. We will respond to the consultation and bring forward detailed plans in due course.

What estimates has the Minister made of the reduction in reoffending that will result from the changes that he proposes to make to the probation service?

As I said, we will provide the detail of the proposals when we have had a chance to look in detail at the responses to the consultation, but we expect a progressive year-on-year reduction in reoffending as a result of the improvements that we want to make.

My probation trust in south Yorkshire is not alone in being concerned about the proposal to split responsibility for offenders between public and private providers, depending on the level of risk, as that introduces a dangerous artificial divide that fails to take account of the way in which risk fluctuates. Will the Minister tell the House how many offenders on licence saw their risk level change between medium and high over the past 12 months, and how many of them committed serious offences in that period?

The hon. Gentleman is right that one of the major issues that has arisen through this process is the dynamic nature of risk, and we fully appreciate that that is an important subject. None the less, it is important to look at the need to make the best use of the skills of the probation service. There are considerable skills within the probation service in managing the risk of serious harm, which is why we propose that those offenders who pose the highest risk should be managed directly. We also think that it would be good to bring in new ideas from those who work in the voluntary and private sectors to manage the reoffending rates of medium and low-risk offenders. As to the point he makes, it will be clearly crucial for good relationships to exist between the public sector probation service and those providing work for medium and lower-risk offenders, and we will build into the system those safeguards.

The Government’s proposals for the reform of probation offer the prospect for probation officers to be able to deliver rehabilitation in a much more effective, creative and positive way. However, they will be working for a multitude of different organisations, which will mean that all the things that bind the probation service together will have to be strengthened. What proposals does the Minister have in mind for that, if he can say anything before he announces the response to the consultation?

My hon. Friend is right to say that there will be a variety of different organisations providing rehabilitation services for which those currently employed by the probation service might end up working, and I hope very much that we will retain the skills within the system. He is also right that the proposals present the opportunity for increasing the professionalisation of the probation service of which he is a great champion, and we want to ensure that those proposals are not overlooked in the consultation process and beyond.

I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister the response to the consultation from the Northamptonshire Probation Trust, which has an excellent reputation. Although it is supportive in principle of the concept of payment by results, it, like my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), has concerns that large and remote contracts—if the Department goes down that route—will not place sufficient emphasis on the joined-up local delivery of effective probation services.

Again, that is a realistic concern and one that we will address. It is important that we maintain those crucial local partnerships, and we will expect anyone taking on this work to do that. We will also want to ensure that not only the design of the contracts but the management of those contracts and the relationships with smaller and local organisations, particularly in the voluntary sector, are maintained and nurtured. We will look carefully at all bids to ensure that they do that.

I hope that Ministers are listening to the concern that is coming from Members on both sides of the Chamber about the proposals. Last year, 17,000 offenders were recalled to prison by their probation officer, so that is 17,000 crimes that were prevented and victims spared because of decisions made by probation officers. Am I right in saying that in the future private providers of probation services will lose payments for supervising an offender if that offender is recalled to prison?

The clue is in the title. If, under payment by results, a provider gets the right result, they will get a payment; if they do not, they will not get a payment. Let me make it clear to the hon. Lady that under the proposed system, the decisions on recall will be made by public sector probation officers and not by providers, so the responsibility for that decision remains in the public sector where we believe it belongs.

Youth Detention (Costs)

13. What the cost is of putting a child through (a) a young offender’s institution and (b) other forms of youth detention. (148588)

In the current financial year, the average cost of a place in a young offender institution is £65,000 a year; the average cost of a place in a secure training centre is £178,000 a year, and the average cost of a place in a secure children’s home is £212,000 a year.

East Garforth primary school in my constituency has recently shown me the benefits of play therapy and early intervention at key stage 1. Has my hon. Friend’s Department, in conjunction with the Department for Education, made any assessments of their own as to the benefits of this early intervention as a tool to reduce youth offending?

I am not aware of any specific research on that particular programme. However, what I can say is that I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that early intervention is crucial, and, as I said a moment ago, it is important that we work across Government with the Education Department and others to ensure that that happens. That is a good way of ensuring that we prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place, which is clearly preferable than trying to deal with them when they are there.

One way to reduce the cost of putting children in prison is to ensure that care leavers have proper support. Some care leavers see crime as the only way to survive, so what discussions has the Minister had with ministerial colleagues in other Departments to ensure that children do not return to crime when they leave care?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on care leavers. He may be aware, if he has had a chance to look at the matter, that the Select Committee on Justice report contains a section on the criminalisation of those who are in care and on what is fairly described in many cases as an over-reaction to incidents that would not have resulted in the intervention of criminal justice agencies had they happened outside the care system. As I said, that is something that we will want to look at more carefully and respond to properly.

Sentencing (Robbery)

14. How many people convicted of robbery were not sent to prison in each of the last three years. (148589)

In 2009, 3,509 people were not given an immediate custodial sentence for robbery. In 2010, that figure was 3,568 and, in 2011, 3,710. The majority of those were young offenders. However, in the same period, nearly 16,000 offenders were sent to custody for robbery. Robbery is a serious crime carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Armed robbery is on the list of offences which can attract a “two strikes” mandatory life sentence.

Recently, John Calvert was convicted of mugging a woman student in Bradford city centre. At the time of his offence, he was on a 12-month intensive community order for robbing a 13-year-old girl of her mobile phone. Is the Minister proud of presiding over a criminal justice system that allows dangerous offenders committing those kinds of street robberies to walk free from prison and to go out and commit other crimes across the Bradford district?

My hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on individual cases. I am happy to reassure him that the sentencing guideline on robbery states that the offence will usually merit a custodial sentence but that exceptional circumstances may justify a non-custodial penalty for an adult or, more frequently, for a young offender. However, sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the courts. I hope that he will join me in welcoming the fact that it is a matter for the courts, rather than for politicians.

May I press the Minister on this matter? We know that serial burglars are not locked up but is it right that Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne should be imprisoned when it would have been much better if they had been given a community sentence and were working in the community?

