House of Commons
Tuesday 2 July 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]
Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Wednesday 10 July at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Hertfordshire county council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords]
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Wednesday 10 July at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Earlier this year, the Government consulted on proposals to reduce the number and cost of whiplash claims. We will publish our response after we have considered the Transport Committee’s report, which we expect to be published before the summer recess.
Car insurance premiums in Bradford are the highest in the country. The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries has released information showing that the number of third-party whiplash claims rose by 5% in the year 2010-11, although the number of accidents fell. According to the institute’s chairman, 60% of the claims were exaggerated, misrepresented or fraudulent. Will the Secretary of State look again at the period within which claims can be made? At present, a claim can be made up to three years after a whiplash accident.
We have no plans to change the law on limitation, but I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are absolutely committed to tackling fraudulent whiplash claims, while also ensuring that those with genuine neck injuries receive the compensation that they need and deserve. Making the system fairer for defendants does not, of course, compromise access to justice for claimants, and we will seek to restore balance to the civil justice system.
As the Minister knows, the vast majority of claims are genuine. Rather than being obsessed with this issue, should not the Government be targeting some of the practices of the insurance industry, such as cold-calling victims or referring them to its in-house lawyers in the hope of settling claims cheaply? Why are the Government not doing that? Is it because, again, they are on the side of the big battalions rather than the consumer?
The hon. Lady has got it absolutely wrong. We know that the Government, the insurance industry and claimant lawyers must all work to tackle fraud, because it is completely unacceptable. We fully expect the industry to pass on the considerable savings that it will make to the public in the form of reduced insurance premiums.
Having suffered a severe whiplash injury after someone shunted my vehicle many years ago, I have great sympathy for genuine victims, but there is widespread evidence that gangs have moved into what they see as a profitable business, generating deliberately fraudulent claims, and that that is driving up premiums for ordinary motorists.
I agree. Unfortunately, a compensation culture was allowed to develop under the last Government, and we are having to deal with it now. Our reforms will ensure that meritorious claims will always be possible, while also ensuring that unnecessary claims are avoided.
Given that the cost of car insurance is very high in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to whiplash injuries, and given that the issue was referred to the Competition Commission last year, will the Minister tell us whether she has received any progress reports from the commission?
I personally have received no progress reports, but I am happy to look into the matter for the hon. Lady. The Automobile Association recently reported a 4.1% reduction in premiums, which it attributed to the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the Government’s other reforms, but it is clear that much more needs to be done.
The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office have commissioned an evaluation of a number of restorative justice pilot schemes, some of which have involved young people, but there has been no specific evaluation of the use of restorative justice on the youth secure estate.
We know that reducing the unnecessary criminalisation of children should be a key priority, and clearly children within the secure estate are particularly vulnerable. We also know that restorative justice approaches deliver better outcomes for all involved. Will the Minister commit to introducing a specific study on the use of restorative justice in the secure children’s estate?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s underlying point. Restorative justice has proved to be an extremely successful method; evaluation has found that 85% of victims who have participated in it said that they were satisfied with the experience. We will certainly keep a close eye on how it can be used most effectively for young people.
Last year the Justice Committee visited Northern Ireland to see how restorative justice was working there. It is a mainstream means of disposal in Northern Ireland, and it works extremely well. Would the Minister care to look at the way in which it works in Northern Ireland in order to inform his decisions?
I would be very happy to do that. I am aware of the work that has been done in Northern Ireland, which has been extremely successful, and I should remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Crime and Courts Act 2013 places pre-sentence restorative justice on a statutory footing for the first time, so I very much share his underlying thoughts on this.
Alongside our probation reforms, it is important to look at other areas in which we help offenders when they leave prison. It is often the basic things, like having a bank account, that they need help with to avoid slipping back into a life of crime. We recognise the importance of financial inclusion, which is why we grant-fund Unlock, a programme that helps prisoners establish a relationship with a commercial bank. Indeed, the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), is doing a lot of work at the moment with the banks to try to ensure we can offer financial services to those who leave prisons, so they can get their lives back together.
I am a great fan of the credit unions. I have seen their work both in my previous role as employment Minister and now as potential contributors to the process of rehabilitating offenders. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we should support and encourage the work of credit unions. They can make a huge difference for those who cannot access financial services through other means.
In terms of reducing reoffending, will the Secretary of State look urgently at the case of John Cronin, a convicted sexual predator who was originally given a life sentence? He has now been released on licence and has broken the terms of that licence, and apparently has not been returned to jail and cannot be put on the sex offenders register. He is a very dangerous man. Will the Secretary of State look urgently at that case?
Drug Testing (Prisoners)
The right hon. Gentleman knows that we already have a system of random and intelligence-led drug testing in prisons. He knows, too, that we are not persuaded of the merits of adding further testing for all prisoners at the fixed points of arrival and departure from custody. However, we are working with the Department of Health to test an end-to-end approach to tackling addiction from custody into the community, which includes looking at which prisoners should be tested and when.
The Minister is right: I do, in fact, know all that. However, it does not deal with the problem. The problem is that 35% of those in prison have a drug addiction and 6% acquire that addiction once they are in prison, so more come out with an addiction than went in with one. Why do the Government not feel that mandatory testing on entry and exit will help break the cycle of drug dependency?
We are in agreement, because I knew all that, too, but it is worth saying to the right hon. Gentleman that we have one or two issues with the suggestion he and his Select Committee make in what is, I concede, an excellent report that makes a substantial contribution to this debate. The concerns we have are that if tests are done at a fixed point of exit, particularly from custody, the offender knows that is coming and can do things to try to mitigate the effect of the test. We think it is important to test on a random, and perhaps frequent, basis. We entirely agree with him and his Committee, however, about the importance of extending our testing to include prescription drugs as well as illegal drugs, because of the widespread abuse of those drugs, and I hope he will support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), which will achieve exactly that.
We are very much in favour of the approach that attacks this problem in an intensive way and makes sure that prisoners understand that they need to get off drugs and stay off drugs. Drug recovery wings are extremely effective in that regard, and of course prisoners have an opportunity to move on to another wing thereafter, where they will be able to stay drug-free. That is an extremely important approach.
It is important to recognise that the rate of mandatory drug testing producing a positive result has dropped considerably, from 25% or so in 1996-97 to about 7% now. So it is not that we are without success, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is no cause for complacency. We do everything possible to prevent the influx of drugs into our prisons, but that is an extremely difficult exercise. It is important to attack demand as well as supply, and to make sure that prisoners come off drugs and stay off them.
I suspect it would be unwise for me to make such a pledge, but we will make sure that in all our prisons we do everything we can to restrict the inflow of illegal drugs, by whatever means. As I said, we will also make sure that we provide the maximum effort to get prisoners off drugs and keep them that way.
We will open up rehabilitation to a diverse range of organisations and introduce new payment incentives for providers to focus relentlessly on reforming offenders. We plan to commence the competitive process for our new providers at the end of this summer. We will also create a new national public sector probation service, which will work to protect the public.
It is a myth that there is no learning already available to the Government on payment by results; learning is available across government activities, and a number of pilots within the probation field have begun. Not all of them have been completed, but, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, it is possible to learn something from a pilot even if it is not completed. We are confident that payment by results is the right way to approach this matter. It is also the right way, of course, to release the savings we need to pay for an additional 50,000 offenders who currently receive no supervision. If he has a better way of doing that, we look forward to hearing it.
The Minister is in the unusual position of wanting to both privatise and nationalise the probation service at the same time. Will he explain to the House why the probation service is to be trusted with the supervision of the most dangerous, but will not be allowed to bid to work with less serious offenders?
We think that a combination of approaches will work best. We think that the probation service has particular skills in dealing with the most dangerous and high-risk offenders, so we want to give it the opportunity to concentrate on those offenders. We also think that there is a huge range of innovation and good ideas among bodies of all sorts, in the voluntary sector as well as in the private sector, and we want to bring those ideas to bear on what has been an extremely intractable problem—driving down reoffending rates.
Despite record spending on prison and probation services, reoffending rates are still far too high. Will the Minister give an assurance that the new probation reforms will seek to address that issue, while also delivering value for money for the taxpayer?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. She is right to say that reoffending rates are far too high; 50% of those released from custody reoffend within 12 months. That is unacceptable, and people within the probation service know that. We need to bring those rates down, and the best way to do so is to unlock the innovation I spoke about a moment ago and to have a system where, if people succeed in driving down reoffending rates, they receive the maximum reward and if they do not, they will not.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the criminal justice system has been a failure to engage with short-term prisoners. Does the Minister therefore agree that probation assistance with that group of offenders is vital to curb reoffending rates?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. He puts his finger on a big gap in the system up to this point in that those offenders who receive a custodial sentence of 12 months or less receive very little or no supervision at all. It is very important that they should, because that is the group with the highest rates of reoffending. Some 60% reoffend within 12 months. We need to address that and we will do so.
