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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2013

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Social Mobility

The spending review protected spending in key areas that will promote social mobility, including the schools budget, £2.5 billion for the pupil premium, 15 hours a week of free early education for the lowest-income two-year-olds and an additional £200 million to support the most troubled families.

Child poverty fell by half under the previous Labour Government, but it is forecast to rise by 500,000 by 2015 under this Government. The Deputy Prime Minister has cut the national scholarship programme, the Sure Start programme and working tax credits for families. Are not the only beneficiaries of social mobility since the general election the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem Ministers?

It is under this Government that we have given over 20 million people paying the basic rate of tax, particularly those on low incomes, a significant tax break so that they keep more of the money they earn. It is under this Government that we are taking close to 3 million people out of income tax altogether by raising the starting point at which it is paid to £10,000. It is under this Government that for the first time ever, from this September, two-year-old toddlers from the poorest families will get 15 hours free pre-school support. Relative child poverty is now at its lowest level since the mid-1980s, and the proportion of children living in relative poverty was lower in the past two years under this Government than it was in the last two years under the hon. Gentleman’s Government.

Gosport schools receive pupil premium funding, particularly because there are so many children from armed forces families. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that that underlines the Government’s commitment to education as one of the keys to improving life chances?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Only yesterday I attended the pupil premium awards ceremony, which was for teachers and head teachers who have made best use of the additional money, which will be £2.5 billion extra going to those schools that are educating children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It was a wonderful occasion, because it really showed, much as the schools in her constituency have shown, what good can come from good use of the pupil premium.

Elections (Non-party Campaigning)

2. What assessment he has made of the role of campaigning by bodies other than political parties in elections. (163789)

At the 2010 general election, the Electoral Commission registered 30 so-called third parties, which between them spent nearly £3 million. The Government are introducing sensible and necessary improvements to the controls on third parties to ensure that they are fully transparent and not allowed to distort the political process.

Given the scandal involving Unite the Union in Falkirk, and the leaked internal document showing that it is now trying to influence selections in 40 other constituencies across the country, including Pendle, does the Minister agree that there is huge public demand for complete transparency on the influence of trade unions on our political system?

It is high time this is looked at. I think that the examples my hon. Friend has just given demonstrate that these are by no means isolated cases. It is the same old Labour party, which Len McCluskey still bankrolls, still rigs selections for, still controls and still chooses the leader for.

The Minister talks about transparency in the political system. She will be aware of the huge concern in March last year when it was first disclosed that multi-millionaires were getting privileged access to No. 10 Downing street and potentially influencing Government policy. It is about more than just elections; it is about influencing Government policy. Does she think that those millionaires will have more of an impact or less of an impact at the next general election?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is just treading time until his leader gets up to speak. Perhaps the leader is as weak as he is.

Voting (Overseas UK Citizens)

3. What consideration he has given to changing the regulations concerning voting by UK citizens living overseas. (163790)

UK citizens resident overseas can register to vote in UK and European parliamentary elections provided that they have been registered in the UK in the past 15 years. We are extending the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections, which will make it easier for people overseas to use their postal votes, and the Government are also removing the requirement for an initial application as an overseas elector to be attested by another British citizen abroad.

I am grateful for that answer. As we know, many UK citizens living overseas are eligible to vote but are not registered. What steps can we take to ensure that British people living overseas are enfranchised?

The Government will certainly explore all possible ways, in discussion with the Electoral Commission and other interested parties, to encourage registration among overseas electors, as we do, of course, for any eligible elector who seeks to be registered. As I say, the measures that we are taking in the context of moving towards individual electoral registration will help. I urge the hon. Lady and all those here in the House to take this issue very seriously, because very many more overseas electors ought to be registered.

Does the Minister agree that, given the importance she puts on this, the immediate priority must be the 6 million people in this country who are already eligible to vote but are missing from the register? What is she going to do about that?

I have an entire programme of activities on individual electoral registration, about which I have always been happy to brief the House; in fact, I will do so again shortly by invitation to all right hon. and hon. Members. When it comes to deciding which voters are more important than others, all voters are equally important.

Is consideration being given to the possibility that residents of the Falkland Islands will be given the right to vote in British elections in the same way as the French give people living on the island of Réunion the right to vote in French elections?

There are various categories of eligibility depending on the status of the country in question—for example, the rules that relate to Commonwealth voters who are resident in this country. I would be happy to take a further look into that question in the light of any changes that my right hon. Friend might be referring to.

Does the Minister have any concern that a number of local authorities are cutting the money that is dedicated to electoral registration? If so, what is she going to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman will have been eagle-eyed and read my written ministerial statement last week announcing £4.2 million to deal with exactly that.