The hon. Gentleman is slightly suggesting that politicians should set sentences. I am happy to reassure him that the average sentence for burglary is going up—if he wishes that to happen, I can assure him that it is happening. The adult custodial rate for robbery in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, was 84.3%, so the vast majority of people who commit robbery do end up in jail.

According to the figures that the Minister has just given, 100 more people in each of the last three years were not sentenced to prison as a result of a conviction for robbery. What steps is he taking to reassure people throughout the UK that that figure will be reduced in the next three years?

As I say, the average sentence is going up. One of the things that has been discussed a lot in Question Time today is how more effective rehabilitation is dealing with some of the most prolific offenders. As has been said, a lot of robberies are committed by reoffenders, so getting rehabilitation right earlier in the system, so fewer people commit such crimes, is the best defence we have against more of these prolific offenders being out on the streets committing offences.

Serious and Violent Offenders (Sentencing)

Serious and violent offenders deserve to go to prison. That is why we introduced mandatory life sentences for anyone convicted for a second time of a very serious sexual or violent offence, and tough extended determinate sentences for other dangerous offenders. The new regime restores clarity, coherence and common sense to sentencing.

In Hull last year, the clear-up rate for actual bodily harm was 41%, but for sexual offences it was only 28%, and we know that 7,000 fewer violent crimes were solved nationally. Mandatory life sentences are available only for second offences of a very serious sexual and violent nature, and many offenders are not convicted in the first place. With indeterminate sentences having been abolished for that particular group, is the Minister satisfied that the public are protected from these very dangerous offenders?

I hope the hon. Lady is reassured by, for instance, the new extended determinate sentence, under which the offender receives a custodial sentence plus a further long extended period of licence set by the court. Offenders receiving that sentence will serve at least two thirds of the custodial term, which is higher than has been the practice in recent years, showing that the system is not just more coherent, but, for these kinds of serious offences, tougher than before.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in north Yorkshire one of the difficulties with sentencing and bringing people to trial is the lack of a sexual assault and rape centre? What plans do the Government have to bring one forward?

My hon. Friend will have heard the victims Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), set out the much good work she is promoting in terms of victims’ centres, and in particular rape victim centres. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) that Ministers are taking that issue very seriously in all parts of the country, and particularly in north Yorkshire.

Legal Aid

The Ministry of Justice is considering ways in which high net worth defendants can be obliged to pay the costs of their defence privately, without receiving legal aid first. We have also announced measures to strengthen Crown court means-testing to help ensure that defendants who can pay towards their legal aid costs at the Crown court are made to do so. Last night, of course, there were additional provisions to the Crime and Courts Bill, which received its Third Reading in this House.

I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for that encouraging reply, and I thank him for the work he is doing in this area, but does he agree that for far too long these rich defendants have had their cases financed through legal aid by the taxpayer, which is completely unacceptable at a time when he has had to make changes to the legal aid budget? Does he agree that more can still be done to access wealth from frozen accounts?

I very much agree with that, and, of course, the measures in the Crime and Courts Bill open the door to our doing that for the first time. I wish to see us recover funds from those who can afford to pay for their own defence.

Topical Questions

Last week I launched the “legal services on the international stage” action plan. It sets out the immense contribution Britain’s legal services sector can make both to reinvigorate our economy and to ensure that Britain remains ahead in the global race. Legal services employ 340,000 people nationwide, and contribute over £20 billion to the UK economy. Beyond London, the north-west, Scotland and Wales are also emerging as centres of excellence. The Government want to encourage and export Britain’s leadership in this industry. The action plan we have published sets out how we intend to do that. It requires opening up legal markets abroad and selling the benefits of British law firms and the English legal system, as well as championing our offer to overseas legal students. I am sure the House will want to back our industry and the efforts both my Department and UK Trade & Investment are making to help our businesses spread our footprint around the world.

I thank the Justice Secretary for his reply, but may I draw his attention to the Public Accounts Committee’s damning report on the Ministry of Justice’s handling of the court translators contract? Again it is a case of being penny wise and pound foolish. Two hundred cases in England and Wales had to be cancelled, costing the public purse millions of pounds. Experienced and trained translators are still refusing to work with Capita, which was awarded the contract. Will the Minister, as part of his action plan, rescue our justice service and abandon this failed contract?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we are working very closely with Capita. Our success rate is good, but it can, of course, improve, and it will improve. The British taxpayer will save some £15 million per annum as a result of this contract, and I am fully convinced that the new contract will be more accountable, transparent and effective than the old one.

T3. Has the Secretary of State considered increasing the maximum sentences available to magistrates from six to 12 months, so that justice can be delivered more efficiently, fairly and quickly by magistrates who live in, and have a good understanding of, the communities they serve? (148600)

We are considering the case for increasing magistrates’ custodial sentencing powers in the way that my hon. Friend and, indeed, the Magistrates Association has suggested. I agree that magistrates have a very important role to play in our society and we should be thankful for the work they put in. We are exploring other ways to make use of the skills and expertise they bring.

I am sure the Justice Secretary agrees that we need not only to ensure that people do not become victims of crime in the first place, but that those responsible for crime are caught and dealt with appropriately by the criminal justice system. Burglary can have a devastating impact on the victims of crime and leave families traumatised. What are the Justice Secretary’s views on those accused of burglary being given a caution?

I regard burglary as an extremely serious crime. As I have said publicly, I also have reservations about the way cautions are currently being used, and I have been clear that we are looking at this as a matter of priority. I can reassure the shadow Justice Secretary that in fact, the length of time burglars spend behind bars is increasing, not decreasing.

The right hon. Gentleman may therefore be interested to know that last year, 3,359 cautions were given for burglary, and in 2010 the figure was 3,484. There is concern that the use of more out-of-court disposals such as on-the-spot fines and cautions is cheapening our justice system. Although that may be desirable for the Treasury, it is not what law-abiding victims of crime want. The use of cautions and on-the-spot fines can lead to the public losing confidence in our criminal justice system. Does he agree and what is he going to do about it?