Highly respected former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham has called on the Justice Secretary to withdraw his plans for probation as they are too complex to be achieved safely. Concerns about public safety meant that not a single Cross Bencher voted with the Government on his amendment in the Lords. The timetable is unrealistic, the IT is not ready and the Department’s risk assessment states that the proposal is unlikely to work. Is it not time for the Government to take stock and rethink before they waste any more resources on this rapidly unravelling plan?
The hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with her. This is an important and urgent reform. She must recognise that every single year 600,000 offences are committed by people who have previously committed an offence. Until we start to address reoffending effectively, that number will not come down and we will not avoid the creation of tens of thousands of new victims every year. That is why this is urgent. As far as I understand the position of the hon. Lady’s party, she agrees that reoffending rates are too high, that something must be done about that and that there is a problem with the group with sentences under 12 months, yet we hear nothing from her about what she would do about that if it was not what we propose to do. If she has an alternative, let us hear it.
Legal Aid (Barristers)
Our analysis, based on applying our proposals to the cases handled by the Legal Aid Agency last year, suggests that overall the majority of criminal advocates would either be better off or see their income unchanged as a result of the fee proposals, while civil barristers affected, who generally receive higher fees than other civil advocates, could see their income reduced.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That was part of our objective. Some people argued that we should go for one case, one fee, but that would in my view do deep long-term—if not total—damage to the Bar. We chose not to go down that route. We have put together a package of proposals that, on the basis of the case mix carried out last year by junior barristers, should leave a substantial proportion of them either with an unchanged income or a slightly increased income.
19. If legal aid cannot be paid unless permission is granted for a judicial review, does the Justice Secretary accept that lawyers will be unable to take on some of the strongest cases such as when local authorities might refuse to recognise their duty to house a homeless family? Those are exactly the kind of cases where they will offer an early settlement or a no-cost settlement. (162402)
I am afraid that I think the current situation is unacceptable, whereby we are obliged to provide legal aid to anyone who starts a judicial review regardless of the strength of their case. If an individual has a strong case with their lawyer against a local authority, they should seek to recover their costs from that local authority. It is not the job of the taxpayer to bank-roll all cases.
Has the Lord Chancellor heard from the Bar Council since the Law Society sent me a letter yesterday describing the constructive progress that had been made in discussions? Does he recognise the genuine concern that when a fundamental change is made in the relationship between the two sides of the profession, it has to be after very careful consideration?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Over the past few weeks, I have had very constructive engagement with the Law Society and I welcome the counter-proposals it has put to us. We have recognised many shared objectives in that and it has behaved with professionalism over this matter. I was very disappointed that when the Bar Council submitted its report and recommendations to us in response to our consultation it did not contain the same degree of constructive engagement. I am due to meet the Bar Council later today and I hope we will see that change.
The hon. Gentleman needs to realise that the concept of competitive tendering in criminal legal aid was originated by his own party. Now we are hearing the Labour party oppose the things for which it argued for years, and it is typical of this Opposition that they will say one thing when in government, and when in opposition will say something completely different. I am proud to be part of a party that is defending health budgets and taking tough decisions in other areas; the hon. Gentleman is part of a party doing the opposite.
Although legal aid is no longer available for most family litigation, it is still available for family mediation, yet many mediation services have seen their inquiries halve since April because clients are under the mistaken belief that it is caught up in the changes. Given that mediation is often better than litigation, what can the Secretary of State do to advertise the fact?
I am very concerned to pursue that. I am aware of the issues that my hon. Friend mentions. It may well be down to the fact that there was a surge in cases prior to the legal aid changes that came into effect in April, but I can give him an assurance that this is very much on my radar, and I intend to pursue it.
Last week, the Lord Chancellor was telling some of the 16,000 respondents to his legal aid consultation that their responses had been automatically deleted, but he must have read some of them, as they provoked his embarrassing U-turn on choice of solicitor yesterday. Will he now also U-turn on forcing small firms out of business and on giving cash incentives for guilty pleas, and will he abandon the further cuts in civil legal aid that will, according to the Parole Board among others, cost several times the £6 million he claims they will save?
Labour Members really do not get it, do they? Government Minister consults on proposals, listens, makes some modifications, and gives an early decision to help people, so they are not attacking proposals that have changed. Labour Members never listened to anybody when they were in government; they just ploughed ahead regardless.
The hon. Gentleman is the person who said, in 2011, that the Government should look for
“efficiencies in the criminal legal aid system,”
“save…money”.—[Official Report, 2 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 958-9.]
We are now doing that; they have changed their minds. It is shambolic.
Criminal Legal Aid
The recent consultation “Transforming Legal Aid” generated around 16,000 responses, which, contrary to reports, have been read extensively by individuals, including many by myself. Many were from smaller law firms or those who work within a smaller law firm. I have personally attended events organised by the Law Society where I met many solicitors who practise with smaller firms. I met a number of people from smaller firms in the north-west last week, and we will continue to talk to all the representative bodies in the weeks ahead.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. On 24 May, when I met a number of solicitors and barristers from across Pendle, they raised several concerns with me. However, principally they believe the savings that my right hon. Friend is planning to make have already been made, and the figures the Government are using are out-of-date legal aid totals. What reassurance can he provide to them?
I can give my hon. Friend my assurance that that is not the case. There are a number of false rumours floating around. The figures that we used for the recent consultation were based on the criminal legal aid spend in 2011-12, which were the most up-to-date figures when we published the document. When developing these proposals, we have also taken fully into account the savings that came out of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which were presaged by the previous Government, who set in train the initial process towards cutting legal aid costs. However, given the continuing pressure on public finances, we do, I am afraid, still need to bear down on the cost of legal aid.
Could the Secretary of State assure the House that none of the e-mailed responses to his consultation has been deleted? To make everybody happy, will he ensure that every single one of them is published, because there seems to be a story out there that somehow or other his Department is not interested in the response to the consultation process, and therefore it has been deleting unwanted e-mails? I am sure that is not the case, but could he assure the House that it is not so?
My understanding is that that is not the case, and if there is any suggestion that it is the case, we will ask the people who sent the e-mails to resend them. However, I can assure the House that as far as I am aware, every submission is in our hands, is being read, and will be considered properly.
All of us understand the need to control costs, but I wonder how the Secretary of State will ensure that the creation of a single fixed fee, payable regardless of whether an individual pleads guilty, will not create a direct conflict of interest between the legal representative and his or her client.
It is clearly in our interests to have a system where we encourage people who are guilty to plead guilty early. That saves money. It is the right thing to do for society. I do not believe or accept that we would be in a position where any qualified lawyer would try to encourage someone to plead guilty when they were not guilty, but of course we are listening to all the responses from the consultation and will bring forward further proposals in due course.
May I say, in the most courteous way, to the Justice Secretary that he should revisit some of the answers on legal aid he has given today? He is just wrong on a number of points. There is now a general consensus that his Department’s reform of court translation services was a shambles—the Select Committee on Justice, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee all agree. What differences are there in his plans to reform legal aid to avoid repeating the mistakes made in the previous set of reforms?
Let us be clear: it is no secret that the handling of contracting of translation services could have been better, and lessons have been learned. However, that service is now delivering to a very high standard and saving the taxpayer millions of pounds. The Opposition simply do not get that we have to take tough decisions to save money to deal with the mess they left behind.
Small Claims Procedure
In April, the Government increased the limit in the small claims track from £5,000 to £10,000, with the aim of ensuring that more claims are resolved in a way that is accessible, proportionate and cost-effective.
I am grateful for that answer and welcome the raising of the threshold from £5,000 to £10,000, but a constituent of mine has highlighted some of the difficulties people have enforcing some judgments. My constituent had a judgment in his favour for £475 against a tradesman who failed to complete a task, but never received the money; he found that his only remedy was to incur further legal and court costs. Does the Minister agree that we need to review enforcement in such cases where payment is not made?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Our “Solving disputes in the county courts” consultation considered reforms to the attachment of earnings order and the third party debt recovery order. We support those reforms and will implement them as soon as resources allow. Changes have been made to the charging order and order for sale procedures, which will help both creditors and debtors.
Under our “Transforming Rehabilitation” reforms, every offender released from custody, including those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody, will receive statutory supervision and rehabilitation in the community. We are also putting in place an unprecedented nationwide through-the-prison-gate resettlement service, whereby most offenders are given continuous support by one provider from custody into the community.
