Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Order. Before I call the first question to the Deputy Prime Minister, hon. and right hon. Members may have noted that there are only four substantive questions to the Attorney-General on today’s Order Paper; six were withdrawn yesterday. It may be helpful for the House to be aware that if we exhaust questions to the Attorney-General before 12.30, we will revert to topical questions to the Deputy Prime Minister.
Regulation of Lobbyists
The Government have repeatedly made very clear their commitment to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. The events that have unfolded over the weekend demonstrate just how important transparency in political life is. We will therefore introduce legislation to provide for a lobbying register before the summer recess. The register will go ahead as part of a broad package of measures to tighten the rules on how third parties can influence our political system.
Given what has happened over the last few days, does the Minister accept that the public expect full transparency on how big business and money try to influence decisions? Will the legislation include not just lobbying companies but in-house lobbyist for-profit organisations?
The aim of any reform in this area must, I think, be to ensure that the activities of outside organisations are transparent to the general public and accountable. As we have said throughout the process, it is important that we get this right. We will announce more details in the coming weeks. The hon. Lady will be aware from the proposals already put forward that the intention is to regulate third-party lobbyists. Let us not forget what this is for: it is about knowing who is lobbying and on behalf of whom.
In order to tackle some of these concerns, the suggestion has been made that we should have a right of recall. Will the Minister confirm that a right of recall would include a recall ballot, so that instead of leaving it to a committee of grandees in Westminster to decide an MP’s future, constituents would have the chance for a final say?
My hon. Friend and I have exchanged views on this subject a number of times, and I look forward to doing so again. As to what we are discussing today, Mr Speaker, you and he will know that there was a draft Bill. We continue to work through its detail and I look forward to bringing forward the further details in due course.
11. Given that MPs across the parties, and particularly those of us elected in 2010, have been calling for action on lobbyists since we were first elected, why has it taken three years, and still no action? When will we actually have a register in place?
Although we all strongly support openness and transparency of the kind that the Minister has described, does she agree with me that the sort of blatant entrapment carried out by the “Panorama” programme at the weekend would not have been prevented by any such register of lobbyists? Does she also agree that there is a risk of doing something simply in order to be seen to be doing something without addressing the real problems besetting us?
Mr Speaker, I do not think you would want me to go into the details of the particular case to which my hon. Friend refers. It is important to draw from that, however, that the public expect us to act, that we have said for quite some time that we shall be doing this and that we are bringing forward the details from now onwards. I think that a number of factors might have gone into the events that we saw unfold over the weekend, and it is important to take a wider look at some of them.
13. Why are the Government conflating the issues of regulating lobbyists with those of party funding, when previously no links whatever were made between them? Is this a shoddy tactic of the Prime Minister and the Government to get them out of a hole, given that they have done nothing about regulating lobbying before now?
I think that our legislative proposals will allow ample opportunity for that and other issues to be discussed. It has been shown in the last few days that there is enormous public concern about the external influences that can arise in relation to people who make laws, and I think it right for third parties and undue influence to be considered.
I am sure that the Minister is as disappointed and disgusted as all other parliamentarians by the allegations made in the media over the weekend. She will be aware that the manifestos of all three main parties contained commitments to make lobbying more transparent, and to give the electorate more power to hold Members of Parliament to account. Does she agree that if these proposals are to be implemented swiftly, and if the resulting measures are to be enduring, all-party support and work will be necessary? Will she ensure that all parties are involved in the work that will take place before the Bill is published?
House of Lords Reform
We have no proposals for a comprehensive new overhaul of the House of Lords. We tried that once, and did not make the progress for which I had hoped. I remain of the view that the introduction of democracy is the only serious long-term reform that the House of Lords requires, but if any minor technical housekeeping changes that are deemed necessary—for instance, kicking out crooks or people who do not attend, or extending the voluntary retirement scheme—require legislative backing, we will of course consider incorporating them in wider Bills, such as the Bill providing for the recall of MPs from this place.
I see no need for a stand -alone Bill on House of Lords reform, not least because the real reform—namely, the introduction of democracy —has not made progress. As I have said, however, there are a few very specific housekeeping measures that we could incorporate, and would be prepared to consider incorporating, in a wider Bill if the need arose during the coming period.
