House of Commons
Tuesday 26 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 16 April (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
1. When he expects that the report from the commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons will be published. 
2. What progress the Government have made on resolving the West Lothian question. 
With this, I will also answer Question 2. The McKay commission, which the Government established to consider how the House of Commons deals with legislation that affects only part of the UK, reported yesterday. We are grateful to the commission for its work. This is an important issue, which is why the Government asked the expert commission to look at it. The report presents a positive step forward, and we will give it very serious consideration before responding substantively.
I, too, thank the McKay commission for such an erudite report. The commission outlines a principle: that decisions at UK level with a separate and distinct effect for England should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England. Will the Minister argue with her boss, who is a passionate believer in political and constitutional reform, to implement that sensible principle in the next Session?
I commend my hon. Friend for her work on this important matter—she has campaigned long and hard and taken the time to go into the detail. As I have said, the Government take the report extremely seriously. We believe it is a positive step forward, and I am happy to talk to all members of the Government about its merits and otherwise.
I call Stephen Phillips. Not here.
Does the Minister accept that constituents of mine who use the health service in England, work in the public sector in England and use public transport in England, but who are represented by me as a Welsh Member of Parliament, want a say on matters relating to England? Does she accept that there are problems, but not always solutions?
I ought to accept that the right hon. Gentleman wants to do a very good job for his constituents, which I am sure he does. However, I note that the McKay commission report refers to England matters and England and Wales matters. Those serious issues require extensive consideration.
13. Next September’s referendum will, I hope, deliver a substantial no vote against separation. May I suggest that that would be an ideal time to implement the McKay commission’s sensible proposals and evolve the devolution settlement into one that will be acceptable on both sides of the border? 
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I hear his view on the timing of what the Government must do next. We will take that decision seriously alongside the substantive issues in the report. I agree with him and many others that the people of Scotland should choose to stay in the UK next September, and am confident they will do so.
I wonder whether the resolving of the West Lothian question will help us to understand why the Liberal Democrats voted against air passenger duty in opposition, but voted for it while in government, as we saw last night.
I do not believe that even I could persuade the McKay commission to cover that level of detail. However, as I said in answer to the previous question, the people of the UK are stronger together than they are apart. I hope the hon. Gentleman transfers that message to his constituents.
Order. As I think the House knows, the hon. Gentleman was practising the shoehorning technique, which was as mischievous as it was just about orderly.
The biggest threat to the UK might be not the Scottish referendum next year, but the increasing sense in England that the current constitutional settlement is not a fair one. Does my hon. Friend agree that we already have two different classes of MPs, in the sense that Scottish and Welsh MPs have colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly who perform some of the role that English MPs do?
The McKay commission report deals with some of the questions the hon. Gentleman raises. As I have said, they are serious questions, and it will take time to ensure that we respond appropriately. We will do just that.
Political and Constitutional Reform
3. What the Government’s political and constitutional reform priorities are up to 2015. 
5. What his plans are for constitutional and political reform for the remainder of the present Parliament. 
The Government continue to work on political and constitutional reform, particularly devolving more powers from Whitehall to our cities and regions. Work also continues on the implementation of individual electoral registration and developing proposals on recall and lobbying reform.
Will there be a Bill to regulate the lobby industry in the Queen’s Speech?
As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are still reflecting on exactly how to proceed on lobbying, but we will do so. I cannot give him a precise date for when we will come forward with our proposals after the consultation, which provided a lot of feedback, but we will do so in due course.
The European convention on human rights offers basic human rights protections for 60 million people in this country and is critical to the devolution settlement. Will the Deputy Prime Minister therefore echo calls from the Opposition to resist the radical right behind him, and to keep the Human Rights Act and the United Kingdom as a proud signatory to the convention?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, there is a difference of opinion among the coalition parties on the status of the Human Rights Act and the ECHR which it incorporates. I have always been very clear that I think that the rights and protections in the Act are very valuable for all British citizens, and I will continue to defend them.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s answer a moment ago included the words “cities” and “regions”. What is he doing about islands?
The mere fact that the answer mentioned cities and regions does not mean that we are not also concerned about islands. I very much hope that by the end of this Parliament we will see a discernable shift of power and decision-making authority from Whitehall to all parts of the United Kingdom, whether islands, counties, cities or regions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that decentralising power to local communities is not only good for our democracy and political system, but provides an opportunity to unlock economic growth locally across the country?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Not only has political power been centralised for far too long, but so has the way in which we run our economy. The Labour Government over-relied on one sector—financial services—in 1 square mile of the City of London, ignoring the needs and economic potential of 100,000 square miles across the country. We must devolve political decision making and ensure that our economy is also more decentralised.
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the document “The Coalition: our programme for government” states:
“We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament”.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister inform the House of the progress on this promise and whether any pressure has been brought to bear on him by the Prime Minister, who may regret having primaries to select some of his Members of Parliament, bearing in mind how independently minded some of them have been recently?
We will make an announcement on that component of the constitutional and political reform programme in the coalition agreement in due course. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it was slightly in abeyance as long as the debate about the boundary changes was still a live issue. As that has now been settled for the time being—if not satisfactorily in everyone’s opinion—we will of course return to the issue of all-postal primaries and make our views clear.
House of Lords
4. How many new members of the House of Lords the Government plan to create. 
As stated in the programme for government, appointments will be made to the House of Lords with the objective of creating a second Chamber that reflects the share of the vote secured by the political parties at the last general election.
The coalition Government have created 43 peers a year on average, more than the five previous Prime Ministers. The average will go up to 60 a year if the Minister’s direction of travel is followed. Does she see this as a badge of honour?
What I see is an avoidance of the reality of what happened after 2010, which was that the list of appointments contained the picks of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and Labour became the largest party in the Lords despite having lost the general election.
If the intention of House of Lords reform was to cut the number of Lords, is it not strange that we intend to increase the number instead of reducing it by half?
It is important to use facts in this debate. It might be of help to note that there has been a net increase of only 23 in the number of peers eligible to sit and vote in the other place since Tony Blair left office in 2007.
As part of the pre-legislative consultation on the draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, consideration has been given to the elimination of dual mandates not only between the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but between the House of Lords and the Assembly. What is the Minister’s view?
I am happy to write to the hon. Lady to deal with her question in enough detail.
In September 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the Government wanted to reduce the cost of politics. To date, 128 new peers have been appointed at a cost of £131,000 each per year, with more planned. Why are the Government no longer concerned about reducing the cost of politics?
The hon. Gentleman’s party refused to allow the timetable that would have allowed the Government to plan to instil greater legitimacy and constrain the size of the House of Lords. I think that answers his question.
6. What steps the Government plan to take to improve registration levels when individual voter registration is introduced. 
Is the hon. Lady the Deputy Prime Minister now?
It seems that some would like to promote me, which is no doubt a question for a commission to look into.
The Government are committed to doing all they can to maximise registration. We have published detailed research, which has informed our plans to use data matching, targeted engagement with under-registered groups and new technology to modernise the system to make it as convenient as possible for people to register to vote.
I am sure the Minister is aware that, in principle, I am a supporter of individual voter registration, but I am concerned about the current low levels of voter registration. Will she therefore give an assurance that the steps taken with regard to data matching will ensure that there is no fall in the level of registration? Hopefully there will be an increase, but what will she do if it does not work out that way?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to see the greatest possible levels of both accuracy and completeness in the electoral registers, and I look forward to working with him and others to do that. Solving the problem of under-registration is not the responsibility of the Government alone; it is the responsibility of all politicians and many people across the community to work together to drive up rates. As I hinted in my previous answer, we are taking a number of measures as part of the individual electoral registration programme including: data matching, phasing in the transition over two years, a carry-forward to allow some of those not individually registered to vote in the next general election, a write-out to all the electorate in 2014, a publicity campaign and doorstep canvassing as at present.
The areas where the electoral roll is most inaccurate in Chester are those with large student populations. Some students register in Chester where they are at university, some register at home, some register at both and some register at none at all. Has the Minister given any consideration to the registration of students under individual voter registration?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I mentioned in my previous answer, we all wish to see the greatest possible level of registration across all groups in society. We are running data matching scheme pilots aimed specifically at students and young people who are about to obtain the franchise. I look forward to his help on that in his university area, and that of other Members.
Working-class areas across the United Kingdom are quite often the areas where voter registration is lowest. Will the Minister ensure that they are targeted by both the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to ensure maximum registration in those areas?
I can reassure the House that we are working with both the Electoral Commission, and, of course, electoral registration offices and administrators in all parts of the United Kingdom, to make the programme a success. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s particular concern about people in both his constituency and others, we expect EROs of particular local authorities to know their areas best and to work with us.
I share the concerns of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) about student registration, which is a big issue in my constituency. I heard what the hon. Lady said. Will she be working with universities, colleges and student unions to ensure a strong campaign to get every student registered?
We are already doing that. Work has been undertaken with the National Union of Students. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for that campaign. I also note that one of the points of the programme is to encourage individual registration, and I hope that many students—highly educated as they are, after all—would recognise the benefits of doing so.
Will the Minister update us on the administrative need to provide one’s national insurance number on registration and say whether she has modelled the impact of this on take-up?
I certainly can confirm that the national insurance number will be used in registration. It is an important part of the process and one of the primary identifiers that we will be using. There will be others, as part of the exceptions process, which will perhaps be important to the people the hon. Lady may be concerned about. I would be happy to provide her with more detail as she requires.
It seems to me that every time someone comes into contact with their local council, makes a benefit application, buys a house or rents a property, someone should ask them, “Are you on the electoral register?” What can the Minister do to encourage Government agencies, local government agencies and private companies to ask that question?
My hon. Friend underlines the point I was making earlier, which is that there is a responsibility across society to encourage people to take part in politics by registering to vote. I am sure he will be working with a range of groups in his constituency to do that. I can also confirm that the programme is using extensive data matching to ensure that records can be shared where appropriate, certainly between public sector bodies, to do the best job we can.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
I am grateful for the welcome from the Opposition Benches.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within Government I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we need to rebuild confidence in our failing immigration system by tackling abuses and also bearing down on the legacy of incompetence?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that, having not only crashed the economy, Labour also left an immigration system in chaos, in which the public had absolutely no confidence whatever. Just as we are repairing, reforming and rebuilding our economy, we are having to do the same to the immigration system, which Labour left in such a lamentable mess. I agree with him that unless the public have confidence that the immigration system is competently administered, it is difficult to persuade people that we should remain the open, generous-hearted country that we are.
In last week’s Budget it was announced that there would be a Government-backed mortgage scheme for homes up to a value of £600,000. Will the Deputy Prime Minister make it absolutely clear that it will not be available for people buying a second home?
As the Chancellor made very clear, that is absolutely not the intention of the scheme. The intention of the scheme is to allow people to buy new homes, but as the right hon. and learned Lady very well knows, this is a complex area. There are anomalies that we need to address. For instance, we would need to ensure that the rules allow divorced couples to access the system just as much as anybody else. The Treasury is working on the details of the scheme to ensure that it does exactly what it is intended to do.
It is not a question of complexity or detail: the Treasury is very familiar with the notion of sole or main residence. The Deputy Prime Minister has not answered the question. It is not about the intention; it is a question of whether the Government are ruling that out. Let me ask him about something else—not a detail, but something fundamental—and see whether he can be clearer about that. Will he make it clear that the Government have ruled out making this Government-backed mortgage help available to people who are not domiciled in this country?
As the right hon. and learned Lady knows, the reason we have developed Help to Buy—which has two components: Government equity in new build construction and mortgage assistance —is of course not to subsidise people who have no stake in this country, nor is its intention to provide subsidies for people buying second homes. It is there to restore confidence in the housing market as a whole and ensure that the construction industry is given a significant boost, so that we employ more people and give people the opportunity to own their own homes.
Bob Blackman. Not here. It looks as if the hon. Gentleman is quickly getting to his seat without further delay. Hurry up. Mr Bob Blackman.
T2. Thank you, Mr Speaker. My apologies; I was held up on London transport. With the local elections coming in May, will my right hon. Friend comment on the initiatives he is taking to combat postal vote fraud and impersonation at polling stations? 
As I hope my hon. Friend will know, the principal intention of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which we are seeking to implement as quickly as we can, is precisely to deal with the high levels of fraud in certain parts of the country, which most people of all parties felt was unacceptable.
T3. What consideration has the Deputy Prime Minister given to lowering the voting age to 16? 
That is not something that the coalition is going to deliver. I am personally persuaded of the case for lowering the voting age, but it was not included in the coalition agreement, so it is not something that the coalition Government will deliver during this Parliament.
Mike Freer. He is definitely not here; perhaps he is stuck on London transport as well, who knows?
T7. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me and the all-party group on North Korea in welcoming last week’s historic resolution by the UN Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the grave violations of human rights in North Korea? I thank our Government for their vital work on this subject, and I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to thank those many civil rights organisations, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, that have campaigned on this issue for many years. 
I certainly join my hon. Friend in applauding the fact that the UN resolution was passed. As she knows, the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office have been working tirelessly on this issue. My hon. Friend has been an outspoken observer and critic of the behaviour of the North Korean regime, which continues to imperil peace and stability both in the region and globally. It is an issue that this Government and Governments across the world take very seriously indeed.
T4. Local authorities are being forced to cut back the money they spend on electoral registration. Is the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) concerned about that and, if so, what does she intend to do about it? 