Commission on Devolution in Wales

The Government are grateful to the commission for its hard work and for engaging widely across Wales. We have been carefully considering its recommendations on the financial powers of the Assembly, and we intend to respond shortly. The commission is now undertaking a thorough review of the broader devolution settlement for Wales, and I look forward to seeing its report next year.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has said that funding improvements to the M4 are largely connected with the recommendations of the Silk commission. Given that Welsh businesses have already suffered two delays, will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that they do not suffer a third as a result of delayed negotiations?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Chancellor recently confirmed that we would respond to part 1 of the Silk commission’s report shortly. It is a complex area of work. There are 33 recommendations that touch on various complex areas of fiscal and taxation policy. We are endeavouring to respond as soon as possible, including on the issue of infrastructure investment that he raises.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister give me a guarantee that, as a Member of Parliament representing a constituency in Wales, I will still be able to vote and speak in this House on matters that affect my constituents who use health services, transport and employment in England?

Yes, I think that is an assurance that I can give the right hon. Gentleman; I am not quite sure what he is driving at. The process of devolution across the United Kingdom is not incompatible with making sure that the House acts as one where we need to do so, but also, as the McKay commission examined, that we explore the possibility of ensuring that where matters apply only to England that is somehow reflected in the procedures of this House.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister update me on what discussions have taken place with the Northern Ireland Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Executive?

There are of course ongoing discussions. I was in Northern Ireland myself just a few weeks ago. As my hon. Friend may know, one of the main topics of discussion has been the proposal for the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland because of Northern Ireland’s rather atypical economic position given its significant land border with the Republic of Ireland. We are giving very serious consideration to this. We will not make a final decision until after the referendum on Scottish independence next year.

Last night we were legislating on some of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, 13 days after it published its final report. It is eight months since Silk finished the first phase of his report. Why are the UK Government treating the people of Wales with such contempt, when all the polls indicate strong support for official powers for Wales?

Of course I acknowledge the fact that the success of the Silk commission is that it has mobilised such cross-party consensus and support in Wales. That is why, far from treating the recommendations with contempt, we are treating them with a great deal of seriousness. I accept that that is taking a little longer than the hon. Gentleman might want, but when we announce our response to the 33 recommendations I hope he will be pleasantly surprised at our forthcoming and forward-leaning approach.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it would be utterly wrong to allow yet further powers to be given to the Welsh Assembly before we have resolved the problem of what we do about English devolution?

I do not think one should seek to be too neat about these things. Of course I accept that there is an issue with how English votes on issues that affect only English constituencies are dealt with in this House. The McKay commission examined that, and we are now reflecting on its recommendations, but that does not mean that we should somehow freeze in time an ongoing process of devolution to other parts of the United Kingdom.

Trade Unions (Party Funding)

5. What recent representations he has received on the role of trade unions in the funding of political parties. (163793)

The cross-party funding talks during 2012 and 2013 included discussions on reform of donations, spending, and how to deal with affiliate bodies such as trade unions. In my written statement to the House last Thursday I expressed my disappointment that, as on previous occasions, the talks were not able to reach agreement on beginning party funding reform in this Parliament.

I welcome the Damascene conversion of the Leader of the Opposition to the merits of trade union members opting in to the political levy, but does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is way past time for trade union members to be able to decide to which political party they donate?

I agree with my hon. Friend and think that, as on so many other matters, the vast majority of the British people would also agree with him rather than the Labour party. If Labour Members want to turn their leader’s words today into action, we are prepared to work with them and use the forthcoming party funding Bill—[Interruption.] That is a serious suggestion and offer to turn the principle of an opt-in on the political levy into law, and indeed to give trade union members the right to support other parties, if that is what they wish. I hope Labour Members will take that opportunity, because it is time to turn words into actions.

Would not the Deputy Prime Minister speak with more credibility about political funding if his party returned the £2.5 million given to it by a convicted criminal, Michael Brown? That money was stolen. Why not return it?

I know that things must be difficult for the hon. Gentleman at this time and that he wants to spread mud around the place, but the fact is that the issue in British politics today is how on earth it is possible that the Labour party—a so-called progressive party—is funded to the tune of £11 million by Unite, which hand-picks its parliamentary questions and its parliamentary candidates. That is why I repeat my sincere offer to use forthcoming legislation to turn the promises being made by his leader into action.

Given the scandal engulfing the Labour party, is it not time that my right hon. Friend offered the Leader of the Opposition a helping hand and introduced a £50,000 cap on donations to political parties, which would stop big-money trade unions buying parliamentary seats?

I should point out to my hon. Friend that the donation cap did not find favour among various parties in the recent cross-party talks. The issue of the day is: are parties in this House free of vested interests—yes or no? I do not think it healthy for the Labour party or, for that matter, the trade unions to have this dysfunctional relationship. I welcome what the leader of the Labour party is saying today and offer legislation on behalf of the coalition Government to turn his words into action.

On the funding of political parties, in recent years donations to the Conservative party from hedge fund managers, bankers and others associated with the City of London have doubled to nearly £43 million. They obviously like the half-baked regulatory measures being introduced by this Government. What measures does the Deputy Prime Minister plan to take to ensure full transparency, so that these donations, to use his own words, are not allowed to distort the political process?