Owing to the opposition of large elements of the Conservative party, the Deputy Prime Minister’s plans for Lords reform came to nowt. Will he now co-operate with our party to ensure that the excesses and alleged abuses in the other place are tackled immediately?
That is pretty rich, coming from a Front Bencher of a party which, despite its own long-standing manifesto commitment in favour of democracy in the House of Lords, could not even bring itself to support a timetable motion to make that a reality.
As I said earlier, if specific housekeeping measures are necessary—involving Members of the House of Lords who have committed crimes and should not be there, or who have never attended and should not be there, or involving voluntary retirement—and if we can sweep those measures up into a wider Bill such as the one providing for the recall of MPs, we shall be prepared to consider doing so.
Order. It is always helpful when Members look at the question on the Order Paper and ask a coherent supplementary that relates to it rather than to something else. That should be a helpful part of the learning curve for the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans).
14. The Deputy Prime Minister may have missed this while dealing with all his other duties yesterday, but his noble colleague Lord Oakeshott suggested that the House of Lords was full up. Does he agree? (157207)
Historically, the House of Lords has been as large as this House, and of course there are—[Interruption.] I will not repeat what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) said from a sedentary position. The question of how many Members of the House of Lords are active is also relevant, and a number of them do not turn up very regularly.
Devolution of Powers
3. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall. (157195)
I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss the Government’s work to devolve power to the most appropriate level, and we are achieving that through local enterprise partnerships, local government finance reforms, giving local authorities a general power of competence, and city deals. We have also accepted in full or in part 81 of Lord Heseltine’s 89 recommendations, which build on that work to decentralise power and drive growth. We have delivered a referendum in Wales, which resulted in the Assembly assuming primary law-making powers, and we established the Silk commission. In addition, the UK and Scottish Governments are working together to ensure the smooth implementation of the Scotland Act 2012, which represents the greatest devolution of fiscal powers from London in 300 years.
Although I recognise the importance of the city deal in delivering opportunities for growth, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that devolving power to our county councils, such as Essex, can have an equally effective impact on developing local growth?
Devolution at all levels is a virtuous thing. The more we can devolve power and control over money and decision making from Whitehall to the town hall, and from the town hall to local areas, the better. One of the exciting insights of the Heseltine report, which we are determined to act on, is precisely to give local areas, led—not entirely, but in part—by the local enterprise partnerships in each area, a real opportunity to draw down powers and resources from Whitehall, which have been hoarded at the centre for so long.
I welcome what the Deputy Prime Minister has to say about devolving power to local government and the progress made to date. Does he agree that in the medium term we should be looking to local government to be self-financing—not only keeping and setting council tax, but keeping business rates as well? That would be the way towards real power and accountability.
As my hon. Friend knows, the coalition Government are introducing the biggest devolution of control over business rate revenues in a generation. Of course we cannot completely devolve it because that would mean that those areas that had the wealth locally to sustain themselves would be fine, and those that did not would not, so we need some kind of mechanism to make sure there is fairness in the system. However, the reforms, particularly of business rate revenues, that we have presided over are the biggest act of fiscal devolution in a very long time.
Beyond discussions on corporation tax, what conversations has the Deputy Prime Minister had with the Northern Ireland Executive regarding the devolution to it of further powers, including on telecommunications, broadcasting, motor taxation and other economic levers?
Under measures in the draft Wales Bill, candidates for the Welsh Assembly can stand both on the regional list and the constituency list. Therefore, in places like Swansea West a Liberal Democrat candidate can have two lots of election expenses against the sitting Assembly Member. Will the Deputy Prime Minister make sure that that does not happen?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the north-east of England could benefit greatly from the kind of devolution he is working on? It would promote growth in the region, but he also needs to make sure that the rural areas of the north-east have a key decision-making role when that devolution happens.
I strongly agree, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the way in which he has championed his constituency, particularly on transport links which I know are a bone of contention there and in the region more generally. I also know he agrees with me that the north-east in particular has great natural strengths that could enable it to become not only a national but a European and world leader in renewable and offshore technologies. That is precisely why the industrial strategies of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary have been devoting so much attention to that sector.
Some people in Wales are apparently in favour of devolving crime, policing and the justice system to the Welsh Assembly, but I am wholeheartedly opposed to that. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that devolution is not a devolved responsibility?