Actually, I do agree. I have reservations about the number of cautions being used. Of course, one has to remember that the current culture of the use of out-of-court settlements dates back to when the last Government were in power, and the use of cautions was much higher three or four years ago than it is today. I am very clear that we have to look again at the way cautions are used, and I have reservations about the way they are used for some serious offences. It is work we are currently doing.

T5. What progress has been made on the Secretary of State’s plans to introduce a greater emphasis on education into the youth custodial estate? (148602)

My hon. Friend will know that we are consulting on the idea that we should provide more education for those in youth custody than is currently provided. We are looking for good ideas—from wherever they may come—on how that might be done better, but she is entirely right: education needs to form more of a part of what we do. We have a responsibility to educate these young people, and doing so more effectively will assist in reducing reoffending.

T2. May I push the Secretary of State on the question of victims, particularly the families of victims of murder? Just over 10 years ago, eight members of a family in my constituency were murdered, five of whom were children. One of the two men who were found guilty has been released by the Parole Board, which is considering releasing the other one. What sort of justice is it when this decision is not communicated to the family of the eight people who died? (148599)

I am absolutely clear that it is not acceptable for people who have been the victims of horrible crimes to discover, without their knowing anything about it, that those who committed those crimes, having served an appropriate sentence, are on the streets again. I intend to ask the new victims commissioner to look into this as a matter of urgency. Tragically, she has direct experience of how this can affect families, and I believe there is nobody better qualified to fulfil that role. I absolutely understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making.

T6. A continuing issue is convicted criminals who hide their wealth or in other ways refuse to abide by financial assessment orders. Is there more we can do in this area? (148603)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government recently published details of measures to strengthen the Crown court means-testing scheme. They include steps to ensure that if a defendant fails to co-operate with the new legal aid agency, and if it believes they have sufficient means to pay, they may be pursued for all their outstanding legal aid costs following conviction. From July, the Government will also introduce motor vehicle order regulations so that the agency can seize a defendant’s vehicle if they refuse to pay their contribution towards their costs. Significant action is being taken in this area.

T4. The failed contract with ALS/Capita is a year old. Does the Minister agree that her claims of massive savings cannot be demonstrated, given that the Ministry refuses to publish details of how much is spent off-contract to purchase interpreting services? (148601)

I think that I have made the position clear, but I will repeat it. The contract is operating at a very good success rate, but further improvements can be made. Having worked as a solicitor in the old regime, I can say that it certainly was not perfect. I am satisfied that the new regime will not only save the taxpayer a considerable amount of money, but be more effective, transparent and accountable than the old regime.

Far too many young people are essentially illiterate and innumerate when they start custodial sentences. Even worse, they still are when they finish them. What assessment has the Minister made of the extent to which the costs of providing educational services would be offset by savings through a reduction in reoffending rates?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are already obliged to provide education for such young people, whether they are in custody or not. He is right that literacy and numeracy are a huge issue. That is partly because there are very high rates of exclusion from school among young people who eventually end up in custody. We need to do more to take advantage of the period of stability, which for many young people is unusual, that they have while in custody. We must do more to educate them in custody and to ensure that that education continues when they leave it.

T7. What is the minimum percentage that the Justice Secretary thinks needs to be in a contract for it to be considered a payment-by-results scheme? (148605)

I have been very clear that I find it profoundly unsatisfactory that people who get sentences of less than 12 months are not provided with supervision post-prison. The changes that we have put in place will include that group and people who receive community sentences. We must remember that 80% of those who end up in our prisons have completed a community sentence, so that part of our system is not working either.

The risk posed by offenders can change, as was illustrated all too vividly by news reports from Chippenham last week. Under his proposals, how will the Secretary of State ensure that medium-risk offenders are assessed to enable them to receive attention from skilled and experienced probation officers should they become a higher risk to members of the public?

We are very clear that there has to be a simple mechanism for offenders whose risk profile is changing to be reassessed by a public probation officer. As a result of our consultation, we are working through the details of how that process should work. I am very clear that the responsibility for protecting the public from the risk of harm should and will remain with the public sector.

T8. During the Report stage of the Crime and Courts Bill, there was unfortunately insufficient time for Ministers to speak to Government amendment 110, which provided for statutory guidance on the use of restorative justice. Will the Minister take this opportunity, given that there was extensive discussion in Committee and outside on this issue, to explain to the House how that amendment will extend and strengthen the use of restorative justice in the criminal justice system? (148606)

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks on Third Reading of the Crime and Courts Bill last night. The Bill gives judges explicit powers to defer sentencing to allow restorative justice to take place between a victim and an offender. The amendment provides that restorative justice practitioners must

“have regard to any guidance that is issued”

by the Secretary of State, with a view to “encouraging good practice” in the delivery of pre-sentence restorative justice. That is a significant step forward for restorative justice and I know that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome it.

Will the Government aim to ensure that no prisoner leaves prison without being able to read and write as that would further reduce reoffending and give prisoners a chance of finding work when they leave?

Yes, we will make every effort to ensure that prisoners learn to read and write if they cannot do so when they arrive. A good deal of the excellent work to achieve that is done by volunteers, mentors and charities. That foreshadows what we hope we can achieve with the wider transforming rehabilitation agenda. My hon. Friend is right to focus on this issue because literacy skills mean that somebody has a greater likelihood of getting and holding on to a job, which helps to reduce reoffending.

T9. After 1 April, the courts will be full of people defending themselves because they cannot afford professional advice and no longer have access to legal aid. What is the Department doing to ensure that everybody gets access to justice, not only those who can afford it? (148607)

Opposition Members must realise that they left behind not only the biggest deficit in our peacetime history, but also the most expensive legal aid system in the developed world. We must take tough decisions and have a system that is realistic, given our financial constraints. I believe we have achieved that with the reforms we have put forward. We will monitor the impact of those reforms and ensure that we adjust anything that needs to be adjusted. Opposition Members should not believe that there are alternatives to what we are doing.