I would be happy to send the hon. Lady the figures, but I think it is simply not the case that local authorities have been forced to cut back on the resources they provide to electoral registration officers. Local authorities are, as we know, under financial pressure generally, and about a quarter of all public expenditure is passed through local councils, which is twice the amount of money we spend on defence. Given that the Labour party left us with no money, I am afraid that savings need to be made.
T11. Under what circumstances would the Deputy Prime Minister resign as joint chairman of the coalition Sub-Committee? 
None that I can presently envisage.
T5. Perhaps I can think of one. Ministers have said that the second set of NHS privatisation regulations due to come into effect on 1 April will not force clinical commissioning groups to put health services out to competitive tender—in spite of legal analysis showing that they are just as bad as the first such regulations. Since the warnings about the Health and Social Care Bill have turned out to be true, if NHS services are privatised, will the Deputy Prime Minister resign? 
This is typical scaremongering from the Labour party. It was the hon. Lady’s party that wasted £250 million of taxpayers’ money subsidising the private sector in a deliberate act to undermine the NHS. It is the Government who have made it illegal, directly in the Health and Social Care Act 2012, to have competition based on price rather than on quality. The hon. Lady would know, if she looked in detail at the new regulations—the so-called section 75 regulations—that they make it quite clear that clinical commissioning groups are not forced to open services to competition unless they think it is clinically justified in the interests of patients to do so.
I advise my right hon. Friend that a popular way of devolving power away from Westminster and Whitehall would be to abolish Essex county council and replace it with unitary authorities.
We do not presently have any plans to do what my hon. Friend recommends, and which he has recommended consistently over a long period. I hope that he acknowledges, however, that we have already launched eight city deals to give new powers to the eight largest cities outside London and the south-east. That will be followed this year by 20 further city deals, which are still to be concluded, and a massive devolution of financial power to local councils so that they retain business rates, starting next month.
T8. It is not only unfair but poor value for money for disabled people in specially adapted homes to be hit by the pernicious bedroom tax. Will the Deputy Prime Minister commit the Government to look again at making it mandatory to exempt disabled people from that disgraceful tax? 
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the spare room subsidy is not available to thousands upon thousands of families who receive housing benefit in the private rented sector but it is available to families who receive the benefit in the social sector. Therefore, we are trying to ensure that the two systems are fair. A total of 1.8 million households are on the social housing waiting list, yet taxpayers are subsidising 1 million bedrooms that are not being used. That is what we are trying to sort out, but I accept what he says: there will be difficult cases that we need to be able to address adequately. That is why we have provided millions of pounds extra to the discretionary housing payment pot, which now totals £150 million, and made a number of other changes. During the implementation of the policy, we will look at those cases and take further measures where we think they are justified.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concern that three quarters of Britons regard human rights as a charter for criminals and the undeserving? Does he agree that there is time to reform and modernise human rights in this country?
I certainly agree that there is a chronic need to reform the way in which the European Court of Human Rights processes cases. It takes too long. Not enough people in the Court in Strasbourg are equipped to deal with cases expeditiously. That is why the former Secretary of State for Justice was right to get an agreement with all signatories to the Court to ensure, under the Brighton agenda, that the Court’s procedures are reformed. That is the kind of sensible reform we can all agree on.
T9. My constituent’s adult son has spina bifida. He keeps his wheelchairs in his spare box room and will lose £14 a week as a result of the bedroom tax. Is that in accordance with Liberal Democrat principles? 
As I say, we have made a number of changes already to the detail of the spare room subsidy. We have provided a considerable amount of extra money for discretionary housing payments. Councils, including the council of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, have discretion to use that money and to change the way the policy is adapted in practice. However, we will, of course, look at these difficult cases, work with councils and, if we need to, further adapt the way in which the policy is implemented.
I thoroughly welcome what my right hon. Friend said about city deals. Will he take note of the governance model for Greater Manchester, and does he recognise the value of a system that does not have a big mayoral figure?
I do not know which big mayoral figure my right hon. Friend might be thinking of, but I agree with him about the model of co-operation between local authorities of different political persuasions in Greater Manchester, which operates under the city deal system. Greater Manchester is pioneering the earn-back system, where Greater Manchester will be able to keep more revenue for infrastructure investment in the local area to the benefit of the people in Greater Manchester. That may prove to be a model that others seek to emulate elsewhere.
T10. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that independent researchers have concluded that the Budget and recent welfare reforms will substantially increase child poverty and material deprivation among children. Is he proud of that? 
As the hon. Lady will know, we have set out some ideas on child poverty. In addition to the existing poverty targets, which we are duty-bound to seek to meet, we have tried to ensure that the factors that hold back children from fulfilling their potential—whether it is poor housing or poor education—are addressed through measures such as the pupil premium; there is £2.5 billion of extra money to help the most deprived children in school. In addition, as of this September, the Government are making 15 hours of free pre-school support available to two-year-olds from the most deprived families, something that her Government never delivered.
The Deputy Prime Minister said that he wants to see cross-party consensus on solutions to the airport capacity issue, so can he explain why he and his party have welcomed the re-inclusion of Heathrow into the Davies commission, given that his party had already ruled it out for ever? Surely that means he risks wasting an awful lot of money and everyone’s time.
My hon. Friend rightly says that I and my party are not persuaded at all of the case for Heathrow expansion, but equally we should not seek, and no party on either side of the House should seek, to tie the hands of the independent commission looking at this issue in the round. We will await with interest, as I guess everybody will, the results of the interim report of Howard Davies’s commission and its final report after the next general election.
T13. Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s feeble response to the question from the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, in which he gave no safeguards that people, including people from abroad, will not be able to buy second homes with the mortgage subsidy, can he deal with two other problems? First, all the analysts say that this measure will create a housing bubble and inflate house prices. Secondly, it will trap many people who would not otherwise get on to the housing market in sub-prime mortgages that they cannot afford in the long run. 
One would have thought that a party that crashed the economy, sucked up to the banks and let them get away with blue murder, and presided over a massive housing boom and bust would have a hint, a note of contrition in its questions about the housing market. Why does the hon. Gentleman want to deprive his constituents of the ability to get their feet on the first rung of the property ladder? Why does he want to deprive young families who want to have a home they can call their own of the ability to do so? Instead of constantly carping about our attempts to fix the mess he and his colleagues left behind, perhaps for once he should come up with some ideas of his own.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the measures in the coalition’s Budget for small and medium-sized businesses, including introducing the business bank, changes to national insurance and the industrial strategy, all add up to a massive confidence boost for the small business sector? That is great news for our economy, and we should be right behind those measures.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, we all know that times are very difficult and that the British economy is taking time to heal. That is why it is a great tribute to the Chancellor and his team that in the Budget we have none the less found measures that will take 2 million people on low pay out of paying income tax altogether, that will give small employers and businesses around the country £2,000 off to allow them to employ more people, and that included £1 billion extra for the aerospace industry. It means that people will not face the higher petrol and fuel prices they would have faced under Labour, and it has got rid of the beer escalator and made sure that we ease the squeeze on household budgets.
Given that the Deputy Prime Minister has changed his mind on cash bonds for some visitors coming to the UK—a very different policy from the one he advocated in his Opposition days—could he put in the Library a list of the items he believed in and argued for before the election, but which he no longer believes in and, indeed, has totally changed his position on?
What I would put in the Library, if the hon. Gentleman wishes, is the fact that the last Labour Government removed exit controls on our borders, so they had no idea who was leaving this country and who was coming in. The reason why we can pilot the so-called security bonds for people coming here on temporary visas is that, unlike his Government, we are reinstalling the exit checks that we have been campaigning—as Liberal Democrats and now in government—to reinstall for many years.
Business growth in Basildon and Thurrock, supported by Essex county council, is three times higher than the regional average. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the recently introduced employment allowance will encourage those new businesses to take on their first, or an additional, employee, thus supporting both businesses and those seeking work?
I agree with my hon. Friend. This new employer’s allowance is a very exciting way of encouraging small and medium-sized businesses, which are the backbone of the British economy, to take on more people. When it comes into effect it will mean that a small employer will be able to employ someone on up to about £22,000 without paying any national insurance whatsoever.
Did the Deputy Prime Minister have any hand in the air-sea rescue helicopter service being sold off or given to a Texan company rather than to the British Navy and Air Force? Is he responsible for that? Does he approve of it, as it seems a rather strange decision?
I do if the service is better and if the Department for Transport, which has run this tender, is clearly persuaded that this is the best way to ensure the safety and security of the British people in the future and to do so at the best value for taxpayers’ money. Those are precisely the criteria on which everyone—any reasonable person—would judge this decision.
Cornwall may not look like a city but, as my right hon. Friend knows, it has both the ambition and the building blocks to negotiate a deal with the Government on devolved powers. Will he ensure that those ambitions can be fast-tracked to reality?
My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner, with his Cornish colleagues, for emulating the idea of a city deal but adapting it for the needs of Cornwall, now and in the future. I applaud him for that, and I will make sure that he and his colleagues can meet the Minister for cities and decentralisation, to make the case directly for a bespoke deal for Cornwall at some point in the future.
Is there any chance that the announcements made about the housing package in last week’s Budget could create a housing bubble here in the UK and risk repeating the mistakes of the United States sub-prime market?
The key way to make sure that there is no repeat of the disastrous mismanagement of the housing market that we saw under the previous Government is to ensure that more homes are built. That is why one significant component of the Help to Buy announcement that the Chancellor made last week is precisely that Government equity being put towards the construction of new homes should lead to extra construction activity and a further supply of housing. The Budget also included an announcement of a further 15,000 social homes being built, in addition to the several thousand more that are already in the pipeline.
Several hon. Members
Order. We had 23 questions in that period but we must now move on.
The Attorney-General was asked—
Rule of Law
1. What recent representations he has received on the effect of membership of the European convention on human rights on the UK’s reputation for upholding the rule of law. 
I have not received any recent representations on this subject, but I am clear that the United Kingdom’s enviable reputation for upholding the rule of law is closely linked to our country’s commitment to the European convention on human rights and to ensuring that those rights are enshrined in our own laws.
I thank the Attorney-General for that answer. Some Government Members are talking about exiting the European convention on human rights. Will he assure us that that will not happen? I know that he believes in the convention, so may I tell him that he will have the support of Opposition Members in the battle to ensure that we remain in it?
I have noticed, on occasion, irritation in all parts of the House about the operation of the European convention on human rights, but the Government’s position remains clear: our adherence to the convention is in the national interest.
Is it not possible to be proud that this country created the European convention on human rights in 1948 to counter communism and fascism while also being dismayed that, because of judicial activism, the Court is interfering in the rights of this democratic Assembly to come to its own conclusions on issues such as prisoner voting rights?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the United Kingdom has not been uncritical of the way in which the European Court of Human Rights has operated. That is why we initiated the negotiation with other countries which led to the Brighton declaration. We believe that the principles of subsidiarity should be re-emphasised, that the selection of judges should be improved and that the backlog of the Court needs to be addressed. Those are important reform packages. We were successful in getting agreement on them last year, and we intend now to see that they are implemented.
Does the Attorney-General agree that it is simply not possible or right to start picking and choosing which decisions of the European Court of Human Rights we agree or disagree with? We are signed up to that charter, which guarantees the human rights of people all over Europe, including in this country. Surely that is something of which we should be proud rather than trying to undermine it all the time, as many of his Back Benchers consistently do.
The convention is an international legal obligation that we take extremely seriously and I have no doubt that our adherence to it is extremely helpful in raising standards of human rights elsewhere and in countries that have much poorer track records. The advantages to be derived from such an international legal obligation applied across countries need to be weighed in the balance when people are critical of how it is sometimes interpreted.
Will the Attorney-General ensure that all Ministers and members of his own party are at all times honest and accurate about both the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights?
I am quite sure that all my right hon. and hon. Friends always strive for accuracy in this department. It has to be said that I sometimes open my newspaper and am quite surprised to read some of the material published on the subject, so if anyone relies on such newspaper articles, it may be that they are likely to be misled.
Will the Attorney-General confirm very simply that the European convention on human rights was founded by the Council of Europe and is nothing to do with the European Union, and that it is legitimate to be against the European Union while being supportive of the European convention on human rights?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
Is it true that some of the judges on the Court that enforces the European convention have no legal training whatsoever?
I would be hesitant to make such a comment. It is true that the judges are sometimes appointed from academic backgrounds, but it is worth bearing in mind that our national judiciary, apart from the fact that they have sometimes sat part time as judges, are not formally trained for judicial office even domestically. One must be a little wary of making such a sweeping statement, but there is no doubt, as I said, that the quality of the judiciary needs to be improved.
Given that one of the early backers of the European convention on human rights was Winston Churchill, does that not add an historical tone as to why it would be irresponsible to remove oneself from the convention?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that Winston Churchill was a great proponent of the convention’s coming into force. It was supported on both sides of the House. There were some hesitations at the time, but it was undoubtedly seen as a marked step change in improving human rights on the European continent.
2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of prosecutions for human trafficking and related offences; and if he will make a statement. 
As a member of the interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking, I keep the effectiveness of prosecutions for that very serious form of crime under review. Wherever possible, the Crown Prosecution Service brings prosecutions for human trafficking or other related offences.