It is no surprise to me to learn that the Labour party, once again, is somewhat forked-tongued in its commitment to further devolution to Wales: in Cardiff it talks a good game about further devolution of powers from London to Cardiff, yet here it continues to want to hoard powers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Silk commission is in two parts, the first of which, on further fiscal powers, has already reported. We are determined to respond soon enough to that report, which was made on a cross-party basis. The second part of the Silk commission looks at the wider constitutional settlement, and it has not yet been completed.
The Government have confirmed that they will implement Lord Heseltine’s recommendation that economic development spending should be devolved to local areas through a single pot. Alongside the Budget, we published more details on the creation of that single local growth fund and growth deals. The next step is an announcement on the size and content of the fund as part of the spending round. Like all local enterprise partnerships, the Humber’s has the chance to show its ambition by coming up with a strong strategic economic plan to compete with others for that single local growth fund, and attain the wider freedoms and flexibilities available.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the measures he has just announced, coupled with the industrial strategy and banking reform, are all about ensuring that we can have good, successful firms in our local areas that not only generate jobs but, above all, get access to export markets, and that the Heseltine review paves the way for exactly that?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. As we clear up the monumental mess left by the Labour party, we are having to rebalance the British economy and, in particular, to rebalance the overreliance on public sector employment in significant parts of our country towards a much more diverse approach in which private sector jobs growth is restored to health as well. That is why I am delighted that we have presided over the creation of one and a quarter million new jobs in the private sector in the past three years.
I welcome the Government’s initiatives and investment in the Humber region, and in northern Lincolnshire in particular, and the personal involvement of Lord Heseltine. However, our business community, particularly on the south bank, would welcome further opportunities to discuss future potential with Ministers. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that he, or one of his team, will visit to ensure that that happens?
I know that my colleagues, notably my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Business, Innovation and Skills are in constant dialogue with leading figures from local enterprise partnerships around the country in order to explore ways in which we can work together. The city deals, the creation of local enterprise partnerships, the enterprise zones, the single pot flowing from the Heseltine recommendations and the industrial strategy promulgated by my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary all feed into that.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in backing the NEvolution campaign launched yesterday by the north-east’s newspapers, which calls on the Chancellor to devolve more funding and spending decisions to regions like the north-east, as recommended by Lord Heseltine?
Yes, I strongly endorse that. In fact, we have already announced that we are going to implement the vast majority of the Heseltine recommendations—81 of the 89. That really will be a significant moment, when we break from that long, long tradition, which has prevailed under Governments of all persuasions, of over-centralisation in England. In addition to the radical moves—the city deals, the LEPs and the devolution of business rates—it will leave this country significantly more devolved by the end of this Parliament than we found it at the beginning of the Parliament.
To be fair, that might have been a legitimate criticism at the very beginning of the process, as the programme was set up. The programme is now moving at an impressive pace, and the vast majority of any delays are not generated in Whitehall or in government but result from the pace of the commercial decisions taken by the recipients. When my right hon. Friends at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills surveyed the beneficiaries of the regional growth fund, they found that more than 90% said that they were happy with the pace at which it was operating.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (157208)
The proposed new Bill on lobbying tackles the low-hanging fruit—that is, the lobby companies that we know about. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what it will do to record lobbying contact elsewhere, such as that which takes place on horseback in places like Oxfordshire?
We will come forward with our proposals shortly, but the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), explained our intentions. Lobbying is a perfectly legitimate activity to allow people to explain to decision makers what the consequences of their decisions could be, and we should not malign a perfectly legitimate activity. It just needs to be made as transparent as possible, particularly when lobbying is aimed at those in government who are making important decisions that affect many people in this country.
T2. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that he is passionate about devolution. Has he had a chance to read the recommendations in the report by his Department’s McKay commission, which address the offsetting consequences of devolution? In this Parliament in Westminster, a lot of legislation is England-only but can be voted on by MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Has he had a chance to see those recommendations? (157209)
It is a very important, thorough and thoughtful report that comes up with some ingenious proposals for how the mechanics of this place could be reorganised to reflect votes that take place on issues that affect only English constituencies. Of course, it requires careful consideration and we are giving it that. It does not endorse some of the more radical proposals for an English Parliament and so on, but is all about the internal mechanics of this place and we will give it all due consideration.