The Minister has already referred to the number of offenders who reoffend within 12 months, and we know that prisoners are spending an awful lot of time banged up in their cells, when what many of them really need is education, because all too many failed in or were failed by the education system before embarking on a life of criminal activity. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that more time in prison is devoted to prisoners’ education, so that they are better prepared for life outside and for employment?
The hon. Gentleman is right: education is extremely important, especially for offenders who have very low levels of educational attainment before going into custody, of whom there are many. We are working on that. More prisoners are now doing education courses—more this year than last year. Of course, it is also important that prisoners go to work while they are in custody, and more hours were worked last year than the year before. I hope very much that that trend will continue.
Just last week, I met the Prisoners’ Education Trust and was told that much prison work is low skilled and does not in any way improve employability on release. What will Ministers do to ensure that prison work increases people’s qualifications, improves their CVs and gives them a genuinely better chance of taking up work following release from custody?
The hon. Lady will understand that there are restrictions on the types of work that can be offered in a custodial environment, but there are jobs that will contribute to prisoners’ qualifications and experience. However, there is a wider point, which is that, for a great many prisoners, who simply have no experience of the world of work, the softer skills they need to be employable—working in a team, getting up in the morning and going to work for a full day—are valuable, too, and we will seek to extend those skills as far as we can.
Presumption of Death
We are working with the General Register Office to create the rules and regulations necessary to implement the Presumption of Death Act 2013, which will create a single certificate of presumed death equivalent to a death certificate.
I welcome that response, and so will the family of missing York woman Claudia Lawrence. We have certainly moved on in the past few months and I am very grateful. Can my hon. Friend confirm that a Bill will be put before the House to deal with the issues around guardianship, and will she tell the House the likely time scale for that?
Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl went missing while in Dubai with the Royal Navy last May. He leaves behind a wife and three small children. The Royal Navy is now seeking to get a certificate of death without any face-to-face consultation with his wife. On top of the emotional strain, this casts a question mark over the family’s financial future and where they will live. To what extent can the Ministry of Justice liaise with the armed forces in such cases and ensure that the family are much more involved in these decisions?
I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about these issues and has worked tirelessly in assisting this family in her constituency whose loved one has gone missing. The Ministry of Defence has its own procedures for presuming missing service personnel to be dead and does not liaise with the Ministry of Justice in individual cases, but if my hon. Friend would like some further information on the involvement of family members, I am happy to make representations to the Defence Secretary on her behalf.
European Convention on Human Rights
The Government remain committed to the European convention on human rights and to ensuring that those rights continue to be enshrined in UK law. We are also closely involved in the process to reform the Strasbourg Court.
The Foreign Secretary promised that there would be no downgrading of human rights under this Government, so can the Minister explain why the Justice Secretary and the Home Secretary believe it is right to end 60 years of strong human rights protection drawn up by British lawyers and politicians, which have served both the United Kingdom and Europe so well?
Every member of this Government is concerned with making sure that human rights remain one of the bases of a good democratic society. There is no secret about the fact that the two parties in the coalition Government may have slightly different views about how to enhance human rights in future. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that on behalf of my party I am leading work to make sure that human rights do not get devalued by being exploited, particularly in the courts, by those who should not be exploiting the legislation for their own ends.
I thank my right hon. Friend for this reply. Is he aware that one interpretation of the European convention on human rights could be that people are prevented from exercising freedom of conscience in relation to same-sex marriage in practising their profession while wanting to maintain their religious beliefs?
There are clearly a number of areas—my hon. Friend has mentioned one—in which the potential interpretation of the existing human rights legislation could lead to effects which many in this House and outside would regard as perverse. That is precisely the sort of area which we are looking at very carefully so that human rights can remain something that we all unquestioningly support.
I and my colleagues very much welcome the Minister’s commitment that this Government will stay within the ECHR. Does he agree that those who wish to leave ought to make it clear which articles of the convention they have a problem with, and which aspects they do not agree with? Are there any that he does not agree with?
Again, every member of the Government has made it clear that the original convention was written well and expresses views that all of us in the House share. Members in all parts of the House, even in the Labour party, might admit that the way the legislation is now being used brings human rights into disrepute and that we need to do something about it. That is the work that I am leading on behalf of the Conservative party.
Part of a prisoner’s induction involves screening for literacy needs, and where such needs are identified, prisoners are offered teaching and support as a priority. Improving prisoners’ literacy is a key objective of the learning and skills service in custody. Improving literacy skills means that a prisoner has a greater likelihood of getting and holding on to a job when released, which helps to reduce reoffending.
According to a recent Ministry of Justice survey, one in five prisoners needs help reading and writing. Charities such as Shannon Trust have pioneered peer mentoring and synthetic phonics to improve literacy rates. What steps is the Minister taking to expand such innovative programmes, and does he agree that they are absolutely crucial to equipping offenders with the skills they need to go straight on release?
I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to cite the Shannon Trust. Its Toe by Toe project is an extremely good example of what we are discussing. We will help it in any way we can. I hope that he will hear a little more about that over the rest of the summer. The important changes we have made to the incentives and earned privileges scheme go beyond simply what we may take away from prisoners; they are also about the incentives we give them to help other prisoners. In order to reach the enhanced level of the scheme, a prisoner will have to help someone else in prison. That is a good opportunity for more mentoring and more learning coaching of the type he describes.
I am certainly in favour of anything that can be demonstrated to assist in reducing reoffending, but there is another test that needs to be applied: a public acceptability test. The public have certain expectations of what should and should not happen in prison, so we need to apply that filter, but I am certainly interested in imaginative ideas that will help to drive down reoffending rates.
Although we are clear that we must continue to bear down on the cost of legal aid, under our proposals, and indeed under any actions we take, quality legal representation will still be available to all who need it.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, I regard the qualifications available to both the solicitors’ profession and the Bar in this country as of a high international standard. If a qualified solicitor or barrister is available to help somebody in a legal predicament, that is a sign that we are doing the right thing to support them and that will not change.
My key concern is to ensure that we have universal coverage, even in tough times. I have consulted the legal profession, put forward ideas and listened, which I think is what they hoped a Government would do. I have made a modification, but nobody, and certainly not the Labour party, should be under any illusions: we have to meet financial targets and tough decisions lie ahead. The question is whether the Opposition support those changes, because I have heard no suggestion that they would reverse them.
My right hon. Friend and I have already spoken about this subject. I believe that there would be very great difficulties for people in need of legal aid on the Isle of Wight. The travelling times and the difficulty and cost of accessing legal advice on the mainland would be of a completely disproportionate magnitude to those experienced elsewhere in the country. Will he outline how he plans to address that problem?
One of the comments from colleagues in the House and elsewhere, which we must clearly factor in when developing the next stage of the proposals, is what we will do in areas that are rural or have particular geographical issues. That is something I am very mindful of—
Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) should not keep prating noisily from a sedentary position. When he was practising at the Bar, he would not have behaved like that in the courts. Due decorum should be observed by the hon. Gentleman.
This Government’s handling of the proposed changes to legal aid has been absolutely shambolic. Not only are they proposing to restrict access to legal aid—a right that goes back to Magna Carta—but their proposal will actually cost more. When will the Minister get a grip?
Sometimes, Mr Speaker, you have to pinch yourself when you hear Labour Members. It is true that we are going to limit access to legal aid to people who have a net disposable income of more than £3,000 a month after tax, national insurance, mortgage payments, food, council tax, and child care. My view is that if people have that much disposable income, they can make a contribution. Labour is only a party for the rich these days.
There has been a significant growth in the number of judicial review claims, increasing by 86% between 2007 and 2012. Judicial review will continue to play an important role in holding Government and others to account.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent and astute point. Judicial review is a crucial check on the power of the state, and it will remain so. However, it is also subject to abuse—stifling innovation, frustrating reforms and incurring considerable cost. Our reforms will tackle the burden while maintaining the benefits of the rule of law and access to justice.
Aside from the near impossible job of getting the Attorney-General to quash an inquest, the only route that families have to challenge a coroner’s decision is through judicial review. The Government have already stopped bereaved families having a proper coroners appeal system. Is not the restriction of judicial review a further kick in the teeth for bereaved families?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is well aware of the actions that have been taken for bereaved families. I will not go into too much detail now, but I will say, picking up the point about judicial review, that these proposals strike the right balance and a fair balance, and they are proportional and targeted. The system is already subject to abuse. The reforms that we will put forward will not restrict access to justice or the rule of law, nor the right to a fair hearing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) has already referred to the new prison in north Wales, and I thought it might be helpful to update the House on our plans. The purpose-built institution that we are planning will hold about 2,000 prisoners and bring about 1,000 jobs and a £23 million boost each year to the region’s economy. We expect work to start on the build in summer next year, with the aim of being fully operational by late 2017.