All parties in this House, if we are candid with each other, have had problems with the way in which big money circulates in politics. That is why I remain a keen advocate of a cross-party approach to getting big money out of political donations and why I am disappointed that the recent cross-party talks did not lead to fruition. We can make progress, which is why we are about to table a Bill on third party funding to limit the influence of non-political parties in the democratic process. I repeat what I said earlier: given that the Labour party finally seems to have had a change of heart over the way in which it organises its dysfunctional relationship with its financial backers, I hope that it will work with us to reflect that in law.

Voter Registration (Young People)

The Government, politicians, political parties, electoral administrators and others in society have a role to play in encouraging people, including young people, to register to vote. As I have mentioned, the Government are making available up to £4.2 million this year to maximise the rate of voter registration ahead of the transition to individual electoral registration in 2014. That will be targeted at groups of people who are under-represented on the electoral register, including young people.

Does the Minister not accept that under individual registration there will be the serious problem that a lot of young people who lead slightly dysfunctional lives because they are away at college or working away, or for all kinds of other reasons, will not be at an address when a registration form arrives, will not be able to register, and consequently will not be able to vote? Will this system not end up disfranchising a large number of young people who ought to be enfranchised in our system?

As the youngest Minister in Her Majesty’s Government, I could not agree more on the importance of enfranchising young people. However, I disagree entirely that IER will lead to what the hon. Gentleman describes. There are multiple points at which electoral registration officers will make contact; it is not a case of just one officer turning up. I stand strongly by the principle that it is right in a modern society for people to have an individual right, and indeed a responsibility, to register.

Given that voter registration is straightforward and free of charge, why do the Government not require all public sector organisations, whenever they come into contact with anybody—young, middle-aged or old—to ask whether they are on their local register, and if they are not, to tell them how to register?

My hon. Friend makes a helpful point. Many opportunities to achieve the ends that he sets out are afforded by having more public services online. We are introducing digital registration in 2014, which will be very helpful in achieving that shared aim.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policy initiatives and I have responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

In this flatlining economy, nearly 1 million young people are unemployed. In my constituency there has been a 10% increase in youth unemployment. Most worryingly, there is a disproportionate impact on young people from black, Asian and minority communities. One in two young black men is unemployed, compared with one in four young men in the white community. Why are the Government not addressing that appalling inequality?

I am sure that all Members from all parts of the House will agree that it is important that we give young people more opportunities to get into work. That is why we have massively expanded the number of apprenticeships that are available to young people, on a scale that dwarfs anything the previous Government had planned, and why we have made available £1 billion for the Youth Contract. I urge the hon. Lady, if she has not done so—[Interruption.] She says that it is not working. It offers funding for 250,000 new work experience places, which is a great way of getting young people into work. If she worked with us, she could explain to employers in her constituency that wage subsidies are available under the Youth Contract so that if a local employer takes on a young person, they get paid for doing so by the Government.

T2. Will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the development of single pot funds and on what that will mean for east Kent in respect of the access to devolved money? (163804)

The Chancellor announced recently that we will start with a so-called single pot, as proposed by Lord Heseltine, of just over £2 billion. That is just the start of the process. Local enterprise partnerships across the country will be able to bid for at least half of that money and the rest will be distributed on a formula basis.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that people do not like the fact that MPs can earn tens of thousands of pounds, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of pounds, from second jobs? Will he work with us to clamp down on MPs having second jobs?

I am not sure if I agree with the right hon. and learned Lady that we should stop—or clamp down on, as she puts it—MPs having additional employment. What is important is for that to be as transparent and accountable as possible. People expect their MPs to work for their constituents: that is what we are here for, and that should remain the principal purpose of all MPs elected to this place.

It is important to have transparency, and we have transparency, but we need to do more. It is the amount of money that people see MPs earning that they do not agree with. The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned that he will introduce a Bill. Will it make provision for companies to consult shareholders before they are allowed to make donations to political parties?

Dare I say it, it is interesting that the right hon. and learned Lady is raising detailed points about reforming party funding now, when her party singularly failed to do so in the cross-party talks that, unfortunately, have just come to an end. We see the consequences in the headlines: the Labour party has failed and failed and failed to address the fact that it is at the beck and call of major vested interests in British society. That is not healthy for the Labour party. That is not healthy for trade unions. That is not healthy for democracy.

T3. In the event of a no vote in the Scottish referendum next year, there is some discussion that further devolution, sometimes called devo max, will be offered. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that before we go ahead with anything along those lines, there will be clarity on how many fewer MPs from Scotland there will be in this place? (163805)

It is for each party to explain how it wants to see the process of devolution continue in the wake of next year’s referendum. Let us first settle the question of whether Scotland will remain a part of the family of nations that makes up the United Kingdom, and then decide as different parties. Speaking on behalf of my party, we will always be at the forefront of arguing for greater devolution within a United Kingdom.

T5. The Deputy Prime Minister said, in launching his party’s 2010 green manifesto, that the Tories“talk the talk on green issues only to align themselves with climate deniers”.Will he explain to the hundreds and hundreds of constituents who contacted me why he and his party voted against the decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill? (163808)

As the hon. Gentleman would know if he followed the debate, we will be taking powers to introduce a decarbonisation target when the next carbon budget starts. There are different opinions on this. Some Members suggested recently that we should abolish the Department of Energy and Climate Change—indeed, that we should abolish my office, too—and any mention of climate change. Needless to say, I think they are wrong on all counts.