Of course, I too saw the statistics from the King’s Fund and others this morning about accident and emergency waits. They are serious and we need to tackle them. More than 1 million more people are going to accident and emergency than was the case previously. That is for some long-term reasons, as the report acknowledges: an ageing society, the lack of proper co-ordination between social and health authorities and, of course, the disastrous consequences for out-of-hours care of the GP contract, which was so badly bungled by the Labour party. I am pleased to be able to tell the right hon. and learned Lady that the very latest statistic—this is a tribute to everyone working in accident and emergency in our NHS—shows that this is now the fifth consecutive week in which we have met the target of 95% of A and E patients being seen in less than four hours.
I think that answer is complacent. The truth is that there is a crisis in the national health service in the accident and emergency departments. The coalition has been in government for three years and this is happening on the Government’s watch and because of what they are doing: wasting billions of pounds on top-down reorganisation, axing thousands of nursing jobs and cutting social care. Is that not exactly what happened before to the NHS under the Tories? It is happening again, only this time the Lib Dems are helping the Tories to wreck the NHS.
The right hon. and learned Lady says that I am complacent, but we have a laboratory experiment of what happens to the NHS when Labour is in charge: let us look at what happened to the NHS and to A and E waiting times in Wales, where Labour is in charge. Let us not forget that in Labour-run Wales, the last time that A and E targets were met was in 2009. We have met them for the past five weeks.
T4. May I press the Deputy Prime Minister a little further on the McKay report? I believe that it is crucial that the Scottish people have a clear sense of direction as to where the Government will come out on these matters. The English people deserve a fairer settlement and the Scottish people deserve to know where we are going on this. (157211)
I hope I have made it clear that everybody, north or south of the border and in whatever part of the United Kingdom, should be in no doubt that this coalition Government will do whatever we can remorselessly to devolve power not only to Cardiff and Edinburgh, as we have done, or through discussions about further devolution in Northern Ireland, but within England. That is what the economic reforms I have talked about are all about.
T3. Delivering on what the coalition agreement says on Lords appointments will, I understand, require 200 additional peers in the House of Lords, at a cost of £26.2 million by the end of this Parliament. Is that a price worth paying for unpopular policies being railroaded through the other place? (157210)
The hon. Gentleman is getting a little carried away, as ever. Labour has a constant, rather unedifying record of stuffing the other place with Labour appointees. As I said, if only the hon. Gentleman had given us support for giving the British people a say in who should go to the House of Lords, we would not be stuck with this old-fashioned, archaic way of making appointments, which all party leaders are stuck with for the time being.
T5. The coalition was formed to deal with the disastrous economic legacy left to us by the last Government. Was the Deputy Prime Minister won over by the proposals made by the shadow Chancellor yesterday, which—as always from Labour—added up to only one thing: borrow, borrow, borrow? (157212)
We are doing many things, but one of the principal objectives that we have been pursuing over the past three years is making sure that resources help children in the early years, when they make the biggest difference. That is why we are the first Government to deliver 15 hours of pre-school support to all three and four-year-olds; the first Government ever, as of this September, to deliver 15 hours of child care and pre-school support to two-year-old toddlers from the lowest-income families; and the first Government ever to introduce a pupil premium worth £2.5 billion of additional support to children from the lowest-income families. That is the way to break the generational transmission of deprivation and educational under-achievement that has blighted this country for too long.
T8. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the political fee paid by trade union members should not automatically go to one party, and that trade union members should have the opportunity to decide for themselves which party that fee should go to? (157215)
The whole issue of opt-in and opt-out for trade union members and of donations from the trade union movement, which is now pretty well single-handedly bankrolling the Labour party, has of course come up in the cross-party talks on party funding, which unfortunately have proved somewhat elusive. One of the measures that we want to bring forward —it does not apply to trade unions alone—relates to the way in which a number of campaign groups, be they trade unions, animal welfare groups, tactical voting groups, rural campaign groups, religious groups or individuals, spend money to determine the outcome of campaigns in particular constituencies. At the last election, those major groups and individuals spent £3 million—a full 10% of what the major parties spent. We want to make sure that this increasingly important type of campaigning is fully transparent and is not allowed to distort the political process. That is what proposals that we will come forward with soon will do.