I want to put on record my thanks to the Welsh Government and the local authorities in the region for their co-operation in helping this, the first prison in north Wales, to become a reality. We will announce the specific set of sites in due course. I believe that this is the right thing for this part of the country and the right way to meet prison capacity demands. New prison builds represent much better value for money for the taxpayer, but as the recent report from Policy Exchange recognised, they are also the right way for us to cut this country’s stubbornly high reoffending rate. That is another reason why the announcement of this Government investment is such welcome news.
Only two years ago the probation service was awarded the British Quality Foundation Gold Medal for Excellence and was lavishly praised by the then responsible Minister, who was later sacked to be replaced by hard-line privatisers who are now determined to force more public money into private pockets, whatever the consequences. Is not that the simple truth?
It is important that Labour Members understand what they are saying when they oppose these reforms. Every day of every week, a young person, very often somebody who has grown up in the most difficult circumstances and found themselves with a short sentence in jail, is walking back on to our streets with £46 in their pocket and no support, and the majority reoffend. That is a scandal, it needs to stop as quickly as possible, and that is what we are aiming to do.
T2. May I commend my right hon. Friend for his courage in trying to tackle the legal aid budget, which certainly does need to be addressed, and thank him for the genuine consultation exercise on which he has embarked? May I gently suggest to him that, in particular, the plans for large criminal law legal aid contracts in rural areas need to be looked at? I am concerned about the decimation of specialist firms in Plymouth. I support his approach, but could he please look again at that issue? (162410)
I can give that assurance. As I said a moment ago, this is one of the things that has come out of the consultation—it is a genuine consultation, although I know that Labour does not believe that it should be genuine—and we are listening and I will review it over the next few weeks.
And all said with a straight face!
It is a statement of fact that the Justice Secretary’s plans for the probation service will lead to serious sexual and violent offenders being supervised by the likes of Olympic security and Work programme experts G4S, A4e and others. Why has he refused my freedom of information request to see the risk register for these plans?
Labour simply will not accept the need for change and for those under-12-months prisoners to be supervised. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, when his party was in government he did not publish risk registers, either. This is another example of Labour doing one thing in government but wanting the rules to change the moment it moves into opposition. It is very unedifying.
May I gently advise the Justice Secretary to seek advice from the Leader of the House, the former Secretary of State for Health, about how that movie ended for him?
The rest of us saw leaks of the risk register in last week’s media. What would the risk register need to say for the Justice Secretary to change his plans, or does he really not care?
Again, the right hon. Gentleman has conveniently forgotten what the purpose of a risk register is: it is a management document designed to ensure that we look at all the issues a project should address when formulating its plans and that we take the necessary steps to ensure that the process runs smoothly. That is what we are doing, and we are doing it because there is a large group of mostly young people on our streets who are likely to reoffend and have no support at all at the moment. I think that that is a problem worth sorting.
T3. May I pursue a little further the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) about the impact of these legal aid changes in rural communities? Does the Secretary of State recognise that in remote communities like my North Devon constituency all this work is currently undertaken by small firms that will not be big enough to tender for contracts, and that if they are not able to keep the critical mass of work in this area, they will not be there to be subcontracted to by bigger firms? How far will my constituents have to go for legal representation in the future? (162411)
We need to ensure two things. We have to bring down the cost of criminal aid, so no change is not an option. We have consulted on a package of proposals and there will have to be change in the solicitors sector. The Law Society itself accepted that in a letter to the Select Committee yesterday. However, as I have said, one of the issues that arose from the consultation related to rural areas and we will consider it very carefully.
T4. In answer to questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) and others a few minutes ago, the Secretary of State and his colleagues were less than clear about the European convention on human rights. Which part of it do they object to and want to change, and are there plans to leave the convention altogether? (162412)
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not hear my answer. There is genuine discontent about the way in which the perfectly reasonable articles in the convention have been misused in this country’s legal system, such that in many cases people who should not be able to use them misuse them in order to abuse this country’s hospitality by staying here when they have no right to do so and generally bring the whole concept of human rights into disrepute. The hon. Gentleman and I would agree that human rights ought to be the bedrock of a democratic society, but the problem with the current system is that that is in danger of no longer being the case. I would have hoped that he would welcome our attempts to reform it.
T5. If it is true that there are still almost 11,000 foreign national offenders in our prisons, what steps are being taken to negotiate compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with other nations so that these people can be sent back to secure detention in their own countries? (162413)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is the right objective. We have negotiated a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, which is a high-volume country. That was concluded in January. We are making better use than ever before of the European Union prisoner transfer agreement. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that some 200 cases are currently processing through that method. We will remove as many as we can because, as my hon. Friend has heard me say before, the right place for foreign national offenders is their own country, not ours.
The Work programme is not in my remit now, but Members will have noticed that in the past couple of weeks we have published figures showing that more than 300,000 people have started work through the Work programme and that 132,000 of them have completed lengthy periods in work, all at a fraction of the cost of the programmes that we inherited from the previous Government.
T8. The Secretary of State has expressed his concern recently about the use of cautions for people who commit burglary. What progress has he made on strengthening sentences, particularly for those who have been convicted of burglary, because it remains a serious offence? (162416)
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. He will know that burglars now face sentences of up to 14 years and that those who commit a third domestic burglary face a minimum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. I am also happy to inform him, and those who are chuntering on the Opposition Front Bench, that the number of burglaries is clearly going down. Over the past 12 months, the number of burglaries has fallen by 3,000. That is an example of how our police reforms are working and how crime is falling in this country.
T7. The Conservative party has always claimed to be suspicious of an over-mighty state. Why, then, do the Justice Secretary’s plans for judicial review reform strengthen the role of the state at the expense of the rights of individual citizens? (162415)
T9. In its court translation services, Capita is delivering only 90% compliance against a contract level of 98%. Will the Minister tell the House the overall cost of that failure to the Courts Service and the total amount of the penalties that have been levied on Capita? (162417)
The were difficulties and teething problems at the beginning, but the contract is now running at a very good success rate. The contract saved the taxpayer £15 million in the first year. I believe that it will be more effective, accountable and transparent than the previous version.
T10. There are significant questions of confidence relating to the Justice Secretary’s plans to privatise courts, not least from the Lord Chief Justice, and the Justice Secretary’s own officials have little confidence in his plans to privatise the probation service. Does anyone in the criminal justice system have any confidence in the Justice Secretary? (162418)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to make it clear that I have no plans to privatise the Courts Service. I have every intention of giving it additional commercial freedoms so that it is able to charge a proper rate from those who can afford to pay it. For example, when Russian oligarchs come to London to use our courts, it is right and proper that they should pay a significant amount for the job, as well as their substantial legal fees. I am sorry to hear that the Labour party is championing low bills for the rich and not the right job for this country.
Will the Secretary of State refute again the ridiculous scare stories? Does he agree that even combined courts in the counties can be more flexible, efficient and innovative, and that any talk of privatisation is ridiculous?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. What we are hearing from Opposition Members throughout this sitting is that they are the same old Labour party: they have no answers to any of the problems, they oppose any change and they oppose savings. Frankly, they are not fit to be an Opposition, let alone a Government.
The appointment of registered intermediaries is an underused special measure for child witnesses. Because children do not hear or understand language in the same way as adults, they can find cross-examination very confusing. What more can Ministers do to encourage the appointment of registered intermediaries to help children give good quality evidence in court?
The hon. Lady is right that registered intermediaries do an extremely good job. On the wider front, I hope she is aware of the measures that we are taking to protect vulnerable witnesses and young vulnerable witnesses in particular. We have announced the reform that will allow them to give interviews by video link, so that they do not have to be in court; we are looking at ways to avoid unnecessary multiple cross-examinations by barristers; and we are piloting ways of allowing them to give evidence by video in advance. We have a number of ways to protect such witnesses.
I understand the need to bear down on costs that is driving the Lord Chancellor’s legal aid reforms. Given the disproportionate cost of defending corporate fraud cases, will he consider other ways to make savings, such as requiring those costs to be met out of companies’ public liability insurance?
Evidence from where we have put such changes into practice in Peterborough—we have just published the first findings of the kind of mentoring approach I am talking about—shows a noticeable drop in the level of reoffending. I am confident that the reforms will deliver that. It is much needed.