Has the Solicitor-General asked for advice on the letter signed by a dozen charities on 28 April, which predicts that when the EU trafficking directive comes into force on 6 April the UK will be in breach of the following: the protection of victims during criminal procedures, access to compensation and legal assistance, and the provision of a guardian for trafficked children during legal proceedings? What is he going to do about that?
As the hon. Lady will know—I hope she will forgive me—we do not, as Law Officers, explain when and where we have given advice. Her point is very important, however. Victims of human trafficking need to be identified and it is important that they should not be prosecuted or treated disrespectfully once that is known. That is one of the points being discussed in the interdepartmental ministerial group and she is right to highlight it.
My hon. Friend referred to the interdepartmental ministerial group. Is not one of the problems that there are lots of different Acts of Parliament? Would there be any merit in pulling all the different Acts together in a consolidation Act on modern day slavery?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area. It is possible to consider putting a number of laws into a consolidating statute, but the problem is that we tend as a House of Commons to say, “We have these laws. Do we want to spend time consolidating them when we might have other matters to deal with?” Taking such an action was recommended in the recent report from the Centre for Social Justice, however. I have discussed it with the authors and the interdepartmental ministerial group will consider it.
Northern Ireland has had a number of convictions for human trafficking, and there are cases pending. Legislation will soon be introduced in the Northern Ireland Assembly by my colleague, Lord Morrow. Will the Solicitor-General outline the co-operation across all regions of the United Kingdom to tackle human trafficking?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there has been considerable co-operation and co-ordination of effort, particularly over intelligence and how those offences can be disrupted. Of course, there is an issue about the new National Crime Agency and exactly how it will operate—he will be aware of the situation and the ongoing discussions. It is important that there is that co-ordination of effort, which happens across the United Kingdom and the wider world, in trying to tackle the problem.
Serious Fraud Office
3. What recent assessment he has made of the success rate, measured by convictions, of investigations by the Serious Fraud Office. 
The SFO has a 71% conviction rate by defendant for the current financial year to date. It prosecutes highly specialised cases, the number of which is small, so year-on-year change in the rate is not a particularly good indicator of trends. Although there is always room for improvement, I am broadly pleased with the SFO’s conviction rate. The report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate in November last year found that the outcomes in SFO cases demonstrate that it can deliver under pressure. There will be a follow-up inspection within the next year.
SFO investigations have increased in duration to 28.8 months on average, success rates are down, as the Attorney-General has just told us, and its previous director handed out £1 million to departing staff without authorisation. Can the Attorney-General tell us how much money will have to be set aside on his watch for legal fees and damages as a result of botched investigations by the SFO?
I take it that the final part of that was the question and the rest was comment. The position is that at the moment the SFO is handling ongoing civil litigation within its budget. In so far as it requires further resources, it will speak to the Treasury.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the House that the way those statistics are recorded changed three or four years ago and outline the reason for that change?
My hon. Friend is right that the statistics for SFO cases were previously based on the number of defendants sentenced, rather than those convicted. Consequently, because the number of cases is very small, we can get huge statistical shifts simply by looking at it in a different way. That is why, as I explained earlier, I do not think that trends in the statistics are a good indication of performance. Overall, I prefer to rely on HMCPSI’s report.
As the Attorney-General knows, the offence of misconduct in public office occurs when a public officer, without reasonable excuse,
“wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself… to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder.”
Is he aware of any reason why the former director of the SFO, Richard Alderman, should not be investigated for misconduct in public office over the circumstances of his failure, as senior accounting officer, to obtain authorisation for payments to senior staff members of over £1 million?
As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, if it is thought that somebody has committed a criminal offence and it will be subject to investigation, that would not be a matter on which I could possibly comment in the House.
The SFO received 2,731 tip-offs from members of the public last year but launched only three investigations into information supplied by the public. If members of the public report something to the SFO, can they have confidence that it will be investigated?
Yes, they can be confident that the reports will be looked at. Indeed, there are other routes by which reports might come to the SFO, including through the City police and Action Fraud. There is clearly a requirement for prioritisation, but the SFO will examine and consider any reports it receives.
4. What steps he is taking to strengthen conviction rates. 
The Crown Prosecution Service secures convictions in over 17 out of every 20 cases. The Director of Public Prosecutions has concentrated particularly on improving rape and domestic violence outcomes for victims, and conviction rates for both have improved substantially over the past two years. As for the statistical performance of the Serious Fraud Office, my hon. Friend will have heard the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan).
I thank the Attorney-General for that answer. For all the controversy over terrorism legislation, LIBOR rate rigging and tax-dodging, terrorism convictions plummeted by 77% over the past five years, convictions for false accounting fell by 73%, and convictions for tax evasion slumped to 107 under Labour. What action is he taking to plug the gaping prosecutorial deficit left by the previous Government?
The Home Office is responsible for producing official statistics on casework outcomes in terrorism. The latest published Home Office data for the year ending September 2012 indicate that 24 out of 29 defendants were convicted, at a conviction rate of 82.8%. At that time, 134 prisoners classified as terrorists or domestic extremists were convicted and remanded. On fraud, the number of prosecutions has increased by 25% since 2010 and the conviction rate remains at 86.2%. On tax evasion, in the financial year to date 86% of cases originating with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have resulted in conviction. I should like to write to my hon. Friend about the overall figures on this.
Does the Attorney-General share my concern about the memo leaked by the CPS that showed there was a risk of CPS prosecutors deliberately choosing cases that were likely to crack because of lack of evidence, in order to save costs?
I think that the conviction rates speak for the efficiency of the CPS. I have seen nothing to suggest that cases are not being pursued outside the ordinary tests of public interest and the reasonable prospect of getting a conviction. Obviously, if those do not apply then there should not be a prosecution at all. I am certainly not aware of there being any fiddling and of decisions being made not to prosecute certain cases that should be prosecuted.
5. What steps he is taking to increase the effectiveness of the pursuit by the Crown Prosecution Service of high-value confiscation orders. 
The Crown Prosecution Service is generally very effective in the pursuit of high-value confiscation orders. My office and the CPS are represented on the Home Office-led criminal finances board, at which asset recovery performance is discussed. Asset recovery is a long process. Assets are often hidden. Third-party litigation, appeals against conviction and confiscation orders all mean that the enforcement of such orders may take a significant amount of time. Due to the way in which the value of a confiscation order is calculated, in many cases it is not possible to recover the full amount that has been ordered.
Four out of five of the largest confiscation orders sought by the CPS in the past three years have concerned VAT fraud. Will the Attorney-General ensure that prosecuting these high-value and highly complex fraud cases is prioritised by the CPS?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will raise the matter with the CPS, but I have no reason to think that it is not doing that. The evidence suggests overall—I cannot break it down for VAT fraud—that year on year the amount being confiscated is rising from what was a very low and rather unsuccessful level after the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 first came into force. In the past year, £107 million was realised through confiscation. I will write to him about his specific point on VAT.
Minimum Wage: Evasion
6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service as a prosecutor of employers who evade the minimum wage. 
The Crown Prosecution Service decides whether to prosecute national minimum wage cases, but the cases are investigated by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Since 2010, three cases have been referred to the CPS by HMRC, two of which resulted in convictions, most recently in February 2013, where the defendant was fined £1,000.
Shockingly, there were no prosecutions for minimum wage evasion in 2011 or 2012. If the Government are really serious about dealing with low-skilled immigration and its causes, why have they not been enforcing the minimum wage legislation properly?
It is important to bear in mind that HMRC has two sorts of powers that it can use: criminal investigation, which we have already discussed, and the civil powers that enable it to look at the books and then to impose penalties and recover arrears. It is for HMRC to decide on the best way forward. The hon. Lady is right that these are important matters.
Is the Solicitor-General aware that the number of relevant inspections by HMRC has been falling for the past two or three years? Does that not make the sort of convictions that he is talking about less likely in the future?
These are important matters and I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s comments on to Treasury Ministers. It is important that this matter is taken seriously and that there is proper enforcement. The Government certainly consider it to be an important matter.
7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in rape prosecutions. 
The conviction rate for rape cases has increased from 59.4% in 2009-10 to 63.4% in the current year.
I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer. However, in 2011-12, the CPS took no further action in nearly half the cases that involved a rape allegation that were referred to it by the police. What reasons have the Law Officers identified for that?
It is difficult to prosecute some cases. Often, it is the word of one person against the word of another. It is important in those circumstances to ensure that the victim who is the witness is properly supported. In addition, it is vital to have corroborative evidence and to use it effectively. It is sometimes said that there are a lot of incorrect allegations, but recent research by the CPS shows that there are very few cases of that sort. There has been a big improvement in the conviction rate, but we cannot be complacent. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is important to tackle this matter.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measures:
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2013
Presumption of Death Act 2013
Mobile Homes Act 2013
Antarctic Act 2013
Welfare Benefits Up-rating Act 2013
Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013
Diocese in Europe Measure 2013
Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Measure 2013.
Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s response to the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry.
I congratulate my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), on setting up the public inquiry and on the many changes that he made in foreseeing its likely recommendations. I also pay tribute to Robert Francis QC for his work in producing a seminal report that will, I believe, mark a turning point in the history of the NHS.
Many terrible things happened at Mid Staffs, in what has rightly been described as the NHS’s darkest hour. Both the current and former Prime Minister have apologised. However, when people have suffered on such a scale and died unnecessarily, our greatest responsibility lies not in our words, but in our actions. Our actions must ensure that the NHS is what every health professional and patient wants: a service that is true to NHS values, that puts patients first, and that treats people with dignity, respect and compassion.
The Government accept the essence of the inquiry’s recommendations and will respond to them in full in due course. However, given the urgency of the need for change, I am today announcing the key elements of our response so that we can proceed to implementation as quickly as possible. I have divided our response into five areas: preventing problems from arising by putting the needs of patients first; detecting problems early; taking action promptly; ensuring that there is robust accountability; and leadership. Let me take each in turn.
To prevent problems from arising in the first place, we need to embed a culture of zero harm and compassionate care throughout the NHS; a culture in which the needs of patients are central, whatever the pressures of a busy, modern health service. As Robert Francis said,
“The system as a whole failed in its most essential duty—to protect patients from unacceptable risks of harm and from unacceptable, and in some cases inhumane, treatment that should never be tolerated in any hospital.”
At the heart of this problem is the fact that current definitions of success for hospitals fail to prioritise the needs of patients. Too often, the focus has been on compliance with regulation rather than on what those regulations aim to achieve. Furthermore, the way hospitals are inspected is fundamentally flawed, with the same generalist inspectors looking at slimming clinics, care homes and major teaching hospitals—sometimes in the same month. We will therefore set up a new regulatory model under a strong, independent chief inspector of hospitals, working for the Care Quality Commission. Inspections will move to a new specialist model based on rigorous and challenging peer review. Assessments will include judgments about hospitals’ overall performance, including whether patients are listened to and treated with dignity and respect, the safety of services, responsiveness, clinical standards and governance.
The Nuffield Trust has reported on the feasibility of assessments and Ofsted-style ratings, and I am very grateful for its thorough work. I agree with its conclusion that there is a serious gap in the provision of clear, comprehensive and trusted information on the quality of care. In order therefore to expose failure, recognise excellence and incentivise improvement, the chief inspector will produce a single aggregated rating for every NHS trust. Because the patient experience will be central to the inspection, it will not be possible for hospitals to get a good inspection result without the highest standards of patient care.
The Nuffield Trust rightly says, however, that in organisations as large and as complex as hospitals, a single rating on its own would be misleading. The chief inspector will therefore also assess hospital performance at speciality or department level. This will mean that cancer patients will be told of the quality of cancer services, and prospective mothers the quality of maternity services. We will also introduce a chief inspector of social care and look into the merits of a chief inspector of primary care to ensure that the same rigour is applied across the health and care system.
We must also build a culture of zero harm throughout the NHS. This does not mean there will never be mistakes, just as a safety-first culture in the airline industry does not mean there are no plane crashes, but it does mean an attitude to harm that treats it as totally unacceptable and takes enormous trouble to learn from mistakes. We await the report on how to achieve this in the NHS from Professor Don Berwick. Zero harm means listening to and acting on complaints, so I will ask the chief inspector to assess hospital complaints procedures, drawing on the work being done by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and Professor Tricia Hart to look at best practice.
Given that one of the central complaints of nurses is that they are required to do too much paperwork and thus spend less time with patients, I have asked the NHS Confederation to review how we can reduce the bureaucratic burden on front-line staff and NHS providers by a third. I will also be requiring the new Health and Social Care Information Centre to use its statutory powers to eliminate duplication and reduce bureaucratic burdens.
Secondly, we must have a clearer picture of what is happening within the NHS and social care system so that, where problems exist, they are detected more quickly. As Francis recognised, the disjointed system of regulation and inspection smothered the NHS, collecting too much information but producing too little intelligence. We will therefore introduce a new statutory duty of candour for providers to ensure that honesty and transparency are the norm in every organisation, and the new chief inspector of hospitals will be the nation’s whistleblower-in-chief.
To ensure that there is no conflict in that role, the CQC will no longer be responsible for putting right any problems identified in hospitals. Its enforcement powers will be delegated to Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority, which it will be able to ask to act when necessary. We know that publishing survival results improves standards, as has been shown in heart surgery, so I am very pleased that we will be doing the same for a further 10 disciplines—cardiology, vascular, upper gastrointestinal, colorectal, orthopaedic, bariatric, urological, head and neck, and thyroid and endocrine surgery.