T7. Mr Speaker, I know that you know about the 10th “Audit of Political Engagement” report, just published by the Hansard Society. Is the Deputy Prime Minister conscious of and worried about the steep decline in political participation, particularly in the last three years, under this coalition Government? This is the first time that the percentage of people who are certain to vote has gone below 50%; it is now 43%. For young people between 18 and 25, it has fallen to just 12%. What will he do about that? (157214)
The first thing that I would like to do is try to persuade the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to join me in reforming our clapped-out political system. If his party had supported democracy for the House of Lords, would clean up party funding, and had given wholehearted support to electoral reform, perhaps he would have a leg to stand on when it came to greater political participation.
T10. Six hundred Afghan interpreters have put themselves at serious personal risk by having loyally supported British security services in Afghanistan. They could be in even greater danger once our services leave. Will my right hon. Friend back the campaign led by our noble Friend Lord Ashdown to ensure that we honour the Afghan interpreters and offer them and their families secure refuge in this country? (157217)
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that he speaks for many Members across the House. We do, of course, have a moral duty—a duty of care—to those who have risked life and limb for British servicemen and women on the front line in Afghanistan. We will make an announcement later today on those being made redundant as part of our ongoing draw-down. In short, we will offer a very generous package of support for those who wish to stay in Afghanistan and are able to do so. We will also make sure that those who have been on the front line, have served for 12 months and are now being made redundant have the opportunity to resettle in this country, as well as those who are being intimidated, when resettlement is the only option to guarantee their safety. We owe that to them, and we will do it.
T9. Given the parlous state of the Lib Dems, will the Deputy Prime Minister give hope to his party by announcing the date of his resignation, or hope to the country by announcing the date on which he will dissolve the coalition? (157216)
T11. Per pupil funding for schools in Herefordshire has long been among the lowest in the country, although it has risen, I am pleased to say, since 2010. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that the pupil premium should be targeted on a wider range of deprivation than just free school meals? (157218)
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is as keen an advocate as I am of the pupil premium, which will pay long-term dividends in enhancing social mobility and greater fairness in this country. We consulted widely on what criteria we would use for the allocation of the money, and although no criterion is perfect, the only available one that is workable for teachers and head teachers and recognisable to parents—this is the response we got overwhelmingly from schools throughout the country—is free school meals. That includes not just those who receive free school meals now, but those who have received free school meals in the previous six years.
T12. The International Development Committee, of which I am a member, says in a report today that smallholder farmers have a vital role to play in global food security. Will the UK Government champion their vital role as food producers, job creators and protectors of the environment? (157219)
Absolutely; the hon. Gentleman makes an important point that it is the smallholding farmers who in many ways are the backbone of the rural economies in which they operate and very much hold the keys to the future prosperity of the countries in which they are located. At the Rio summit last year we made a significant announcement of additional DFID funding for smallholding farmers, and I know that the projects included under that programme are already proving to be a terrific success.
Unlike the Labour Government, who were always in a minority in the other place, the current Government have a de facto majority of 68, yet have still managed to suffer 71 defeats, and counting. Is that an illustration of how bad coalition policy is, or is it merely another example of why the Deputy Prime Minister needs to stuff the other place with ever more peers?
I will send to the hon. Gentleman the figures for the stuffing that took place under the Labour Government. I repeat that if he wants to join me in advocating lasting, meaningful, democratic reform of the House of Lords, why on earth did he not support it when he had a chance?
The crisis in emergency medicine recruitment and retention reveals failures in work force planning and training dating back many years, but will my right hon. Friend insist now that the Department of Health look at issues such as pay and overseas recruitment in an attempt to tackle the crisis and prevent pre-emptive measures such as the downgrade of accident and emergency services in Cheltenham?
I certainly pay tribute to my hon. Friend for representing his constituents as fiercely as he does on issues such as the A and E department in his local area. This Government will put an extra £12.7 billion into the health service by 2015—a policy of extra resources for the NHS rejected by the Labour party. That includes an increase of 6,000 in doctor numbers, and waiting times and infection rates on the whole are at record low levels. Yes, of course there are issues that need to be dealt with at a local level, but on the whole that is a record of which we can be proud.