My hon. Friend is right to identify that problem. We have just published a wide-ranging transformation of the criminal justice system, which will include much better use of technology to ensure that information available to the court helps the case go ahead on the day. There is also the use of more specialist courts for high-volume regular business that can be taken out of magistrates courts. That will enable magistrates to use their expertise where it is used best—in more complex cases—and enable cases to go ahead more often on the day planned, for the greater convenience of victims.
The answer is yes. Our probation reforms will also involve greater mentoring support for those who receive community sentences. Our aim is to stop people going to prison in the first place, and help prevent them from going back if they do end up in prison.
My constituents expect prison to be a place of punishment and rehabilitation, not to provide a more comfortable lifestyle than the one inmates enjoy on the outside. Will the Minister explain how the incentives and earned privileges scheme will operate in the new prison planned in north Wales, and say whether daily life will be significantly different from elsewhere?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the incentives and earned privileges scheme will operate in all our prisons from 1 November. It will mean that prisoners have to earn their privileges by doing more than just keeping their nose clean, and by engaging in their own rehabilitation. That is good for combating reoffending, and is the sort of process that people would expect to happen in our prisons.
Afghanistan and EU Council
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan, and also report back on last week’s European Council.
I visited Afghanistan on Armed Forces day, to pay tribute to the extraordinary men and women who risk their lives every day to serve our country. We should remember in particular the 444 who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. I hope the whole House will welcome the decision to use money from banking fines to build a permanent memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire so that our generation—and every future generation—can remember and honour the sacrifice that they have made for us.
We are in Afghanistan for one reason: to protect our national security by stopping that country being used as a base from which to launch terrorist attacks against our people and our allies around the world. That requires a security response: resisting Taliban insurgent attacks, driving out al-Qaeda, and training Afghan forces to take on that task for themselves. It requires a political response: supporting the Afghans to build a more peaceful, democratic and prosperous future, including a peace process. It also requires a diplomatic response, working in particular with Pakistan, which has a vital role in fighting terrorism in the region. Let me take those three points in turn.
On security, four years ago three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against the UK had links to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, it is less than half. British and international forces have stopped Afghanistan acting as a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and Afghan forces are taking the lead on security right across the country. At the weekend I went to Camp Bastion, Lashkar Gah and the forward operating base at Durai. The British forces I met are absolutely clear about the capability, confidence and leadership of the Afghan forces. Afghan forces already deliver 90% of their own training, and all the 1,000 police patrols in central Helmand each week are now conducted alone without international security assistance force support. It is that growing capability that enables us to draw down our troops. Our numbers in Afghanistan have already reduced from 9,500 to 7,900. By the end of this year, they will be about 5,200. Until recently, we were in 137 different bases. We are now in 13 bases and by the end of the year it will be four or five bases. By the end of next year, when Afghan forces take on full security responsibility, there will be no British troops in any kind of combat role at all. Beyond 2014, small numbers of British troops will remain to help the Afghans deliver their national army officer academy, and this was a request from the Afghan President himself. We will also contribute £70 million a year as part of international financial support for Afghan security beyond 2014.
A strong security response must also be accompanied by a strong political response. In Helmand, we have been working for many years to support the development of better governance, local justice, public services and the chance for Afghans to build sustainable livelihoods that do not involve drugs. Some 130,000 children are now in school, including 30,000 girls—something that would have been impossible under the Taliban—and 80% of the population can now get health care within 10 km of their home. At the national level, the political process is moving forward too. At the weekend, President Karzai assured me of his commitment to the first peaceful democratic succession of power in living memory, following next year’s elections at the end of his second and final term. More than 50,000 new voters have already registered, including over 10,000 women. Britain is supporting this with £4.5 million of aid targeted specifically to increase women’s participation.
The progress in Afghanistan is a challenge to the Taliban. The combination of the successful build-up of the Afghan national security forces and progress on the ground demonstrates that the way to a role in Afghanistan’s future is not through terror and violence, but only by engaging in a political process. So I welcome plans to begin direct talks with the Taliban. The peace process must be Afghan led, but we should do all we can to support it. That does not signal any weakening of our security response, but if we can persuade people that there is a legitimate political path for them to follow, we should do so.
We also know that the problems in Afghanistan will not be solved in Afghanistan alone. The support of neighbouring countries such as Pakistan will be vital. On my visit to Pakistan, I was greatly encouraged by the commitment of the new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. His election was the first ever democratic transition in that country from one elected Government to another. I believe that that represents a precious sign of progress in Pakistan. We discussed our trade, economic and cultural ties. We also agreed to work together in countering extremism and radicalisation, investing in education, tackling poverty and dealing with all the issues that can fuel terrorism. Building on the trilateral process I have been leading between the UK, Afghanistan and Pakistan, I welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment to working with Afghanistan in defeating terrorism across the region.
Let me turn to last week’s European Council. This was rightly focused on sorting out Europe’s economy by doing what we are doing in Britain: getting a grip on spending and supporting private enterprise to create jobs and growth. On spending, the Council finalised, with the European Parliament, the seven-year budget deal we successfully negotiated in February. This agreed new flexibilities between different years and between different budget headings. Crucially, the deal delivers, for the first time, a real-terms cut in the credit card limit for EU spending for the next seven years. There was no change to the February deal, which set total payments at €908.4 billion across the next seven years. That compares with €943 billion in the past seven years. However, in this process there was a further attempt to unpick the British rebate. In February, after repeated attempts to water down the rebate, we reached a clear deal that it would remain unchanged. This was reflected in the Council conclusions that I reported back to this House. The discussion that took place was not necessary and frustrating, and it was frankly unacceptable that we had to go through it all over again. The proposal to remove our rebate on agricultural spending in new member states would have cost the British taxpayer more than £1.5 billion. That has now been categorically rejected. We will continue to get the rebate in the years ahead on the same basis that we do now. It is fair, it is right, and, unlike the previous Government, this Government will not agree to weaken it or give any part of it away.
At the Council there was a particular focus on tackling youth unemployment by supporting the private sector to create jobs and tackling burdens that hold back our businesses competing in the global race. [Interruption.] What we did—to answer the shadow Chancellor—was agree that the European Investment Bank would increase its lending by 40%, with more finance for small and medium-sized businesses. We agreed to do more to help young people not working to acquire the skills that the private sector needs through proper educational training—very much along the lines of Britain’s £1 billion Youth Contract. We also agreed to scrap unnecessary EU regulation, which ties up our businesses in red tape when they should be growing and creating new jobs. To give additional detail and urgency to the Commission’s work, in the UK we will establish a new business task force with six of our best business leaders to take a fresh and ambitious look at the impact of EU regulation on our companies.
It is vital that we expand our trade and increase overseas investment into the UK. That is one of the reasons I was the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Kazakhstan on Sunday and Monday. Since 2000, that country has seen growth at an annual rate of between 8% and 9%. Per capita income has doubled and Kazakhstan has the potential to be the sixth largest oil and gas producer in the world. My business delegation signed deals worth over £700 million, all of which will help to create and sustain jobs right here in the United Kingdom.
Finally, the Council welcomed Croatia, which became the newest member of the European Union at the weekend. We also agreed to start negotiations on accession with Serbia, and on a stability and association agreement with Kosovo. When we remember what happened in the Balkans within our political lifetimes, it is a remarkable achievement that these countries are now joining or preparing to join the EU, with a sense of peace and stability. Britain is proud to support them.
Each of these steps at the Council was about doing what is right for Britain and right for Europe. It is in our national interest to get spending under control, to make Europe more competitive and to expand EU membership to the Balkan states. Openness, competitiveness and flexibility are vital elements of the fresh settlement that I believe is needed for the European Union. We want more of a say for national Parliaments and powers to flow back to member states, not just away from them. This is a new settlement that I intend to put to the country in a referendum within the first half of the next Parliament—a referendum that will give the British people the in/out choice they want and which my party will offer at the next general election. It is a referendum that my party will be voting for in this House on Friday, and I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about Afghanistan? I join him in paying tribute to our troops for the extraordinary job they have done over the last decade. I join him, in particular, in remembering all those who have lost their lives—and their families and loved ones as well. It is right that the Government have set a date for the withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan, but it is also right that the international community, including the UK, continues to make a contribution to Afghanistan’s long-term security post 2014.
Let me ask about post-2014 arrangements, political stability in Afghanistan and co-operation with Pakistan. On the arrangements for 2014 and after, can the Prime Minister provide a bit more detail on the specific nature of the UK forces’ role? Can he say whether, beyond officer training, there will be further responsibilities for any UK forces? Can he say at this stage what objectives will determine the length of stay of any residual UK force? On political reconciliation in Afghanistan, I agree with him about the importance of a proper political process. Can he tell us what the prospect is, in his view, of getting the political talks on track—including with the Taliban, which he mentioned in his statement—and on what timetable that might be possible, given the end-2014 deadline for our combat forces?