Felmores approved premises in my constituency is located near a school, a nursery, a playground and a densely populated housing estate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the provision of such premises is essential, a location such as the one I have described is inappropriate? Will he encourage probation trusts to work with the local community to find alternative locations?

I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend and I will ask the Minister responsible for prisons and probation whether he will work with him to look at the situation described. Clearly, it is not sensible to locate such facilities in highly sensitive locations, although my hon. Friend will agree that their provision in the community is vital.

The Government have proposed to move personal injury cases below a certain level into the small claims court, which will mean more people representing themselves in person. That is likely to mean that a lot more time will be needed for those cases, as well as a lot of negotiation, which will lead to more costs. How does the Minister think that such a move will save the public money?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady has experience of the small claims court, but this plays to the point raised by her hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). The small claims court is more of a mediation environment than a combative legal environment, and that is a better way of dealing with many of the smaller claims that people need to bring.

Jamaican and Nigerian nationals make up a big proportion of the foreign nationals in our jails. What progress is being made on negotiating compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with Jamaica and Nigeria so that we can send those people back?

As my hon. Friend rightly says, Nigeria is a significant country in that respect, and he will know that one obstacle to negotiating such an agreement concerns the constitutional restrictions in potential receiving countries. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the Nigerian legislature has now passed legislation that makes such an agreement feasible, so we are making considerable progress with Nigeria.

Schedule 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 means that a commanding officer does not automatically have to refer to the service prosecution authority incidents of sexual assault, voyeurism and exposure. Will the Minister talk to his equivalent in the Ministry of Defence to ensure that victims, whether in the civil service or the military, have access to the same justice as in the civil justice and military systems?

Access to justice is obviously important for everyone, but the matters to which the hon. Lady refers are for my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence. I am sure that they will note her comments in Hansard and be aware of what she has said.

The Defamation Bill is a key piece of legislation, helping people to protect their reputations and supporting free speech. It was held up in the other place, but what progress is now being made and does it have a target date for Royal Assent?

I very much hope that now that cross-party issues on Leveson have been dealt with, there will be no obstacles to bringing forward the Defamation Bill in its original form, without the Lords amendments.

On compensation for people with pleural plaques, will the Minister look at what has happened in Northern Ireland, which has overturned the House of Lords ruling and restored the right of people to sue in the civil courts for compensation for that condition?

Yes, I am happy to look at that, but the law does not prevent a person with pleural plaques who goes on to develop any recognised asbestos-related disease from bringing a claim in relation to that disease. Obviously, England and Wales have a different legal system from those in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

European Council

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he, on this occasion only, will make a statement on the European Council on 14 and 15 March, and its conclusions of 15 March.

Order. I think I need to explain this for the benefit, clearly, of the Minister of State, and of the House. The Minister is not “with permission” making a statement; he has toddled into the Chamber to respond to an urgent question application from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), which I have granted. The Minister has not volunteered a statement; he is responding to a requirement to come to the Chamber. That is the position.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It gives me very great pleasure to respond to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s attendance at the summit in Brussels on 14 and 15 March.

Discussions focused on economic issues and growth, and in particular on the European semester process. The Council also covered the deteriorating situation in Syria and the EU-Russia relationship. The Prime Minister took the opportunity to offer the Council an update on key issues to be covered in the UK G8 summit in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, which include tax, transparency, trade and terrorism.

The Prime Minister pushed for reforms to make the EU more competitive. Working with our European partners, including Chancellor Merkel, he set out practical steps that need to be taken to boost European economies and create jobs and growth, including reducing the red tape that continues to constrain our businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. The European Council agreed that the European Commission will set out proposals on how to reduce burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises and, in autumn 2013, a list of unnecessary EU rules to be scrapped.

On Syria, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Hollande of France argued that, with 70,000 dead, and with more than 1 million refugees destabilising the region, it was important for the EU to be able to respond to the pace of events and the deterioration of the situation on the ground. The Prime Minister and President Hollande secured agreement from European partners that, ahead of the deadline for renewing, amending or ending the EU arms embargo at the end of the May, EU Foreign Ministers should consider further changes to broaden support for the National Coalition.

The Council also discussed EU-Russia relations. The Prime Minister made the case for working together for prosperity and security while being honest about matters on which we disagree with one another.

Given that there are 11 pages of European conclusions, who decided to report to the House on the European Council for the first time by way of written ministerial statement, and why? Why did the Prime Minister not make the statement on the EU Council, as announced by the Leader of the House last Thursday? Does the Minister agree that, as the Prime Minister negotiated at the European Council, he should also make the statement and answer all questions?

The conclusions astonishingly state that much has been accomplished in the EU in recent years. Given the dysfunctional nature of the EU, the eurozone crisis and low growth, and the state of affairs in Greece and Italy, and now in Cyprus and Spain, how can such a statement be justified?

What specific steps are being taken to help small and medium-sized businesses, given that, despite all the protestations and initiatives, and 20 summits in 20 months, there is zero growth in the EU? Why is that? How does the Minister believe the single market can be a key driver for the UK’s growth and jobs when our trade deficit with the 27 EU member states is £48 billion, whereas we have a surplus of £20 billion with the rest of the world? Given past hopeless performance, what reason is there to believe that the burden of European regulation on small and medium-sized businesses, and other businesses, will ever be reduced?

Finally, what are the specific legislative proposals for the single resolution mechanism, and how will the level playing field be achieved for the City of London given the current state of play?

I sometimes hope that my hon. Friend will see something good in the EU, but that might take a lifetime. It is to the credit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he takes his responsibilities extremely seriously. Since he took office, he has given 15 oral statements and two written statements following European Councils. He issued a written ministerial statement this morning, and I understand that my hon. Friend had a discussion with him on this subject yesterday.

