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Westminster Hall

Volume 568: debated on Wednesday 9 October 2013

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 October 2013

[Martin Caton in the Chair]

International Criminal Court (Kenya)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)

I am conscious that some hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber know quite a lot about this subject and have shown great interest in Africa, particularly Kenya, over the years. Some of what I say will not be news to them, and will be well known to the Minister, but it is important to set the scene and to say a few things that may seem obvious to some, but not to others observing what is going on at the moment. Today, I am particularly concerned about the nature of the ongoing action by the International Criminal Court against President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto, and that is, primarily, the context in which I will speak. I will make a few comments about the ICC, but they will be entirely contextual and legitimate, and I will be careful not to stray too far, Mr Caton.

On Monday 13 October, the African Union will meet to discuss the possibility of African ICC member states withdrawing from the ICC en masse. That meeting will take place in Addis Ababa and was precipitated by the ICC’s treatment of President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto, but the crux has been a long time coming. There is nothing inherently unreasonable in holding people to account in front of the ICC, but the nature of the present action against President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto is of particular concern.

Some nations, particularly African nations, that are signatories to the treaty of Rome are placing the future of the ICC in question. There is a risk that Africans in the UK—I speak to many of them in diasporas of all sorts—and particularly Kenyans will see it as the African criminal court, rather than the International Criminal Court. I want to set out how and why that has happened. I am not critical in any sense of the Government’s position on Kenya over the past year or so; they have handled the situation not elegantly—that may be putting too fine a point on it—but rather well earlier in the year, when President Kenyatta won the election. The Prime Minister encouraged him to come to the UK and met him soon after his election, which sent a significant message. Nevertheless, there is a strange and strained diplomatic relationship, in that we still support the ICC and its ongoing action to bring the President to court.

Kenya is one of our most important allies on the African continent. One of our largest foreign training bases is there, and the UK and Kenya host each other’s large diasporas. Trade with Kenya through Nairobi has been increasing almost exponentially for some years. We have the strongest of historical links, too. I will not go into whether the empire was good or bad. There were many good things about it, although we tend to remember the bad things, but the long view shows benefits that accrued on both sides.

Sometimes our relationship with Kenya has been fraught, to put it mildly, notably during the Mau Mau uprising. It is to the Government’s credit that at the beginning of the summer they recognised that crimes that were broadly described as being against humanity took place when we were running the show, and reparation has been made to Kenyans who were affected. Some people are ambivalent about that, because some Kenyans were fighting against British soldiers at the time, but the Government’s general view—I am not sure what the Opposition’s position is—was that it was right to make reparation. Soldiers who behaved abominably, as some did, cannot be held to account now because they are dead, and we should remember that, but we should also remember the context in which the Mau Mau uprising took place, and the nature of the deployment that our troops faced. However, we bear in mind that we are making reparation for what can today be described as war crimes.

I will not rehearse the democratic period in Kenya, but will fast forward to 2007, when there was bad violence just before the election. There is no question about that, and no one doubts it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the Chamber for consideration. Some 600,000 people were displaced and 1,100 were killed, including 30 women and children who were burned alive in a church. Does he believe that now is the time—time is going by fast—for the International Criminal Court to try those who were responsible for those crimes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his important intervention, which goes to the crux of the debate. I will explore some aspects of the decision that sits with the ICC, but it is becoming a political issue. Of course it is right to hold people to account, but things happen in the world, in Africa and, historically, closer to home, and sometimes a choice must be made between justice and peace. That is not to say that standards are lower, but as my argument develops it will be seen that this is one such case.

Innocent people have been murdered and burned alive in churches, so surely the Government must address the whole issue of corruption in Kenya. Countries donate money to African countries where there is a lot of corruption, and Governments must deal with that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is true that when we think about Africa, politics and governance, we tend automatically to think about corruption. Corruption in many parts of Africa and of course in Kenya must be dealt with in every possible way. We must encourage the authorities to do that, and I think the authorities in Kenya, as in most African states, are willing to do so. Sometimes we are a little too ready and quick to flag up corruption as a synonym for a nation state’s name, instead of remembering that such states are sometimes making enormous progress. I will not rehearse the arguments about Rwanda, which is perhaps the best example, but Kenya is also a good example of a state that is making bounding progress. That is part of what causes me concern about the ICC action.

We know that there was violence before the 2007 general election, and we know that following the election, presidential candidates came together to form a Government of national unity. President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga were the two primary office-holders, and that coalition held together for a full term of office. Significantly, violence was almost entirely absent at the following election, after the coalition—the election that has just taken place. That suggests that a lasting resolution was achieved with the coalition back in 2007, and Kenyan people understand that.However, part of that coalition agreement was that there would be an inquiry, quite rightly, into the violence that took place during the election.

The inquiry was duly conducted by a Kenyan judge, Justice Philip Waki, who felt that six individuals had committed serious offences, but when the Kenyan Parliament took a vote—it votes on judicial or legal matters in a way that we probably would not—it decided not to refer the matter onwards, so the judge decided to refer it to the United Nations Secretary-General, with a recommendation that it should then be passed on to the ICC. That is why the series of six cases has ended up where it has. It was essentially a quasi-judicial process in Kenya, which has ended up as an administrative and legal process in The Hague.

Following a two-to-one decision in a pre-trial chamber in The Hague, the ICC indicted a number of people. Some of those cases have collapsed, but now, six years later, the cases against President Kenyatta and Vice-President Ruto, who won this year’s election, continue. Both men have been indicted and both have made voluntary appearances, unarrested, at The Hague. We have seen them on our televisions; they have freely attended as required, and they have supported the process up to a point.

The action by the ICC, six years after events on which there is one dissenting opinion, has enormous implications for the Kenyan people. It is true that Mr Kenyatta is not the first Head of State to be indicted by the ICC, and I will come to that shortly, but Kenya is of enormous importance to the UK—that is not to say that Sudan is not, but Kenya is particularly important to the UK and all our allies. Kenya has also successfully come through a period of strife, when other countries have collapsed under the terrible weight of internecine warfare. Kenya is the great economic success story of east and central Africa. It is leading the fight against terrorism in Somalia. We know now, given events over the past few weeks at the Westgate mall, how terrible a price the Kenyan people are paying for being at the front in that ongoing battle, but they have not wilted or split. Kenyans have remained united in the face of all that has been thrown at them by terrorists. It seems to me that we reward them by insisting that the President and Vice-President, who are leading them into what promises to be a very decent future, stand trial at the ICC, accused of hotly disputed offences that took place years ago.

People may well say that the ICC has an important role to play, and I would agree. They may say that it is not for us mere mortals to make judgments about evidence, and that there must be due process. They may say that politics should not play a part. I would say, however, that although it is not ordinary for politicians to intervene in judicial processes, the ICC is inherently political, as are its outcomes. It seems entirely appropriate that, at some points, when there are very significant political implications for a particular nation, it is for politicians and not civil servants to decide. In the same way, the Chancellor does not ask his civil servants to read out his Budget in the Chamber or ask them to lead the whole Budget process. In this case, it is for politicians around the world, including in the UK, fundamentally to make a decision. It is beyond the powers of civil servants, Government servants, or the international Government servants—whatever we call them—who run the ICC’s administration and procedures.

It is significant to note that all 32 indictees of the ICC have come from Africa. Eight African states have been involved, so I guess that is about four each. Initially, they were primarily from the Congo, and now a number are from Kenya. Four of those countries—it says this in Wikipedia, and I have also seen ICC officials saying it—referred cases involving their own people to the ICC. The ICC says, “Come on guv, you can’t blame us for taking action, because they were referred to us,” but that is where it becomes inherently political, because we put great pressure on those states to refer cases to the ICC. We cannot just hold our hands up and say, “Nothing to do with us, guv.” Clearly, we put enormous pressure on those states. Cases involving the Lord’s Resistance Army, for example, in Uganda, remain a cause célèbre—although less than they were, I suppose—and there are other cases.

Enormous pressure was put on those states, and they did what we asked, but now, because they did, they find themselves in a terrible bind. The only place that the ICC is able to act is Africa, and that is a terrible state of affairs. It cannot act in nations that are in the orbit of China—we all understand why—or of Russia, so the “stans” and the far east are out. Sri Lanka is out, obviously. India is out. Anything in the orbit of America is out. Obviously, Europe is out—we are not going to indict ourselves, are we? The United States did not sign up to the ICC originally, because it was concerned that former politicians might be arraigned in front of the ICC. It did not sign up for political reasons, and it still has not signed up for the same reasons. Of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the three most powerful have not signed up for political reasons. That takes out the great majority of the countries of the world, leaving those that are not considered to be strategically important, and—guess what?—are in Africa.

The Africans say, “This is the African criminal court, really, isn’t it? It is not an international criminal court at all.” The ICC says, “We are having a look at other cases,” but we know that it will not take action against FARC or anybody else in Colombia, for obvious reasons—because there is a peace process. It clearly will not take action, nor would I particularly want it to. Therefore, we end up with action being taken only against Africans, and even then only when political implications have been considered. In many cases, action has not been taken because of politics. Therefore, people who say that it is up to ICC officials are missing the point; it is fundamentally a political issue.

I shall not bang on forever, Mr Caton—other Members may wish to jump in—but I will say a little more. I suspect that at least one Government Member will correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that, when I arrived in this place, just before the final stage of the International Criminal Court Act 2001, the then Opposition opposed joining the ICC. It may be that they changed and voted to do so at the end, but I remember that, at the time, the argument in the Chamber was that the then Opposition—now the Government—strongly opposed it. They did so because they were concerned—I voted for and still support the ICC’s existence, but the concern was legitimate at the time—that soldiers, deployed as they are around the world, in all sorts of different places, might find themselves captured, not returned to the UK, and in front of the ICC. There was a deep concern about that.

Those fears were largely allayed, and clearly, the Government are a supporter. The fears have not come to fruition, because we are willing and able to try our own people. We show that and have actually done it, so there does not seem to be a great risk. I notice, however, that the Americans still have not signed up, so they clearly think there is a risk. There is at least one politician, famously—it would not be fair to say his name, but I think most of us know who it is—whom many lawyers have said might well be arraigned in front of the ICC. Even that one case, and the fear that others might happen in future, would stop the Americans signing up.

Such fear is significant. UK citizens are not more likely than anybody else to commit serious offences, but the concern was that it might become political, and indeed, I think that has proven to be the case, almost by default. It has not become political on purpose; it has become political because the ICC has been unable to be even-handed across the world, for strong political reasons.

I will not go through the entire history of the ICC, although I quite rightly could. However, it is worth reflecting on the principle of the ICC. I may have sounded very condemnatory of the ICC before, but the principle is entirely laudable. Obviously, it extends out of our experiences with more than one tribunal in the mid-part of the last century, just after world war two.

I presume that the hon. Gentleman is about to embark on a discussion of the laudable principles that lie behind the conception of the ICC, and I agree that they are laudable. However, does he agree that principles are one thing but the practical outworking of what we have seen, which he alluded to in the earlier part of his contribution, is quite another, and that what we really need to see is a workable ICC that is trying to get itself divorced from the practical and political considerations that inhibit it from doing much of its work?

The hon. Member is absolutely bang on. His intervention was very thoughtful and considered, and he is absolutely right. The difficulty at the moment is to get past what is a very dangerous phase for the ICC. If the ICC gets it wrong and if the international community gets it wrong in respect of Kenya, the ICC will fall apart; I do not think that it will continue, in a meaningful sense, in existence. I know that there is concern among NGOs and experts, including lawyers, that if there were to be a discontinuation of the case against the President and Vice-President of Kenya, that would effectively be the end of the ICC. I do not agree with that view. I will not put all the arguments as to why I disagree with it. I simply think that that would not be the case. It would be more practically effective to find a way of dealing with the situation, which effectively means putting a case into abeyance, but I will say more on that at my conclusion. I have one or two more points to make quickly before then.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the ICC and its credibility. The fact is that the Kenyan Government have decided to withdraw from the ICC and that there are cases pending at the court. How does he see the role for Government in trying to ensure that there will still be prosecutions, now that Kenya is no longer—at least on paper—part of the ICC?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I think that the technical situation is that the case will continue even if Kenya withdraws, although my instinct is that it will be difficult to do anything in that situation. I suppose the ICC may criticise the President’s absence and then carry on with the trial. Theoretically, and it is pretty theoretical, the African nations that are considering withdrawing—I hope that they do not withdraw—would still be subject to any current cases involving them, although not to any future cases. So, for the moment the case against the President would continue. In a sense, therefore, it is academic whether Kenya has chosen to withdraw from the ICC or not, although I hope that it will come back in. I think that Kenya is making a very powerful statement, just as some other African states that are supporting Kenya’s cause at the moment are making a similarly powerful statement.

I will start to draw to a conclusion. I visited the ICC’s former chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, in The Hague a couple of years ago, regarding a particular case; it is pertinent to this debate, so I hope that you will bear with me, Mr Caton. My concern at the time was that all these people being indicted were Africans, and I was concerned about one particular case. I was concerned about President al-Bashir, as a head of state, being indicted, but in particular I was concerned about a chap called Bemba, who was a Congolese leader indicted for an alleged crime in the Central African Republic. I spoke to Luis Moreno-Ocampo and I was with him for much of the day—strangely. He gave me a tutorial in how the ICC operated, and convinced me that he was doing his best and that the ICC was doing its best. It was taking a long time to get a prosecution. It has now had one successful prosecution, that of Thomas Lubanga of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mr Moreno-Ocampo was very convincing and he convinced me that the ICC is indeed a good thing. There are clear difficulties, which the ICC recognises, in pursuing cases in the orbits of nations that do not fancy having the ICC in their own backyard, as I have described before.