Some of these matters are for the House authorities and the other place rather than for Government legislation, but we are working flat out to cross the t’s and dot the i’s on this package of legislation, dealing, as I say, with the influence of non-political parties with regard to lobbying and support for campaigns at a constituency level. We will publish those proposals shortly.
Under the Deputy Prime Minister’s version of recall, an MP could refuse to come to Parliament, could refuse to hold any kind of surgery or see constituents, could switch parties at a moment’s notice, and could even go on a two-year holiday without notice, and would still fail to qualify under his proposals. How will that empower voters?
The hon. Gentleman and I have spoken, and I know that he and the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) feel strongly that we should move towards an unqualified Californian approach —a model that is not without its problems given some of the political practices in California. We are trying to strike a balance, and that will be reflected in our final proposals, to give voters and the public a back-stop reassurance that if someone commits serious wrongdoing and they are not held to account, they can be held to account by the public. Equally, we should not introduce a proposal that in effect would become a kangaroo court and a free-for all for everyone simply to take political pot shots at each other.
The Attorney-General was asked—
In the past three years, the conviction rate for rape has continued to increase steadily. In the calendar year 2010, the conviction rate was 59.1%; it then went to 61% and then to 64.3%, which reflects the commitment of the Crown Prosecution Service to robust prosecution of rape offences.
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The Director of Public Prosecutions has led the training of specialist CPS rape prosecutors, 800 of whom have now been trained, and they have done a wide range of units to ensure that they are fully aware of all the ways that it is necessary to prosecute such cases.
Some of the victims are children, and one reason why conviction rates are low is the way in which they are treated during the trial process. It is disgusting that small girls are further abused by grown men, being taunted for hours on end as liars. What will the Solicitor-General do about it?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point about the way in which the cases are conducted, and there is a role for advocates and judges in ensuring that cases are dealt with properly. “The Advocate’s Gateway”, a guidance document by the Advocacy Training Council that has had input from the legal profession and the judiciary, has recently been launched. It deals particularly with this issue, and I think it will make a major contribution to the way in which cases are handled.
Is the Solicitor-General satisfied that the CPS is making timely application for special measures in cases involving young victims in sex offences, and that lessons have been learned from some of the cases that went badly wrong?
The Solicitor-General will be aware that in the year up to September 2012, 1,243 sex offences resulted in a caution. Does he agree that it would be helpful to know a lot more about those cases, and to look at how they might impact on the conviction rates and how those offences are dealt with?
Yes, research is important in this area. I sit on a ministerial group on violence against women and girls that is trying to examine these issues, with the help of the voluntary organisations. The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I will look into it.
Given the recent appalling cases involving young victims and witnesses, does the Solicitor-General not agree that the damage done to those young people as they go through the court process is far too great? Is there not a sense of urgency to the issue? This simply cannot wait. Young people should not be put through such appalling damage during the court process when they have already suffered such distress and harm.
Yes, I agree. It is right to bear in mind the fact that all those in the legal profession, including the judges, are concerned about the issue too, because what has been happening has been wrong. I agree that the matter is urgent. I welcome “The Advocate’s Gateway”, which is a useful initiative to which all parties have signed up. It should make a major difference. Proper case management is the key.
Community Resolution Orders
Yes, it is in here somewhere.
None. [Laughter.] No—there is a bit more: the Crown Prosecution Service is not involved in the use of community resolutions, which are out-of-court disposals that enable a police officer to deal proportionately with appropriate offences in a timely and transparent manner.
There is real concern that the orders are being used increasingly to resolve—or supposedly resolve—domestic violence incidents. In 2012, nearly 2,500 of the orders were issued rather than cases being put before the CPS for possible prosecution. Does the Minister share my concern that the orders may be being used as an easy disposal, rather than taking domestic violence seriously?
The point to make is that the decisions are made by officers at the time. They are not orders, but decisions made when there has perhaps been an apology or some reparation. In cases of domestic violence, that would be inappropriate. The guidance is that the resolutions should not be used for such cases. Obviously, I will mention the matter to the Home Office, which is the place to direct the question.
I declare an interest as a special constable. Presumably, the Solicitor-General should be interested in liaising with the Home Office about the most serious offence that a police officer could deal with under a community resolution order, rather than its going through the justice system. Will he assure the House that he will establish that threshold with the Home Department?