Had my hon. Friend been with us at the debate earlier today on UK Trade & Investment, he would have recognised the feeling across the House—in fact, not right across the House, because there was nobody there from the Opposition. [Interruption.] Well, the Opposition spokesman was there, the Democratic Unionist party was there, but the Labour party was not there because it does not seem to be interested in small and medium-sized businesses. If my hon. Friend had been there this morning, he would have recognised the feeling that while SMEs are the way forward, they are over-regulated. Small and medium-sized enterprises provided 85% of new jobs in the EU in the past decade. As a result of the Council, we now have concrete measures to reduce regulations, including the top 10 most burdensome EU regulations, by June. The measures include rules on chemicals, product safety and customs. We believe the single market is the way forward and that EU trade agreements are vital. That is our vision of Europe, and one that I hope my hon. Friend shares.

I recognise the importance of yesterday’s events, but I seek reassurance from the Minister that the Prime Minister will continue to make oral statements to the House after European Council meetings.

The Council conclusions call for member states to introduce short-term, targeted measures to boost growth and prioritise growth-friendly investment. Will the Minister tell us how the Government will put the measures he signed up to in Brussels into practice here in the UK, given that our economy is still flatlining? Specifically, what will the Government do to implement the youth guarantee mentioned in the Council conclusions signed up to by the Government in February?

On Syria, the crisis, killing and violence continue unabated. An estimated 70,000 people have lost their lives and there are more than 1 million refugees. There are major concerns about moves to lift the EU arms embargo. Once an arms embargo is lifted, it is close to impossible to guarantee in whose hands weapons will end up. That presents dangers, both now and after the conflict. How do we ensure that the lifting of the arms embargo does not simply lead to a further influx of weapons to the Assad regime, or spill over into other countries in the region? Finally, would the lifting of the arms embargo heighten or diminish the prospect of political transition in Syria? The primary aim of the Minister and the Government should be to ensure a reduction, rather than an intensification, of violence.

The hon. Lady raises a number of issues. First, there is a precedent for a post-Council statement to be made by a written ministerial statement, if it is not possible for an oral statement to be made on the next sitting day. For example, the Prime Minister gave a written ministerial statement on 11 October, following the European Council on 16 Sept 2010. Yesterday, we were rather busy deliberating on Leveson.

We have secured exemptions and lighter regimes for small and medium-sized enterprises in 17 areas in the past year. We recognise that, with our European partners, we need to do a lot more to reduce the burden of regulation. As the hon. Lady acknowledges—it is acknowledged right across the House—SMEs are the growth engines and the wealth generators of tomorrow. We therefore have to drive this forward and ensure that we do not just talk about cutting red tape to SMEs, but deliver.

The situation in Syria is extraordinarily important. I do not want us to get ahead of ourselves. I made a statement a week or so ago, before the Foreign Secretary made a statement, on the change in the embargo regime for Syria. The hon. Lady will be aware that the situation in Syria deteriorates by the hour. She quite properly alluded to regional instability and spill over into countries such as Jordan, which is very worrying. We have taken a decision, with our European partners, to see what more we can do. The French are keen on not necessarily waiting until May-June, but on reviewing the situation on a regular basis. I think that that is the right thing to do. We should watch the situation as it develops and see how better we can respond to help those who are afflicted by this appalling tragedy. The bottom line is that Assad has to go and we have to do everything we can to support a credible opposition in order to bring some kind of peace and then some kind of democratic accountability to any replacement Government, and we will work with our European partners to that end.

The United Kingdom should be very proud of the role it is playing in alleviating the hardship by providing money and finance to refugees. Charities, NGOs, the Department for International Development and other organisations are stepping up to the plate, and it would be good if other countries followed our lead. It is an horrific and appalling situation that we see on the news every night, so it is right that we do everything we can and examine every avenue available to bring it to a speedy end.

No ones disputes that the situation in Syria is appalling, but does my right hon. Friend understand that some Members have grave reservations about the apparent move by Britain and France towards the supply of arms to the opposition—reservations, because it is a principle of intervention that we should intervene only when satisfied that we would make things better? Secondly, what does he say about the prospect of a proxy war between permanent members of the UN Security Council being fought out in Syria?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman, of all people, will be aware of the situation—as I have said, 70,000 people are dead and there is a huge refugee and humanitarian crisis. The bottom line is that Assad is still in place and is being strongly supplied and strengthened by others. I am not going to talk, however, about our arming anyone, as it might never happen. We have made our position perfectly clear. There are Members on both sides of the House who, for understandable reasons, are extremely nervous about getting dragged further into this appalling situation, but I stress that we are not, at this point, discussing arming anyone. Were that to occur in due course, and were our European partners to take that decision, clearly it would need to be properly debated in this House. There is no change in our position, however, as was stated very clearly in the last statement.

It is just tawdry to pretend that the Prime Minister could not have given an oral statement. He could perfectly easily have done so today, and he should have done so. We do not do EU scrutiny well in this House, and are doing it even worse as a result of today.

May I ask the Minister specifically about relations with Russia? One year ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), stood up in the Chamber and accepted a resolution, unanimously agreed by the House, that we would ban people involved in the death and murder of Sergei Magnitsky coming to this country. He said that we would wait to see what the Americans did. The Americans have now passed legislation to ban those people going to the US. When will the Government do the same?

On the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Prime Minister, I can do no better than repeat what the Prime Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) yesterday:

“We now have more European Councils than sometimes is altogether healthy, and certainly more than there have been in the past. There are almost always oral statements, but I think that on this occasion, when it was very much a take-note European Council rather than one packed with exciting things, a written ministerial statement will probably suffice.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 680.]

I have nothing to add to that.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Russian Foreign Secretary was in London last week and had extensive discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to finish? Russia is a major player in the world. We continue to have extraordinarily important discussions with it about Syria and about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and other issues, and we continue to review—and raise when appropriate—the situation there regarding human rights.

Given the importance of low-energy prices to industrial recovery and jobs, did the Prime Minister take advantage of the summit to ask the Germans how they were managing to run their coal stations for much longer, under EU rules, and to have cheaper energy, and did he give notice that Britain needed to do the same?