T4. Given the success of the Deputy Prime Minister’s political and constitutional reform agenda to date, what other plans might he have to reform party political funding and allow Opposition Members to voice their opinions free from the yoke of union oppression? (163806)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, unfortunately, after numerous meetings bringing together representatives of the main parties in the past year or two, once again a cross-party consensus on party funding appears to have eluded us. I remain ready at any time to take up cross-party discussions. We need to reform party funding for the sake of all political parties, but the party in the spotlight today is the Labour party and its dysfunctional links with the trade unions. We will make available Government legislation to turn their words into action.

T6. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that paying the same fee to lawyers whether there is a guilty plea or a not guilty plea risks undue pressure being placed on defendants to plead guilty even though innocent, leading to miscarriages of justice? Does he also agree that the legal aid proposals from the Justice Secretary are half-baked? (163809)

The Justice Secretary has made it clear that he cannot and will not escape from the need to make just over £200 million of savings from the significant amount of money invested in our legal system. He will remain open-minded, as he reflects on the results of the recent consultation on his proposed legal aid reforms, on exactly how those reforms should be implemented, as long as the savings are achieved.

T12. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in welcoming this week’s news that after talks South and North Korea have reached agreement to reopen the jointly run Kaesong industrial complex, and does he not agree that this shows that dialogue into North Korea makes a difference and that consideration by the BCC World Service to start transmission into North Korea should be given priority? (163817)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all her work on this vital issue, which is of huge significance not just for the region, but for world stability. I agree that the agreement reached—thankfully—on the use of the Kaesong industrial site is a significant step forward, given where we were just a few weeks and months ago, and yes, I agree that the role of the BBC World Service in projecting our values is immensely important.

T8. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), the Deputy Prime Minister did not seem to be aware that the chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation said that virtually none of its members had taken up the wage incentive. What is he going to do about this, and does he now regret having fully endorsed so quickly the abolition of the future jobs fund? (163811)

The problem with the future jobs fund, as I hope the hon. Lady will acknowledge, was that, although it moved young people into jobs, often it did so only temporarily, and the point of the Youth Contract is to learn from those mistakes to ensure that the jobs created for young people last. The evidence, both from our huge expansion of apprenticeships and the parts of the Youth Contract giving young people opportunities, is that they are staying in work, and not simply being provided with temporary work, which is what happened under the future jobs fund.

The Deputy Prime Minister has been hugely helpful in helping to secure Government funding for the Tour de France in Yorkshire next year, but less helpful has been the response I have had to the “be inspired, get involved” initiative. With the anniversary of London 2012 coming up, will he meet me in the next 10 days to discuss the matter?

Of course, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend at any time to discuss that. I strongly agree that having the start of the Tour de France in Yorkshire is a wonderful opportunity not just to show off the virtues of Yorkshire, but to put Britain on the map, once again, for this great, global sporting event.

T9. The Deputy Prime Minister lauds the success of the Youth Contract, but let me give him a hard fact: one third of businesses recently surveyed said they had not even heard of it. What is he going to do about it? (163812)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in explaining to employers in his constituency that this payment of just shy of £2,300 is available to employers under the wage incentive in the Youth Contract where they take on young people. I hope he will also be aware that the Youth Contract consists not just of those 160,000 wage incentives, but of a funded increase in the number of work experience places—a quarter of a million of them—and a significant increase in funding for apprenticeships aimed at young people.

How much have the Deputy Prime Minister and his Cabinet Office colleagues cost the public purse in conducting a study of alternatives to Trident that has taken more than two and a half years to show that there are indeed no alternatives to Trident as the basis of our nuclear deterrent?

My hon. Friend must be a soothsayer if he can tell what is in a report that has not been published yet. As he knows, the confidential version of the report has been provided to the Prime Minister and me, and we hope to publish the unclassified version shortly, when he will see that options are available to us. I have always argued against the idea that a total, like-for-like, exact replacement of Trident on precisely the same basis is the only option available to us as a country.

T10. Does “shortly” mean before the summer recess? Given that the Deputy Prime Minister’s report will show that his grand idea of a mini-deterrent was always a complete fantasy, why should anyone take him seriously if he now says that Britain could be adequately protected with a part-time deterrent? (163814)

We have another psychic telling us what is in a report that he has not seen yet. We hope that the report will be published shortly; we hope to publish it before the recess, but of course we need to check that the unclassified document is properly vetted in all respects, which is what we are doing at the moment. The simple point is: does the hon. Gentleman believe that a weapons system designed to be fired at the push of a button, at any minute of any hour of any day, 365 days a week, to flatten Moscow in a cold war context, is the only weapons system available to us? That is the question he needs to answer.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister set out the occasions on which he or any other Liberal Democrat Minister met Derek Webb and what was discussed at those meetings?