As my hon. Friend will know from his background in the special constabulary, community resolutions are designed for dealing with low-level matters, when the person involved does not have previous convictions and it is possible to reach an agreement between the parties. Clearly, any serious offence should be dealt with in a different way.
Social Media (Abusive Communications)
I have held discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to the CPS public consultation on the interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. The public consultation closed on 13 March 2013 and the final guidelines will be published shortly. I would like to emphasise that libel itself is not a criminal matter unless it is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or threatening.
My constituent Jordan Agar died tragically the day after his 16th birthday in a motorbike accident. Tragically, his mother was then contacted by a fake Facebook profile set up in Jordan’s name with messages such as “Don’t worry mum, I’m not dead. I’ve just run away.” When apprehended, the 21-year-old culprit was given a caution; having once remained anonymous on the internet, he then remained anonymous under the law. What can be done to make sure that mothers such as Jordan’s never have to go through such a thing again?
I am troubled to hear my hon. Friend’s story. Obviously, it is impossible for me to comment on an individual case. What is clear is that the interim guidelines, already in existence, provide, particularly under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, clear grounds on which such a message could be prosecuted because it is offensive, shocking or disturbing and harasses the person who receives it. The harassment aspect would normally take it straight into the criminal domain. The guidelines are designed to strike a balance. Sometimes things that are merely offensive will not be criminal, but what my hon. Friend described seems to me to be well on the wrong side of the line.
Social media are also being used by those involved in propagating terrorist activity. Is the Attorney-General to be part of the new taskforce? If not, what discussions is he having with social media providers about the use of social media for those purposes?
First, I advise any Minister, Cabinet Committee or, indeed, taskforce if that advice is required. Secondly, as I suspect the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have had quite a lot of involvement in considerations of whether contempt of court, for example, is taking place, or whether issues may arise in respect of misuse of the internet. I can be in a position to help my colleagues in Government on all those things, but the policy lead will obviously lie elsewhere.
Obviously, libellous or criminal messages on social media are illegal and wrong, and action can be taken on them. However, can the Attorney-General assure us that he will be cautious about proposing excessive controls on social media, which are an important form of free expression for many people of different opinions and views who want to communicate with each other? It is the modern form of communication, particularly for younger people in our society.
Yes. Although the final guidelines will, I hope, be useful, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the interim guidelines published by the DPP. Those make it clear that there is a distinction that one should try to draw. Such material may be, for example,
“Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment”
“the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion”
where no action should be taken, even if it is offensive, shocking or disturbing. Equally, there will be cases where an individual is specifically targeted, or where the activity may amount to a breach of court order, or may involve threats of violence or material that is
“grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.”
In those circumstances, action will be taken. I assure the hon. Gentleman that within the Crown Prosecution Service there is a strong understanding of the need to preserve the right to freedom of expression.
Serious Fraud Office
The Serious Fraud Office is reviewing whether it should investigate allegations that UK-based oil companies were engaged in a LIBOR-style rigging of oil prices. If the SFO does decide to investigate, will it be able to do so within its budget this year of just £30 million?
The Government have made it clear that the director of the SFO should never have to turn down a case on the basis of cost. Any allegations of the type described, if brought to the SFO’s attention, are assessed within the context of its remit to investigate fraud, bribery and corruption. If there were a need for further resources outside the envelope in which the SFO is currently operating, then the director could come to me and I could go to the Treasury to seek the necessary funding.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, but ultimately it is rather outside my remit. There are circumstances in which compensation can be paid to victims of crime, including from assets that may have been recovered. The Crown Prosecution Service and the SFO will operate according to the rules that are laid down.
The new director of the Serious Fraud Office has said that we should have a sensible debate about the introduction of the new offence of corporate criminal liability, so that companies could be prosecuted for fraud, as they are under the Bribery Act 2010. Does the Attorney-General agree that it is a good idea to have such a debate, or does he agree with some of his colleagues that instead of being built on, the Bribery Act should be watered down?
If I may say first, there is no question, as far as I am concerned, of the Bribery Act being watered down. It is true that the interpretation of the Act has at times given rise to difficulties, including unnecessary ones for businesses in understanding what it requires of them, so an educational process may be required.