The third part of our response is to ensure that any concerns are followed by swift action. The problem with Mid Staffs was not that the problems were unknown; it was that nothing was done. The Francis report sets out a timeline of around 50 warning signs between 2001 and 2009, yet Ministers and managers in the wider system failed to act on those warnings. Some were not aware of them; others dodged responsibility. That must change. No hospital will be rated as good or outstanding if fundamental standards are breached, and trusts will be given a strictly limited period of time to rectify any such breaches. If they fail to do that, they will be put into a failure regime that could ultimately lead to special administration and the automatic suspension of the board.
The fourth part of our response concerns accountability for wrongdoers. It is important to say that what went wrong at Mid Staffs was not typical of our NHS, and that the vast majority of doctors and nurses give excellent care day in, day out. We must ensure that the system does not crush the innate sense of decency and compassion that drives people to give their lives to the NHS.
Francis said that primary responsibility for what went wrong at Mid Staffs lies with the board. We will, therefore, look at new legal sanctions at corporate level for organisations that wilfully generate misleading information or withhold information that they are required to provide. We will also consult on a barring scheme to prevent managers found guilty of gross misconduct from finding a job in another part of the system. In addition, we intend to change the practices around severance payments, which have caused great public disquiet.
The General Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council and other professional regulators have been asked to tighten their procedures for breaches of professional standards. I will wait to hear how they intend to do that, and for Don Berwick’s conclusions on zero harm, before deciding whether it is necessary to take further action. The chief inspector will also ensure that hospitals are meeting their existing legal obligations to ensure that unsuitable health care support workers are barred.
The final part of our response will be to ensure that NHS staff are properly led and motivated. As Francis said,
“all who work in the system, regardless of their qualifications or role, must recognise that they are part of a very large team who all have but one objective, the proper care and treatment of their patients”.
Today I am announcing some important changes in training for nurses. I want NHS-funded student nurses to spend up to a year working on the front line as support workers or health care assistants as a prerequisite for receiving funding for their degree. That will ensure that people who become nurses have the right values and understand their role. Health care support workers and adult social care workers will now have a code of conduct and minimum training standards, both of which are being published today. I will also ask the chief inspector to ensure that hospitals are properly recruiting, training and supporting health care assistants, drawing on the recommendations being produced by Camilla Cavendish. The Department of Health will learn from the criticisms of its own role by becoming the first Department in which every civil servant will have real and extensive experience of the front line.
The events at Stafford Hospital were a betrayal of the worst kind—a betrayal of patients, families, and the vast majority of NHS staff who do everything in their power to give their patients the high-quality, compassionate care they deserve. I want Mid Staffs to be not a byword for failure but a catalyst for change, and to create an NHS where everyone can be confident of safe, high-quality, compassionate care, and where best practice becomes common practice, and the way a person is made to feel as a human being is every bit as important as the treatment they receive. That must be our mission and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the measured way in which he introduced it.
The NHS is 65 this year, and if it is to be ready for the challenges of this century, it must learn from the darkest hours of its past. The NHS was founded on compassion and, as the Secretary of State said, what happened at Stafford was a betrayal of that. Rightly, apologies have been given, but it is now time to act and make this a moment of change.
Robert Francis delivered 290 careful recommendations after a three-year public inquiry and, like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to him today. In response, the Prime Minister promised a detailed response to each recommendation by the end of this month. Although the Opposition welcome much of what the Secretary of State has said today, his statement falls short of that promised full response and contains serious omissions on which I would like to press him, in particular, on four of Robert Francis’s flagship recommendations, which I shall take in turn.
First, we welcome the move to place a duty of candour on health care providers and believe it could help bring about the culture change the NHS needs. The Francis report, however, goes further and recommends a duty of candour on individual members of staff. Will the Secretary of State say more about why he has only accepted this recommendation in part and not applied it to staff? Has he ruled that out or is he prepared to give it further consideration?
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the duty will apply equally to all providers of NHS services, including private providers? His statement was a little vague on that point. More generally, with more private providers coming into the NHS, is it not the case that we will not get the transparency we need unless the provisions of freedom of information apply fully to all holders of NHS contracts and information cannot be withheld under commercial confidentiality?
Secondly, on patient voice, the Government have announced new chief inspectors of hospitals and social care. Those were not Francis recommendations and, while we give them a cautious welcome, I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that regulation alone will not be enough to prevent another Mid Staffs. Instead, we need a powerful patient voice in every community that is able to sound the alarm if things are going wrong. Rather than pulling down the shutters, as the NHS has a tendency to do, complaints should be embraced as opportunities to learn and improve.
It is just a matter of days until the new NHS comes into being and the concern is that patient voice has not been embedded at the heart of the new system. A third of councils say that their local healthwatch will not be up and running by the 1 April deadline, and there are wide variations in both structure and membership. Will the Government accept Robert Francis’s recommendation of a consistent basic structure for healthwatch programmes throughout the country before it is too late and they go their separate ways?
Thirdly, on regulation and training, Robert Francis has made a very clear case for a new system of regulation of health care assistants to improve basic standards—a case that we made during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012—yet it did not feature in the Secretary of State’s statement. Have the Government accepted in principle the regulation of health care assistants?
We support moves to rebalance nurse training and to include more hands-on experience, but student nurses already spend 50% of their time in clinical practice and face significant financial barriers when completing their training. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that requiring a year on the ward will not increase the financial barriers to young people entering nursing and, if more trainees are to be on the wards, will he ensure that there are enough staff with the time to train the extra students?
That takes me to my fourth point and the most glaring omission from the Secretary of State’s statement, namely safe staffing levels. We will never get the right culture on our wards if they are understaffed and over-stretched, but there is evidence that things are going in the wrong direction and the Secretary of State was silent on the issue today.
The CQC has recently reported that one in 10 hospitals in England do not have adequate staffing levels. Just last week, work force figures showed that there had been a reduction of 843 nurses between November and December last year. Does that not sound the clearest of alarm bells that some parts of the NHS are already in danger of forgetting the lessons of its recent past by cutting the front line too far? Do not communities need a clear, objective benchmark so that they can challenge staffing levels on wards, and would it not be a great help to them for the Francis recommendation on staff-patient ratios to be accepted? We learned last week that the Department has handed £2.2 billion from last year’s budget back to the Treasury. Surely that money would have been better invested in the front line and in bringing all hospitals in England back up to safe staffing levels.
Finally, I want to turn to Stafford hospital itself, which Monitor has recommended should be placed in administration. This doubt about the hospital’s future will be causing real concern to the people of Stafford. After all they have been through, I think we can all agree that they deserve a safe and sustainable hospital, and I hope the Secretary of State will soon set out a plan to achieve that.
Learning the lessons of Stafford cannot be done overnight. We all have to play our part. The Government have made a start today, but much more needs to be done and we will hold them to that.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about glaring omissions in the Government’s response, but there were glaring omissions in his response too. Where was the apology for Labour’s targets culture that led to so many of the problems; the apology for failing to set up a regulatory structure that had proper safeguards; and the apology for missing all those warning signs? This was not just the darkest day in NHS history, but the darkest day in Labour’s management of the NHS. It is time the Labour party recognised the policy mistakes it made.
Let me go through what the right hon. Gentleman says are omissions. First, on the duty of candour, we accept the principle of the duty of candour when it applies to hospital boards, but we want to be absolutely sure that there are not unintended consequences of applying it to hospital staff, because another part of the Francis report is on the importance of a culture of openness and transparency, and we do not want a culture of fear. We have therefore not ruled out criminal sanctions for hospital employees who breach a duty of candour—they already have a contractual duty of candour —but, as I said in my statement, we want to wait for the result of Don Berwick’s report on zero harm to ensure that we do not take any measure that impedes the openness we need in hospitals.
The inspection regime will apply to all providers. It is important that it should, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman, who mentioned private providers, that the problems happened at an NHS hospital. Trying to turn this into a debate on privatisation tells people that Labour is missing the point in the response to Francis.
We will not introduce statutory regulation of health care assistants, but we will introduce minimum standards of training for them. We will not introduce statutory regulation because we believe there is a risk that a database of 0.5 million to 1.5 million people could end up being a box-ticking exercise that fails to raise standards in the way we need. We believe we have another way to achieve the same end, which is what we will implement.
On nurse training, we believe it is important that nurses have hands-on experience of the front line, because nurses, when they are properly qualified, will be managing health care assistants. It is therefore important that nurses understand what it is like to be a health care assistant. We will be very careful in how we implement that to ensure that we do not create financial barriers because, obviously, we want to attract the best people into nursing, regardless of income.
On staffing levels and nursing numbers, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the problems at Mid Staffs happened when Labour was in power, when budgets were going up quite significantly, and when numbers were going up. To distil the problem to one of numbers is, again, to miss the point. This is about the values of the people on the ward. If he wants to talk about numbers, he must accept that, because this Government have protected the NHS budget, which he wants to cut from its current levels, there are 6,000 more clinical staff in the NHS today than there were at the time of the last election.
On Stafford hospital, it is extremely important that, when we have problems such as the ones at Mid Staffs, we create a structure that makes it impossible not to deal with them. That is a difficult process. We are announcing today a time-limited process to ensure that Ministers and the system cannot duck difficult decisions when we have a failing hospital. Obviously, we will follow the Monitor trust special administrators’ recommendations and look at them carefully, but it is important to address the issues. The wrong thing to do would be to fail to do so, because that would lead to clinical failure.
I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman broadly accepts the Francis recommendations. He asked whether we would respond to all of them. The inquiry was a public inquiry, which he refused to set up. As a result of that detailed public inquiry, there are 290 recommendations. It takes time to go through all of them in detail, but I thought it was right to come to the House today with our initial response so that we can get cracking with the important things right away.
Several hon. Members
Order. Dozens of colleagues are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that the Government have scheduled today three ministerial statements on important matters, and colleagues will note that there are three Back Bench-inspired debates to follow, in which 48 hon. Members are interested in speaking. There is therefore a real premium on time, and I must appeal for single, short supplementary questions and characteristically pithy replies.
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making a statement that helps to restore our confidence in the NHS, which has been so badly undermined by Labour’s appalling stewardship. Will he take steps to ensure that any complaints procedure provides protection to patients and relatives who raise concerns?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The thing about complaints procedures is that we must have a system that is not about process and whether there is a response to a complaint in three days. The question is whether a hospital looks at and learns from a complaints procedure and changes its behaviour. That is what the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and Professor Tricia Hart are looking into. Hospitals will be inspected against best practice to try to encourage as many of them as possible to adopt the very best complaints procedures.
The Secretary of State has announced that he will consult on a barring scheme to prevent managers who are found guilty of gross misconduct from finding a job in another part of the system. To how many managers of Mid Staffordshire would he expect that to apply?
The hon. Lady will know that, when it comes to individuals—appalled as I am, and as appalled as all hon. Members are, by what happened at Mid Staffs—I must try not to prejudge due process. If we are to bar people from employment, we must have a fair process and system and a right of appeal, which is required under our law anyway. However, I would not expect any manager responsible for the kind of things that happened at Mid Staffs to be able to get a job in the health service ever again.
Peter Walsh from Action against Medical Accidents has described the legally enforceable duty of candour as the
“the biggest advance in patient safety and patients rights in the history of the NHS.”
Does the Secretary of State agree?
I listened to Peter Walsh’s thoughtful contribution to the “Today” programme this morning. We will consider carefully whether to apply the statutory duty of candour, backed up with criminal sanctions, to hospital employees. The review on zero harm and creating the right culture in hospitals will report not in a long time, but before the summer break, so it is right to wait until we have it before making our final decision.
The Francis report said that three areas went wrong: the first was unprofessional behaviour; the second was a lack of leadership; and the third was that the overwhelming prevalent factors were lack of staff in terms of both absolute numbers and appropriate skills. Given that we have lost thousands of nursing posts in the past few years, is the Secretary of State missing the point?
If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to what I have said, he would know that the number of clinical staff has gone up by 6,000 since the last election, which would not have been possible had we cut the NHS budget, which is what Labour Front Benchers want. It is important to ensure that we have the right numbers in wards to care for people. That is exactly what the new chief inspector will look at. There is evidence that hospitals that have the highest and most respected standards of care ensure they have adequate numbers not just of nurses, but of health care assistants. The whole NHS needs to learn the lesson that it must not cut corners when it comes to care.
My right hon. Friend’s welcome statement shows just how important the inquiry was, and how vital its lessons will be for patient care and safety. The royal colleges have a great responsibility. Will he call them together on a regular basis to discuss how they are checking and raising standards in their professions to ensure first-class care for patients?
First, I thank my hon. Friend for his extraordinarily tireless work and for the extremely measured and mature attitude he has taken to the problems in the hospital, which is on his patch. Hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome that. He is right about the role of the royal colleges. There are some challenging suggestions in the Francis report for some of those colleges, but when we are seeking to raise standards, it is important that setting up that scorecard for the new chief inspector happens with the help of the royal colleges, whose business it is to raise standards in the NHS.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and we welcome the continuation of this discussion at the Health Committee. One of the recommendations of Francis was for the Secretary of State to look at the overlap between the CQC and Monitor, both of which were involved and have accepted they were part of the failings. Under the new inspection regime, will the chief inspector report to the Secretary of State or to the NHS Commissioning Board?