Then, however, Mr Moreno-Ocampo was gone, and he has been replaced by the former Gambian Justice Minister. My instinct, although it is harsh to say it, is that, although I have no doubt she will be a very fine lawyer, that appointment in itself was a political nod—“We are only indicting Africans, so we will have an African in charge”. However, just to show the difficulty, she herself—I will not be critical of her personally but contextually—was the Justice Minister in Gambia. Gambia is not the most pure place on the planet. The last time that I was in Gambia, as we were driving to the airport there was lots of security around and we discovered that the President had just shot a whole bunch of prisoners, some of whom were political prisoners essentially. Gambia has its issues, so it seems to me that a political nod in a particular direction may have had the opposite effect to that intended. I think that the ICC recognised the need to make a political gesture, and to some degree therefore it accepts that the whole thing is a political process.

It seems to me that at the moment we tend, right across the board, to apply values straight from our desks and pop them straight down on to the desks of politicians and other leading folk in African states, without really considering the period of development that those countries are going through right now, as we speak. Just as I walked across here to Westminster Hall, I was reflecting—I am not quite sure why—on the fact that most of us would put our hands up and say, “Chemical weapons—bad thing.” However, as far as I can remember, we were developing chemical weapons into the ’80s. Chemical weapons became a bad thing in the ’90s, but I think it was still British military doctrine to use chemical weapons until just a few years before then. I remember that when I was a private soldier, troops alongside me volunteered to go to Porton Down to have chemicals put on their hands—I do not think that Porton Down was looking for a solution to the common cold—and that was in the ’80s.

We have now moved forward and we say that chemical weapons are a horror; Winston Churchill was a fan of chemical weapons, but now we say that they are a horror and it has taken us 15 or 20 years for us to get to that point. Now we say, “Here is a democracy in Africa and we expect you to uphold the same standards that we do here in all the same ways”, without trying to contextualise things. That is a tough gig, as the Africans become increasingly nationalistic, and pan-African nationalistic, if that is not too grand a phrase to use; I am not harking back to a slightly different phenomenon from 60 years ago. However, if Africans are in that zone and in many cases looking towards China rather than looking towards us, it is because there is a very strong taint of a kind of imperialist attitude.

My understanding—what I am about to say may be wrong, but I do not think that it is—is that the Kenyans have refused to accredit three diplomats; the would-be ambassadors from France, Germany and Belgium. I understand that that happened just a few days ago, and I also understand that the Tanzanians refused to accredit the new German ambassador, on account of the fact that she had invited—probably unwisely, because it was clearly a gesture on her part—the former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, as a guest of honour for a wee party before she left. That was a clear statement, so the Tanzanians went, “That was a nice statement. Here’s another one—off you go.” So that was a neat political statement by a daft German ambassador—a former German ambassador to Kenya—but there is a lot of that going on.

During the election in Kenya, the American ambassador—everyone will have heard references to the British ambassador, which are not true—allegedly said, “Choices have consequences.” And the Kenyans went, “OK, then, so we will choose to do the thing you don’t want us to do, obviously.” The consequence was that the Americans got the person they did not want, ironically just as we got Jomo Kenyatta, who was originally not the guy we wanted. There it is—we handled it then and we handle it now.

To conclude—I have been going on rather a long time—I know that it is a difficult situation for the Government. They have to support the ICC; I have no question about that. I know that the Government are seized of the importance of maintaining the rule of law—as far as we can—but also of the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with a really important ally, for all the reasons that we all know; I will not rehearse them again. However, the fact is that there is a crux and if the crux is not properly climbed then the ICC will fall off and it will no longer be an effective and meaningful international force.

Just as a slight digression, I will say that it is possible for someone to spend five years in the ICC and then get found not guilty, as one Congolese chap did at the end of last year. So we suspend certain rules and assumptions—reasonably, because it is very hard to gather evidence—but we should remember that Jean-Pierre Bemba remains there. His trial is now in its third year and he has been there for almost six years, with no end in sight. If he is found not guilty, he will have spent seven or eight years in custody. If anyone tried to do that anywhere else, we would say that that country was a dictator state. We have made allowances and allowed that to happen at the ICC. I am concerned about how long the process takes but I am not critical per se, because I know that it is very hard to gather evidence and to argue the case when we are talking about certain countries, such as the Central African Republic. In this case, it is for the politicians to make a political decision to take the matter out of the hands of administrators and to put the case against President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. That would give the Kenyans a fair crack of the whip at a time when they really need our support.

This is an interesting and important debate. I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary groups on Kenya and on Uganda and, as chairman or secretary of various other all-party groups, I have been much involved in all matters relating to east Africa since the 1980s. I have a strong sense that that part of the world is extremely important both in its own right and in relation not only to the United Kingdom but to the world as a whole. Economically, it is one of the fastest-growing areas in the world and, as with all countries—and I exclude none—there is a process of evolution and a necessity to ensure that justice and fairness prevail.

At the heart of all this lies the question whether domestic matters should be adjudicated by a methodology applicable through international law when the better route could well be to have them dealt with in the country in question. That important issue is illustrated by the fact that in many, many countries in the world—I do not need to set them all out, but Vietnam is a case in point—terrible things happen. There are civil wars. We had a civil war, as did the United States, and there are times when innocent people get caught up. We have a vast range of civil wars going on all over the middle east; it is a very disturbing picture. Not unnaturally, people will attribute blame to individuals who have been involved in the process, but it is an unwise person who makes assumptions about who was responsible for any particular causal event or incident.

One concern is that if the ICC case collapses, and there is every possibility that it might, the credibility, security and safety of the witnesses who have been called come into question. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about those independent witnesses who may feel under threat if the case collapses?

I certainly do. There must be a significant review of the methodology that is applied in relation to the ICC process, which can be encapsulated in an expression from Maine’s “Ancient Law” that says that justice is to be found in the interstices of procedure. It sounds grandiloquent, but it is extremely important given the incredible number of events that are taking place. We have to look at not just what is happening in countries such as Syria, where people from both sides commit atrocities all the time, but the motivation for such atrocities and the extent to which they are politically driven. Some would argue that the use of atomic weapons or chemical weapons is a matter where distinctions need to be drawn. It could also be said that all weapons of mass destruction should automatically be regarded as of one kind, which they are not.

In relation to the terrible events that took place in Kenya some years ago, the methodology that was applied in the prosecution and indictment is a matter that requires very careful consideration. There are good grounds, I believe, for taking a step back and looking at the matter again, taking into consideration the evidence and who is responsible for the conduct of the prosecution and the manner in which it is being deployed. It is also extremely important to bear in mind that the most incredible sensitivities will arise, and have arisen, which may lead to the African Union and other individual countries, many of which I am familiar with, withdrawing from the ICC.

There are several issues to be considered. One relates to justice, fairness and the question of procedures and methodology. Another relates to the impact of what is being done in relation to the African Union and individual countries there, and the extent to which they are taking a position, which, to say the least, is radical. Then there is the question whether the matter should really be dealt with in domestic courts. Is there the political impetus to prosecute a Head of State or one or two people when the evidence could as well be addressed in a domestic arena?

I was shadow Attorney-General for several years, and have always had certain reservations, to say the least, about the assumptions that lie behind some human rights trials. I will not enlarge on that, but what I will say is that with the massive number of conflicts and potential conflicts in the middle east—in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia—Somalia and elsewhere in Africa, a complete analysis of the whole matter is required. In addition, some of the most significant countries, not only numerically but in terms of power and influence, are not members of the ICC. How can we have a system of justice that is based on differentiation between those countries that are not involved in the process because they have not signed up, and others that are? There are so many interwoven complexities that it makes me seriously wonder about the whole question of justiciability and the methodology that lies at the heart not only of the procedures but of the underlying consequences of the ICC system.

I do not want to say any more, because I want everyone to stand back and ask themselves some central questions. The Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, has a very difficult task here. I have raised the matter with the Foreign Office, both after and in the run-up to elections, because I was concerned about the politicisation of what could be regarded as a matter of domestic legal process. Justice and fairness are key, and how we arrive at that, and whether the ICC can do so in this case and in many others, is a very big question. I will rest my argument there, but I shall continue to pursue such questions, because I believe that fundamental issues arise for not only us, but many other countries.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) for calling this debate, which has been very interesting. The speeches and interventions have added to our consideration and understanding of an intensely difficult issue. Although I will be seeking to find out the Minister’s position in due course, I do not envy his having to respond on so difficult an area, but such difficult questions are those faced in government. This reflective debate will assist us in analysing the difficult questions that international politics currently involves.

From what my hon. Friend said, he clearly understands about the security and the importance of Kenya. He has great respect for the Kenyan people, who are looking at the issue extremely closely. I know from communications I have received that the matter is of profound import. We have also heard from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has a particular role in the all-party group on Kenya.

Kenya always provokes interest because of our long-standing link with it and its people, and because of its significance in what, at the moment, is an important part of north Africa. Some of the biggest political issues on the planet are being played out in complex geographical areas across north Africa, with cultures, faiths and economies colliding and causing enormous issues. We must grapple with those issues if we are to make progress. Kenya, whose relationship with the UK is massively significant, is hugely important in that regard, for instance in addressing the difficulties in Somalia and the horn of Africa. That cause has been carried out at great cost to the people of Kenya over several years, most recently, of course, in Nairobi. The country is strategically important, and we all want it to be a strong international player.

Before I turn to Kenya’s membership of the ICC, I want to refer, as other Members have, to the dreadful recent attack in the Westgate shopping centre. Right across the world, the focus has been on Kenya because of what happened there. The confirmed death toll was 61 civilians and six security officers, and Britons were among those killed. Our thoughts are with all those affected by these tragic events. We must of course support the Kenyan Government in showing leadership in dealing with a problem that, as I have said, transcends the borders and boundaries of countries across the world, but is a specific issue across north Africa.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a massive dilemma in what he says? On the one hand, we want to support the Government of Kenya, but on the other hand, are we to encourage the prosecution of the Kenyan Head of State in the International Criminal Court? That is the simple dilemma, but it is not only a dilemma: the question is whether justice and fairness are at the root of the matter. In my opinion, that is as yet uncertain and, in fact, I am deeply worried about it.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent intervention, and puts the difficult question very well. It is, however, important to remember that Kenya has chosen to be a member of the International Criminal Court. If it withdraws, it will leave an international institution that it chose to join. As we have already heard, several countries have refused to join the International Criminal Court. If we are a member of an institution, we have to accept that it has rules that it must apply to its members without fear or favour. The reason why we need to support the Kenyan Government is that they face the very difficult situation caused by the Westgate shopping centre attack, but equally, the fact is that Kenya chose to be a member of the International Criminal Court and, as a consequence of decisions made in Kenya, the court has been seized of the case and is proceeding with it.

To return to the Westgate shopping mall, rigorous inquiries are taking place, and must continue to do so, into the circumstances leading to the attacks. We need to support the Kenyan Government in their taking steps to bring those involved to justice and to ensure that such an incident does not recur. We must also, however, conduct rigorous inquiries into the perpetrators of the violence that followed the 2007 election, because we cannot take action in one area, but not in another, and I therefore turn to the Kenyan Government’s possible attempts to withdraw from the ICC.

We must reflect on the violence in 2007, when, as we have heard, more than 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 people were displaced. The investigations into the violence culminated in the ICC bringing charges, including against the Kenyan President, of crimes against humanity and of orchestrating ethnic violence. For that reason, charges have been brought against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.

I do not dispute my hon. Friend’s earnestness and his argument, but can he imagine a situation in which the UK Prime Minister is held responsible by the ICC for some terrible cataclysm? Does he think that we would agree to send the UK Prime Minister to The Hague?

That would be massively controversial, but we are a member of an international institution. We are discussing international problems, and the world has to deal with more and more internationally connected issues every day: events in Africa profoundly affect our constituencies in the UK. Far from this being a time for us to withdraw from international action, we should be more involved. If we submit ourselves as a nation to the authority of the International Criminal Court, we must accept that that court has jurisdiction. Such an issue would be difficult and many in the United Kingdom would not want to accept the court’s jurisdiction, but if we have submitted to the court through legislation, as has been mentioned, we must accept the consequences. We cannot duck out when it gets difficult; we must accept that such difficult issues need to be addressed, as they should be by the nations involved.

It is a difficult problem of that sort—nobody pretends that it is not difficult—that we now have to address. The Parliament of Kenya is dealing with the difficulty that, in the hypothetical case mentioned by my hon. Friend, might apply in the United Kingdom. The two politicians are not the only individuals facing charges. I understand that the ICC has also issued an arrest warrant for a journalist called Walter Barasa for offering bribes to prosecution witnesses in the trial of Deputy President William Ruto. However, I believe that this trial is the first time that sitting leaders have been tried before the court.

In September 2013—last month—Kenyan MPs, having tabled a motion, voted to pull out of the ICC, and a Bill is likely to be introduced. The withdrawal will still have to pass through Parliament and could take more than a year to come into effect. The ICC will in the meantime continue with the trials of the President and the Deputy President, but if Kenya does pull out, no charges will be able to be brought in this way in the future.

I listened very carefully to the hon. Member for Falkirk and I am aware, of course, of the perception that exists in Africa, linked to the United Kingdom’s role on the continent—its “imperialist past”. Although I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views, I cannot agree with him in this case. I have to say to him that this is about the creation of international institutions and dealing with the very difficult issues to which the hon. Member for Stone referred. We talk about what is happening in Syria, Egypt, Somalia, and Mali. All these matters have in some way involved international capacity and interventions, whether they be military or non-military interventions, in different places at different times. The process of dealing with the problems has been one of using international institutions, because these are international problems.

I am getting slightly worried; in fact, I am getting very worried about the line of route of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I referred to civil wars and the total chaos that there is in the middle east and in parts of north Africa. Is he seriously suggesting that, ultimately, all these matters, because they have an international dimension, should, given the competing claims and counter-claims made by people who are engaged in political processes, be dealt with in an international court? We would spend all our time, and without any beneficial result, arguing about the legal questions, which are essentially political, tragic as they may be. I do ask the question.