On changing the rules on criminal liability, I am the first to recognise that it is an important issue and one that will obviously require major debate and consideration in this House. There are compelling arguments for why that should happen, but equally perfectly sound arguments have also been made about why it should not happen.
Has the Serious Fraud Office maintained close and effective working relationships with the fraud departments of the Home Office so that those smaller cases reported to Action Fraud that highlight more widespread and more serious frauds can be prosecuted on behalf of the individuals concerned?
I think there is widespread recognition that smaller fraud, which falls outside the SFO’s remit entirely, has long been a Cinderella area for law enforcement. The economic crime command was set up in the National Crime Agency precisely to try to ensure that smaller fraud is dealt with better at a regional policing level and in order to put in place structures to enable that to happen more effectively. It is a subject of legitimate anxiety across the House that fraud problems faced by constituents often cannot be dealt with adequately. The SFO is involved with the economic crime command and sits on the economic crime co-ordination board, so it can provide its professional input.
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Why do the Government move at the speed of a striking cobra in further impoverishing the already poor with the bedroom tax, and why, in the case of reforming the parasitic incubus on the body politic of lobbying, do they move at the speed of an arthritic sloth?
On both counts, of course, we at least have moved, unlike the Labour Government, who for 13 years ducked any meaningful reform of the welfare system, which in our view should be guided by the simple principle of making sure that work always pays. We also want to make sure that the details of the provisions that we are going to introduce to govern the influence in the political process of non-political and third parties are properly crafted, and we will publish them very shortly.
I stress again that we should not regard the word “lobbyist” as a bad term. It is a perfectly legitimate activity but, as the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) explained earlier, the focus of our attention will be on third party lobbyists who, on a commercial basis, provide lobbying services to an array of different clients.
The Deputy Prime Minister said several times earlier that all he is prepared to do now on Lords reform is housekeeping measures. When did the scale of his ambition as the greatest constitutional reformer since 1832 reduce to the level of housekeeping?
The Liberal Democrats used to be the party of minority but, thanks to the courageous leadership of the Deputy Prime Minister, he has just answered questions from the Dispatch Box in parts 1 and 2 of Question Time, with five or six Liberal Democrat Ministers sitting alongside him. Can I say how many Conservative Members want him to continue as Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister?
The Government have said that they will increase social mobility by ensuring that children are given
“a healthy start in life”,
“improving the child maintenance system”
“making the higher education system more…diverse.”
Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the best way of doing that is closing down Sure Start centres, introducing charges for using the Child Support Agency, and trebling university tuition fees?
As I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises, the latest figures—the situation is evolving—suggest that more youngsters from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before, notwithstanding the controversial changes. I am very proud of the fact that we are the first Government to introduce 15 hours of free pre-school support for all three and four-year-olds; to give two-year-old toddlers from the lowest-income families 15 hours of pre-school support; and to introduce the £2.5 billion pupil premium.
Improving social mobility starts with the early years and attainment at school. However, will the Government fully consider the role of developing strength of character and resilience in young people and their potential role in reversing the woeful social mobility of recent decades?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is passionate about this issue. I read with great interest the papers from the conference on character he hosted back in February. It is a slightly amorphous term, but none the less an important one to grapple with as a factor in determining how well children do, and particularly in determining how well they do in, as it were, escaping the circumstances of their birth and realising their aspirations. I hope that a number of the early years policies I have alluded to, and reforms in the welfare and tax system that ensure that work always pays and that people in low-income work retain more of the money they earn, will help to boost social mobility in the long run.
I would be happy to have further discussions with the hon. Gentleman on those matters. I can confirm that the electoral registration transformation programme seeks to work with all appropriate bodies throughout the system to combat fraud. He makes an important point on the integrity of the electoral system. We are committed to combating fraud and the perception of fraud wherever it arises.
Will the Minister agree to consider the huge fees, often of up to £20,000, paid to returning officers, who are generally highly paid chief executives of councils? That is a huge amount of money and the Government are looking to save money. I believe that that should be part of political reform.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question—I know he has probed that issue many times before. Returning officers are entitled by statute to recover expenses incurred, as set out in the order made for each poll. As my hon. Friend will know, through the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, we have put in place a facility whereby some or all of the fee payable can be withheld in the event of unsatisfactory performance. I am sure he, like the Government, will want to see that new system bed in, after which we ought to return to the issue.