Neither. The chief inspector will report to the CQC. The hon. Lady is right that one of the problems is the overlapping roles and the confusion of roles. What we are announcing today is a significant change in the responsibilities of the CQC. It will no longer be involved in putting right problems in hospitals: its job will simply be to identify problems, so it is not compromised in its ability to be the nation’s whistleblower-in-chief. The responsibility for putting right problems will lie with Monitor, the NHS Trust Development Authority, the NHS Commissioning Board and the wider NHS system. We want to make sure that the chief inspector is unconstrained and unconflicted, when his or her team goes into hospitals, from shouting loudly if there is a problem and continuing to shout loudly until it is solved.
These changes all come against a background of other changes in the NHS, such as clinical commissioning groups, Healthwatch and health and wellbeing boards, and I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would be kind enough to put in the Library a plain person’s guide, so that we can understand how these new regulators, inspectors and various other bodies fit in with each other—who is accountable to whom—so we as constituency MPs will know whom to approach and on what occasion. I am sure that all these changes are very welcome, but we need to understand how they relate to each other.
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s sentiments are shared on both sides of the House. Indeed, I could have done with such a guide when I started this job last September. I am happy to do as he requests, but from today’s announcement the most important thing that the country should know is that when it comes to failures in care, the buck stops in one place. It will be the chief inspector’s job to identify such failures and shout publicly about them, and that will be an important clarification that the system needs.
This is not a debate about private or public, but will the Secretary of State ensure that the duty of candour is applied equally to private providers of NHS services?
Yes, it will be, as it will to providers in the social care sector.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that it is his intention that the statutory duty of candour—and the introduction of a ratings system—will apply to home care and care homes, not just NHS providers?
Yes, I can confirm that. My hon. Friend is right, because part of the big change that we need is to see a big increase in provision of domiciliary care, and an increase in the standard of that care.
The Secretary of State talks about severance and follow-on employment. Does he think it is acceptable that when the former chief executive of Morecambe Bay hospitals trust had to step down in February last year, because of the problems there, he was kept on the books in secret and paid £250,000 from local trust budgets—which could otherwise have gone to local health care—and was transferred to the NHS Confederation where his responsibilities could include teaching future leaders and helping to redesign the system?
That is the kind of shocking practice that is totally unacceptable.
I very much welcome the return of student nurses to the wards for a year of their training. Project 2000 has much to answer for. On the subject of resourcing and staff to patient ratios, may I remind my right hon. Friend that many of the reports we have seen in the last few years, criticising hospitals for poor care and lack of dignity in the care of older people in particular, have shown that wards in the same hospitals have had very different standards of care? How can that be about resourcing?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that these assessments are made not just at an organisation level, but drill down into the different parts of a hospital, and we have taken that message on board from the Nuffield report on ratings. She is right that it is not just about resources, but sometimes it is about resources. Parts of a hospital can be understaffed when it comes to people who are required to perform basic and important roles in terms of care. Because it is a complex picture—and because numbers can be part of the problem, but are certainly not the whole problem—we want a chief inspector who will take a holistic view of every aspect of the performance of a hospital and be able to give proper feedback that a hospital can use to improve its performance.
May I press the Health Secretary on this point? I have raised several times the point that adequate staffing levels are crucial to patient safety and good care, but we seem to dodge around saying that it is a question of values, not of numbers. Francis said clearly that one of the issues was numbers. I have given examples of my local hospital, which views it as crucial that it has the right staffing mix, which it adjusts every single day, for the patients that it has. Will he stop avoiding this question and address it directly, because one in 10 hospitals do not have adequate staffing levels?
I am not avoiding it. I agree that adequate staffing levels are essential to patient care. I remind the hon. Lady that the shadow Health Secretary said to the Francis inquiry:
“I do not think that the Government could ever mandate a headcount in organisations. Whilst we could recommend staff levels, we were moving into an era when trusts were being encouraged to work differently and cleverly, and take responsibility for delivering safe care whilst meeting targets”.
The Secretary of State rightly talks about a betrayal of trust of the worst kind, and he is right. He is also right about zero harm, and about much else that he has done. But there is one serious omission—of accountability—and that must be robust and include the resignation of Sir David Nicholson. I also apportion responsibility to those former Secretaries of State who were not called to give evidence but bear a heavy responsibility for not having done the right thing at the right time.
My hon. Friend knows that I have a different view of the level of responsibility of Sir David Nicholson, but I agree that everyone working in the system at that time shares some responsibility for what happened. We must make sure that it can never happen again. The accountability that we are introducing, including criminal sanctions for boards that fail in their statutory duties, will be a significant change. The body that was responsible for what went wrong at Mid Staffs, according to Francis, was the board of the hospital, so that is where our focus must be. Today is also about getting the right structures outside the hospital to make sure there is accountability there too.
The Secretary of State has referred to the fact the chief inspector will inspect hospital performance at specialty or department level. How will that be done? If records, paperwork and bureaucracy are being reduced in hospitals, will hospitals’ own records be used to make those assessments or will the inspector use other information?
Of course we need to rely on good information being supplied by hospitals, and that is why we have said today that it will be a criminal offence for hospitals knowingly to supply wrong information. This goes back to an earlier question, and we will work closely with outside bodies, such as the royal colleges, to ensure that we establish the best way to judge, for example, cancer survival rates. One of the lessons of the success of measuring heart surgery survival rates is the importance of having a good risk-adjustment process in place. We will do that across the other 10 specialties that I announced today.
Although I acknowledge the Secretary of State’s genuine desire to improve hospital standards by the introduction of his new inspectorate, I am concerned about the further reliance on systems above individual responsibility. Will he assure the House that his new inspectorate will not become yet another component of the merry-go-round of management employment schemes currently found in the NHS? Will he also assure me that those implicated in previous hospital management scandals will not be employed as inspectors in the future?
My hon. Friend is right: we have to ensure that the inspectorate works in the successful way that Ofsted has worked in the school system, and does not make the mistakes that have been made by other regulators inside the NHS system. It is important that it is based on respected peer review, is thorough and is respected in terms of the input that it is able to give hospitals on improving their performance. We will work hard to make sure that we deliver that.
Who is expected to pay for the additional year that nurses will spend as health care assistants?
We are piloting the scheme to ensure that we do not end up discriminating against nurses for financial reasons. We want to attract the best people into the profession, whatever their financial background.
Every time there is a scandal, the response of the British political establishment is to load more controls, accountability and bureaucracy on professionals, yet every nurse and doctor I meet is fed up with what already happens. As a result of the reforms, will the Secretary of State assure us that we will now trust professionals to get on with the job they love?
I agree with those sentiments strongly. In parallel to this process and these changes, I have asked the NHS Confederation to recommend how we can reduce the bureaucratic burden on hospital front-line staff by a third, precisely because I want to avoid the issues that my hon. Friend mentions. This is about freeing up time for people at the front line, and one way is to have an inspection system in which everyone has confidence. Once there is the confidence that problems will be identified, it becomes much easier, as has happened in the education system, to give more freedom to people on the front line.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The public inquiry has been thorough, with new standards put in place and lessons learned from the NHS in Staffordshire. Health in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. Will he confirm that the report will be sent to the Northern Ireland Assembly Health Minister, Edwin Poots, so that improvements and guidelines can be improved for everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I am happy to do so.
May I commend my right hon. Friend’s emphasis on leadership? In Colchester, we have seen periods of good and bad leadership, and good leadership is self-evidently the right answer to hospital management. Can I therefore ask him to lay more emphasis on what constitutes good leadership and trust between good leaders and their employees in the health service right through the system, including from Sir David Nicholson downwards, and not to rely overmuch on regulation, which is no substitute for good leadership?
I agree wholeheartedly. It is very important that we understand that the benefit of the new inspection regime will not just be that it identifies failing hospitals, but outstanding hospitals too, so that we have a good model of leadership in the system from which other managers can learn. Yes, it is really important to have the right relationships between managers and their staff, but we should not mandate or regulate that from the centre. We want to have a system where people can learn from each other.
I received a distressing piece of constituency casework yesterday that underlines the importance of the announcement my right hon. Friend has made today. Does he feel that his reforms will build more of a culture of compassion in nursing care?
That is at the heart of what the reforms intend to achieve. An organisation as complex and as large as the NHS needs corporate objectives and targets—for example, we need to do a lot better on dementia—and we do set system-wide objectives. However, we have to ensure that those objectives, set by whichever party happens to be in power, never compromise the fundamental care and compassion that needs to be at the heart of what the NHS does. We are putting in the safeguards that ensure that that cannot happen.
Given the mobility of both the work force and students, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the devolved Administrations regarding the proposed changes to funding nurse places and training?
We have not had those discussions yet, but we will be introducing them through pilot schemes to give the devolved Administrations plenty of time to talk to us about any knock-on impacts they may have in their areas.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the decision to grant foundation trust status to Mid Staffs in 2008 was catastrophic in terms of the trust taking its eye off the ball and focusing on targets rather than on care, and that, now it is being abolished just five years later, never again must a Government pressurise a trust into a particular organisational form just to validate its ideological policy, rather than because it improves the care of patients?
I would also like to thank my hon. Friend for the work that he does for his local hospital in difficult circumstances directly involved in this terrible scandal. I agree with him: the corporate objective to become a foundation trust overrode everything else in the hospital, at huge expense to patient care. We must never allow that to happen again.
What most people want when they use the NHS is a reliable, accessible service, and to know that when something goes wrong somebody will be held to account and brought to book. Clearly, that has not happened. What can the Secretary of State say to reassure our constituents that people will be held accountable on an individual level, and that we will not see this happen again?
That accountability is extremely important and happens on many different levels. In particular, we have professional codes of conduct for doctors and nurses, so that in the exceptional situations where those codes are breached, we know, as members of the public, they will be held to account. Those are done at arm’s length from the Government by the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, but we are talking to them about why it is that still no doctor or nurse has been struck off following what happened at Mid Staffs—I think that is completely wrong.
I know I repeat myself, but adequate registered nurse-to-patient ratios are often at the heart of these failings, yet on page 68 of the report my right hon. Friend rejects the idea of any kind of national benchmarking or guidelines with regard to patient ratios. Will my right hon. Friend keep an open mind and meet me, Professor Elizabeth Robb of the Florence Nightingale Foundation and others from the profession so that we can explore this issue?
We are not saying that minimum standards of adequate staffing levels are not needed, but we reject the idea that they should be mandated from the centre—I think there is cross-party agreement on that. The chief inspector will look at and highlight the reasons for poor care and, if they are due to inadequate staffing levels, ensure that something is done about it.
On the rare occasions when a clinician or other member of hospital staff raises a problem and it is not taken care of, may I suggest that employers have a box in which to put in a note saying what the problem is? There should be a receipt so that if there is an inquiry later, it can be shown what the hospital should have paid attention to right at the beginning.
That sounds like something that would definitely encourage the duty of candour that we have been talking about today. I am sure that different hospitals will want to have different ways of doing that, but we will definitely note my hon. Friend’s comments.
Staffing levels are important, but so are bed numbers. Many of the 41,000 beds lost under the previous Government were in my constituency. Consequently, we have massive pressure on beds, wards on purple alerts and very high mortality rates. Will any inspection regime include an assessment of safe bed levels?
The inspection regime will of course cover such issues as part of its inspection of whether basic standards of care are being met. Yes, of course such issues matter, but there are challenges beyond what an inspection regime can deliver which we will need to address to deal with these issues. In particular, a problem we are wrestling with at the moment is who will take responsibility for the frail elderly when they are discharged from hospital. One reason why they stay in hospital for a long time is because geriatricians are nervous about sending them back into the community. They do not think anyone will take responsibility for them and that is something we have to look at.
On the respective roles of CQC and Monitor, can my right hon. Friend indicate that he expects Monitor to use the full regulatory tools at its disposal and give appropriate challenge to the boards of foundation trusts and hospitals where failure is indicated?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the changes we are announcing today is that, in the case of foundation trusts, CQC will be delegating its enforcement powers to Monitor so that it has more powers to insist on necessary changes and ensure that fundamental standards are not being breached.
Will my right hon. Friend note that the Patients Association and campaigners such as the Powell family in Wales will not be satisfied by what he has had to say about the duty of candour until we have a full statutory duty in line with what Robert Francis recommended?
We will have a full statutory duty, in line with what Robert Francis says, when it comes to the boards of hospitals. We are carefully considering whether that should apply to individual hospital employees, but we want to wait until we have Don Berwick’s review of zero harm.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the best system in the world will not succeed if individuals who behave inhumanely get away with it and people who observe them behaving inhumanely do not report it? I therefore re-emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) has just said: if individuals see this inhumane behaviour, they must report it.
I agree with what my hon. Friend says.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, particularly the parts about where perverse effects of the old target culture kick into the NHS. When the dust has settled on the Francis report and its conclusions, will he look at targets that affect the ambulance service and how they directly affect rural communities across the country?
We will absolutely do that, but I should also reassure my hon. Friend that the inspection regime will apply to the ambulance service as well as hospital trusts.
I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, but does he share my sorrow that it has taken so long and so many deaths to reach this stage, when Labour was presented with reports by Don Berwick himself highlighting bad quality assessment, when 120 bodies had overlapping responsibilities and when he said that patient safety was not central to the NHS? Is it not tragic that it has taken this long?