I was not specifically, in the context in which I was speaking, talking about the International Criminal Court. I was talking about international problems being dealt with through international institutions. The United Nations and the Security Council of the United Nations are the most obvious example. I was making the general point that international institutions and countries, working together, need to deal with international problems, which manifest themselves within individual countries.

We know that in north Africa, for example, many of the things that have caused major problems in the region have involved groups of people crossing borders at different times. Those borders are often ill defined and not policed in any way. Mali would be one example, and Somalia and Kenya are another. I am talking about a collective approach, through organisations such as the United Nations, and a progression of that. I am saying that, in particular cases, the use of the International Criminal Court is appropriate. For that reason, when countries choose to join the ICC process, it is appropriate that we, as a country that has also submitted itself to that process, support the process.

I think that we need to respect the role of the ICC and international principles of justice and democracy and apply those principles in the future, so I would be extremely concerned about the implications of Kenya withdrawing from the ICC if Kenya were to withdraw, because that would be a step away from dealing with very difficult, shared problems in a collective way. It would be a step backwards, because it would be a step towards more isolation. Ultimately, that would bring about a lower level of capacity to solve the problems that we want to address.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; this will be my last intervention. Kenya will not be isolated, because all the African Union countries will come out of the ICC and it will fall apart. Who knows what will happen soon? I hope that it does not happen, but the risk is that the Kenyans, the Ugandans, the Tanzanians, the Rwandans—most of the African states—will, very sadly and against their own instincts, come out en masse. That is the great risk.

The real challenge is that if African countries did that collectively, that would lead to a rupture in the relationship between African countries and other countries, which would be deeply worrying and sad.

Well, the United Kingdom is a member and has a very long-standing commitment to the ICC. For that reason, this is a difficult time; people are working through a difficult issue. That is why we should be supporting the ICC at this time, rather than saying that when the going gets tough, we opt out. In those circumstances, the institution will never make any progress. What is needed is for the process to continue and for dialogue to continue. We must support the development of international institutions. Having agreed to set up the ICC and having become a member, if we do not support it when the pressure is on, the institution will never make any progress. It is clear that if that is the case, we will have one less weapon in our armoury to deal with the hugely difficult international problems that we face.

I know that there is a great deal of concern and worry about the ICC proceedings relating to Kenya and that that is affecting our relationship with Kenya. It was inevitable that that would be the case. It is cast into even sharper relief by what has happened in Nairobi in the last month. The hon. Member for Stone has, legitimately and properly, pointed out the practical concerns that are presented by the dilemma that the Government face.

I shall therefore ask the Minister a few questions that he can consider in his response to the debate. First, what does he consider would be the implications of Kenya withdrawing from the ICC? What is his assessment of the position more broadly of African countries on the question of the ICC proceedings against Kenya at the moment and what steps they might take in the months ahead? What specific discussions has he had concerning the operation of the ICC process, and what steps has he taken to try to resolve the dilemmas that we have discussed?

I know that this is a very difficult problem for the UK Government. I know that they will address the problem with rigour, but I do think that engagement is extremely important in the time ahead. We need to remember that Kenya has in the past chosen to be a member of the ICC and it is for that reason that the court is seized of this issue in the first place.

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship and guidance this morning, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) on securing this important debate, and on his continued interest in and knowledge of Africa, and Kenya in particular. I thank him for referring to the importance of having a detailed knowledge and understanding of the significant bilateral relationship, historically and today, between the United Kingdom and Kenya. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has significant knowledge and experience of east Africa and Kenya, and who shows a continuing energetic commitment to improving the lives of those who live in Africa. My hon. Friend and the hon. Members for Falkirk, and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), powerfully articulated the complexities and sensitivities of the issue.

I will endeavour to address all the points that have been raised. First, I will take stock, as the hon. Member for Wrexham did, of our wider bilateral relationship, particularly in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi on 21 September. I am sure that the whole House will join me in re-emphasising our deep sympathy and profound condolences to the Kenyan Government and people, and to the other countries affected by that abhorrent act. As the Prime Minister has said, it was a sickening and despicable act of appalling brutality.

Hon. Members may have spotted that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary laid before Parliament a written statement setting out the UK Government’s response to the crisis. On the day of the attack, the Prime Minister spoke to President Kenyatta, and I spoke to the Kenyan Foreign Minister, Amina Mohamed, to express the UK’s solidarity and to offer assistance. The UK has provided assistance at the scene in identifying victims and collecting forensic evidence. We have also provided medical supplies and rations to the Aga Khan university hospital, where many of the wounded were taken.

We are determined to work with Kenya on the shared challenge of addressing regional terrorism and building stability in Somalia. The close co-operation and understanding that underpin the UK response to the Westgate attack is a reminder that the UK and Kenya share many priorities and interests. The relationship between the countries today is one of partnership, shared mutual interests and shared concerns, through being members of the Commonwealth, through strong commercial security and through personal ties. The UK is the largest commercial investor in Kenya and the second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth more than £1 billion a year. Thirty thousand British nationals reside in Kenya, and 180,000 British nationals visit Kenya every year. Kenya is also one of the largest bilateral recipients of DFID aid, with the UK contributing £135 million annually in support of Kenya Vision 2030. Our projects tackle conflict, increase stability and improve education and health care.

I have read what the hon. Member for Falkirk said in a similar debate that he secured in March. In that debate, he highlighted the fact that we have a strong defence and security relationship. The British Army trains 10,000 British soldiers in Kenya every year, which benefits not only the UK but the Kenyan defence forces and the wider economy. We want that co-operation to continue and develop for the mutual benefit of the UK and Kenya.

Before I move on to specifics about the International Criminal Court, I will address a couple of points that arose in interventions on the hon. Member for Falkirk. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) rightly raised the importance of trying to reduce, if not eradicate, corruption in Kenya. Department for International Development programmes are involved in supporting greater transparency and accountability at national and county level. The hon. Member for Falkirk mentioned the Mau Mau settlement. It is important to understand that that did not constitute reparation; it was a settlement of claims that recognised the pain and suffering experienced by people on all sides during those events many years ago.

At the heart of our relationship with Kenya is counter-terrorism engagement, through which we assist Kenya in defending itself and countering cross-border security threats, many of which stem from Kenya’s leading role in the African Union Mission in Somalia. Kenya made significant sacrifices during that mission in its attempts to secure peace and stability in Somalia, and we recognise and welcome the significant contributions that Kenya and others have made.

I turn to the issue at the heart of the debate, namely the International Criminal Court. I think it would be helpful if I briefly set out what the ICC is about and why it is so important before I address some of the complexities and sensitivities involved in the issue that we are talking about. The UK and Kenya are among the 122 countries that are signatories to the ICC’s founding Rome statute. Of those countries, 34 are African states; that is the biggest bloc anywhere in the world. As the hon. Member for Wrexham pointed out, we strongly support the ICC’s work around the world as an impartial, independent guardian of the rule of law. It is a court of last resort for the most serious crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It takes up cases only when national authorities are unable or unwilling to do so. It provides no immunity for those in positions of power, even Heads of State—a point that has been made powerfully. That universality is one of its strengths. It plays a vital role in ending impunity, holding perpetrators to account and delivering justice for victims.

In July, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary launched the Government’s ICC strategy, which sets out our thinking on how we can ensure that the ICC retains its independence—that is vital—delivers justice, increases its membership, builds more support for its decisions from states and the UN Security Council, gains wider regional support and completes its work more efficiently.

As I have said, the ICC will take on cases only where national authorities lack the capabilities or the will to undertake prosecutions, as was the case in Kenya. The UK is committed to helping to provide training and mentoring to national authorities to help them develop their own laws and systems.

The hon. Member for Falkirk powerfully highlighted the common perception that the ICC is anti-Africa, and I want to address that point. In Africa, the court is working tirelessly to deliver justice for millions of Africans who endured appalling treatment at the hands of fellow Africans. African states have been some of the most important supporters of the creation and effective functioning of the ICC. African states played an active role in the negotiations that led to the establishment of the court, and 22 African countries were among the founding ratifiers of the Rome statute. Interestingly, the first and most recent states to ratify the Rome statute, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, were African. The majority of African Union member states—34 African states—are now ICC state parties. It is important to recognise that Africans are among the highest level of ICC officials, and they serve as judges and prosecutors at the court.

The ICC investigates situations, not people, and only after situations have been investigated do prosecutions occur. Suggestions that the ICC focuses solely on Africa do not tell the full story. Preliminary investigations are already under way in cases outside Africa, including in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia and Honduras. The majority of cases brought against Africans have been lodged with the ICC by Africans.

I turn to specifics that all hon. Members raised about the ICC and Kenya. Of course I accept that the topic is controversial and sensitive, and creates difficulties for the Kenyan Government, but after the appalling post-election violence in 2007-08, many believe that justice is essential for national reconciliation and healing, and that the trials must continue to give the victims and the accused access to justice. We should remind ourselves of the numbers involved. I underline the figures that hon. Members have mentioned: more than 1,000 people were killed; 3,000 people suffered serious sexual violence; and more than 600,000 people were displaced. We strongly welcome the Kenyan Government’s co-operation with the court and urge them to continue to co-operate, as they have pledged to do.

The UK Government recognise that President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto have constitutional obligations and important responsibilities at home, as the Westgate attack illustrated so graphically. We therefore believe that the court’s decision to alternate the trials of the President and Deputy President, to ensure conformity with the Kenyan constitution, and to agree a short delay to allow Deputy President Ruto to take part in the Kenyan Government’s response to Westgate, showed welcome pragmatism.

The hon. Member for Wrexham raised the issue of witness intimidation. We remain deeply concerned by reports of witness intimidation, and call on all state parties to assist the court in preventing it. That would mean Kenya responding to the arrest warrant the court issued last week.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the Kenyan Parliament’s vote in support of a motion to withdraw from the Rome statute. We must be clear: it is for Kenya, as a sovereign country, to decide whether to withdraw. We, of course, very much hope that it does not. Withdrawing from the Rome statute would not remove Kenya’s obligation to co-operate with the court on the current investigation, as the hon. Members for Falkirk, and for Wrexham, pointed out. The UK Government support the process, but we are clear that it must be recognised that defendants remain innocent until proven guilty. It is for a competent court—in this case the ICC—not the UK or any Government or individual, to pass judgment. The strength of the court lies in its independence, and its processes are, rightly, independent of the UK. I do not share the analysis of the hon. Member for Falkirk that the court process is political, not judicial; it is very clearly a judicial process. We are determined to ensure that the UK’s support for international justice and the ICC does not jeopardise our wider bilateral relations with Kenya.

Is the Minister entirely satisfied that the methodology and process adopted in respect of President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto have been followed in what one would objectively regard as the appropriate manner?

As I said earlier, the ICC only takes up matters when the country in question does not put in place the requisite judicial process to allow relevant prosecutions or investigations to take place. Specifically, the Waki commission, to which the hon. Member for Falkirk referred, gave the Kenyan authorities time to put in place the necessary and appropriate structures to deal with the judicial process, as it relates to the terrible atrocities that occurred in 2007-08. It is only because the Kenyan authorities did not do that at the time that the matter was referred to the ICC.

There are seven cases before the ICC, including the Kenyan issue. Of the other six, four were referred to the court by Africans themselves, and two were referred by the UN Security Council. The hon. Member for Falkirk raised the issue of the speculation that the African Union summit could result in some states withdrawing from the Rome statute. He will not be surprised to hear that I will not engage in speculation, but I shall make two points. Although there is a perception that the ICC is focused only on Africa, there is a broad range of views, as there would be in the UK, across the African Union. Only a couple of days ago, 130 groups from across Africa called for not only sustained but greater co-operation with the ICC. He will not be surprised to hear that we urge African states to continue their support for the court, and encourage those African states not party to the Rome statue to consider ratification or accession and other ways that they can support the court’s work. African support and expertise continues to be vital to enable the court to fulfil its mandate of delivering justice for victims and tackling impunity.

I am the first to acknowledge that the court is a young institution. The UK is among those, not only in Africa, but elsewhere, who would like to see improvements. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone made a powerful point about other countries around the world that are not signatories to the Rome statute, and the terrible atrocities in Syria, which we have seen on our television screens. I am sure that he is aware of the UK Government’s position: those who perpetrated those horrific crimes should face justice.

Before I conclude, I shall reflect for a moment on the Kenyan elections in March. The Kenyan people and politicians need to be congratulated on the peaceful nature of the elections, which was in stark contrast to the violence which marred the election in 2007-08. That demonstrated the determination of the Kenyan people to express their democratic right to elect a Government of their choosing in an environment free from violence and intimidation. Kenyans should be proud of that significant achievement. The UK played a role in supporting the democratic process, including by providing £16 million to support free and peaceful elections. The UK position has been consistent and clear: it is for the Kenyan people to elect their leaders and for the courts to resolve any disputes that stem from the election process.

Is the Minister willing to continue this dialogue after the debate, in light of my remarks regarding my uncertainties about the manner in which the ICC goes about a lot of its business?

As always, I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about his views. I will of course be pleased to hear how he thinks the ICC could work better.

The UK-Kenyan relationship is significant, and we want it to continue to develop. We want trade to grow. We want more UK companies to invest in Kenya and more Kenyan entrepreneurs and businesses to invest in the UK. We want to strengthen our partnership in a range of areas, from counter-terrorism co-operation to defence matters, as well as help, through Department for International Development programmes, to alleviate poverty, build capacity and assist those in Kenya who are less fortunate than all of us here today. However, the UK also supports the ICC. We acknowledge, respect and welcome President Kenyatta’s pledge to respect Kenya’s international commitments and to continue co-operation with the ICC.

Energy Policy (Winter Preparations)

Mr Caton, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair during this important, but short, debate.

Every year the Government need to think about how they will prepare for winter and the challenges that lie ahead, including how we can prevent thousands of people from dying from cold each winter. However, we have a greater challenge this year and in the years to come. Energy bills have risen by more than £300 under this Government; Ofgem is warning of blackouts; and the energy market appears to be becoming less and less predictable. We need short-term and long-term action and I want to be confident that the Government are taking that action. I want to be confident about that, so I can pass it on to thousands of my constituents who are elderly, disabled, have young children or who are alone and are worrying about how they will heat their homes this winter. I may get silly answers, as one official told my office staff yesterday, but I am sure the Minister has more sense than that and will give these issues proper consideration.