I cannot answer either of those questions in the affirmative but I shall ensure that the right hon. Gentleman’s questions are given a precise and accurate answer.

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, no matter how many times the Prime Minister has made statements on the European Council, it is still the Prime Minister’s responsibility to come to the House and make such a statement whenever the Council has met.

On Syria, is the Minister aware that no one in the House disputes for one moment the sheer brutality of the Syrian regime or its total indifference to human suffering? At the same time, however, I believe that there should be a test of feeling in the House—a vote, perhaps—on the issue of arming the other side. Far from helping the situation, it could escalate the violence, the suffering and the crimes against humanity that we see on our television screens. I praise the humanitarian work that the Government are doing, with our support, for the children and the rest. That is absolutely essential.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s second point; he is absolutely right. His first point was somewhat hypothetical. Of course there is understandable concern among Members on both sides of the House about the direction in which Syria is going, and about what might or might not happen, but there is no change in our position today. I have come to the House to explain what was discussed at the summit, and it is absolutely right that we keep all options under review. I think he would agree that what has been done to date has not worked very well, as we continue to see a greater deterioration in the country and greater humanitarian suffering. It is therefore quite right that we keep all our options open.

May I say gently to my right hon. Friend that he is much more likely to persuade my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) to become an evangelist for the European Union than to persuade the European Union to desist from creating burdensome regulations? Is it not deep within the DNA of the European Commission and the European Parliament to go on producing regulations, day in, day out, that impose burdens on our business? Is it not in our national interest to be outside the legal structures of the European Union as much as possible, and does not that illustrate the many merits of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s policy of renegotiating our relationship with the European Union and having a referendum on that issue?

It is worth saying that we secured agreement from the Commission at the Council to come up with plans to reduce the top 10 most burdensome EU regulations by June—including rules on chemicals, product safety and customs—and to produce proposals by the autumn on the unnecessary European rules that need to be reversed and removed from the statute book. We also secured agreement on action to improve the implementation of single market legislation, including the services directive. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, if implemented directly, those will be welcome steps that will enable businesses in his constituency and in mine to grow.

First we abolished pre-Council discussions; now we are doing away with post-Council statements. Is it the policy of Her Majesty’s Government that the Prime Minister will talk about Europe only when he thinks that the meeting was “exciting”, and that we are otherwise to be kept informed only in writing or through a junior Minister who has been forced to come here?

The hon. Lady is making the great mistake of imagining that I was forced to do anything. I came here very willingly, as the Speaker has pointed out, to respond to the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). I have stated the Prime Minister’s position and, thanks to the indulgence of the Speaker in allowing me to repeat verbatim what the Prime Minister said on this subject to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone yesterday, I have nothing further to add.

Will my right hon. Friend commend the Prime Minister for setting out the need for a new relationship with our European partners? Is not that need underlined by the fact that, despite vetoing the fiscal union treaty last year, the presidency conclusions contain four new pieces of legislation on economic consolidation that apply to the UK? They include a national fiscal policy making framework, strengthening the surveillance of national fiscal and structural economic policies, an accelerated procedure for dealing with member states with an excessive deficit and a new procedure for monitoring the build-up and correction of macro-economic balances. Why does that apply to us at all, given that we are not going to join the euro?

The hon. Gentleman should also acknowledge what was discussed, particularly in the Council, and the emphasis that was placed on the single market and on cutting red tape for small businesses. The Prime Minister is setting out what will be discussed at the G8 at Lough Erne, when we will be talking about issues such as tax, transparency and getting businesses going. Those are the things that we want to concentrate on. I agree with my hon. Friend that those other things are not so relevant.

Did the Prime Minister have any discussions on the fringes of the European Council meeting about Zimbabwe, and about the fact that, after this weekend, the European Union will lift many more of its restrictive sanctions? Does the Minister realise that there is concern about that? There is still a problem in Zimbabwe. There are huge human rights issues, and it is important that the European Union should give the matter careful thought before lifting those sanctions in the lead-up to the elections in July.

The hon. Lady makes some extraordinarily good points on the sanctions against Zimbabwe. I was not aware that the matter was not on the European Council agenda. I was not privy to any private conversations that might have taken place, but she has made some extremely pertinent points.

At business questions last Thursday, the Leader of the House started by saying that, on Monday 18 March,

“I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 494.]

We know that the Prime Minister was here on Monday, and it is absolutely unacceptable that he has not come to the House to report on the European Council. Will the Minister at least confirm to the House that he himself was present at the Council?

I am not the Prime Minister and, unlike other people in this House, I have never thought that I should be or would be. I was not present at the European Council, no.

I can confirm that the Prime Minister was there, that he took a lead, and that he has come back. I am now reporting back on what was decided at the European Council. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) makes the point again about whether the Prime Minister should have come to the House, but he might have noticed that we did have Leveson this week. No doubt his points will have been heard by those who organise the House’s business, however.

Was there any discussion about the continuing fragility of European banks, especially in the weaker eurozone member states? In the light of the raid on Cyprus’s bank accounts, can we now expect depositors to start withdrawing cash from their accounts in those weaker banks, resulting in the serious risk of bank runs?

No, I do not think we can. Cyprus was not on the agenda but, if you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I will make this point. This question was answered extensively by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) —yesterday, I think—and everything is being done to protect British servicemen and those working for the diplomatic service who are exposed to what is going on in Cyprus. The fact that it is happening in Cyprus, however, does not necessarily mean that it is going to happen elsewhere. Indeed, we very much hope that it will not.

European Ministers have rightly considered broadening support for the Syrian National Coalition, given that it is opposed to the murderous Assad regime and to the equally undesirable alternative of a jihadi state, but is it not Russia to whom the Syrian National Coalition needs urgently to speak? Will the Minister update us on any progress that we have made on promoting dialogue between the Syrian National Coalition and Russia, which is, after all, arming the regime very freely?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Like Russia, we want to see an end to the violence, to create space for discussions on a Syrian-led, inclusive political transition. We encourage Russia to persuade the Assad regime, which is still in place, to enter into discussions with the Syrian opposition to bring forward political transition. Russia has a key role to play.