I thank my hon. Friend. Sadly, I agree with her sentiments. We have a responsibility to ensure that we have structures in place that make it impossible to delay addressing these difficult issues. That is the central challenge that I now face.
We are fortunate to have a high-performing general hospital in Keighley and Ilkley, but does my right hon. Friend agree that even hospitals such as Airedale hospital must not be complacent? Quality must be paramount. Every member of staff has a responsibility to deliver the high level of compassionate care that he spoke about.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I visited Airedale hospital and was very impressed with the level of care I saw there. It is one of the only hospital trusts in the country—if not the only one—where doctors can see the full history of what patients going into A and E have been prescribed by their GPs, which has an important impact on patient safety.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the action he has taken, particularly re-instilling the importance of compassion in the NHS and the changes he is proposing to the training of nurses. Can he inform the House of any other NHS trust where similar concerns are being investigated?
One of the problems at the moment is that we do not have a good way of identifying other hospitals. The hospital inspection regime will start this year. That will obviously be the start, but prior to that we are conducting an investigation into 14 hospitals with higher than average mortality rates. That is one indicator: it might not mean there is a problem, but it is something we think is worth checking out.
Finally, let me say that my hon. Friend has an extremely good record on improving standards in education by understanding the importance of rigour. That is something we can learn from in the inspection regime for hospitals.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any revised patient care ratings include an enhanced emphasis on the degree to which things are explained clearly to patients and relatives and how relatives are kept informed?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is absolutely essential that the new chief inspector’s team talks to patients and relatives to get that feedback. One of the biggest changes from what we have now to what we will have is the element of judgment in the assessments made. We will not just be looking at the data, the dials or the numbers; there will be someone going to a hospital, smelling the coffee, understanding the culture of the place and talking to patients and relatives.
I commend the Secretary of State for his statement and for what I think is an absolutely outstandingly powerful report. However, I have concerns about recently proposed changes to the consultant-led maternity services at Eastbourne district general hospital. Will he confirm for the record that any changes that I and others have concerns about will be considered by the new chief inspector of hospitals?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenious segue. All hospitals—all NHS trusts—will be inspected by the chief inspector, so everything that happens at Eastbourne will be covered by the new regime. It will be strong, rigorous and independent, so that any concerns that my hon. Friend has should be picked up by anything that the chief inspector reports on.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the future of our railways. It is a positive future. It is almost 50 years ago to the day since Dr Beeching published his report. No one would have imagined then, or even 20 years ago, when the Government privatised the railways, which were still in decline, that the industry would now be booming. Traffic has doubled since privatisation, from 750 million journeys a year to 1.5 billion now. There are more services and record levels of investment, and our railways have the best recent safety record in Europe. That has not been achieved despite privatisation; it has been achieved because of privatisation.
Today I am setting out a programme that can achieve even more, because our country has to compete for jobs and growth. We need a transport system that is second to none, so we are spending unprecedented sums on infrastructure, such as Crossrail, the biggest construction project in Europe, and the northern hub cross-Manchester link, which will transform services across the Pennines. In return, it is right that we demand more from the industry, because for the money that passengers and taxpayers are putting in, we should expect ambition, innovation and even better performance for passengers. This is the way we are going to get it.
Last year, serious and unacceptable mistakes were made when it came to refranchising the west coast main line, but I have put in place a new structure and process in the Department, as the Laidlaw report recommended. In January, I announced our initial proposals for the three franchises most immediately affected: Great Western, Essex Thameside and Thameslink. Today I can confirm that I am accepting the next stage of the findings of the Brown review of rail franchising. I am also pleased that Richard Brown has agreed to chair a new franchise advisory board. I am publishing its terms of reference today. The Brown review called for a full refranchising programme to be announced by the end of April. I am pleased to be announcing it today.
I want to be as open as possible with the market, which is why I am publishing a prior information notice to set out not just the programme for franchising, but the way in which franchises will be let and the benefits they will bring. In doing so, I have applied three principles: first, that the passenger gains; secondly, that the rail industry thrives, with growing companies and new competitors coming into the market; and thirdly, that the taxpayer gains, through a more efficient use of public money and less waste in the industry. Those three principles are essential points on which the future of our railways rests.
Let me turn in detail to what I am announcing today —a programme that will give great improvements to the passenger, certainty to industry and a fair deal to the taxpayer. It will provide stability, so that we can invest more, and flexibility, so that different routes with different demands can be managed in different ways. The programme will also give fair weight to passenger satisfaction, which has not always been respected as it should have been, with long-term franchises that can run for up to 15 years if operators meet the standards they promise at the start. To ensure a competitive market, we will hold no more than three to four competitions a year, starting with a smaller number as the programme gets up to full speed and extending up to 12 current franchises to give certainty to passengers and allow the full programme to get under way.
There are those who would like our railways to go back to the days of state ownership, decline and under-investment. They are wrong. I share the view of the last Labour Government, who said that franchising worked. In 2009, Ministers brought in Directly Operated Railways on the east coast as a short-term stand-in. They did what was needed in difficult circumstances, but the east coast main line, upgraded in the 1980s, now needs revitalising. New trains, to be built in the north-east, are now on order. Now is the right time to invite bidders to put forward proposals for investing and improving those services. This will be the first of the new inter-city franchises to be awarded in 2014 in a programme that meets my three essential principles of better service, better competition and better value.
I wish to make one final point. The Beeching report was about closures and cutbacks, but its 50th anniversary tomorrow sees an industry marked by growth, not decline—investing in High Speed 2 for the future, as well as providing better services today. That is why I am pleased to announce the front runners in our fund to open new stations. They are Lea Bridge in Walthamstow, Pye Corner in Newport West and Ilkeston in Erewash. I expect to announce further winners soon. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. He inherited a Department in crisis and a rail franchising system in chaos. I acknowledge that he has had to work hard to try to put things back on track. He has rightly reversed many of the decisions of his two predecessors, not least by restoring some of the key posts in the Department that had recklessly been axed by them. We welcome the speed with which the right hon. Gentleman has worked with Richard Brown and his departmental officials to put together the plans he has set out today. However, it is also true that his revised franchising timetable has exposed the full impact of the failure of his predecessors, all of whom either remain in the Cabinet or have been promoted to it.
The Great Western contract will be awarded in July 2016—three years and three months later than planned. The west coast contract will not be awarded until April 2017—four years and four months late. Some competitions are to be delayed by as much as 50 months—not five months, but 50—yet instead of focusing on the chaos in franchising caused by his Government’s incompetence, the Secretary of State has decided to embark on an unnecessary and costly privatisation of the east coast inter-city services—a privatisation due to take place weeks before the date of the next general election.
The right hon. Gentleman hinted that investment was dependent on that happening, but will he acknowledge that the planned investment in the east coast main line, to be delivered by Network Rail, and the new generation of inter-city trains will happen regardless of this privatisation? Is it not the case that Directly Operated Railways has reinvested all of its £40 million profit in the east coast service on top of the £640 million paid to Government, with every pound of profit going back in for the benefit of passengers? That profit will, under the Secretary of State’s new plans, be shared with shareholders in future. Instead of talking down the current operator of the east coast, will he join me in praising the team there for the work they have done, and think again about his plans?
Will the Secretary of State update the House on the latest cost of the franchising fiasco, not least since his Department appears to be facing legal action from several more train operating companies? Will he correct the claim in his Department’s press notice today that this is the first time that a full franchise timetable has been published? I have with me the previous full timetable that was inherited from the previous Government and republished by his Government. Does he accept that what has changed is simply the fact that all the competitions have now been delayed?
The Secretary of State has also changed the proposed order of the competitions, leading in some cases to very long extensions to existing contracts. What is his thinking behind that decision? Will he clarify the role of the new franchising advisory board that Richard Brown recommended in his review and is now to chair? The first version of the written ministerial statement this morning stated that it would be a cross-industry body and that it would support bidders, but the corrected version appears to have dropped those claims. What, then, is it to do exactly?
What has happened to the Government’s previous enthusiasm for devolution? Will the right hon. Gentleman update the House on discussions with transport authorities covering the Northern and TransPennine franchises and services in the midlands? Does he still anticipate devolving responsibility at the revised start date for these franchises? Have the Government given further consideration to the calls from the Mayor of London and Transport for London for devolution of the remaining former Network SouthEast services?
For the sake of passengers, taxpayers and those working across the rail industry, the whole House wants to see us get beyond the problems of the past year. I wish the Secretary of State well in doing that, but I urge him to focus his efforts on getting back on track the bits of the system that need fixing, rather than those that do not.
I thank the hon. Lady for her response to my statement. It was not quite as warm as that of the CBI, Passenger Focus or the British Chambers of Commerce, which were much fuller in their acknowledgement of our putting the future for the rail industry so clearly.
The hon. Lady has obviously forgotten what the last Labour Secretary of State, the noble Lord Adonis, said on 9 February 2010:
“The Government believe that the ability of private sector operators to attract more passengers, grow the market, improve the service and receive revenue benefits of such actions is a key element in the current franchise model and one of the reasons for the significant growth delivered in recent years.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 February 2010; Vol. 717, c. WA122.]
It is certainly true that we are talking about a huge growth in rail traffic and rail transportation, with people relying on the railways. I could go on to quote—but I know you prefer shorter answers, Mr Speaker—the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who occupied my position before the last general election, as he praised the role of franchising.
I believe that the east coast line should be the first under the new system. I pay tribute to the work done by Directly Operated Railways, which has operated it, but when the hon. Lady talks about figures, she should look at the track access charges paid in control period 3 by National Express when it ran the east coast line. It paid £210 million in track access charges, whereas DOR now has to pay its track access charges of £92 million. [Interruption.] I can tell the shadow Leader of the House that that was paid in the year to which I referred.
That explains why we have set out a very clear set of proposals about where we are going, notifying the industry about the future, which I think is a bright one, and setting out the huge investment that we—and, indeed, Network Rail—are putting into the rail industry.
Several hon. Members
Order. A great many hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that a further statement is to follow and then no fewer than three Back-Bench-inspired debates to which 48 Members wish to contribute. There is therefore a premium on brevity for Back and Front-Bench Members alike.
It is evident from today’s announcements that the Secretary of State’s Department will be under a great deal of pressure to deliver a vast programme of infrastructure projects. That pressure has obviously been intensified by the west coast main line franchise failure and of course the recent judicial review failure on the consultation process for HS2. Given those failures, what reassurances can the Secretary of State give us that his Department is still not overstretched and under-resourced?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what I think was support at least for what I am doing on franchising. She talks about judicial reviews, but it is fair to say that of the 10 judicial reviews on HS2, the Department was found not to be wanting in nine cases. Only one judicial review went against us, and I am fully prepared to accept it. I wish the protesters, too, would accept the decisions made by the courts.
I can assure my right hon. Friend that my Department has the resources, and I am mindful of what Sam Laidlaw said in his report about what needed to be put into operation, and we have done that. I think that the Government’s setting up of the franchising advisory board was important—I am sorry that I failed to respond to the hon. Lady’s point about it earlier. It will report directly to the Government and to my advisory board on how the franchises are doing. I am sorry that a mistake was put out in one of the earlier press notices.
I am disappointed that there has been no mention of the word “fares” in any of the statements so far. Will the Secretary of State clarify what he will do to bring down fares, and what he will do about staffed ticket offices?
I think the hon. Gentleman will know that we are undertaking a full review of fares. That will report later this year, probably in June; the date may move a bit, but I hope it will report in June. He will make his points on fares during that review. However, I would point out that, on a number of routes, cheap fares are available if people book in advance.
By deciding to refranchise the east coast main line, we risk not being able to assess whether the public sector or the private sector is best for the passenger, the taxpayer and the railways in general. Surely as a minimum, therefore, we should allow Directly Operated Railways to bid for the franchise.
That is not the case—Directly Operated Railways is not a company in its own right; it is a company owned by the Department for Transport. We will certainly be able to see how the companies are doing. The process will be open. I have already seen reports, although I have not had it confirmed, that Virgin will put in a bid for the east coast main line, and a lot of people were very happy with the service they received on the west coast main line.
On that very point, given that Directly Operated Railways is owned by the Department for Transport, surely the Secretary of State could instruct Directly Operated Railways to put in a public sector comparative bid so that we can judge who will provide best value for money and best value for the customers.
I would just point out to the hon. Gentleman, who has been in the House some time, that he was very happy to support a Government whose Secretary of State said:
“I do not believe that it would be in the public interest for us to have a nationalised train operating company indefinitely”. —[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2009; Vol. 712, c. 232.]
The east coast main line is integral to the economy of Peterborough, and my constituents are concerned about value for money, punctuality and cleanliness. The Secretary of State rightly mentions the PAC report, which found that this Government inherited systemic lack of leadership and of oversight, miscalculation of risk capital and failure to heed legal advice. Is he absolutely convinced that, in respect of the east coast main line, we have learnt those lessons and that mistakes will not be made again?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we have learnt a number of lessons as a result of what happened with the west coast franchise. I well understand the importance to his constituents of the service that is provided on the east coast main line. It will be one of the first lines to get the new intercity express programme trains, which are due to come into service in 2018-19.
As a north-east MP, I have been approached by a number of the companies that hope to bid for the east coast line, all of which are backed by foreign countries. Why does the Secretary of State think that it is not okay for the Government to run British railways, but it is okay for the French, German and Dutch to run them?