T11. What explanation does the Deputy Prime Minister give for the fact that since the Youth Contract was launched, 11,600 more young people have been unemployed for over 12 months than before? (163816)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, headline figures for youth unemployment have, thankfully, come down. I have seen that in the city for which I am an MP, where youth unemployment has come down by 8%, but of course we need to do more. He also knows that, of the headline figures, around 300,000 or 400,000 are in education, but we need to do more. That is what the Youth Contract is about. I accept that there is a challenge to communicate with employers so that they take up the bit of the Youth Contract that will be of help to them.

In the interest of victims of press intrusion and many others, will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the charter for press regulation agreed by this House and all parties will be put to the Privy Council at the earliest possible opportunity for agreement?

Of course I can confirm that we will do so at the earliest possible opportunity, but first we need to respect the processes of the Privy Council, as my right hon. Friend knows. Another, rival charter has been submitted for consideration at the Privy Council. We need to ensure that it is properly examined objectively and is not subject to undue interference. That process is now under way. He, like many people who voted on 18 March for the cross-party royal charter, is impatient to get on with it. I understand that. Our support for the royal charter voted for on 18 March remains, but we must also ensure that things are done objectively and reasonably in the Privy Council.

But Ministers tabled a motion on 18 March stating that the royal charter would go to the May Privy Council. Did they not know that they would be beaten to it by the press barons of this country? Why can it not go to the July meeting of the Privy Council? If not in July, why can the Deputy Prime Minister not have a special meeting in August or September, or whenever? The House decided. Why should others circumvent the will of this House?

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, but he will recall that on 18 March there was only one royal charter in play: the royal charter that we adopted on a cross-party basis—

Yes, with an overwhelming majority in this House. I certainly stand by my support for that, as I think everyone does across all sections in the House. However, another royal charter has since been put forward for consideration in the Privy Council. Whether the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) likes it or not, we must allow objective consideration of that additional royal charter.

When the Deputy Prime Minister last stood in for the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions, he not only gave my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) the jitters but provided me with a helpful answer about the Special Olympic games being held in Bath in August and spreading the Olympic legacy. Alas, not too much has happened since. Will he look at that answer again and see what can be done?

I will look at the issue again and speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that my hon. Friend gets a full answer.

I am a proud trade unionist. I am proud of the fact that the trade union contributions to donations come from hard-working people up and down the country, who should not be smeared by Government Members. Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider legislation to ensure that the shareholders of big businesses that wish to donate to any party will be consulted and will have to agree to any such donation?

As I said before, I am up for a cross-party consensus to reform party funding across the piece. We had the opportunity to do that over the last two years, but the hon. Gentleman’s party singularly failed to step up to the mark in those cross-party discussions. Now that it has been revealed for the whole country to see that the Unite union is hand-picking parliamentary candidates, funding the Labour party to the tune of £11 million, suddenly the Labour party has belatedly discovered an enthusiasm for reform. We will make Government legislation available to make that happen.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to look into how a city deal for Norwich would help to create new jobs by capitalising on the economic growth of the world-class institutions at the Norwich research park?

My hon. Friend is getting active support from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who is sitting to my left. As he knows, Norwich is one of the 20 cities and towns that are in the process of securing a second wave of so-called city deals, following the first wave for the eight largest cities outside the south-east. I met representatives from Norwich and the other 19 places recently, and I am optimistic that we will be able to make an announcement in the autumn or winter.

According to a recent Hansard Society survey, only 12% of 18 to 24-year-olds are committed to voting in the next general election. Why does the Deputy Prime Minister think that is the case, and what steps does he intend to take to improve participation?

As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office explained earlier, a number of steps are being taken to ensure that young voters understand how individual voter registration will work and that they take the opportunity to register themselves individually so that they can participate fully in future elections.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister now answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery)? Does he or does he not think that shareholders should be consulted before donations are made to a political party?

There is a whole bunch of things we need to do to reform party funding, for the sake of all the political parties. It is a bit rich for Labour Members to assume this rather pious tone when it is their problems that are once again disfiguring the way in which money circulates in politics in this country.

On third-party donations, will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that his party received a donation of £350,000 from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust before the last general election? Does he think that Joseph Rowntree would be pleased to see his money being used to prop up a Tory Government?

If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about being progressive, I do not know what is progressive about the sight of a major political party that is at the beck and call of a vested interest. I do not think that it is healthy for the trade unions, either. Over the past three years, his party has shown itself to be incapable of progressive political reform. It has blocked House of Lords reform, failed to campaign actively for the alternative vote and failed to deliver cross-party political funding reform. I think Joseph Rowntree would have been very disappointed by that.