First, I want to speak about the worrying headlines about blackout Britain. Before anybody tries to intervene—unfortunately, there are no hon. Members here to do that—I am talking about actual blackouts due to lack of energy, not energy companies scaremongering about what they might do if a Labour Government froze energy prices. Ofgem announced in the summer that we are facing a crisis, with our safety margin of spare capacity for electricity about to shrink from a healthy margin of around 15%, to less than 4% within three years. This winter, the estimated de-rated capacity margin is 6.3% and, only this week, National Grid announced that it was keeping a “close watching brief” on supplies. I do not want to be alarmist, because we will probably be all right, but if the chief executive of Ofgem felt it necessary to warn of a “near crisis”, I think we need to take that seriously. Do the Government take it seriously? I know that provisions have been included in the Energy Bill for this, and we support the principle of a capacity mechanism, even if we have not been given many details. As an aside, I would like to know when we can expect details on this. Hopefully, we will have them before 2018.

Crucially, the first capacity market auction for 2014 is for delivery of capacity from 2018-19. What provisions are in place for this winter and those leading up to 2018? Will we be reliant upon the small diesel generators available under the short-term operating reserve in these years? What assessment has the Minister done of the necessity to use those during this period? In such cases, we could become further reliant on gas, particularly liquefied natural gas. Demand for that is increasing from countries such as China, so I have concerns about the price we will have to pay for this commodity. External shocks might dramatically increase the price of gas, just as Fukushima increased Japan’s demand for gas and therefore increased prices across the world. Gas storage in the UK is equivalent to 14 days’ worth of supply, compared with between 59 and 87 days’ worth in Italy, Germany and France.

DECC acknowledges that the UK has returned to levels of import dependency not seen since the 1970s. We must consider the countries from which we are importing gas—Qatar and Russia are key suppliers. According to Peter Hughes, a former vice-president of BP, importing from such countries means we are more vulnerable to short-term price increases, and we are therefore vulnerable to political volatility. I recognise that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently published a statement saying that he will press ahead with interventions already in hand, but I do not think we will see the immediate effects here.

I also hope that DECC officials are planning how to use any excess gas. Were we to buy too much gas and have a warmer winter, will energy prices be lowered? I would have thought so, as energy companies blame higher profits on the cold winter, but knowing what I know, I think we will have to work hard to ensure that we see the financial effects of a warm winter. Is Ofgem capable of forcing companies to do that?

In a recent BBC survey, 25% of people said that they are living in an unacceptably cold home. That is unbelievable in the 21st century. The Government have committed to ensuring that half of all households have at least one insulation measure by 2022, but the Minister will be only too aware that we are nowhere near meeting that target. In the middle of last month only 12 households—not 12,000, nor 1,200 but 12—had some sort of measure installed under the green deal, with 372 households waiting. What assessment have the Government made of that? Why is uptake so low?

The green deal is not a good deal for the public; it offers high interest rates of some 8%, which I have been told can be undercut by other sources of finance. The only incentive is the cashback payments, which will soon dry up. Predatory door-to-door and nuisance call selling tactics are also not encouraging concerned people to take up the deal. Perhaps the Minister needs to give some sleeping pills to his colleague the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who said that he would not be sleeping unless 10,000 had signed up to the green deal by the end of the year—he must have had a lot of sleepless nights.

That is based on those households that can even apply for insulation. I have a good number of tenement blocks in my constituency that are home to some of the people who we really need to be helping in the winter months: the elderly and the poor. The green deal is not a bad deal for them; it is an impossible deal. Glasgow city council has been trying to upgrade some of its stock through retrofit schemes, but there are so many types of building that are unfit for insulation measures and are leaking heat at an alarming rate. What are the Government’s plans for them? For those people who are waiting on the green deal to bear fruit, January 2014 is not good enough. People need warm houses at the start of the winter, not at the end.

Many people do not turn on their heating because of the cost. In fact, almost seven in 10 households did not do so at some point last winter. The revised figures in the Hills report show that 7,800 people die in winter because they cannot afford to heat their home properly. Of course, rising energy bills are not helping. Energy barons are simply profiteering from their customers, with profits going up each year from what are already eye-watering figures. The big six doubled their profit margins in the last year alone. The Government have totally failed to act on this, claiming that the market is competitive, which it simply is not.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he accept that fuel bills may be rising, but there are things that individual constituents can do? In my area of Northumberland, for example, 13 groups have formed oil-buying clubs, which have seen reductions of between 10% and 20% in heating oil prices for thousands of people across the region.

There are a lot of people doing a lot of good things, and they know how to manipulate the market. They can take up contracts, use the internet and work things out, but I am talking about people who cannot do those things. I am talking about the poorest in society, who do not get the help they need. Unfortunately, my constituency is one of the poorest in the country. There are many such constituencies in my area and in other areas, and I am talking about those people, not the others.

I totally accept that we should be looking after those people who are least able to look after themselves. There are areas of tremendous social deprivation in the north-east, but those groups, supported by local churches, credit unions, parish councils and community action groups, are the ones being helped in such circumstances.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says to a certain extent, but they cannot do enough. The Government have to take a lead. Perhaps he will agree with my final points, because I am a great believer in giving solutions as well as criticism.

As I have said, many people do not turn on the heating because of the cost. The Government’s report shows that 7,800 people die because of the winter cold. The energy barons are profiteering as far as I am concerned. The big six doubled their profit margins last year alone, and the Government have totally failed to act, claiming that the market is competitive, which it simply is not. I am pleased to say that in 2015, if Labour is elected, as I am sure we will be, energy bills will be frozen.

The energy companies are scaremongering, saying that they will turn the lights off and that investment will stop. They could manipulate a black-out, so a real hard-nosed regulator is needed now, just in case. A family in my constituency will save £112 a year under Labour’s idea, but that is not enough on its own. Energy prices have been rising far too much for far too long, but it would be a start. The fact that Co-operative Energy backs the move shows that bills do not need to rise. All the companies could give contracts lasting for two years. Saying there would be a black-out due to the price freeze is absolutely spurious. There is no way they can justify saying that.

Despite having 98% of the market, the big six provide only 47% of investment. So where exactly is the money from successive price rises going? The Government, as the previous Conservative Government did with BT, need to support new companies in the sector and ensure that at least 25% of provision is in the hands of companies other than the big six. That was a Conservative policy in the 1980s. I spoke against it back then, but I can see the need for it now, particularly for the energy companies.

The big question today is: what are the Government going to do this winter and next? Will my constituents be left helpless for another year, watching their bills go up by an expected 10% this year and probably twice again before the general election? We want people to have a better life, and this Tory-led Government want big business to make the difference. That is not happening in the energy sector. The Government are unwilling to sort out energy prices. We will have to wait until 2015 for a Labour Government to do that, but perhaps the Minister could consider cold weather payments. I was shocked to find that nobody in my constituency received a cold weather payment last year or the year before. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), has acknowledged that that might be due to unclaimed pension credit, although saying that is different from acting on it. More can be done to get pensioners on to that benefit. What is actually being done?

The key reason is that the conditions on these payments are much too strict. The £25 is automatically allocated if the weather has been, or is forecast to be, an average of 0° C over a seven-day period. That is extremely cold and for an extremely long time. Last winter was bitter. In the weeks leading up to other parts of the country being given the payment in March this year, there was a seven-day period in my constituency when the average temperature was 1.57° C. During that time, the thermometer recorded much lower temperatures—minus 3° C, minus 4° C and even minus 8° C one day. I am talking about record low temperatures, but no payment was made.

It is estimated that there are about 8,000 extra deaths for every 1° C drop in the average temperature. We need to have a good look at how the system works. How many people have to die before anything is done? Perhaps we could look at raising the temperature threshold or, as the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers suggests, basing it on heating degree days. In my constituency, winters are long. The weather was particularly cold in April last year, but cold weather payments go up only to 31 March. Why? Will the Minister do an impact assessment on the effects of those cut-off points?

What is the Minister actually doing to save lives? The Government’s Hills report told us of the thousands of people dying due to fuel poverty. How long will it be until Ministers take notice? How many lives will be lost? These payments are important because, as a recent study showed, poorer households reduce their food expenditure by 7.2% in cold weather shocks. I commend the Prime Minister for making the £25 payment permanent, but I believe it should be higher. The website energyhelpline.com estimates that, on cold days, families could be spending as much as £20 a day on energy. With energy bills rising, that is certain to increase. We have been told the payment will be set at £25 for the whole Parliament. Clearly, that is not enough.

My last point assumes that people will turn on their heating in cold weather. Elderly people, in particular, worry about turning on their heating, because of the cost. However, the winter fuel payment not only provides the financial support pensioners need to turn the heating on, but gives them confidence that they can afford to keep it on for as long as they need to.

I will carry on, if that is all right with the hon. Gentleman. I want to give the Minister a lot of time to answer a lot of questions.

I am proud that the Labour Government brought these payments in and consistently looked to increase them. I am pleased the coalition Government honoured our 2010 Budget for that winter, making one-off £100 or £50 payments to various people, but that was not continued. Those payments were crucial to helping pensioners afford to keep warm. Expenditure on them is likely to decrease from £2.2 billion to £2 billion by 2017-18. I am confident we could ensure that those who receive the payments get enough to cover the prices we are likely to see in the years ahead.

How are the Government publicising these and other support measures? I fear the emphasis in terms of spending may be misplaced. Considering that the firm used to advertise the green deal was fined £45,000 for nuisance calls, the advertising budget could surely be spent better. Perhaps it could be spent on advertising offline to reach all vulnerable people and to highlight the different support measures available: winter fuel payments, cold weather payments, the warm home discount, Warm Front, Nest, the energy assistance package and the priority services register—the list goes on. I worry that those who really need help do not know what options are available to them, whether they are eligible or how to apply for them.

I realise that some of those support measures fall outside the Minister’s Department, but that is part of the problem. Do Departments actually talk to each other? Do the Government talk to the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly or even Glasgow city council, which looks after my area, because some of these measures are their responsibility? Perhaps there is not enough joined-up work. We need real leadership, but I fear we will not get it from this incompetent Department.

We have seen this new Energy Minister saying different things from the Department, such as on Ofgem’s warning about power cuts. Our Energy Secretary also does not get on with his staff, making huge severance payments as a result. We really need someone to take the lead on this issue—a Government poverty champion. They could bring together the different issues from all Departments that go towards tackling poverty, and they could make sure those issues got the attention they deserve. If the Minister is unable to find anybody in the Government, let me put myself forward for the job, because I am sure I could do better than some of his colleagues.

I hope this winter is not a cold one, but we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I am here today to make sure our energy supply is secure over this winter and the next. I am here to make sure my constituents and others have all the access they can get to financial help. Sadly, we cannot rely on the energy companies helping their vulnerable customers, who are struggling more and more with the cost of living. We also cannot rely on this incompetent Government to stand up to these bullies. I look forward to the Minister’s answers.

I must congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing this important debate on energy policy and preparing for the winter.

We all recognise that we need to be reassured, and that we need our constituents to be reassured, as the chilly winter months approach. It is obviously difficult to predict what kind of winter this will be, but I assure the hon. Gentleman and others attending that the Government are confident in our energy capacity, that policies are in place to protect the most vulnerable and that we are promoting long-term energy-efficiency solutions for the winters to come. I think the hon. Gentleman said that prices had risen by £300 under this Government, but I remind him that they have risen more slowly in the first three years of this Government than they did in the last five years of the previous Labour Government.

Let me turn to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, on margin and capacity. He will have studied the assessments made by the National Grid and Ofgem. Those assessments say that the margin would tighten if nothing were done, but things are, of course, being done. Things are being done in the short term better to balance the system. Ofgem is consulting on a number of measures to ensure that there is better balance on the demand and the supply side. As the hon. Gentleman himself said, the Government plan to run the first capacity market—the reserve supply. We are ready to run the auction next year, so that supply can be available in 2018. He asked when further details of the capacity market would be made available; that will be in the next few weeks, before the legislation leaves the House of Lords.

On the outlook, the National Grid assessment is that the demand for energy this winter will be broadly similar to last year’s. We are not immune to the impacts of prolonged severe weather. A combination of a diverse range of import capacity and a mixture of storage types has performed well over the past few years, and we expect it to do so again this year. We expect electricity demand this winter to remain flat at current levels, and we have significant spare gas capacity, as the Holford and Aldbrough storage sites increase their delivery networks. Last winter, gas demand was around 290 million cubic metres a day. Our gas supply infrastructure can deliver more than twice that amount with high levels of secure flow from Norway and the continent.

It is good to hear what the Minister says, but the fact is that all we have heard of late is people saying that we will have black-outs. Are those companies playing politics because they do not like the Government’s policy? I agree with what the Minister has said, so why are we suddenly in black-out territory?

We are hearing about black-outs because of the totally irresponsible pledge of the Labour party to freeze prices artificially. The pledge, if it is credible, would have the immediate effect of discouraging precisely the investment in energy infrastructure that the hon. Gentleman and I want. That is why we read about black-outs, but it is a matter for his party to clarify. It needs to reassure us on how there could be a freeze without bringing to a halt the investment that there has been so far.

I think I had better make some progress, because the hon. Member for Glasgow North West raised several points that he wants answered.

I will deal first with the green deal, the energy efficiency programme. I will not comment on the sleeping patterns of the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), although I note what he said. We encourage people to think not just about keeping warm this winter, but about winter-proofing their homes for the future through a range of policies—not simply the green deal, but also the energy companies obligation.