I think I pointed out clearly in the statement the vast growth we have seen in the railways. I do not think that that would have happened without privatisation. We have seen levels of investment that were not seen beforehand. I point out to the hon. lady the simple fact that I inherited the system of franchising that operated under the previous Government.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Can he give a bit more detail on how he will increase competition and improve efficiency on the railways?
Reading station, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, has seen a major refurbishment. That will make a huge difference. There will be closures over Easter, but more platforms will open and the work at the station will conclude in two years. About £800 million has been invested. We would not be investing that kind of money if we were not getting a good return for the passenger, his constituents and those who are served further along that line by First Great Western.
Passengers on the east coast main line have twice suffered the catastrophic collapse of a private franchise. What guarantee can the Secretary of State give that whichever company gets the new franchise will not collapse, and will the railway headquarters remain in York?
As for where the headquarters will be, that will depend on the case that is put forward by the various companies that I hope will compete for the franchise. The hon. Gentleman is right: two franchises collapsed under the previous Government, so that and this Government have both had some problems with franchising. I hope we have learnt our lessons. The rail industry has become a lot better at competing for these franchises.
The Secretary of State rightly spoke of the innovation and ambition that he expects from the new franchise companies. Can he assure me that that innovation and ambition will extend to providing services off the east coast main line, most notably to Cleethorpes?
I am certainly willing to discuss in greater detail with my hon. Friend the services to his constituency, which I know have been very badly disrupted because of earth movements, which must be put right; the work is taking longer than we would have hoped.
The Secretary of State says that success on the railways has been achieved because of privatisation. The rolling stock in east Lancashire must be among the worst in the UK—it is absolutely dreadful. Privatisation has certainly not worked. The northern franchise is coming up, so what will he do to ensure that my constituents and others in east Lancashire benefit from that success?
A lot of rolling stock has been and is being ordered. I hope to see a roll-out to all areas, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
I very much welcome the statement as a sensible way forward for franchising, but may I urge my right hon. Friend to use the temporary extension of the west coast franchise to urge Virgin and London Midland to work together temporarily to ease overcrowding on services from Euston, in the evening peak at least, until the full franchise is let and London Midland’s new train order comes through?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who follows this subject particularly closely, not just for his constituents but as a member of the Select Committee on Transport. I know that he sent me and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport a fairly comprehensive letter, which I hope to respond to shortly, and I will see what can be done.
This morning, a statement by the Secretary of State’s own company, Directly Operated Railways, on the east coast main line said:
“Since 2009, the East Coast business has been transformed. The Company has returned more than £640 million in cash to the taxpayer”.
That is not because of privatisation, but because the public sector bailed out the private sector. There is huge support for continued public ownership. The private sector has already let down the travelling public on this route twice. Why risk it again when we are returning so much money to the taxpayer?
I was simply referring to what was said by the Secretary of State in the previous Government. It was a short-term measure. By putting out the franchise to the private sector, there will be better services. That is what I am interested in. I am not particularly interested in who owns it. I am interested in getting better services to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who want to take advantage of them.
Although I welcome the new station for Derbyshire, can the Secretary of State assure me that it will not be serviced at the expense of two other stations on that line, namely Alfreton and Langley Mill?
I think that that was a welcome for the new station and for the greater investment. Of course one always has to strike a balance when these cases are put forward, but I think that Ilkeston, Derbyshire county council and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) made a strong case for why Ilkeston should be successful. The case was judged by a panel that did not include me, and I am very pleased that Ilkeston has been successful.
So much for the Government’s grand promises to radically change franchising—only three franchises will be let before the next election. Some of the extension periods are enormous, following the extensions that operators have already had. What guarantees has the Secretary of State had that there will be investment by those companies during the extension periods?
I can assure the hon. Lady that there will be investment during those periods. In anything where I negotiate directly in awarding contracts, I look at the way services can be improved, and I hope to be able to make a statement shortly on some of those particular services.
The Secretary of State will be aware that Southeastern is consistently one of the worst performing and most expensive train operating companies in the country. Can he therefore explain why it has been given the longest extension—50 months? Can he assure my constituents that the extension is not a reward for failure? What opportunity will passengers have to engage in the process of direct awards as it is finalised?
None of these direct awards will be made without getting the maximum we can out of the companies, talking to them and getting improvements in services. Where there have been let-downs, I will certainly want the companies concerned to address those problems.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that there is indeed a public sector comparator for Britain’s railways: the nationalised railway systems on the continent of Europe? McNulty found that they are up to 40% cheaper to run than ours. We have the highest fares in Europe and a ballooning public subsidy. Is not keeping the railways in the private sector just driven by ideology and a desire to put public money into private pockets?
I am somewhat surprised—I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was expressing support for the McNulty recommendation that we should take costs out of the railways. I did not expect such support from the hon. Gentleman, but any help I can get, I am always happy to bag.
The First Great Western franchise runs old trains with no wi-fi, and often no food, through run-down stations. Commuters in Cornwall and Devon would welcome average-speed rail, let alone high-speed rail. What can the Secretary of State do to push investment in this route before July 2016?
I know the hon. Gentleman was unable to attend my meeting with First Great Western because of other engagements. I am very keen to improve services, particularly in his part of the country. I am going there in a little while to look at those services first hand, and I will certainly pass on the representations he has made when I have discussions with First Great Western—and Network Rail, as both are involved.
Can the Secretary of State give a cast-iron guarantee that any east coast main line franchisee will at the very least be obliged to retain the existing level of service north of Edinburgh through my constituency to Aberdeen?
That is something I need to talk to the Scottish Government about.
I welcome the certainty today’s statement brings and the opening of the east coast main line franchise. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that passenger gain will be at the forefront of the franchising process?
I assure my hon. Friend that we are going to take passengers’ views very much into account in this system. That has not happened before, and today Passenger Focus has welcomed that development. It is part of the judgement that we must make when considering whether franchises are achieving their targets.
Is the Secretary of State aware that tomorrow, to mark the 50th anniversary of Beeching, passenger groups and trade unions will demonstrate outside 80 railway stations against privatisation and job losses? Will he protect passenger safety and rule out job losses on the railways?
I am not sure the hon. Lady was listening to my statement. I pointed out that we have had a better safety record on our railways in the past few years than for a number of years, and we are one of the safest rail operators in Europe. Jobs have been created as a result of more people using the railways. Privatisation has doubled the number of people using the railways. I would have expected the hon. Lady to welcome that, and unions to be out welcoming it too.
In the light of the 27-month extension that has been given to the Greater Anglia franchise, what improvements to services will be appended to the existing franchise as a condition, so that local commuters see improvements to the service before the next franchise comes up?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, along with colleagues from the Greater Anglia area, have given me a pamphlet setting out the changes being made. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), does not lose an opportunity to tell us how we must improve the services used by not only my hon. Friend’s constituents, but his.
The Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) was disturbing. He said that he was not bothered who would run the franchise or where they came from, and could not confirm where such a company would be headquartered. Can he not use the tendering process to ensure that these details are nailed down and that the headquarters are in the United Kingdom?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman is taking me out of context. What I said was that my main concern is the service to the passenger, which I care very much about and want to see improve. The location of the headquarters will be up to the individual franchisees when they put their case forward, and they may make strong representations.
The Secretary of State and I, and our constituents, use the midland main line. Will he confirm when the franchise is up for renewal, and will he allow prospective bidders to come forward with proposals for new electric trains, instead of the Department insisting that they use recycled trains from other lines?
The date of the new contract for East Midlands will be mid-way through 2017, and a direct-operated tender deal will come to fruition in 2015. I hope my hon. Friend accepts that the fact that electrification of that line is included in next set of Network Rail works shows our commitment to it. I know how important—
In the next Parliament.
The hon. Lady says that, but the process starts in 2014, which is in this Parliament. I can assure her that 2014 will be in this Parliament, not the next Parliament, in which case we will be electrifying that line.
Before she attends to her next pressing commitment, let us hear from Catherine McKinnell.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I agree with the Secretary of State that if our country is to compete on jobs and growth, we need a transport infrastructure that is second to none. Can he therefore reassure me that today’s announcement is in no way driven by the view expressed by the chief executive of the North Eastern local enterprise partnership that there is no need to invest in north-east transport, and that he does not share that view?
There is every need to invest in transport across the United Kingdom, and LEPs have a very important role to play. I have not seen the exact quote, and I should like to see it in context.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on today’s statement, particularly the great news about Ilkeston station, which will immediately transform and regenerate the area by providing connectivity. Is this the new dawn for the National Forest line—the old Ivanhoe line; can we look forward to that, too?
I am sure I will hear a lot more about the Ivanhoe line from my hon. Friend. I am pleased that she welcomes the opening of the station at Ilkeston, along with the other two stations I have announced today. There will be further work on that, but she is right: the fact that I, as Transport Secretary, have appeared at the Dispatch Box today is a reflection of Members wanting more services. That is why it is so important that we get the investment levels right and the train companies operating the kind of services passengers want.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the open access slot on the east coast main line will still be available to services such as Hull Trains and will not be rolled up in any franchise tender document?
Wiltshire’s passenger rail offer stands to benefit from a multi-million pound grant from the coalition Government’s local sustainable transport fund. Now that the future of the franchise is clear, what is the Secretary of State’s advice to the promoter, Wiltshire council, and to First Great Western? Is it more “wait and see”, or that they should now get on with it?
I think I would need a bit more notice before answering that question. If my hon. Friend writes to me, I will look at the issues in more detail. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), says, “Just get on with it.”
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Thameslink and Southern Railway recently announced new rolling stock to operate from the four stations within my constituency. Can he assure me that the changes to rail franchising announced today will not affect the delivery of that rolling stock?
It certainly should not affect the delivery of the new trains. I know of no reason why it should and if I am wrong, I will obviously write to my hon. Friend.
Portsmouth’s experience of franchises awarded under the last Government was that the rolling stock was downgraded from the agreement. When will passenger comfort and service standards be written into the agreements, to ensure that passengers have access to a toilet and that commuters are not crippled by suburban rolling stock being used on main line routes?
I am very disturbed to hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will certainly look into her points and get back to her in more detail in the very near future.
There have been massive improvements on the west coast main line since privatisation and Virgin, but one way to improve things in the future—to continue improving competition and to keep down costs—would be by encouraging more operators to enter the market. Is there anything in my right hon. Friend’s statement that would encourage open access operators to come in on more existing services?
There are some open access services, to which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) referred, on the east coast main line. I believe that applications for other open access services are with the Office of the Rail Regulator at the moment. I am happy to look at those and act on advice when I get it from the rail regulator.
Rail users in Rugby will welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about the Virgin franchise being extended on the west coast main line. Will he reassure my constituents that an extra 29 months will be enough to encourage Virgin to continue to invest in the railway?
I know that Virgin is keen to continue with investments on that line and is happy to receive representations, both from my hon. Friend and from me, if good cases are made for investment that has a positive return.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. May I also thank him for reducing train fares in the south-east by reducing the retail prices index plus 3% provision to RPI plus 1%? Under the previous Government, Southeastern had RPI plus 3% whereas the rest of the country had RPI plus 1%, and that was exceptionally unfair.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The truth is that we are putting massive further investment into the railways. That has to be paid for by both the fare payer and the taxpayer, but it is right that we try to get that balance right. I am pleased that the Chancellor was able to take the increases down to RPI plus 1%, not only for this year, but for next year.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and his intent to put the interests of passengers at the heart of rail franchising. The best interests of rail passengers in my constituency would be served by the reinstatement of fast off-peak services to Nuneaton, which were taken away by the previous Labour Government in 2008. Will he come to Nuneaton and meet me to discuss this vital issue at greater length?
I am certainly more than happy to meet my hon. Friend at Nuneaton station. I believe that a date is going in my diary this afternoon—if it was not already, it will be now.
Suffolk commuters will be disappointed by the delay, although they are used to it as passengers, even though things have improved under Abellio. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that this will not deter or delay the needed investment in the freight line from Felixstowe to Nuneaton?
The announcements I have made today will have nothing to do with the freight line. Again, I make the point to my hon. Friend that we are seeing not only an increase in passenger numbers, but a huge increase in the amount of freight using our railways—I believe that the figure is about 60%. I know that most colleagues and the general public welcome that very much.
Order. Questions from 34 Back Benchers were answered by the Secretary of State in 25 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time, which is an impressive record. Might I suggest that rather than sending his ministerial colleagues an Easter egg, the Secretary of State should send a DVD of the statement and the exchanges on it, which will be a great example for them to follow in the future?
On a point of order—
The hon. Gentleman wants to raise a point of order, but I am afraid that he will have to be patient. There is another statement, and statements come before points of order, as the hon. Gentleman, having been here 11 years, should know.
UK Border Agency
I think the words “follow that one” come to mind, Mr Speaker.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the future of the UK Border Agency. Since 2010, the Government have been getting to grips with the chaotic immigration system we inherited. We have introduced a limit on economic migration from outside the EU, cut out abuse of student visas and reformed family visas—as a result, net migration is down by a third. We have also started to get to grips with the performance of the organisations that enforce our immigration laws: through the Crime and Courts Bill, we are setting up a National Crime Agency with a border policing command; the UK Passport Service continues to operate to a high standard; and since we split the Border Force from UKBA last year, 98% of passengers go through passport control within target times and Border Force meets all its passenger service targets.