I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister will share my concern about young people not voting. If so, why, as a member of the coalition Government, is he standing by as citizenship training disappears from our schools up and down the country?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has had time to look at the national curriculum, which was published yesterday by the Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister. It places laudable emphasis on ensuring that citizenship is properly taught in schools. We also have a programme of schools outreach, and we will be looking for organisations to deliver a set lesson framework, Rock Enrol, which is being developed and piloted by Bite the Ballot in a number of schools across England and Wales. Those are good initiatives.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service (Procurement/Outsourcing)

1. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in procuring and outsourcing services. (163818)

The Crown Prosecution Service has a good record of procuring and outsourcing services. The Department utilises pan-government contracts for goods and services and has extensive arrangements for outsourcing services including advocacy, information technology and facilities management. These arrangements save many millions of pounds a year, protecting front-line jobs and front-line service delivery.

The Crown Prosecution Service has a pilot contract for interpreters at four witness care units, but it has been dogged by delay. What is going to happen now at witness care units across the country?

The use that the CPS makes of those services is actually fairly limited. The information that I have does not suggest that the difficulties experienced by the service more generally have caused the CPS a problem.

Crown Prosecution Service (Court Proceedings)

2. What recent assessment he has made of the reliability and punctuality of the Crown Prosecution Service in court proceedings. (163819)

I am surprised by the Minister’s answer because last year the CPS failed to comply with nearly half the court orders on time—at great expense to the public purse. Just what do Ministers intend to do about this so that justice delayed is not justice denied?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. Hot off the press today, we have had the annual report of Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, which looked at this issue and concluded that compliance with court directions was improving, as was monitoring. Looking at the overall picture, which is what the hon. Lady’s question was about, there are 800,000 cases a year—

I have answered the question, which is that there has been an improvement in compliance. I would like to point out, if I may, that conviction rates are at 86% and that with ineffective cases the Crown Prosecution Service is not ready only in 1.5% to 2% of cases.

I declare an interest as a defence solicitor, but I mention the interest of taxpayers and justice, too. How can we hold the Crown Prosecution Service to account when it fails during a criminal justice case that is in process, particularly given the lack of wasted costs orders applying to legal aid cases?

As my hon. Friend will know, there are measures in place, such as the right of review and complaints system, which allow complaints to be made. More generally, it is worth looking at the annual report of the HMCPSI, which concludes that against a background of reducing costs there has been an improvement in almost all areas.

It is not just a case of turning up to court on time; it is a case of processing cases quickly. I wrote to the Attorney-General yesterday about a young woman who was killed exactly a year ago—Elena Fanaru—and it took the CPS a year to bring the person responsible to court. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot accept that that is a good deal for the victim, as it causes additional stress to victims’ families and others concerned in these cases.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to take up the case with my right hon. and learned Friend and he knows that the matter will be looked at carefully. On a day such as today, however, when the HMCPSI annual report has just come out showing progress in all areas, it is worth reflecting on the fact that, although we often rightly talk about individual cases in this place, there are high levels of convictions and very good results on punctuality overall. We are also seeing overall decision making on charging improving, assessment of case work quality improving, compliance with Crown court directions improving and the processes of dealing with disclosure—an extremely difficult issue—improving. Hon. Members are right to take up these issues.

I think the Crown Prosecution Service does a good job, especially in Northamptonshire, but I was surprised to receive a written response from the Solicitor-General, saying that the CPS

“does not maintain a central record of the number of times an application to remand a defendant in prison has been refused.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 11W.]

I think the public would like to know that information and I think the CPS would find it useful; we could then see where the problem lies—with the CPS or with the courts.

The CPS, of course, keeps quite a range of different management information, but that is not one of them. I am certainly happy to consider whether it would be possible, but against the background that we do not want to clog up the system with a lot of over-reporting and regulatory concerns at a time when we are reducing costs.

I am concerned about the Solicitor-General’s complacency on this issue, particularly in the light of what has happened in the last three weeks. Crown court judges across the country, from Bristol to Warwick and from Warwick to Croydon, have said publicly what all those working in the criminal justice system have been saying privately for some time—that the CPS is dogged by delays and disorganisation, that trials are being put at risk and that there is a danger that people charged with very serious offences such as murder and rape will walk away scot-free. I have written to the Director of Public Prosecutions about this, and I would ask the Solicitor-General to acknowledge these problems and tell us exactly what it is that he is going to do about them.

The hon. Lady has written a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, citing three cases out of 800,000—and they are not what they seem. For example, in one case, the advocate for the prosecution fell ill at court; the judge was not aware of that and made some comments about the way in which the case was being conducted, but at the time—

It was indeed a serious case, but when that advocate fell ill, he was replaced by another, and a conviction followed.

I do not think that picking three instances, all of which involve special circumstances, is the right way of dealing with this. The HMCPSI report examined 2,800 cases, reviewing the files in detail, and they presented a promising picture.

Internet (Legal Framework)

3. What assessment he has made of the level of public understanding of the legal framework applicable to the internet. (163820)

Since taking office, I have brought a number of successful proceedings involving contempts committed online. The Crown Prosecution Service has also prosecuted numerous offenders who have used the internet to commit criminal offences, and recently issued new guidelines to prosecutors on the handling of cases involving social media. Many of those cases have been widely reported in both national and local media, and I trust that they have increased public awareness of the fact that misconduct online has consequences.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that public awareness has been increased by, for example, the successful prosecution of jury members who do not keep to the rules and who research the details of a case during the course of a trial using the internet?