The green deal is the Government’s most ambitious energy efficiency programme, and is designed to deliver improvements to homes and businesses throughout the country on an unprecedented scale and over a much longer time frame than a particular Parliament or public spending period. It is an ambitious 20 to 30-year programme. So far, there are more than 100 green deal providers and more than 2,000 individuals authorised to carry out assessments. Some 70,000 assessments have been done. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West asked specifically whether the interest rate was too high. Only 8% of households that have decided not to install green deal measures have said that it was because the finance package was unattractive.

Does the Minister agree that the energy policy is being affected by green deal funding and the domestic renewable heat incentive programme, which, certainly in Northumberland, has had tremendous take-up? Businesses such as the Centre for Green Energy in my constituency are expanding because of that policy.

I am glad to hear the good news from Hexham, because it is important to understand that those programmes are now up and running, and helping homes and businesses.

Alongside the green deal, there is the energy companies obligation, which has the twin objectives of reducing carbon emissions and tackling fuel poverty. Nearly 200,000 measures under the ECO have already been installed, with more than 60% delivered in low-income households in England, Scotland, and Wales. Alongside the green deal, the ECO carbon saving obligation supports the installation of measures for hard-to-treat situations—cavity or solid walls, and so on—which would otherwise be difficult to finance, but which are long-term energy efficient solutions. That is worth some £700 million a year.

The affordable warmth obligation—another part of the ECO—which provides targeted assistance to low-income, vulnerable people in private tenure households, through investment incentives to landlords, is worth about £350 million a year. That has already resulted in about 40,000 boilers being installed. In July we were already delivering 70% more heating measures through the affordable warmth obligation than were being delivered under the average rate of delivery for Warm Front, its predecessor policy. Finally, the carbon-saving community obligation, worth about £190 million a year, is supporting low-income communities, with at least 15% of funding delivering energy efficiency, particularly in rural areas. As of the end of July, we had already delivered more than 60,000 energy efficiency measures.

In addition, energy suppliers are supporting low-income and vulnerable households through our warm home discount scheme, which is worth £1.1 billion up to 2015 and is expected to support about 2 million households a year up to 2016. It is composed of four elements. The first is a core group, whose members automatically receive a £135 discount on their bills. Consumers who are either under 75 and not receiving the savings credit part of pension credit, or over 75 on the qualifying date and in receipt of a pension credit, are eligible. The discount rises to £140 in 2014-15. For older consumers who have less access to technology, that automatic payment is a big advantage. We expect this year’s automatic payments to be made by Christmas. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of payments will be made this month, giving people confidence that they can afford to turn their heating up when the cold weather sets in. The broader group also targets low-income and vulnerable consumers, but provides energy suppliers with the opportunity to set the eligibility criteria, which must be approved by Ofgem. The third element is a legacy spend group for suppliers to continue to provide support for customers who had previously been on discounted tariffs and rebates.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West raised the matter of winter fuel and cold weather payments. We are committed to supporting pensioners through the winter months, and we continue to provide winter fuel payments; £300 will be offered automatically this winter to Britons aged 80 and over, and £200 will be offered to households with a resident above the current state pension age for a woman. Last winter, more than 12.5 million pensioners received winter fuel payments, which delivered £2.15 billion in support. If the average temperature for a region is recorded or forecast to be 0° C or below for more than a week, pensioners and those receiving income-related benefits will receive a cold weather payment of £25 for each period. Payments are made on recorded and forecast temperatures, ensuring that those on prepayment meters are proactively supported. Last winter, 5.8 million cold weather payments were made, delivering more than £140 million in support.

Beyond basic financial concerns, cold weather is a major public health challenge. Any extra death because of cold weather is to be regretted. We believe that local authorities are best placed to address local public health issues, and £5.4 billion in funding has been made available from 2013 to 2015 in England. Public Health England will publish the third annual cold weather plan in the coming weeks, and will work in collaboration with other Departments, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. It will set out several levels of response, which will encourage year-round planning.

I have not had time to answer all the hon. Gentleman’s detailed questions. I hope that he will allow me to respond to those in writing. However, I assure him that the Government are committed to keeping the lights on. There is an investment programme, encouraging investment in new sources of home-grown energy, and a framework in place to ensure that those in the most need are protected during the colder months.

Sitting suspended.

Abortion Act

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I know that you share my concerns in this debate. I welcome everyone who is here for the debate and I thank the Ministers for coming. Their presence shows the seriousness and concern that are felt about the issue.

The debate has been triggered by The Daily Telegraph’s investigation into gender-selection abortion last year and the subsequent police investigation and decision by the Crown Prosecution Service on 5 September this year that it was not in the public interest to prosecute the doctors who were found to have contravened the Abortion Act 1967. The Director of Public Prosecutions has now given his detailed reasons, following a review of the public interest factors for or against prosecution.

Concerns about the authorisation of gender-selection abortion and the lack of any prosecution have been widely felt in the House and among the public. I am grateful for the support from hon. Members of all parties, despite our usual divide and the divide over the abortion issue. Indeed, 50 signed a letter to The Daily Telegraph. They were united in calling for clarity from the Attorney-General about the policy on contraventions of the Abortion Act. We look forward to that clarity coming from the Attorney-General today.

Keir Starmer, the DPP, recognised in his article on Monday that

“this country has a strong tradition of open and transparent criminal justice, and the probing and debating of prosecutorial decisions is an integral part to that tradition.”

Today I want to follow that fine tradition of probing and debating. The conclusion I have come to, supported by the DPP’s statement, is that the policy on prosecutions or offences contravening the Abortion Act is unclear, and, sadly, largely unenforceable. The DPP has helpfully shone a prosecutorial light on the practice of abortion where doctors have no direct contact with patients, where authorisation forms can be pre-signed, and where assessments concerning physical or mental health risk can be treated as routinely as questions of choice.

Some will argue that the issue of gender-selection abortion is simply a restriction of choice. Ann Furedi is the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the leading provider of abortion services. It has some 40 clinics in England, Wales and Scotland and performs 60,000 abortions a year. She says that sex selection may not be grounds for abortion, but there is no legal requirement to deny a woman an abortion if she has a sex preference, provided that the legal grounds are still met. Indeed, Ann Furedi went so far as to say it would be “wrong” to refuse to consider an abortion request when gender is cited as a reason. Those are the words not of the Chinese or Indian pregnancy advisory service but of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, advocating gender selection abortions and the removal of barriers to abortion. The issue is worldwide: The Economist recently published an article describing the 100 million abortions, which it described as “gendercide”, that are done on the basis of gender throughout the world. Concern is shared throughout the House about the need for proper gender equality and respect for basic rights.

When I heard about the investigation and the Care Quality Commission investigations that followed, I could not believe that such things could be happening in this country. The words I have quoted and the lack of any prosecutorial decision—there have been a handful of prosecutions for abortion contraventions in the past 10 years—give a green light to abortion on demand, which flies in the face of the Abortion Act and the intention of parliamentarians in 1967. Some 98% of abortions tick the box of mental health risk, but if we are honest, the truth is that that covers a multitude of reasons, and one of those reasons might include gender.

The DPP himself has referred in his statement to a programme manager at the Department of Health who indicated that many doctors feel that forcing a woman to proceed with an unwanted pregnancy would cause considerable stress and anxiety. The corollary of that is justifying the mental health grounds. It follows, therefore, that in practical terms we have in this country abortion on demand. I recognise that the Attorney-General is focused on the prosecution policy and will not trespass into the wider health policies, but my question is relevant. How does this reality impact on the policy towards prosecutions? How can it be in the public interest—Ann Furedi has raised this question—to prosecute contraventions of the Abortion Act when there is such a gap between the law and practice?

The key issue is about the definition of the mental health issues and the bar that is set for them to be understood to be a meaningful reason for an abortion. That can be a catch-all for an inclination on any grounds to have an abortion. If it is not set clearly and applied appropriately, it will result in what my hon. Friend has set out.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. A wider issue is transparency and honesty around definitions and assessments. It is an issue because 99.6% of the 98% who relied on the grounds of mental health risk are those that this applies to. The investigation and the reasoning have highlighted the lack of guidance and how it is disparate across the country. We need further information. We are in the unknowns, because there is a lack of data and proper information. We do not know enough about the assessments in relation to mental health grounds. Perhaps the doctor is not even present to make the assessment.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—I shall call him my hon. Friend this afternoon—for securing this debate. Following on from the previous intervention—I think he is starting to allude to it—if the doctors concerned are not even meeting the woman who is presenting and requiring an abortion, how are they to judge whether the barrier is met?

My hon. Friend—he is very much my hon. Friend in these matters—is right. In the case that brought about the investigation, both GPs failed to carry out an in-depth mental or physical assessment of the patient. One GP even claimed that he thought the patient was lying. Instead of taking it a stage further and delving further, they agreed to authorise the abortion. In one of the cases that have been reported, one of the GPs brazenly said that it was “like female infanticide”.

We need to get to the bottom of what the law is for, and that is the focus of this debate. We will then draw attention to the issue of appropriate guidance. So what is the law on gender selection abortion? My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the outgoing public health Minister—I welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who is here—wrote to me on 3 October; it was one of her last letters as public health Minister. She wrote to say unequivocally, and it has been repeated by the Secretary of State for Health, that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is unacceptable and illegal. This has not changed. I therefore look forward to the Attorney-General making the obvious point and confirming the policy position. However, there is some doubt, because Ann Furedi, the BPAS chief executive, says that the law is “silent” on the question. Indeed, the DPP in his letter on 7 October said quite properly that the law does not expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions. Rather, it prohibits any abortion carried out without two medical practitioners having formed a view in good faith that the health risks of continuing with the pregnancy outweigh those of termination.

The public might be surprised that such a prohibition is not expressed and that it is not clear. The British Medical Association takes it a stage further, aside from the issue of whether there is an express prohibition. In the BMA’s words,

“there may be circumstances, in which termination of pregnancy on grounds of fetal sex would be lawful”.

That is in the BMA’s handbook of ethics and law and the guidance that goes to GPs. The concern about policy—this is my question to the Attorney-General—is whether the law is clear or silent. In particular, we are concerned about the practice emanating from the policy, which in effect is to turn a blind eye to contraventions of the Abortion Act.

I am listening carefully to a well-measured and thoughtful speech. Perhaps Members will forgive my simplicity in such things, but is it not the starting point for any position that any termination of an unborn child is infanticide, and that the 1967 Act gives specific situations in which it is not? Therefore, surely the default position must be the original position, as it was before the 1967 Act.

That is the position in principle: the Abortion Act provides effective safeguard and defence against the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. We have a gap, therefore, and the issue is, where it has been exposed—rarely do such cases see the light of day—why, when the evidential threshold has been reached, is it not considered in the public interest to take things a stage further, into court?

In the particular cases brought to light by The Daily Telegraph investigation, the DPP and the CPS give much weight to the law giving

“a wide discretion to doctors to determine when a risk to the health and wellbeing of a pregnant woman exists”.

The CPS stated that it was up to doctors “to interpret the law” and, flowing from that, that the cases were

“better dealt with by the GMC rather than by prosecution.”

The gap I referred to is, therefore, in effect being determined by doctors, with their wide discretion to interpret the law—if a problem is exposed, it is for the professional body to investigate. As a politician, to me that seems to be passing the buck—the responsibility for enforcing the law—from the courts to doctors, thereby second-guessing the intentions of Parliament on enforcement.

As a criminal defence lawyer, I looked more deeply into that decision. The reasoning seems to be for an evidential rather than a public interest factor against prosecution—the public interest factor was the focus of the review. The CPS statement seemed to be going into what the DPP himself admits were the overlapping considerations of the evidential and public interest tests. The main basis of the DPP’s reasoning for not supporting a prosecution—which went a stage further and, with great respect, I suggest perhaps moved the goalposts towards the evidential side of things—was the evidential difficulties arising in the case, which I think can be applied generally and are of general concern in all such cases. Although the evidential test in that particular case had been passed, my concern is that the wider public interest appears to have been sidelined. That is not only my view, although I have 20 or so years of experience in the criminal law and in dealing with cases where it is difficult to detect a crime.

What is the public interest factor in such cases? The former DPP, Lord Macdonald, drew attention to that point, saying that there is “strong public interest” in prosecuting crimes that are hard to detect, such as sex-selection abortion. The onus is therefore much more on looking into what is in the public interest when so few cases are exposed and where we recognise that there are evidential difficulties—perhaps inherent—in the current system, given the lack of guidance. Does that not make the case even more strongly for a prosecution being in the public interest?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing a subject of such huge interest and importance before us. What impact does it have on public perception of the law and its integrity? Any effect can spread to all sorts of other areas, such as assisted suicide. Once the public’s perception is that the law is not enforced, as it has been in one or two cases, confidence in the law’s ability to deal with highly complex issues disappears.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In cases of assisted suicide, the DPP has come forward with guidance to provide some clarity, and that was carefully worked through. One of my requests to the Attorney-General is to reflect on what has happened and, with the DPP, to come forward with clear guidance to ensure that confidence in the integrity of the law that many say has been lost. I also ask the Attorney-General to comment on the former DPP’s view. In addition, it must be in the public interest, in policy terms, for such cases, in which there has been an obvious abuse of abortion legislation—the cases are unusual and rarely see the light of day, because they are not readily detected—and in which the evidential threshold has been passed, to be seen in court.

The danger now is that the decision by the DPP, following on from the CPS, sets a precedent—no prosecutions under the Abortion Act without clearer evidence. Where will we get that clearer evidence? Do we now have a new evidential test for abortion-related offences, which can rarely be satisfied due to the lack of the different factors affecting this, not least the lack of professional guidance from doctors?

Another concern about the CPS decision not to find public interest to prosecute was the deferral to the GMC to enforce the breach of law. That was particularly apparent in the original decision of the CPS, which saw that as a key factor. The last time that I checked on enforcement of the Abortion Act, it was for the courts to do, and not for a disciplinary committee of GPs, which was never mentioned or even suggested in 1967. That option is certainly not in statute. This is specifically prescribed in statute as a contravention, and the law should be enforced. I trust that the Attorney-General will make it clear today that criminal sanctions cannot be avoided because of professional status—making a point about integrity—and that applies across the board with other instances of criminality involving the professions. Plainly, everyone is equal under the law, although some of us would say that that is not the case for an unborn child.