Turning to relations with Pakistan, I join the Prime Minister in recognising the vital bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. I also join him in expressing the belief that the UK will need to build strong working relationships with the newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, especially with regard to the future of Afghanistan. There is wide support across this House not just for an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan, but for a regional settlement involving Afghanistan’s neighbours. That was the reason for the Prime Minister’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Chequers summit five months ago. In the communiqué there was a commitment to building
“a peace settlement over the next 6 months.”
Can the Prime Minister say what progress has been made since and what more can be done to achieve that goal?
Let me turn to the European Council. I join the Prime Minister in welcoming Croatia’s entry into the EU, the start date for EU-Serbia accession negotiations and the association agreement with Kosovo. On the European budget, the House was right to vote for a real-terms cut last October, and we support the recent agreement on the European budget and rebate, including the European Parliament’s agreement. It would be a shame to let this occasion pass without quoting the Prime Minister’s flowery words at his press conference last week. I am sure the House will be interested to hear that he said that
“in this town you have to be ready for an ambush at any time, and that means lock and load and have one up the spout”.
I have to say that that sounded more “Carry On up the Council” than “High Noon”, but let us leave that to one side.
Let me turn to the discussions on youth unemployment, which was supposed to be the main subject of the summit but which formed only a small part of the Prime Minister’s statement. There are 26 million people looking for work in the European Union, and nearly 6 million unemployed young people. Nearly 1 million of those young people—one in six across the European Union—are here in Britain. Targeting any extra resources at tackling youth unemployment is welcome, but does the Prime Minister really believe that the response was equal to the scale of the challenge?
At the press conference after the summit and again today, the Prime Minister said the Council had agreed to take action
“very much along the line of Britain’s…youth contract”.
That is worrying news. Last year, the Prime Minister launched the Youth Contract, which he said was
“going to do enormous amounts on youth unemployment”.—[Official Report, 9 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 24.]
So will he explain why a survey of 200 employers last week revealed that none of them—not a single one—had used the Youth Contract to hire a young person? The Youth Contract is not the solution to Europe’s unemployment problem. Frankly, the summit did not mark the long-overdue recognition that the current economic approach across the EU is leaving millions of young people without employment or prospects, and fearing for their future.
Of course we should look at EU regulation, as the Prime Minister proposes, but does he seriously believe that that is the solution to youth unemployment, including in Britain? The European economy is struggling and the British economy has not grown as the Government promised. That is why nearly 1 million young people are still looking for work here in Britain. That is also why long-term youth unemployment is up by 158% since he took office and why his Youth Contract is failing. The truth is that the Prime Minister can hardly argue effectively for action in Europe on youth unemployment when he is so transparently failing here at home.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his response. Let me take his questions in turn.
First, on the post-2014 position in Afghanistan, we have not taken any decisions beyond those that I have described on the officer training academy and the force protection that will go with that, and on the funding of the Afghan forces going ahead. In terms of other commitments, I would make the point that this country has played a very big part but we have also paid a very big price. So I think it is right to focus on the one thing we have been asked to do by the Afghans, and we will take pleasure in running the officer training academy rather than looking for ways to go beyond that.
On the political process, the timetable is urgent and we want the meetings to take place as rapidly as possible. I spoke to Mr Rabbani, who runs the High Peace Council and who is ready to meet and speak to the Taliban. We have to accept, however, that the opening of the Doha office and the way in which that was done and advertised have caused a setback and are deeply unpopular in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the idea of a peace process, and of getting them to talk, is right, and I believe that it will happen.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about Pakistan and the democratic transition. I also agree with what he said about the trilateral process, which has helped to move the agenda forward. Since Chequers, for instance, there has been progress on the release of prisoners so that talks can take place, and other discussions on conferences, borders, police and military co-operation have also made progress.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the EU, and mentioned my rather “flowery” language. The point I was trying to make is that we have to recognise that 27 other countries want to get rid of the British rebate, and we can add to them the European Council President and the European Commission. That is why you have to make sure that you take a tough approach and that you are ready for anything. We know that Labour’s approach is to go in with their hands up and waving a white flag. That is what you get. The difference between us is that we have kept the rebate while they gave so much of it away. That is the truth.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about youth unemployment. Let me point out to him that youth unemployment in the UK is down by 43,000 this quarter and down 60,000 since last year, but we are not in the slightest bit complacent. He asked about the Youth Contract, and 100,000 young people have used work experience, which has got many of them off benefits and into work. Our Work programme, according to the figures announced yesterday, has seen 320,000 people getting work. That makes it almost twice as successful as the flexible new deal.
In terms of international comparisons, over the last year youth unemployment fell faster than in the USA, Germany, Canada, France and Italy. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Youth Contract, and I have already told him that 100,000 young people are getting work experience. I know that Opposition Members think that that is not worth while, but we on the Government side think it is worth while.
What I thought was interesting about the right hon. Gentleman’s response was that we heard not a word about the referendum that we are going to discuss and debate on Friday. I think I know why. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he is not in favour of a referendum; the shadow Chancellor has said that it is pretty stupid not to have a referendum; his chief adviser has said that it is conceivable that they might have a referendum—mind you, his chief adviser thinks all sorts of things are conceivable. Now the Labour leader has a new approach, announced in The Sunday Times—that Labour is not going to talk about a referendum. I think I can sum up the right hon. Gentleman’s policy in three words: weak, weak, weak.
May I ask the Prime Minister a question that I have asked other Ministers over the years? To which central authority will the Afghan national army owe its allegiance? As the army is mainly recruited and officer-led by Tajiks and Uzbeks, with the Pashtun very unrepresented, what is more likely than that there will be a civil war between the old Northern Alliance and the Taliban after 2014, which will put Afghanistan back into the chaos that existed when the Russians withdrew?
Let me try to answer all my right hon. Friend’s questions. In terms of the Afghan national security forces, which are getting towards the number of 340,000—a sizeable investment that the international community has made—the Afghan army will be accountable to the Afghan Government and the Afghan President. That is how it should work. My right hon. Friend is right to say that we still need to work on the balance of the different ethnicities in the Afghan national army, but Pashtuns are being recruited to it. I recently had the great honour of speaking at the passing-out parade of new officers at Sandhurst, and I gave an award to a Pashtun from Helmand who had passed out of Sandhurst and was about to serve in the Afghan national army.
My right hon. Friend’s point about the need to avoid a splintering of Afghanistan is absolutely right. We want to avoid that, and I think the Afghans want to avoid it. That is why it is so important that we continue, long after our troops have left the combat role, to fund the Afghan national security forces, as well as continuing to fund Afghanistan. If we do that, and if the successor to President Karzai properly balances and understands the different pressures in the country, I see no reason why it cannot stay together.
The Afghan forces have improved their capability year on year, but there are still challenges in logistics and equipment. I am told that there are no plans for us to pass over or gift any equipment to the Afghans—even some of the more theatre-specific equipment that we have acquired over the years. If all the ISAF countries adopt the same attitude, how are those challenges going to be met after the draw-down of the combat mission?
First of all, we look at all the equipment we have and at individual Afghan requests to see whether it is something that we can make available. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the capabilities of these forces have increased. As he knows, in talking to our forces out in Afghanistan, it is striking to find out that we are talking to people on their second or third tour, who have seen a radical improvement in what is available. One of the challenges is making sure that the Afghan army has all the enablers and all the assistance it needs—and the Americans are specifically looking at that problem. What has been noticeable about the recent attacks on Kabul is that they were dealt with entirely by the Afghan national security forces—and dealt with very effectively.
May I commend the Prime Minister for his decision to ensure that a proper memorial will be created at the National Memorial Arboretum—a decision that I am sure the whole House would welcome?
In the course of his discussions with the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, was there any consideration of the problems caused by the border tribal areas, which have been used in the past as a safe refuge for those elements of the Taliban determined to thwart the efforts of NATO and, indeed, to bring down the Karzai Government? So long as the borders remain porous and these particular areas provide safe havens, it will be very difficult indeed to achieve the objectives that our Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Pakistan obviously agreed upon.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his question. The memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum is the right move and I think it is important that some elements of the very moving memorial at Camp Bastion are transferred to the arboretum so that there is real continuity.