The Minister said that there was a precedent for having a written statement following a European Council when there had not been time to make an oral statement. However, there was an opportunity to make an oral statement on Monday and today so, with the greatest respect to the Minister, will he personally take back to the Prime Minister the strength of feeling on both sides of this House that, in future, he should come and give a report on the outcome of European Council meetings?

I am sure that people are hearing this loud and clear, but I would say to my right hon. Friend that there is a precedent for a post-Council written ministerial statement if it is not possible for an oral statement to be made on the next sitting day. The Prime Minister gave a written ministerial statement on 11 October 2010, following the European Council on 16 September 2010.

It is becoming more and more likely that we, and especially the military, will be dragged into a war in Syria. My constituents do not want the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, advising us or the Government on what to do following Mr Hollande’s views. Does the Minister agree that some silence from the former Prime Minister would be appropriate?

Of course, the former Prime Minister has tremendous expertise but I am not aware that we are consulting him on what we should be doing as a coalition Government with regard to the situation in Syria.

Does the Minister understand that it is the trajectory that worries Members? First, we lift the arms embargo, then we supply arms, then we supply military advisers, then personnel and then those very arms are used against the personnel. The best way to put a fire out is not to put more fuel on it.

The best way to put a fire out is not to light it in the first place, which is something President Assad would have done well to adhere to. As I said, there is understandable nervousness on both sides of the House about where this is leading, but we are living in a fool’s paradise if we think that the spillover—the knock-on effects from what is going on in Syria—will not affect us. It is unsettling countries in the region—I mentioned Jordan and others—and creating a humanitarian problem with appalling political consequences that we cannot stand by and ignore. I say again, publicly, to all those who continue to support the brutal regime of President Assad that they must stop. Like us, they must engage with the official opposition in Syria to bring about a transition to peace and a democratically elected Government. That will take time, but in the meantime we should leave everything on the table to make sure that we look after those who are exposed—the women, the children and the elderly—to the most horrible of situations.

If our membership of the European Union is going so well, how come we are running a £48 billion trade deficit with our European partners, in contrast to a £20 billion surplus with the rest of the world?

Again, I regret that my hon. Friend was not with us at our debate this morning in Westminster Hall where we stressed the importance of trading—[Hon. Members: “He chaired it.”] If my hon. Friend had heard me correctly, he will know that I said that it was unfortunate that he was not able to take part in the debate in Westminster Hall that he so ably chaired. Having listened to all sides of the argument this morning, he will be aware that we see our future both within Europe as well as outside Europe. We want to ensure that the single market is there, and we want many more EU trade agreements with America and other parts of the world. This allows me to put on record again how ably my hon. Friend chaired this morning’s deliberations.

The precedent for the written statement was not really a precedent at all, was it? On that occasion, the European Council was followed by 25 days of recess, so it was hardly surprising; an oral statement would not have had the same immediacy when it was eventually made to the House. On the meeting itself, the Minister told us that it was a take-note meeting where nothing much happened. Given the discussions about Syria, it seems to have been quite a major meeting, but if it was a take-note meeting where nothing much happened should not the Prime Minister have been making things happen? Should he not have been trying to do something to get Europe to follow a much more effective growth strategy, which is what we all need?

I was purely quoting the Prime Minister, and I quote him again. He said that

“it was very much a take-note European Council rather than one packed with exciting things.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 680.]

There were things, which we have gone through during the last 30 minutes or so, to kick-start the European economy, make it more competitive and cut regulation so that we can make sure that European companies are in a good position to help trade out of the appalling deficit in which we all find ourselves.

I hope it is of some comfort to my right hon. Friend that I think that the Government’s response on the European Council through a ministerial statement was entirely correct, particularly having read the conclusions. It also gave us the opportunity to hear my right hon. Friend answering the urgent question, and that is a benefit of the process.

On the substantive point about Syria, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend was able to tell the House that there has been no change in the policy on Britain’s position since the Foreign Secretary’s last statement on Syria. Given that it was spun that the Prime Minister was supporting the President of France in trying to obtain more flexibility about changes to the arms embargo, there was a possibility that we might be in the same position as the French on the merits of lifting it. Plainly, we are not and I hope my right hon. Friend will take note of the concern about the issue that has been expressed on both sides of the House.

My hon. Friend knows the area as well as anyone in the House, so he will be aware of all the things I said about the regional instability created by the continuing problem in Syria. It is not something we can let alone. We are working extraordinarily closely with the French. That is the case. Today, I have nothing further to add about our position, because it has not changed, but I say again that we need to keep the ever-changing situation in Syria under constant review. Unfortunately, it is an ever-changing situation that deteriorates hour by hour, with appalling humanitarian effects. We take nothing off the table, but at the moment we continue as I outlined in the statement a couple of weeks ago.

Did the Prime Minister urge French and German Ministers to proscribe Hezbollah, considering its role in killing civilians in Syria and murdering Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian national in Bulgaria?

The whole point of bringing some assistance to the Syrian official opposition, and bolstering them and allowing them to present themselves as a credible alternative to the Assad regime, is so that all the other organisations, backed by Hezbollah or whoever, do not get traction in Syria. The hon. Lady would have to agree with the action the Government have taken to date in bolstering the Syrian opposition, which we see as the only credible long-term alternative to the current regime in Damascus.

Was Mali discussed at the Council, and the EU’s policy towards the Sahel? Can the Minister of State give the House a quick update on the progress of the EU training mission?

The impact of the war in Syria on the Christian community there is causing great concern to many people in this country and elsewhere. At the EU summit, was there any discussion of the displaced Christian community who are caught between President Assad’s regime and the anti-Government forces?

I am not aware that there was specific discussion of the Christian community in Syria, but as a Government we take it extremely seriously not just in Syria but elsewhere in the world when Christians find themselves under unprecedented levels of attack. I pay tribute to the continuing work of my noble friend Baroness Warsi, who takes her duties as Minister for faith extremely seriously, including the protection of Christians.