The CPS decision to drop the case and to leave it to the GMC highlights the gap between abortion law and practice. That must be filled somehow, at least by guidance through GPs, but also by reform of the legislation. I therefore welcome the assurance that I received from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, then an Under-Secretary of State for Health, that the Department of Health has requested that the chief medical officer issue guidance. I look forward to it, and hope that there will be proper consultation on it.

Such guidance is needed not only because of the cases involving GPs highlighted by The Daily Telegraph, but also because of the CQC investigation in July last year. Fourteen NHS hospitals throughout England failed inspections, all involving the photocopying of doctor’s signatures and other breaches. For example, Rochdale hospital’s regular routine was to pre-sign all abortion forms—not only in one case—and the Princess Alexandra hospital in Harlow used the photocopied signature of a doctor for so long that it was well beyond the time that he had been employed as a doctor or could have had any knowledge of the cases. Such is the extent of the abuse and breaches of the Abortion Act. Such malpractice would not be tolerated by patients or others in the prescription of antibiotics or common painkillers, for example, and yet a blind eye is being turned in abortion cases.

The scandal is not only about malpractice, however; those hospitals were not referred to the police for investigation, and no CQC investigation has resulted in any prosecution to date. Why is that? What is going on? Will the Attorney-General respond about the policy? The system is open to abuse, to dishonesty and to criminality, which, without reform, are going unchecked and unprosecuted.

Why was the DPP not more involved at an earlier stage in the initial CPS decision on whether to prosecute, given the significant public interest? Was the Attorney-General consulted on that decision, given the public policy considerations, and if not, why not? Will guidance be provided to the CPS for consideration of future contraventions of the Abortion Act? Will a review consider whether the safeguards set down by Parliament, in good faith, are being properly applied in 2013 and still have full force in law?

On the subject of public interest, which is what we are discussing today, I want to thank The Daily Telegraph, which has been acting in the public interest by investigating and exposing the problems with the Abortion Act, which are of concern to many, on all sides of the fence on the issue of abortion, in particular because such problems might have led to sex-selection abortion. Without such investigative reporting on behalf of the public interest, there would probably be no one to complain, and the issue would go by the bye. The reality is that the unborn child has no complaint process. There is a lack of transparent information, and no real safeguards. It is up to Parliament to deal with that, and we must seize on it in this debate and beyond by speaking up for the voiceless, ensuring that we respect life and at least to ensure that the Abortion Act contains safeguards with proper meaning and proper force.

Five hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and I do not want to impose a time limit so I hope that colleagues will be mindful of others, given that I want the wind-ups to start at 3.40.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on bringing this important matter to the Chamber. I fully support what he said, and the number of hon. Members present indicates the amount of moral and physical support in the House. The legislation in Northern Ireland is different from that on the mainland and makes procuring an abortion more difficult. I will explain the Northern Ireland perspective and add my support to the hon. Gentleman and what he seeks to achieve.

It is a good thing that we have that legislation in Northern Ireland and we do not want it changed to what exists on the mainland. Whether I agree with the law, the fact remains that it is the law and it should be obeyed. That is how our society works, and abortion law should be no different. Indeed, it should be more strictly enforced because it involves something as precious as human life.

During my time in the House and having got to know more about what happens on the mainland, I have become more and more disturbed about reports indicating that some registered doctors have allowed abortions to take place because the baby’s sex was not what the parents wanted. That is disgraceful and it angers me and many other people. It blows my mind that, after years of looking down on the Chinese for disregarding female children, we are now taking that a step further, if we follow the hon. Gentleman’s line of thought, and aborting their life. In the House, hon. Members individually and collectively as a Parliament have been outspoken about the horrific abuse of human rights in China, but it now seems that we are no different when we allow the abortion of children based on nothing more than their gender. As DNA techniques improve, I wonder whether parents who are unhappy—I do not mean this facetiously—about eye or hair colour may test for that and abort a baby at will. Where will that end? Is that the message we want to send? It is certainly not the message I want to send, and it is not one that many of the Members who will participate in this debate want to send.

I have said before in this place that 1 believe in human rights. I am on the record as having spoken on many human rights issues for Christians, for those with different religious beliefs, and for oppressed minorities. I believe in the most basic human right, which is the right to life. I believe that the strong have a duty to protect the weak and the vulnerable, and I seek to uphold that protection. It is a terrible shame that the Director of Public Prosecutions does not take the same view.

A decision not to prosecute when there is sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution is disgusting. When an opportunity has arisen to make an example and to set the bar high, as it should be, the DPP has chosen not to prosecute those who have acted outside the law by offering to abort children based on gender. It follows that the DPP’s belief is that the law does not need to be enforced and that he can pick and choose legislation that must be followed. The House should send a strong message about that. I thought the issue was for law-makers, but having heard about what is happening, I must be mistaken.

Abortion is emotive and always will be. How could it not be when it involves the most vulnerable in our community and their protection? I can understand that it may not be the role of the DPP to be emotional—or immoral— but nor is it his role to determine what is an acceptable or unacceptable breach of a law that was for good reason designed to restrict the use of abortion. Its purpose has been disregarded.

In 2011, the total number of abortions in England and Wales was 189,931, and approximately 2,729 took place at up to 20 weeks, 702 after 20 weeks, 763 after 21 weeks, 553 after 22 weeks and 565 after 23 weeks. Of that total, 778 were under ground (e), which covers substantial risk of abnormalities, as to be seriously handicapped, and exceptional circumstances. The majority of remaining abortions were carried out under ground (c), for largely social reasons, such as the after-effects of recreational sex—a term I do not use lightly. Are we now to add another category that the baby’s sex was not as desired? That is preposterous, yet the DPP would, in his decision, allow that to be a valid reason. Every law student knows the benefits of a test case. When something is not tested, it is seen to be approved. Does the Attorney-General approve of that? Perhaps he will indicate where he stands on the DPP’s role.

It is abundantly clear that there must be a tightening of the law in Great Britain to ensure that it is not acceptable for a doctor to sign off an abortion procedure without even seeing the patient. I urge that tighter regimes, such as those in Northern Ireland, are brought back to the mainland to ensure that the open door of abortion is closed. That would be good news.

Does my hon. Friend agree that problems often arise because of lack of clarity and understanding of the law? In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, the issue is often lack of clarity and understanding about what is and is not permissible. Greater clarity would benefit all concerned on either side of the argument.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Clearly, he is right. The problem seems to be that the DPP is not providing clarity. The law is clear, and I hope that the Attorney-General will provide clarity on that.

With its more liberal abortion law, the UK mainland has a higher rate of maternal deaths, and that speaks volumes. It is clear that Northern Ireland’s law to restrict abortion to save the mother’s life works well to save the lives of both mother and child. I cannot stand by and allow the DPP to send his message unchecked because it is important to put the issue on the record. I wholeheartedly support my colleague, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, today and ask that the right message is sent from this place to those who prosecute. We deplore the fact that any medical professional would ever stretch the current legislation to allow selective abortion. The GMC has intervened, but that is not enough. The law was not designed for that and it was determined that that was not the desire of this place. We demand not only that the DPP and Attorney-General respond on that decision, but that they tighten up the law so that can never happen again. We seek that clarification today.

Some hon. Members believe that abortion is an acceptable choice for a woman, but it should not impact on the fact that the DPP, sometimes with the help of local police officers, has sometimes been quick to prosecute those who stand outside clinics with pictures of fetuses urging people to rethink their decision. Something is wrong with a law that does not enforce the existing abortion rules but allows prosecution of those who are against what is taking place.

Is that fair, right or proper? I was blessed with a good mother, who often said, “If you don’t stand up for something, you will fall for anything.” We must not fall down the slippery slope that has been created, and that should be made crystal clear today. I support what the hon. Gentleman has suggested, and I hope that the Minister will provide reassurance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) must be congratulated on securing this debate, which is extremely topical and follows a great deal of reporting on this very serious issue. It is virtually impossible to be prosecuted in this country for carrying out an illegal abortion. I have found out that between 2003 to 2007, for instance, only seven people were prosecuted. It would be interesting to have more up-to-date information from the Attorney-General when he responds.

The real issue for Parliament and for this debate is whether Parliament makes the laws, or whether the Crown Prosecution Service does. This Parliament makes the laws, and clearly when it framed the Abortion Act—whatever one’s views on the Act’s merit or otherwise—it never envisaged a situation where there would be gender selection in this country. In my view, it is outrageous that in Britain today the most dangerous position to be in is that of a female fetus. That is completely unacceptable. It should not be tolerated in a free society; we should not tolerate it.

The actions of the CPS have been extraordinary. It conducted a 19-month inquiry and has conceded that the evidence is sufficient to warrant a prosecution with a “realistic prospect of conviction.” Jenny Hopkins, deputy chief Crown prosecutor for London, said that

“on balance there is enough evidence to justify bringing proceedings…This is a case-specific decision on the individual facts; it is not a policy decision of general application”.

I think we need clarification from the Attorney-General. If Parliament has framed an Act, and there is enough evidence to prosecute under it, why has the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to prosecute?

The decision not to prosecute the two doctors in question may not specifically be a

“policy decision of general application”—

that is what the CPS is talking about—but it certainly seems indicative to us of a pre-existing policy not to prosecute. Putting it simply, the CPS has found that we have an Act of Parliament, and there is enough evidence to prosecute, but it has decided that is not in the public interest to do so. Why is it up to the CPS to determine what is in the public interest?

I remind the Chamber what The Daily Telegraph found. One doctor said:

“I don’t ask questions. If you want a termination, you want a termination.”

Another doctor was also filmed agreeing to conduct the procedure, even though he told the woman:

“It’s like female infanticide, isn’t it?”

Do we want that sort of thing to go on in this country?

The CPS claims that prosecuting the two doctors in question was not “in the public interest”. I believe that the CPS is simply wrong. It is in the public interest that laws are enforced, and if a law is against the public interest, it must be changed through the normal legislative process. If we have not framed the Abortion Act in a sufficiently clear way, it should be looked at again.

My hon. Friend is making a very good case about what is in the public interest. Is he aware that India has 37 million more men than women, and that what we are debating today is the cause of that? Does he agree that whether that arises from the abortion of female fetuses or female infanticide, and whether it takes place in Bombay, Beijing or Birmingham, it is wrong?

Yes, I am grateful to my hon. Friend—it is quite wrong. India’s 2011 census shows 7.1 million fewer girls than boys under the age of six—a gap that has almost doubled over two decades. Rather than a function of villages being backward or poor, this is a phenomenon that grows more pronounced, apparently, as Indians grow richer. Studies show that wealthier, better-educated Indians are more likely to have boys, because they can afford the newish tools of ultrasound and gender-specific abortion. In Mumbai, some clinics market their services as cheaper than dowries:

“Better 500 rupees now than 500,000 later”,

as one advert put it. We all know that weddings are expensive, but it is a shocking statement. The message is abhorrent in our eyes, and our instinct is not to look at the issue at all, but this is going on, and we do not want it going on in our country.

The General Medical Council is being strong on the issue, and we must commend it for investigating the claims of illegal activity by doctors. We welcome the statements and strong words of GMC chief executive, Niall Dickson:

“Doctors who do not comply with the law relating to abortion are putting their registration and careers at risk”.

I put it to the Attorney-General that given the infinitesimally low rate of prosecutions for illegal abortions, and given what the director of the CPS has said, we live in a situation where doctors, frankly, can get away with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, spoke most forcibly about pre-photocopied forms going out, but it goes further than that. We know, from The Daily Telegraph investigation, that doctors are specifically, personally cognisant that they are committing female infanticide. The issue for this House—for a liberal, western society—is whether that is tolerable. I believe that it is not, and that it is now up to Parliament and the Government to take action. I look forward to the Attorney-General’s response.

I speak as someone who firmly believes in the right of women to access a safe termination of pregnancy, but who does not believe that not liking the sex of a child is reasonable grounds to do so. I also speak as someone who has experience of sitting with many women over a number of years, counselling them and listening to their views, as they attempt to take the most difficult decision of their lives.

To help hon. Members, I have brought copies of certificate A, which is the form that doctors have to complete prior to an abortion—perhaps the Doorkeeper can pass some around. On certificate A, two doctors have to sign to say:

“We hereby certify that we are of the opinion, formed in good faith”—

then it lists a number of criteria that must be fulfilled. How on earth can any doctor form an opinion in good faith if they have signed a form, undated and unnamed, and it has then been photocopied? That goes to the heart of one reason why a prosecution could not be brought in the most recent cases, which was the issue of the variation in clinical practice. Where there was what seems to me like very clear-cut, straightforward malpractice, a decision was made not to prosecute. As a result, it has become more difficult to prosecute in the cases of alleged gender-selection abortion.

Will the Attorney-General, in his summing up, say whether the original decision could be revisited, or at the very least whether very clear guidance could be issued to doctors, saying that the practice is completely unacceptable and that, in future, they could expect to be prosecuted for it? The Care Quality Commission’s decision to deliver no more than a slap on the wrist was disgraceful. The CQC should be there to ensure, beyond doubt, that if clinics carry out the practice in future, they will be closed down, because it goes not only against the spirit of the law, but, in my view, the letter of the law, as set out clearly in certificate A.

In her distinguished medical career, did my hon. Friend think, at any time, that because she could be taken to the General Medical Council for a failing of practice, she was exempt from the law of the land on a matter such as this?

Absolutely not, but I think that all right-thinking medical professionals, on viewing this form, would reject pre-signing it, and would find it completely abhorrent that someone could pre-sign it and allow an unnamed, undated form to be photocopied. That point is very important. We also saw the scale of this; it was happening at 14 locations, so it was not an isolated event.