The problem of the tribal areas in Pakistan, this problem has dogged the country for decades. I did discuss the issue with both the Afghan President and the Pakistan Prime Minister. The simple point is this: it is in both countries’ interests that the danger of Talibanisation is dealt with. It is a threat to Pakistan that there are Pakistan Taliban in Afghanistan, and it is a threat to Afghanistan that there are Taliban in Pakistan. Both countries need to understand their shared interest in dealing with both these threats. They need to recognise the importance of dealing with them together, so that we have a safe, stable and democratic Pakistan and a safe, stable and democratic Afghanistan.
When the Prime Minister discussed issues with fellow leaders at the weekend, did he mention to them his Bill on the referendum on Friday? In particular, what view was taken of the fact that he required the good offices of one of his Back Benchers to bring it forward as a private Member’s Bill and not a Government Bill?
I did not explain all the intricacies of parliamentary procedure, but during the very good debate on the future of economic and monetary union, which was one of the sessions of the European Council, I made clear the view that I have often made clear in this House—that, just as the countries within the eurozone need change and need to integrate more, so countries such as Britain, which in my view will not and should never join the eurozone, need changes, too. We need to make the European Union flexible enough to include both sorts of countries. I think there is a growing recognition that this is the case.
I quite agree with the Prime Minister that the correct message to the Taliban is that stability is best achieved not through violence, but through negotiations. Further to questions from the Leader of the Opposition, will my right hon. Friend say what the prospects for the talks are? To what extent are regional players going to be involved, and will Pakistan be a part of that regional settlement?
I think the overall prospects for talks between the Taliban and the High Peace Council—the right body in Afghanistan to hold these talks—are good. We have to recognise, however, that the way in which the Doha office was established, when it advertised itself as the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan, has caused a setback, and that is rightly deeply unpopular in Afghanistan. As I discussed with President Karzai, the sense is that it is in the interests of Afghanistan for all Afghans to see a Government and a future in which they can have confidence and for the Taliban to lay down their arms and stop fighting. That is in their interests, so although there has been a setback, the underlying logic of what needs to happen is still there.
When the right hon. Gentleman was in Islamabad, did he discuss with our high commissioner the operation of the entry clearance office, which is currently preventing the mother of a constituent of mine who is dying of cancer from visiting him in Manchester before he dies? Did he discuss with Nawaz Sharif the American drone attacks on Pakistan, which violate Pakistan’s sovereignty, kill very large numbers of innocent people and are a war crime, violating international law?
I did not discuss any specific cases with our high commissioner, but I did discuss with him the important operations of our visa processing and the very important work that he does. I think this is a good moment for me to pay tribute to our high commissioner and to his hard-working staff.
As for the second issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman, nothing was off the table during my discussions with Nawaz Sharif. I think that the right approach is to maintain a very tough security response to terrorism. There is no doubt that the presence of al-Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has been radically reduced in recent years and that that has made us safer here in the United Kingdom, but we must ensure that such reductions are accompanied by the proper combating of terrorism in all its forms, which means ensuring that we deal with the underlying narrative on which the terrorists depend. It is with that combined approach that we will succeed.
On the proposed EU-US trade deal, will my right hon. Friend tell us what are the contents and the areas covered by the negotiating mandate which was agreed behind closed doors last weekend? It is governed by a qualified majority vote of which the UK has only 12%, and it is an exclusive competence controlled by the European Commission. Can my right hon. Friend explain why the European Scrutiny Committee, which is looking into these matters, has not been supplied with the mandate, and can he tell us when we will receive it?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the discussions are going ahead on the basis of the maximum level of inclusion of all topics. I think it has been announced in the House that there is a reserve on audio-visual matters, as there has been with all the EU mandates for trade talks, but in this case, uniquely, there is the opportunity to opt back in to discussing those matters as well.
As for my hon. Friend’s point about the European Scrutiny Committee, I shall have to look into that and see whether there is anything I can do to help.
I welcomed the Prime Minister’s visit to Afghanistan, and I pay tribute to the bravery of our troops who are fighting terrorism there. While we must never forget the sacrifice made by those who have died in the field of conflict, can the Prime Minister assure us that the troops who return home—many of them wounded both in body and in mind—will receive all the attention they need?
I certainly want to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I think it is clear from the advances that have been made in recent years in the availability of defence medicine—in Afghanistan, in aircraft transporting troops back from Afghanistan, and here in the UK, at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham and then at Headley Court—that it is second to none, and that we can be proud of what we make available. However, we must think about what happens next as well, and that is what the centres of expertise around the country are all about. It is also important for us to proceed with the work on the military covenant that is being done by the Armed Forces Covenant Sub-Committee—chaired by the Minister for Government Policy—and to continue to channel resources into these vital areas.
Most of the injured and the 444 British dead to whom the Prime Minister referred were brought home either through his constituency or through Royal Wootton Bassett in mine. The people of Britain are hungrily looking forward to the end of combat operations, and will welcome the withdrawal from a large number of forward-operating and patrol bases in Afghanistan that the Prime Minister has announced today. However, can he bring us up to date on what will happen to Camp Bastion once we have left Afghanistan? Will it remain as some kind of strategic base, or will we simply abandon it?
Let me first, through my hon. Friend, pay tribute to the people of Royal Wootton Bassett, and also to people in Carterton and Brize Norton in my own constituency, who I think have shown the best side of Britain in welcoming back, sombrely and properly, those who have fallen in combat operations in Afghanistan.
No final decision has been made about Camp Bastion, but it is likely that it could be used as one of the bases led by the Americans for the purpose of their continued presence in Afghanistan. That would obviously be quite helpful in terms of the timetable governing the return of our resources. However, as those who visit Camp Bastion will see, a great deal of work is being done to return kit to the UK now.
Did the Prime Minister have any opportunity in the margins to discuss, even informally, the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, especially in the light of the EU’s removal of some of its restrictive sanctions? Will he continue to urge South Africa, and the Southern African Development Community generally, to send more international monitors to the country as soon as possible? If that is not done, we shall see another stolen election.
The hon. Lady speaks about this issue with great expertise. I did not discuss Zimbabwe at the European Council, but we did hold a National Security Council meeting relatively recently, at which our high commissioner in Zimbabwe was present. We have been working out how best to maximise the leverage and influence that we have in order to secure a proper election and a proper democratic transition, and that is why we have taken the steps in the European Union to which she referred. However, we keep all these matters under review to ensure that we do all that we can to assist the transition that Zimbabwe so badly needs.
If western work in Afghanistan is not to unravel after next year, one of two things must happen. Either the Taliban must be persuaded that they made a terrible mistake in giving house room to al-Qaeda, or the Americans must retain one or more strategic bases to dissuade them from offering it house room in the future. Does the Prime Minister know whether either of those things has happened or will happen?
I may be a little more optimistic than my hon. Friend, but I think the most likely outcome is that both those things will happen. One of the reasons why I think a peace process can get under way is the fact that, in recent statements, the Taliban have effectively said that they do not want Afghanistan to be used to harm other countries. I believe that the decoupling of the Taliban from al-Qaeda is well under way, and I think that that is positive.
I also do not believe that America, NATO, ISAF or any of us are walking away from Afghanistan, and I think that that is positive as well. As I have said, we will maintain the officer training academy and our funding of the Afghanistan national security forces, and I think it likely that the Americans will maintain a presence in the country—to be negotiated, of course, with the Afghan Government.
Obviously we want to see a peace process succeed, but, as we have always had to explain, our security response of training the Afghan national army and police force is the key part of making sure that the country will not fall back under Taliban or al-Qaeda control, and, having observed the effectiveness of those forces, I think we can be confident that they are capable of ensuring that that happens.
Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to praise the skill, persistence and dedication of the European Union’s High Representative, Cathy Ashton, and her staff in securing the welcome agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on normalisation on 19 April? Will he also take this opportunity, while he is supporting further enlargement of the EU, to explain why we are in favour of other countries joining the EU, but many members of his party want us to leave?
Let me first pay tribute to Cathy Ashton and the very good work that she does in the European Union, which I see at first hand. We work very closely together, and I know that she works very closely with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. While some of the dossiers for which she is responsible must be immensely frustrating—I am thinking particularly of the Iranian negotiations—there is no doubt that she can take a huge amount of credit for the opening of accession negotiations with Serbia and the completion of the process of accession for Croatia. I made that very clear at the European Council meeting.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about my party, let me point out that the Conservative party has always been in favour of the widening of the European Union. We have been arguing for that for decades. Indeed, we were arguing for it, and delivering it, in the 1980s, when the hon. Gentleman’s party stood on rather a different ticket.
For the many of us who supported the expulsion of al-Qaeda but opposed the morphing of the mission into one of nation building, this has indeed been a long and sad road, and that has been compounded by the fact that we should have been holding talks with the Taliban a long time ago. Will the Prime Minister therefore use his best offices to ensure that talks with the Taliban are truly unconditional? This has been a stumbling block in the past, particularly with the Americans.