British businesses want to see action not just words on reducing the burden of EU regulation, so may I urge the Minister to encourage the EU to adopt our one in, two out policy on new regulations, which will show whether it really is serious about cutting the burden of red tape?

I see nothing to disagree with in that statement. It seems to me that our companies still suffer from over-regulation. All of us in the House are guilty of talking about cutting red tape; at the next election, let us not be judged by the electorate as guilty of having not cut red tape. Of course, my hon. Friend is right; we need to free our businesses from red tape, particularly the smaller ones that we need to grow. There were concrete moves towards that in the recent Brussels Council.

Is the Syrian opposition led by Mr Khatib fully united in supporting the new transitional Government in Syria presiding over rebel opposition-held areas?

We continue to discuss everything with the Syrian opposition Government. We continue to support them and we continue to believe that they are the only viable alternative to Assad for the reasons that I outlined to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman).

We have reached the 10th anniversary of the second Iraq war. It was perhaps with good reason that we involved ourselves in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but it cost us a lot and people now in power blame us quite a lot. Did the European Council consider what more the Arab world can do, rather than just asking us again to help out?

This is something not just to be discussed at a European Council; we believe, particularly on the humanitarian side, that there is plenty more that the Arab world can do. Also, we would urge all countries in that part of the world to look very closely at where they are putting their support. We believe that the official Syrian opposition is best placed to provide a transitional Government to replace the brutal dictatorship of Assad.

My hon. and gallant Friend is showing a certain nervousness about what is going on in Syria, understandably, but I hope he would agree that as of today we are in the right place on this. I believe the Government are not getting ahead of themselves. But we do have a very serious situation, which is deteriorating by the minute, and it is only right that we should be flexible in our approach to how we help bring it to a speedy and long-overdue end.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is strange that Cyprus was not discussed, especially in the context of conclusion 13, where the directive for deposit guarantee schemes was discussed and there was awareness of trying to protect taxpayers in the context of banking crises? As this was within hours of a depositor haircut happening in Cyprus, would this not have been worth noting at that point?

At least the right hon. Gentleman was paying attention. I was not even there; we have got that straight, anyway.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) is right. What we are concentrating on now, in this country, is ensuring that those of our servicemen or diplomatic service, and so on, who are in Cyprus are not adversely affected; as he would expect, discussions are going on to that end.

Hinkley Point

With permission, I would like to make a statement.

I am today publishing a development consent order which authorises the construction of a 3,260 MW nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, known as Hinkley Point C. The order will allow, from a planning point of view, NNB Generation Company Limited, a subsidiary of EDF Energy, to construct two European pressurised reactors, each of a capacity of 1,630 MW. It will also enable the company to construct associated development, such as freight handling and road improvements, and to carry out the necessary work to obtain land and rights over land, by compulsory acquisition if necessary.

My decision to grant consent comes after a long process of consultation and analysis, first on the policy that underpins the decision. As set out in the national policy statements that were approved by this House in July 2011, a new generation of nuclear power stations are a key part of our future low-carbon energy mix, tackling climate change and helping to diversify our supply, contributing to the UK’s energy security. Low-carbon energy projects will also bring major investment, supporting jobs and driving growth.

Secondly, on the proposals for Hinkley Point C itself, these were considered, with full public engagement, by a panel of five experienced planning inspectors from the Planning Inspectorate, whose conclusions and recommendations I have followed very closely. I am grateful to them for all their work, and to all those who engaged in that process, which was completed within the statutory time scale of six months. Copies of my decision, together with the panel’s report and other supporting documents, have been placed in the Library.

In recommending that development consent be granted, the panel concluded that the benefits of the proposed Hinkley Point C station outweighed the impacts, including those on the local communities, particularly when taking into account proposed mitigation measures. These include the provision of a bypass around Cannington; enhanced landscaping and access for amenity purposes; and ensuring that the work force do not cause any additional burden on local services such as health, education and housing. In making my decision, I also took into account representations made too late to be considered by the panel and not therefore included in its report. My consideration of these late representations is set out in my decision.

I expect the wide range of mitigations and controls provided for in the order and elsewhere to be effective in reducing the impact of the construction work on local people, but I also recognise that as these works are carried out, those who live in the area may well have their daily lives disrupted in one way or another. This disruption is, in my view, outweighed in the final analysis by the benefits that the project would bring. Chief among these is the very significant contribution it would make to the achievement of energy and climate change policy objectives. The energy national policy statements make it clear that the construction of new low-carbon electricity generation infrastructure is of crucial national importance. There is also significant potential for local benefits including new jobs, with a work force of up to 5,600 during construction, and contract opportunities for the supply chain including local businesses.

I said that the order authorises construction from a planning point of view. There has of course been an entirely separate process scrutinising the nuclear safety aspects of the project, with decisions taken by independent regulators in the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency, including the issuing of a nuclear site licence.

Some further regulatory approvals remain to be taken, including the Marine Management Organisation’s marine licence and site-specific aspects of generic design assessment from the Office of Nuclear Regulation, but the decision I am announcing today, together with those already taken by the nuclear regulators and a number of other permits issued last week by the Environment Agency, means that NNB Generation Company Limited now has the majority of the consents it needs to build and operate the plant.

That, of course, is not the end of the story. Decisions remain to be made on the funded decommissioning programme and strike price. Discussions on both these subjects are ongoing and intense, but I expect them to be concluded shortly. As confirmed in my January statement to Parliament, the Government are committed to their existing policy on long-term disposal of nuclear waste and are pressing ahead with plans to identify a geological disposal facility in order to put in place a permanent facility for disposal of radioactive waste from both new and existing plants.

Affordable new nuclear will play a critical role in a secure, diverse electricity supply for Britain and make a significant contribution to the transition to the low-carbon economy needed to tackle climate change. Therefore this decision on planning aspects of the first new nuclear power station in a generation represents an important milestone in that process to decarbonise our electricity supply and economy. I commend the statement to the House.