The guidance from the BMA’s handbook of ethics and law, which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) referred to, is also part of the problem. The guidance begins:

“The Association believes that it is normally unethical to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of fetal sex alone except in cases of severe x-linked disorders.”

So far, so good. However, the guidance goes on to say:

“The pregnant woman’s views about the effect of the sex of the fetus on her situation and on her existing children should nevertheless be carefully considered. In some circumstances doctors may come to the conclusion that the effects are so severe as to provide legal and ethical justification for a termination. They should be prepared to justify the decision if challenged.”

That is wholly unacceptable. A woman may feel under huge pressure from her family to abort a fetus of the wrong sex, but doctors should not collude in the family’s point of view and assist in a termination just because the situation may be stressful for the woman. Rather, they should explore the reasons for that pressure with the woman and protect her from undue pressure from her family; they should certainly not just collude in such attitudes, which reinforce a misogynist point of view that daughters are of less value than sons. That harms not only women worldwide, but all societies where this practice is common, including the men in those societies. There is a straightforward, strong issue of equality here.

As has been said, there is no specific exclusion for gender-specific termination in certificate A. However, we have a precedent for such an exclusion in paragraph 11 of schedule 2 to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, which refers to sex selection when embryos are implanted. The Act makes it clear that, other than in cases where we are trying to prevent a severe inherited medical condition, gender selection is unacceptable in the implantation of embryos. I wonder whether now is the time for an amendment to the Abortion Act to make that explicit and to put the issue beyond any doubt.

Another issue with certificate A is the wording of category A, which refers to the possibility that

“the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”.

The statistics for maternal mortality for 2006-08 show that 107 women died from conditions directly related to pregnancy, whereas two women died as a result of complications following sepsis after the termination of a pregnancy. Will the Attorney-General clarify whether it would be possible, on a technicality, for any doctor to carry out any abortion on demand because of that difference? Technically, it could be argued that every abortion could satisfy section A of certificate A.

It is perhaps time for us to issue greater clarification of what would constitute unacceptable grounds. It is perhaps time for us to have a wider debate about that. As I said, I speak as someone who firmly believes in a woman’s right to access safe abortion, but not to access it on grounds that, in my view and the view, I think, of the vast majority of the public, would harm women’s rights and make misogynist attitudes more acceptable.

In a number of cases, we have seen that people have a natural tendency to shy away from awkward situations. We saw that in Rochdale, in different circumstances. When we drill down and look in greater detail at the possibility that gender selection is happening in this country, we see that, although there does not appear to be a distortion in the gender statistics overall, that could be the case in certain communities. We should not, therefore, take the view that these things are not happening in the UK, because they could well be, and we need to put the issue absolutely beyond doubt in law.

Honourable Members, has it come to this? People in this country have spent 40 years fighting discrimination, but no action is to be taken when one of the most blatant forms of discrimination—the deprivation of life on account of being a girl—is highlighted. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on bringing forward the debate, and I entirely agree with him that the time has come to review the moral, legal, ethical and practical framework in which the Abortion Act operates.

This is not the only form of discrimination against the unborn child in this country. Over the course of more than a year, the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into abortion on the grounds of disability, which I had the privilege of chairing and which published its report in July, took evidence from 300 witnesses. The full report can be seen at the website abortionanddisability.org. Just as people are shocked that abortion can be allowed on the grounds of sex, people we spoke to were shocked to discover, in an age when we go to extensive lengths to accept, support and respect disabled people, seeing them as wholly equal, that a child can be aborted right up to the moment of birth on the grounds that they may be disabled. In contrast to the situation for non-disabled babies, there is no 24-week time limit. Indeed, we heard that many expectant mothers felt funnelled into having an abortion when they were told that they were expecting a potentially disabled child.

The inquiry highlights the lack of clarity in the abortion regulations about what constitutes a serious disability. Some mothers who were told they were expecting a disabled child told us the diagnosis was wrong. Others were told that abortions would be allowed on the grounds of a cleft palate or a club foot, and indeed they can be. Those are minor disabilities, as I know, because I have a son with a club foot. In an era of enormous support for the disabled and their families, we cannot allow this form of discrimination to persist. We must take action to review it.

Equally, we must take action to prevent any hint of discrimination against an unborn child on account of their sex. We have had much more than a hint that this is happening; we have the investigation from The Daily Telegraph. The time it took to look into that investigation—19 months—is deplorable. In his statement of 7 October about the investigation, the DPP said:

“on balance, there is just sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction.”

We are talking about conviction for a criminal offence, according to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. What kind of message does that decision send? It sends the shocking message that authorities in this country will turn a blind eye to involvement in acts preparatory to the commission of an unlawful abortion—authorities in whom trust is vested to apply and uphold the laws made by this Parliament.

The reason the DPP gave for not proceeding with the prosecution was that it would not be in the public interest. Prosecutors have also pointed out that the issue has become sensitive and political. How can it not be in the public interest to state firmly and clearly that abortion on the grounds of a child’s sex is wrong? It is wrong morally and legally, and if the law is not sufficiently clear on this point, it is our duty as parliamentarians and politicians—I see nothing wrong in politicians being involved in this issue—to make it clear.

The grounds on which an abortion is legal have never included the sex of the child, and that is true not just in this country. The UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, which the UK has ratified, is a legally binding treaty in UK law. The convention recognises the right to choose the “number and spacing” of one’s children, but not the sex. International law is very clear: sex-selective abortions are not legal.

We recognise that in this country when we fully condemn China’s one-child policy, which has resulted in a disproportionate number of young men, running into the millions. The ratio of young men to young women in many parts of China is now 30:1. This country prides itself on respecting human rights, and we cannot be so hypocritical as to condemn that policy and then do nothing when such things occur within our own borders. I said that there was more than a hint that that is happening; in January 2013 I tabled an early-day motion, citing

“recent confirmation by the Department of Health that there are discrepancies in the balance between the number of boys and girls born to groups of women from some overseas countries to an extent that”—

in the Department’s words—

“‘falls outside the range considered possible without intervention’”.

The motion called on the Department of Health to put procedures in place to address the issue, and it was supported by more than 50 parliamentarians. There are a number of parliamentarians here today, but I know from the EDM alone that there are far more who support the views that have been expressed today.

There is further evidence. Dr Vincent Argent, a former medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, has been quoted as saying that the practice is “fairly widespread” in the UK; and there are data from Dr Dubuc of the university of Oxford, who has studied the issue for 35 years, suggesting that sex-selection abortions are happening with increasing regularity among certain groups in the UK because of the increasing availability of technologies to determine the sex of an unborn child. The statistics show that the practice is particularly prevalent when a third child is expected.

I should explain that I have only Department of Health statistics to go on, but this may be helpful. As far as the UK as a whole is concerned, the statistics on gender balance in births fall squarely within what are regarded as acceptable norms. As to mothers who were born in other countries, there is, with only one exception, no clear evidence of such a divergence from the norm. Interestingly, the country in question is Sri Lanka and, curiously, the birth ratio for mothers born there is 99.2 male children for every 100 female children, which suggests the opposite of what my hon. Friend is talking about. There again, however, there is nothing to suggest that the ratio is outside the statistical norm.

If my right hon. and learned Friend will allow me, I shall send him Dr Dubuc’s data and research, which show figures that at least need to be looked into.

I ask for not only Ministers but the British Medical Association to take action. The 2012 third edition of its guide, “Medical Ethics Today”, does not clearly prohibit sex-selection abortions. The doctors we heard of in the investigation by The Daily Telegraph clearly felt uncomfortable. I should have thought it would help the many other doctors who might feel uncomfortable in such circumstances if the BMA medical ethics committee were to take a clear stance against the discriminatory practice in question, and support practitioners accordingly. As to the reference by the Director of Public Prosecutions to the General Medical Council taking action on the investigation by The Daily Telegraph, it is worth remembering that the GMC has no powers on criminal actions and cannot prosecute breaches of the law.

Finally, in April, I presented a ten-minute rule Bill on the very issue that we are debating. It was interesting to note that there was no opposition from any Member of the House. My purpose was to raise the issue and to remind the police and Crown Prosecution Service that abortions on the ground of gender are illegal in this country. My Bill called on the Department of Health to establish procedures to record the gender of babies aborted under the Abortion Act 1967, when the sex can be determined, and to consider a review of the penalties for anyone found to have facilitated the abortion of a child because of their gender. The United Kingdom prides itself on striving for gender equality and tackling discrimination in all its forms, and any indication of that most fundamental form of gender discrimination and violence against women must surely be investigated further.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for bringing the matter to the Chamber today, because it is a serious issue. I cannot believe that in the 21st century, in this great country, we are having this debate; I would not have believed that gender-selection abortions were possible here.

Many hon. Members have said that the unborn child has no voice, and appears to have very few rights in the context we are discussing. I am not a lawyer or doctor, but my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, who has a legal background, made many good legal points, and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), with her medical experience, spoke from a medical point of view. I shall be simple and straightforward in my remarks. If the law is not adequate to stop the practice in question, it must be changed. If it has not been properly interpreted and enforced, it must be. It is up to the Attorney-General to make sure that that happens. If my accountant signed a form and allowed me to fill it in for my farming business and send it to the tax authorities, although it was all completely wrong, we would both be prosecuted. Yet here we are, talking about the actions of doctors in various places. Most doctors act very honourably, but there are a few who have not. They cannot just photocopy forms and allow someone else to fill them in.

Some lawyers and the CPS argue that practice is so lax that it is not possible to prosecute. What on earth is going on? I am not a lawyer, but I have some faith in the law of the land. However, why should people have faith in it, if shoddy practice allows perfectly healthy babies, of whatever sex, to be aborted? I shall be completely honest and open: I do not like abortion. I think it is carried out far too late, and I do not much like its being carried out at all. I accept that in exceptional circumstances, when there are very serious problems with a fetus, there could be an argument for it to be aborted; but not just because it does not suit someone’s lifestyle, religion or background.

I shall again say something a little controversial. Is it perhaps because the issue has something to do with race that we do not want to tackle it? Are we running scared because we live in this very politically correct world? Well, if that is the result of a politically correct country, I do not want to live in this role. This Parliament is about common-sense rules that are enforced. I am totally amazed and saddened that we must have this debate.

I will finish with my question to the Attorney-General. What is wrong? Is it the fact that the law is not correct as it stands, and we cannot stop people asking for abortions on the basis of the baby’s gender?

The hon. Gentleman may understand that those of us who are strong supporters of a woman’s right to a legal, safe abortion, and also of the notion that we should respect other cultures, find the notion of gender-selective abortion impossible to support, for the reasons that other hon. Members have given. It reinforces patriarchal and oppressive ideas in society. I found the time to attend this debate because it is important that we unravel the issue; but I want to make the point that it is not only those who are anti-abortion in principle who have a problem with sex-selective abortion.

I very much respect the hon. Lady and thank her for her intervention. I am not here to make particular points about people’s backgrounds, but I emphasise that the issue, now, is how it is possible for this issue to have arisen in this country. Most people would say that the idea of having a baby aborted because of its gender is wrong; and that brings me to my final comments.

Is the law as it stands inadequate? If so, I ask the Attorney-General to consider ways to change it. If the law is adequate, why is no one being prosecuted? Why is it that forms can be signed in hospital and the doctor can have retired from that position, but the forms are still being used to carry out gender-selection abortion? Someone is wrong—someone has got it wrong. We, as a Parliament, must ensure that the law is upheld and, if we are not satisfied that the law is adequate, we must change it so that it is. I would be very interested to know what the Attorney-General believes and what he sees as the solution to this problem, because, I repeat, I do not believe that in the 21st century, in this United Kingdom, we should be in any way, shape or form allowing gender-selection abortion.

On 5 September, the Crown Prosecution Service issued a statement justifying its decision to take no further action regarding two doctors who had been caught in a Daily Telegraph sting allegedly assisting an undercover journalist to procure an abortion on the grounds of the gender of the fetus. The original statement started with a statement of the law:

“The Abortion Act 1967 allows for an abortion in a limited range of circumstances but not purely on the basis of not wanting a child of a specific gender.”

That, incidentally, is how I would read the law. The statement went on to say that although the case was not straightforward,

“on balance there is enough evidence to justify bringing proceedings for an attempt.”

The plain English reading of that is that there was enough evidence to prosecute for an offence of procuring an illegal abortion purely on the basis of not wanting a child of a specific gender. But the decision not to prosecute was taken on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest. The CPS said:

“Taking into account the need for professional judgement which deals firmly with wrongdoing, while not deterring other doctors from carrying out legitimate and medically justified abortions, we have concluded that these specific cases would be better dealt with by the GMC rather than by prosecution.”

The statement added that

“when looking at the culpability of the doctors in this case, we must take into account the fact that doctors are required to interpret the law and apply it to”

a

“range of sensitive and difficult circumstances which are not set out in the legislation.”

The statement concluded by attaching weight to the level of harm to the victim, which in this case was none as no abortion took place.

I found the statement very disturbing and that day wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions to request him to review the decision not to prosecute. My first objection was that I could not understand how it could be in the public interest not to prosecute in respect of an abortion that was carried out on the basis of gender alone. Gender-based abortion is part of a complex of misogynistic beliefs and practices to which we cannot give an inch. Along with female infanticide, it is the purest expression of the belief that the male is more valuable than the female, for invariably gender-based abortion involves the destruction of female fetuses; we do not hear of male fetuses being aborted.

Women are not the weaker sex. We are not a curse. We are not a burden to be disposed of as a family sees fit. What is more, people have to be completely myopic not to see that if it becomes known that doctors are taking a no-questions-asked attitude to gender-selective abortions, women will be pressurised into having them. Gender-selective abortions are at root an exercise of patriarchal and communal coercion, not female choice.

I want to ask a question of the hon. Lady in her position as shadow Attorney-General. Is it her opinion that the decision not to prosecute should be reviewed, and could it be reviewed by the Attorney-General?