However, the performance of what remains of UKBA is still not good enough. The agency struggles with the volume of its casework, which has led to historical backlogs running into the hundreds of thousands; the number of illegal immigrants removed does not keep up with the number of people who are here illegally; and while the visa operation is internationally competitive, it could and should get better still. The Select Committee on Home Affairs has published many critical reports about UKBA’s performance. As I have said to the House before, the agency has been a troubled organisation since it was formed in 2008, and its performance is not good enough.
In truth, the agency was not set up to absorb the level of mass immigration that we saw under the last Government. That meant that it has never had the space to modernise its structures and systems, and get on top of its work load. I believe that the agency’s problems boil down to four main issues: the first is the sheer size of the agency, which means that it has conflicting cultures and all too often focuses on the crisis in hand at the expense of other important work; the second is its lack of transparency and accountability; the third is its inadequate IT systems; and the fourth is the policy and legal framework within which it has to operate. I want to update the House on the ways in which I propose to address each of those difficulties.
In keeping with the changes we made last year to the UK Border Force, the Government are splitting up the UK Border Agency. In its place will be an immigration and visa service, and an immigration law enforcement organisation. By creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures. The first will be a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business men and visitors who want to come here legally. The second will be an organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.
Two smaller entities will also mean greater transparency and accountability, and that brings me to the second change I intend to make. UKBA was given agency status in order to keep its work at an arm’s length from Ministers—that was wrong. It created a closed, secretive and defensive culture. So I can tell the House that the new entities will not have agency status and will sit in the Home Office, reporting to Ministers. In making these changes it is important that we do not create new silos. That is why we are creating a strategic oversight board for all the constituent parts of the immigration system—immigration policy, the UK Passport Service, the UK Border Force and the two new entities we are creating. That oversight board will be chaired by the Home Office permanent secretary.
We will also work to make sure that each of the organisations in the immigration system shares services, including IT, because the third of the agency’s problems is its IT. UKBA’s IT systems are often incompatible and are not reliable enough. They require manual data entry instead of automated data collection, and they often involve paper files instead of modem electronic case management. So I have asked the permanent secretary and Home Office board to produce a new plan, building on the work done by Rob Whiteman, UKBA’s chief executive, to modernise IT across the whole immigration system.
The final problem I raised is the policy and legal framework within which UKBA has operated. The agency is often caught up in a vicious cycle of complex law and poor enforcement of its own policies, which makes it harder to remove people who are here illegally. That is why I intend to bring forward an immigration Bill in the next Session of Parliament that will address some of these problems.
The changes I have announced today are in keeping with the successes of this Government’s reforms so far. We are reducing net migration and we are improving the performance of the organisations that enforce our laws, but UKBA has been a troubled organisation for so many years. It has poor IT systems, and it operates within a complicated legal framework that often works against it. All those things mean that it will take many years to clear the backlogs and fix the system, but I believe the changes I have announced today will put us in a much stronger position to do so. I commend this statement to the House.
Today we have had a statement made rather in haste by the Home Secretary after yesterday’s major speech from the Prime Minister barely mentioned these reforms. Only after the Prime Minister’s speech was dismissed in the media as “smoke and mirrors”, as “unravelling” and as allowing “politics to trump policy” and only after yesterday’s damning report from the Home Affairs Committee on the effectiveness of the UK Border Agency has the Home Secretary suddenly decided to rush this statement out before the Easter recess.
The Home Secretary is right that action is needed to sort out problems at UKBA, which has had a series of problems over many years. We would have some sympathy with her proposals, but the problem is that she refuses to recognise that problems with enforcement and effectiveness at UKBA have got worse, not better on her watch. Enforcement has got worse, visa delays have got worse and 50% fewer people are being refused entry at ports and borders. She says that the number of illegal immigrants removed does not keep up with the number who are here illegally, but that is because she is letting rather more of them in. The number of people absconding through Heathrow passport control has trebled and the number being caught afterwards has halved on her watch.
We have had a 16% drop in the number of foreign prisoners deported, we have had a big drop in the number of employers being fined for employing illegal workers, and what is her remedy today? She plans to split UKBA into two different organisations. We have been here before. She has already split UKBA once: just 12 months ago she split it into the Border Agency and the Border Force and made a lot of promises. The Minister for Immigration would like us to believe that it has all gone hunky dory and that things are much better since then, but what has happened since last year’s split? Queues at the borders went up and the Border Force presided over some of the longest queues our airports have seen, with people waiting more than two hours to get their passports checked.
Things got worse at the Border Agency, too. The Select Committee’s report showed a 20% increase in the backlog of asylum cases in three months, a 53% increase in number of asylum cases waiting more than six months compared with the previous year, an increase in delays for tier 1 and tier 4 in-country visa applications compared with the previous three months and 59,000 cases not even entered on the database. As the Committee said, 28,000 visa applications were not processed on time in one three-month period—that is two thirds of visa applications not processed on time. In the words of the Committee:
“The Agency must explain to Parliament what has gone wrong throughout 2012”.
The Home Secretary’s reforms and her cuts are what have gone wrong throughout 2012, so why should we believe that the latest round of reforms will do any better?
The Home Secretary has cut UKBA’s budget by 34% since the election, so little wonder it is struggling to keep up. Will she answer the following questions? When will the reforms be completed and how much they will cost? Her last reforms to split the Border Force and the Border Agency cost money rather than saving money. How many more illegal migrants will be deported as a result of the reforms? The figure has dropped by 20% since the election. How much will it increase by as a result of the reforms? How long will legitimate migrants have to wait for their visas? Will those delays be cut or will they increase? How long will the waits on asylum claims be? There was a 50% increase in long waits last year. What will she get that down to? These are the practical questions to which we want answers.
So far under this Home Secretary, the only strategy we have had for border control has been cuts and cuts, splits and splits. But performance has got worse. When she was in opposition, she said to a former Immigration Minister:
“I’m sick and tired of government ministers…who simply blame other people when things go wrong.”
So, will she recognise the things that have gone wrong since the election on her watch and give us practical information about and targets for putting them right and tell us what the improvements in performance will be?
We have had a lot of rhetoric on immigration from the Home Secretary but—this is really important—we need her to get the basics right and to do it now.
I am afraid to say that, yet again, we received a characteristic response from the shadow Home Secretary. We still have not had an apology for Labour’s mass uncontrolled immigration, and we have had no apology today for the state in which the previous Labour Government created and then left the Border Agency.
I can reveal to the House today, however, that the shadow Home Secretary now has an immigration policy. In a recent article for PoliticsHome, she said:
“We need much stronger action against illegal immigration to be a priority.”
I am sure that everyone in the House would agree, but how does the shadow Home Secretary propose to get there? We need, she said, a “taskforce”. So, that is it. That is how the Opposition think that we will get control of our immigration system: the classic new Labour solution of a taskforce.
After all the comments the right hon. Lady made, let us remember who we have to thank for the structure that is being dealt with today. The plans to create UKBA were set out in a paper published by the Cabinet Office in November 2007. Who was the Minister for the Cabinet Office at the time? None other than her boss, the Leader of the Opposition.
The right hon. Lady cited a number of figures and raised a range of issues. She referred to the fact that, to use her terms, two thirds of visas were not processed on time. I have news for her: more than 90% of visas are processed within the performance target time. She referred to clearing up the backlogs, which originated with the Government of whom she was a member. I will respond to the point, nevertheless. The structural changes that we are making today will make for better-run organisations with greater clarity and greater focus, with more transparency, more accountability and stronger management. That, as we have seen with the Border Force, will deliver better performance; but it is not the only answer, which is why I have also referred to the need for us to change the law, deal with the IT systems and improve the processes in the organisation. It will take time, but today’s announcements are an important start.
The right hon. Lady made a number of references to the Border Force and its performance. Until I took the Border Force out of UKBA last year, it was not possible to tell what its performance was. The Vine report, published last year, showed that checks were being suspended routinely and without permission for many years. That is no longer the case, thanks to the changes that I made.
The right hon. Lady cited numerous statistics about the performance of the Border Agency, but I suggest that she should have listened to my statement. I know that the performance of the Border Agency is not good enough. It never has been. That is why we are making the changes that I have announced today. The question for the right hon. Lady is whether or not she supports those changes.
The right hon. Lady asked when the changes will be made. The agency status will be removed at the beginning of April, and I shall return to the House with a further statement on the detail of the structural changes in due course. She said that there had been no reference until today to the possibility of changes to UKBA, but that is not right. If she had paid attention during Home Office questions yesterday, she would have heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration refer to the fact that I would bring forward proposals. The Prime Minister also referred to that fact in his excellent speech on immigration yesterday.
The right hon. Lady suggested that I have made this statement only in response to the report from the Home Affairs Committee that was published yesterday, but the decision has been taken after many hours of serious work over many months. If I restructured UKBA every time the Select Committee criticised it, I would have restructured it on more than one occasion. [Hon. Members: “Quarterly.”] My hon. Friends are suggesting that we would have done so quarterly, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who is a member of that Committee and knows that the restructurings would have been rather more numerous than the one that I am suggesting today.
We must remember why the Border Agency got into this situation. After the mess that the previous Government made of the immigration system, John Reid turned up at the Home Office, called the immigration system not fit for purpose and, instead of fixing it, turned it into an agency at arm’s length to keep all the trouble away from Ministers. That was a soundbite with no substance; but under the right hon. Lady, the Labour party is regressing, as she does not even have a soundbite. The Government have a very clear plan to get net migration down to the tens of thousands and to sort out the enforcement of our immigration laws. The Opposition have nothing. She is not serious; they are not serious; and the British people know that they cannot trust Labour with immigration.
Several hon. Members
Order. I remind the House that, notwithstanding the notable interest in this statement, it is to be followed by three debates, to which no fewer than 48 hon. and right hon. Members wish to contribute, so there is a premium on brevity.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will take absolutely no advice from the Labour party, which delivered massive net immigration and an asylum backlog of 450,000 and put in no transitional arrangements for eastern Europeans when it was in office. I congratulate her on applying common sense by taking back responsibility at ministerial level for the security of this country’s borders. Can she confirm that placing the new bodies that she has announced today under the direct supervision of Ministers will ensure the maximum scrutiny of the work that they do?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks. I can indeed confirm that we will be increasing scrutiny of the work that is done in relation to the immigration and visa system and immigration enforcement by bringing it into the Home Office, under a board chaired by the permanent secretary and reporting to Ministers. It is common sense and the right approach to deal with the problem caused by the creation of the agency under the previous Government.
May I congratulate the Home Secretary on putting the United Kingdom backlogs agency out of its misery by delivering this lethal injection today? May I join her in paying tribute to colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), for their work over the years in exposing the agency’s shortcomings? I put this option to the Minister for Immigration yesterday and he said that he would reflect on it, so coming back in 24 hours is quite an achievement. Will the Home Secretary give the House an assurance that uppermost in her mind will be the clearing of backlogs, strong and effective leadership and strong parliamentary scrutiny? Only then will we have an immigration system in which the British people can have confidence.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I said, the Home Affairs Committee has been assiduous in its consideration of matters relating to UKBA over the years and has had a consistent message about the need to deal with some of the problems. It is obviously important that we deal with backlogs. It is also important that we ensure that the agency makes the right decisions on an ongoing, day-to-day basis, that those decisions are made not just appropriately but fairly and that people are dealt with properly when they interact with the agency. That will take some time. I think that we share an aim about the quality of system provided, but it will take some time to ensure that we fix all the problems UKBA is having to deal with.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Will she say something about the staff, from Mr Whiteman, whom the Home Affairs Committee will see at 3 o’clock to discuss his terms and role, to staff across the agency? We have recently returned from Abu Dhabi, where they seem to have turned around the visa processing unit. I think that there are really good people in UKBA who just need to be better led.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, because it gives me an opportunity to say that many people working for UKBA are dedicated officers who do an excellent job. Certainly, in some of the examples that he and other members of the Home Affairs Committee will have seen, such as the overseas operations, real change has been brought about. The work of the vast majority of staff in the areas of enforcement or the immigration and visa system will not change, but there will of course be change for the directors general heading up those two operations. Obviously, those are personnel matters on which the permanent secretary will make announcements in due course.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s decision to take the agency back into the Home Office, which I think is the right one. Which of the new units will inherit responsibility for dealing with the backlogs, and how will she ensure that this does not become yet another opportunity to loose case files, passports and other documents in the ritual buck passing with which we have all become too familiar?
The differentiation between the two units will be clear: the immigration and visa section will deal with decisions on whether people should be entitled to enter or remain in the UK; and at the point at which those cases are closed and people need to be removed, cases pass to the enforcement part of the operation. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments on bringing the agency back into the Home Office—I suggest that he has more of a policy on the issue than Labour Front Benchers. We are very conscious that it is important to work out that separation, which is why I think that this clear-cut separation will help us to ensure that we do not see the sort of losses of files, passports and so forth that we have seen previously, so we have to look at the processes, too.
It will be a pleasure for the Home Affairs Committee no longer to have to report quarterly on ongoing problems within UKBA. I congratulate the Home Secretary on her decisive action. For too long the agency has stood in the way of a coherent, fair and credible immigration policy. My concern is that in 2006 the immigration and nationality directorate was spun out of the Home Office because it was not fit for purpose, had a vast backlog and was poorly led. We now have an agency that is still not fit for purpose, still has a vast backlog and still has leadership problems. How can she be so sure that it will work this time?