Since the very first day on which I took office as Prime Minister in 2010, I have pursued the agenda of a peace process and a political process, and I have been discussing it with the Americans and others for all that time. Of course historians will argue about whether the Berlin peace conference of 2001 was established in the right way, but let us leave that to the historians; we should be dealing with the here and now.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend on one point. I think that a very important condition needs to be fulfilled. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) pointed out, there must be an understanding that the Taliban do not believe that Afghanistan should be used as a base for foreign attacks and that they will not allow it to be so used.
I am delighted that the Prime Minister finally acknowledges that the right place for a European nation with a population of 5 million is as an independent member state of the EU. However, on the issue of EU competitiveness, this week there was some good news about mobile phone roaming charges that I think Members on both sides of the House will welcome. That was a great success for the EU, although curiously the UK Government have published a report suggesting that somehow the old charges will remain in a sovereign Scotland. That has been reacted to by the Prime Minister’s deputy chairman in Scotland as “silly”, by Tory donor John McGlynn as “puerile”, and by his favourite Conservative commentator Alan Cochrane as “tripe”. Will the Prime Minister show some leadership and end these puerile, silly scare stories?
What the hon. Gentleman cannot hide from is the fact that the legal advice is absolutely clear—clear from the Government and clear from the European Commission. Of course, his party said it had legal advice, yet it had absolutely none, but the legal advice is clear. If Scotland votes to become independent it will have to queue up behind Serbia, behind Macedonia and behind Kosovo in order to get back into the European Union. That is the truth, inconvenient though it may be for the hon. Gentleman.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the country will not understand if Members of Parliament fail to engage in this Friday’s debate on the need for us to renegotiate our membership of the EU and to let the people decide in a referendum whether they want our membership of Europe on that renegotiated basis? This is not an issue that Parliament and Members of Parliament can run away from.
My hon. Friend, who has a long track record of support for the EU, makes a very sensible point, which is that when it comes to this Bill on Friday, and when it comes to the issue of a referendum, people can either be in favour of holding an in/out referendum or they can be against holding an in/out referendum, but surely they must have an opinion. My hon. Friends and I will be voting for that Bill; we will be voting in the Lobby on Friday. What is Labour going to do? Is it simply going to decide it does not want to talk about this issue? I think the whole country will find that completely feeble.
Is it not surprising that, in view of the considerable concern that has been expressed abroad over US intelligence operations against friendly European countries, including EU offices in Washington and New York, there was apparently no discussion of that at the European Council? Surely it is an item that should have been considered, and perhaps the Prime Minister can give us his views about what the US has been doing.
I say the same thing publicly and privately, and in the European Council and this House, which is that I do not comment on national security and intelligence matters as I think that would be wrong, but I think it is important to remember that our security services operate under the law. We do not use co-operation with foreign intelligence services to get around our own procedures here in the UK, and it is worth remembering that the intelligence and security gathering we do is of huge benefit to those partners, including many in the EU, with whom we share it. It helps to keep us safe and it helps to keep them safe, and we should praise what our intelligence and security services do on our behalf.
Will the Prime Minister say how the women of Afghanistan may be represented in any talks with the Taliban, and what assurances can he give to the women of Afghanistan that their hard-won advances in terms of the right to education for girls and the right to a livelihood for women will be sustained in the 2015 settlement and thereafter?
My right hon. Friend asks an important question, and the answer to it is that the Afghan President and Government are absolutely clear that any discussions need to proceed on the basis of the Afghan constitution, which has safeguards on those and other issues. It is important to note that whereas in 2001 there were almost no girls in school in Helmand, there are now over 30,000.
I was pleased to hear from the Prime Minister, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), that he is still a passionate champion of enlargement, but does he agree that it is not sufficient just to welcome countries like Croatia into the EU, as we need to support them to ensure they are of benefit to the EU, rather than a burden?
I agree: we should support Croatia, and we have agreed to the use of the European budget to make sure Croatia gets its receipts from the EU as well as making its payments into the EU. The strength of widening the EU is not only that when those countries come in they become even greater trading partners and investment partners for Britain, but that as part of the process of preparing to join they have to put their own houses in order to tackle corruption, improve the rule of law and so forth. We have seen that in Croatia, we are seeing it in Serbia, and it is very welcome.
Last night I had a phone call from Afghanistan, from my son. He wanted to express to this House how much the serving members of our armed forces who are out there appreciate the efforts of the Prime Minister in coming out there and speaking to them personally. I hope the Prime Minister will accept those thanks.
May I, through my hon. Friend, thank his son for his service in Afghanistan? We have been there for many years now, and we come across people now who are on their second or third tour of Afghanistan—people who have spent many months of their lives working under very difficult conditions. We can be proud of the fact that when we sit in a room with our armed forces and ask them about the job they are doing, the morale is high; they are enthusiastic about the capabilities of the Afghan security forces, and they are also enthusiastic about the kit they receive. There are still issues we need to deal with—more access to wi-fi and one or two other things—but generally speaking I found people in high morale who are enthusiastic about the job they are doing.
The Prime Minister’s usual advisers are gentlemen in uniform, but may I ask him to reconsider the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, because a consistent body of evidence has shown that drones have killed far more civilians than al-Qaeda operatives, and with countries such as Pakistan openly objecting to the use of drones, that is also a violation of their sovereignty? Please will the Prime Minister therefore take a thorough relook at this whole issue of drone use?
As this issue relates to Pakistan, it is an issue for the United States and Pakistan, although what I have said about the huge damage that has been done to al-Qaeda is beyond debate; it is a fact. On Afghanistan, I think it is important that we give our armed forces every protection they can possibly have, and the use of ISTAR drones and other cameras and the like have done a huge amount to keep our armed forces safe and to make sure we defeat the Taliban insurgency.
As I set out in the speech I made at the end of January this year, I believe we need to recognise that change is taking place in the EU. That means the single currency countries will have to integrate further, but it should be available to non-single currency countries to see powers flow back to them. I gave one example my hon. Friend might be interested in: I think the phrase “ever closer union” should be disapplied from the United Kingdom. I do not think it is ever something we in this country were comfortable with. It was something we never really wanted to sign up to in the 1970s. I think we do need that different sort of European Union, and then to give people the choice about whether they want to join or leave it.
Can the Prime Minister help me by telling us what he really thinks about Afghanistan? We have been there for 12 years, we have lost over 400 soldiers, thousands of others have died, £17 billion has been spent, an illegal drone war is going on in Pakistan and neighbouring countries, and now there are talks with the Taliban in Qatar. Does he not think it is time to reassess the whole question of intervention, what it does in terms of the hatred between this country and others around the world, and what it does to the peace of the world as a whole?
Where I take such a different view from the hon. Gentleman is that we know what non-engagement with Afghanistan leads to, because that is what happened after the end of the fall of the previous regime. There was a process when the world looked away from Afghanistan, and we paid the price in a civil war that went on for years, with plummeting living standards, rampant poverty, and a country that went backwards in every regard, and then became, under the Taliban, a haven for al-Qaeda extremists who carried out plots, killing people on our soil, in America, and in other parts of the world. That is what happens when we do not engage.
Of course, the state of Afghanistan is not perfect, but after all the investment and the sacrifice we can at least say, “Here is a country where there are not active plots against Britain being hatched. Here is a country that is making economic and social progress. Here is a country with an elected President that is looking forward to a democratic transition. And here is a country that has got security forces which have a good prospect of maintaining Afghanistan into the future.” That is the result of engagement. We know the results of disengagement, and I know which I think is better.
The Yorkshire Regiment will be marching through Huddersfield later this month on a freedom parade. Does the Prime Minister agree that freedom parades are a fitting way for our communities to pay tribute to our brave servicemen and women for their contribution in Afghanistan?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which is that there is a yearning in this country to find new ways to recognise what our armed forces do and all they represent. For some years in the past—this is not a political point; I think that the last Prime Minister recognised this—we did not really do enough and we were not quite sure how to show our appreciation. Armed Forces day was a good step forward and the military covenant is a good step forward—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) says it was a Labour achievement, but I think he will find that the military covenant was put into law by this Government. I was attempting not to make a political point, but he made me diverge. I also think these parades are a great way, on a cross-party basis—on a no-party basis—of everyone turning out on to our streets and saying thank you.
Will the Prime Minister seek to change the rules of this House so that the names of the fallen can be honoured by being read out in this Chamber—the same Chamber that sent them to their deaths? What lasting achievements have there been in Afghanistan that justify £37 billion of taxpayers’ money and 444 deaths?