I trust that it has. If we wish to preserve trial by jury, it is extremely important that judges’ directions to juries not to conduct research are properly observed. If they are not, trial by jury will not survive. I have brought a number of cases against jury members; they have been reported, and I hope that as a result of my bringing them, I shall have to bring far fewer in future.

When the footballer Ched Evans was convicted of rape last year, his victim was named more than 6,000 times on Twitter. She has been forced to accept a new identity and relocation package. I understand that only a handful of people have ever been held to account for naming her, and that they have merely been ordered to pay compensation. Should we not send a much stronger signal to people who indulge in such behaviour?

The hon. Lady has raised two separate points The first relates to the way in which the CPS has gone about prosecuting these cases. It has obviously been selective. Cases have to be brought to its attention, and it seeks to deal with those cases, particularly cases involving those who have initiated such comments. I think that that must be the right way of going about things. As for the hon. Lady’s point about penalties, she must understand that they are not a matter for the CPS. If Parliament wishes to make the penalties more severe, that is a matter for legitimate debate in the House of Commons.

The Attorney-General referred to the new guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions on social media. They are very welcome, but does he agree that in some cases the law is not clear, and is being brought into disrepute? I am thinking of, for example, the Twitter joke trial under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

The principle of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 places a higher threshold on prosecution than an ordinary abusive comment, but it must be shown that, in the circumstances, the comment was grossly offensive. I hope that the guidelines issued by the CPS—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his appreciation of what they have done—will provide a framework that shows clearly what is and what is not acceptable, but there are bound to be areas that present some difficulty. The basic rule must be that the fact that someone is operating on social media does not give that person immunity from the criminal law.

As one who, some time ago, was the subject of a specific death threat on a social media site—which, thankfully, resulted in a successful prosecution—may I ask the Attorney-General to reassure the public that people’s perception of their own anonymity on a keyboard will be dispelled, and that those who break the law on line will be rigorously pursued?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that some individuals have come in for a rude surprise when they have been prosecuted despite having believed that they enjoyed anonymity. While of course there may be circumstances in which prosecutions cannot be brought—there can clearly be no prosecution when material is placed on the internet from abroad—I am generally satisfied, on the basis of what I have observed, that both the police and the CPS have responded proactively. They take offences of this kind seriously, and are keen to convey the message that this is not an area in which people can behave with impunity.

What discussions has the Attorney-General had with the Department for Education about ensuring that young people fully understand the legal framework of the internet, and, more important, know how to keep themselves safe on the internet?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting and important point. We have had no formal discussions about that, but I know it has been discussed informally because I have done so myself. She might wish to ask the Secretary of State for Education that question, as the way in which young people can be brought up to understand their rights and responsibilities is an important part of the new curriculum.

Departmental Legal Advisers

4. What benefits he expects will be achieved by the continued merger of departmental legal advisers into the Treasury Solicitor’s Department. (163821)

Sharing legal services brings considerable benefits, including greater flexibility and resilience, more efficient deployment of legal resources, more opportunities for savings and improved knowledge-sharing, which in turn supports consistency.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his answer, but what steps is he taking to ensure that TSOL actually does provide value for money, and how will the Government’s legal bill be reduced as a consequence of this merger?

This is part of the civil service reform plan, and bringing services together at TSOL has, for example, meant it has become a centre of excellence in employment law. TSOL also has a good record of reducing cost, with 40% efficiencies from its shared litigation service.

Will the Solicitor-General assure the House that public money will not be wasted in transaction costs between Departments and that we will not end up with more finance officers chasing invoices than lawyers doing the work?

It is true that clients in the Departments are billed by TSOL, but this is a lean process and fees are being kept down at a reasonable level.

Undercover Investigations

5. Whether the Crown Prosecution Service is always informed when an undercover police officer has been involved in an investigation that leads to a prosecution. (163822)

The CPS should always be informed. The CPS signed a memorandum of understanding in June 2012 with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which ensures investigators and prosecutors work closely together when covert operations are embarked upon where there is clear potential for a prosecution.

The former police Minister said undercover police officers could have sex with suspects if abstaining would blow their cover. Does the Attorney-General agree with the Northumbria police and crime commissioner and former Solicitor-General, Vera Baird, that the sexual activities of some of these undercover officers when they enter into a relationship with protestors may fall within the definition of rape?

I think the hon. Gentleman is asking me for a legal opinion, which I do not think I am in a position to provide across the Floor of the House. That was the thrust of his question, but what I can say is that the CPS takes very seriously the fact that if there is covert police activity it must be informed about it, because it is highly relevant to the conduct of any prosecution.

May I tempt my right hon. and learned Friend to state whether it will be appropriate for police officers in those circumstances to be prosecuted if they are deemed to have broken the law and overstepped the mark in their undercover operations?

Nobody is immune from the law, and if a police officer acting undercover breaks the criminal law of this country, they make themselves liable to prosecution.

There seems to be complete chaos in understanding what the police are, and are not, allowed to do when undercover. Given that a number of legal cases have been dropped or put at risk because of the involvement of undercover police officers, is it not high time there was a proper judge-led public inquiry so we get to the bottom of this and make sure we know what the rules are in the future and what the judgments are for the past?

I certainly acknowledge that the hon. Lady is right, and the consequence of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station case was that a review was carried out by Sir Christopher Rose, and the CPS took the issues in that very seriously, but any question of a wider inquiry or review does not lie within the remit of my Department.

Financial Institutions (Offences)

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office on the feasibility of introducing an offence of reckless management of a financial institution. (163824)

In view of the recent announcement on this, I wonder whether the Minister can give us any indication of which prosecuting agency would be responsible for enforcing the new offence of reckless mismanagement of a financial institution, and what steps are being taken to ensure that the agency has sufficient resources to tackle what are likely to be complex cases?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, this Government set up the commission on banking which has come up with the recommendation that there should be such an offence. The Government have accepted that recommendation and the drafting process is in hand. I cannot go further than that, but he will see the draft when it is ready.

In two constituency cases I have been told, “It is not in the Serious Fraud Office’s remit and the police will not look at the corporate fraud because they do not have the money.” So how do we get these corporate fraud cases properly looked at?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about fraud. The National Crime Agency is setting up, as we speak, with an economic crime command that will have a focus on fraud. The aim is to tackle exactly the problems he mentions. In the meantime, Action Fraud is one good place to make a complaint to and, of course, the City police have a particular role to play in this area.

Legal Reforms

8. What recent representations he has received from the legal profession on the effect on the criminal justice system of the Government’s planned legal reforms. (163825)

The Solicitor-General and I have attended meetings of and with the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board at which the Government’s proposed legal aid reforms have been discussed. We have also seen responses to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation about these proposals from the Bar Council, the Law Society and others, and have corresponded with panel counsel about the proposal.

In 2004, the right hon. and learned Gentleman told the Law Society Gazette:

“There are ideas creeping into the system that treat legal aid as if it is just about the economic provision of a service. That approach will lead to problems with lowered standards.”

Now that his Government are slashing £220 million from the budget and making so many other changes, is he even more worried?

The key issues then were, as I dare say they are now, the maintenance of choice, achieving value for money and, above all, maintaining professional standards of representation in court. I note that the Lord Chancellor has already indicated that he is going to keep a choice of solicitors, and he is also keeping advocacy fees separate. Those things are in response to the current consultation, and I have no doubt that, building on that, there will be further possibilities to have a very important debate so that we can reach a conclusion where we have a viable system of criminal legal aid that can be maintained in the long term.

Appeal Cases

9. What recent assessment he has made of how effectively appeal cases have been handled by the Crown Prosecution Service. (163826)

I am grateful for that answer. Will the Solicitor-General please explain to the House how he can satisfy himself that the CPS is indeed conducting those cases effectively? Does it compile and analyse any data on how it is performing?

Yes, the detailed schedule of cases comes to the Attorney-General each month, and we have discovered that more cases are being dismissed without leave to appeal being granted, which suggests good CPS presentation; up to 57% of cases are now dismissed without leave.

But what is happening on how the CPS and the Serious Fraud Office deal with highly complex financial scandals, where there is a great reliance on the accountancy profession, which has been shown to be very unreliable in the evidence it gives?

The hon. Gentleman makes the point in his own way, but the advantage of the SFO is that it has in-house experts and can also draw on outside expertise to ensure that these cases are very well prepared. Although we have had some problems, as he knows, in many cases the SFO is able to do an exceptional job.

Child Sexual Exploitation (Evidence)

10. What special measures he is considering to help vulnerable minors give evidence in child sexual exploitation cases. (163827)

The Government have announced that they will pilot the video pre-recording of the cross-examination of witnesses, as outlined in the Ministry of Justice’s “A Strategy and Action Plan to Reform the Criminal Justice System”, published on 28 June. The strategy and action plan includes other important measures, including reviewing how we might reduce the distress caused to some victims by cross-examination, particularly where multiple defence barristers are involved. On 11 June, the CPS published, for consultation, its new interim guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sex abuse, which set out a new approach, including challenging myths and stereotypes, if raised in court, about how the victim behaves.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and the Director of Public Prosecutions on the way in which they have enacted the child sexual exploitation action plan to make it more sympathetic and sensitive to witnesses who are often vulnerable and traumatised. Does he agree that one of the most intimidating processes is where multiple barristers act for gang members, as we have seen recently, re-traumatising very vulnerable victims by getting them to go through all their processes over and over again? Will he tell us specifically how he thinks we can still make sure that justice is done, both to the victim and to the defendant?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which is very much a matter of two things: professional standards on the part of the advocates; and proper case management by the judge. Judges need to be proactive in these cases. In addition, The Advocate’s Gateway, which has been introduced, makes clear the responsibilities that lie on counsel in approaching cases of this kind. I am confident that we will make a lot of progress in this area, and I think the rules will be progressively tightened to achieve the impact and result he desires.