If the hon. Gentleman will hold his breath, I will get there. In my view, it is not in the public interest for us to behave in this way. We must make it absolutely clear that, as a country, we have no truck with this. I am a staunch advocate of women’s right to choose, but I do not accept that that corners me into supporting something as plainly monstrous as gender-selective abortion.

I am also concerned that if the public see abortion as being used for gender selection, support for abortion will erode. In my view, there has been and remains a clear majority, albeit a silent one, in favour of abortion, and their views are reflected in the very thoughtful contributions made today by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). We must not play into the hands of the likes of those who claim that the most dangerous situation to be in in Britain today is to be in a womb and to be a female. We need to take a sensible view of this.

My second objection, which was echoed at the time by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, was about the amount of deference that the CPS seemed to be showing the medical profession. The CPS seems to believe that doctors can have the discretion to disapply the law in their surgeries. It seems to me that when a roofer breaks the law, he is hauled into court and faces the prospect of prison. When a doctor does, he should also be hauled into court and should not simply be heard by a panel of his peers with no criminal powers. That is taking the idea of “Doctor knows best” far too far. The rule of law has to apply to all equally; otherwise, it is meaningless.

Following the outcry, the DPP, Keir Starmer, has issued a statement seeking to explain further the reasoning behind the decision. That statement, which comes a full month later, introduces a number of new lines of argument, while quietly dropping some of the old ones. Mr Starmer now tells us that the evidential threshold for the allegation that this was a gender-based abortion has not been met. He says that that was because other factors were alluded to during the discussion between patient and doctor. Instead, the matter hinged on whether the doctors fulfilled their duty under the Abortion Act to carry out a sufficiently robust assessment of the risk to the pregnant woman’s mental and physical health to reach a good-faith opinion that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve a risk, greater than if the pregnancy was terminated, to the woman’s mental and physical health. The director explains that there is no guidance on how a doctor should assess that and therefore no yardstick by which to measure whether the doctors’ assessments fell below a standard that any reasonable doctor would consider adequate. The director concludes that it would be of questionable public interest to prosecute amid such uncertainty.

That is a more elegant and persuasive way of hoofing the matter back to the GMC. Gone is any suggestion that we will not prosecute criminal attempts because the victim is unharmed. Gone is any impression given by the earlier statement that the very fact of the GMC’s involvement is sufficient and that the criminal courts need not be involved. Gone is any suggestion that it is somehow okay for doctors to abort fetuses merely because they are female.

I am reassured by the director’s statement that had the decision boiled down to one of whether to prosecute on the basis that the doctors attempted a gender-specific abortion,

“there might be powerful reasons for a prosecution in the public interest”.

To my mind, the director’s statement illustrates the need to ensure that the DPP personally signs off all decisions about prosecutions under the Abortion Act 1967, whether those decisions are in favour of or against prosecution. I hope that the Attorney-General can assure the House that that is what will happen in future.

Before I call the Attorney-General, I note, just for Hansard, the unusual circumstances in which we have present at the debate three Ministers: the Minister responsible for public health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison); the Solicitor-General; and the Attorney-General.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing the debate.

Investigative journalism plays an important part in a vigorous and healthy democracy. The Daily Telegraph has done a very important public service in bringing these issues before us today. The debate has been a characteristically thoughtful one, as befits matters touching on the criminal law, personal health and dignity, ethics and moral issues, professional standards and the wider public interest. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who have all made contributions, and to those right hon. and hon. Members who have intervened.

The cases highlighted by The Daily Telegraph were much debated at the time of the original CPS decision not to prosecute. The terms of that debate may have given the public the impression that this case was about medical practitioners offering abortion on the basis of the gender of the child. On that basis, it may well have seemed incomprehensible that the full force of the criminal law was not being brought to bear on a practice that most people would regard as abhorrent. I certainly do and I think that everyone in this room does. But as I hope to make clear and as I hope has been made clear by the DPP’s explanation, that is not in fact what these cases are at root about.

The DPP has recently published detailed reasons for the CPS decision. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to read his account very carefully, if they have not already done so. It is absolutely right that prosecution decisions are taken by independent prosecutors on the facts before them and free from political influence. That is what entitles the public to have confidence in those decisions. However, it is also important that the public should be able to understand the decisions and, where that is not straightforward, that prosecutors make a special effort to explain them. This was obviously such a case, and I am particularly pleased that the director has taken the time and trouble to review—I requested him to do so—the decisions personally and to set out fully the reasoning that led him to endorse the conclusion that it would not be right to prosecute.

In a moment; I was going to answer the two questions raised by my hon. Friend. First, the director did not make the initial decision not to prosecute, but he was consulted, as is normal in complex and sensitive cases. The answer to the second question, on whether I was consulted on the decision before it was taken, is that I was not. The case was not raised with me by the director prior to the decision not to prosecute being taken. In my view, it should have been, and on reflection, the director accepts that he should have done so. Before that leads to an inference that therefore the decision might have been different, I simply make the point that as I asked the director to review the decision completely and I had ample opportunity to consult with him before he did so, I am satisfied that the decision that has now been reached, which I will come on to in a moment, would have been the same had that process taken place in the first case.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General agree that in hindsight it would have been appropriate for the DPP to be involved at an earlier stage, to respond to the question raised by the shadow Attorney-General, and should not all future investigations of allegations of contraventions of the 1967 Act involve the DPP at that earlier stage and proper consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend?

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the DPP himself does not under the statute have to give consent. Nevertheless, I am sure that the DPP will have noted my hon. Friend’s comments—representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service are here. It is clear to me that this is an important issue in a difficult area, which I will come on to in a moment. I trust that his comments are noted, but he will appreciate that the decisions are ultimately for the DPP, not me.

The director’s reasons speak for themselves. I am satisfied that this difficult decision was taken properly and conscientiously. The responsibility of taking such decisions is a heavy burden, which few of us would relish. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the distinction with which the current director has fulfilled an onerous and difficult series of public duties over recent years, particularly as his term of office is drawing to a close.

The hon. Member for Strangford asked whether I agreed with the decision taken by the director. I emphasise the point I made: I am clear that it is not my role as Attorney-General to second-guess the decisions of independent prosecutors. These were difficult decisions on which different prosecutors could reasonably have come to different conclusions, but I am entirely satisfied that this difficult decision was taken properly and conscientiously.

I shall say a little more by way of context. First, abortion law in this country, in my judgment, is workable, but needs to be understood. I should perhaps emphasise that the law is not framed in terms of prohibiting gender-specific abortion or indeed listing any other forms of unlawful abortion. It works, or was intended to work by Parliament, by providing for abortions to be performed safely, by qualified medical practitioners, when those practitioners judge it to be in the medical interests of the patient and where that is the course that the patient herself agrees is right. Two medical practitioners must on each occasion have formed a view, in good faith, that the health risks of continuing with a pregnancy outweigh those of termination. That is our guarantee, as provided by Parliament, that we have a system of safe and lawful abortion provided by the 1967 Act.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend saying that he believes the law to be correct as it is? If that is the case, why is abortion being allowed for gender selection?

I think my hon. Friend might misunderstand. We can have a long moral and ethical debate about the workings of the 1967 Act, as we have had in Parliament—I dare say that many in the room will express different views on the Act and all sorts of connected aspects—but that would be about an issue of policy. The question I am dealing with in this debate is whether, within the framework of what was intended by the 1967 Act, it is possible to enforce the law as Parliament intended it to be. I hope I will be able to develop that thought in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough asked about the statistics on those prosecuted under the 1967 Act. Since 2010, there have been 25 prosecutions, and he is right that none has been of medial professionals for failure to observe the terms of the 1967 Act.

As I asked the shadow Attorney-General, in light of the disquiet expressed by Members today and the disquiet outside the House, would the Attorney-General agree to a review of the case?

So far as this case is concerned, the decision is that of the CPS. For me to overturn or review somebody else’s decision in a case in which the decision does not fall on me would be wrongful interference in the independence of the prosecution and its discretion. As far as I am concerned, the function I have has been performed, in that there has been a review by the DPP of his decision and he has been able to explain it fully in the explanation he has provided. As I have already indicated, I do not consider anything to be in any way improper or unreasonable in that explanation or in how he has approached the matter. If the hon. Gentleman will let me develop my argument, he may understand why that is the case in a moment.

The question in this case is not about proving whether gender-specific abortion was being offered on demand. It was about whether the doctors had done what the law requires, which is to reach an opinion in good faith about the consequences for the patient of continuing with or terminating a pregnancy. I appreciate that abortion gives rise to strong views based on ethical and philosophical differences, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be the subject of much public debate, but the issue for the prosecutor is the law as it stands.

Is that not semantics? Is the Attorney-General saying that doctors are not prosecuted because they took the decision that abortion due to gender selection was all right in theory because the mental health of the mother might be affected or based on some other grounds that are acceptable under the 1967 Act? That seems to be pure semantics.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has had an opportunity to read the full note produced by the DPP. It sets out in detail, which I do not have time to go into this afternoon, the evidence in the case of each doctor presented to the CPS. My hon. Friend will appreciate that it is important that the evidence in each case is looked at separately. The DPP goes through it in detail and explains that the issue is not gender-specific abortion. If somebody says to a doctor without more ado, “I want an abortion on gender-specific grounds,” and the doctor says yes, the case might be a clear-cut matter to prosecute because the grounds fall clearly outside the ambit of the 1967 Act. The section of the Act with which we are concerned is about the physical and mental health of the woman. It is about good faith, in that it is for the doctor to satisfy themselves that any abortion falls within the criteria. If my hon. Friend looks at the matter in detail, he will see why the director came to the conclusion he did, which I will address, but in briefer terms.

The CPS concluded, with some difficulty, that there was just enough evidence available in the cases to bring the good faith of the doctors into issue. I think that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury was wrong when she said in her final statement that the position had changed. The DPP’s statement of reasons says, nevertheless, that the evidence was not strong in either case and the prospects of conviction would not in his judgment have been high on the facts as they appeared. The matter does not rest there. Even in a case that just about passes the evidential threshold, the CPS is obliged to consider whether a prosecution would be in the public interest. That is one of the tasks that we require it to do. The fact that an evidential threshold is passed—a point raised in the debate—does not mean that a prosecution has to, or indeed should, follow.

The decision was that prosecution did not pass the public interest threshold. It is that aspect of the decision that raises wider issues of public policy, some of which we have debated today, which I accept are an entirely legitimate topic of debate. The issue, as I see it, is this. Because the law makes the difference between lawful and unlawful abortion subject to a medical test, doctors have to be able to carry out that test on a case-by-case basis according to proper medical standards of care, skill and judgment. That is, effectively, what the test of “good faith” in the 1967 Act means. Doctors are required by law to make such decisions to a proper professional standard. If a question arises about whether a doctor has done so in any given case, a law enforcement agency must look to approved medical practice for assistance in identifying the proper standard. The same thing applies in virtually every case involving professional standards. Dare I say it, it would apply even in the case of a plumber who carried out some work that led to a catastrophic outcome.

It would surely not be right in such circumstances merely to demonstrate that other plumbers engaged in conduct that did not meet professional standards, and no more would it of doctors.

I reassure my right hon. Friend that that is certainly not the case. Ultimately, in any case, the jury decides, not the experts. One would normally expect a jury to be given some indication of the professional standards expected in a profession—there may even be rival professional views about what the standards should be—in order to help it decide.

Such a problem might not arise in an extremely clear-cut case. We might imagine a case in which a doctor behaved in a way in which no reasonable practitioner would behave, for example by arranging a medical abortion for a patient about whom he or she knew nothing and whom he or she had never met or spoken to. In any other circumstances, however, the CPS would need, and would expect to be able, to refer to medical consensus to determine whether a proper professional approach had been taken.

When they are looked at in the kind of detail considered by the prosecutor, the cases that we are debating are not extreme ones in which the doctors behaved as no reasonable practitioner would behave. Complicating factors were raised by both the patients and the doctors, who subsequently had to take the decisions. There were, as we have discussed, no detailed professional rules or step-by-step guidelines telling doctors how to take such decisions; the matter was left to general professional standards and ethics. The CPS, therefore, had no detailed consensus to help it to evaluate the matter.

To prosecute would have been to ask a jury to decide what steps a doctor should take. Juries take difficult decisions robustly, and sometimes they have to find their way through conflicting medical evidence. Is it right or fair, however, to ask a jury to arbitrate on a question of medical standards and ethics on which the profession has not published a detailed consensus, and on which a great deal turns for both doctor and patient? The CPS concluded in the recent cases that it would be contrary to the public interest to proceed.

Those who have the relevant policy and professional responsibilities are, no doubt, reflecting on the conclusions to be drawn. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), is present for precisely that reason. As the House will appreciate, these are not my responsibilities.

I recognise that in such cases, because of the level of uncertainty, it is questionable whether a prosecution would serve the interests of justice. When more certainty has been achieved through the publication of guidance, will the Attorney-General undertake to review the matter and consider whether further guidance is required to provide clarity on prosecution?

My supplementary question is to ensure that the Attorney-General does not get off the hook without commenting on another issue. The CQC has provided evidence of 14 hospitals where—forget “good faith”—doctors were not even present when forms were signed. Surely the Attorney-General must ask why no prosecutions occurred in such cases, which go way beyond questions of guidance. They are malpractice and a flagrant abuse of the Abortion Act 1967, and they must lead to prosecutions.

I hope I may be able to reassure my hon. Friend. On the second matter that he raises—it is not germane to one of the cases, although it was to another—as he knows, the evidence revealed that the pre-signing of forms was quite widespread. I understand that that practice has now been stopped, and that clear guidance has been issued as to its undesirability. That is a policy issue, and I have no doubt at all that as a result, the requirements set down by professional standards have already been clarified.

I turn to the more general point. There are two ways in which we can move forward. We might take the view that the current situation is, overall, a satisfactory one, in which professional medical discretion, which must inevitably be relied on, is left at large, with the law enforcement agencies acting as a back-stop for the most egregious cases that flout any conceivable proper standards. The other view, which I understand that the Department of Health has accepted, is that such a situation allows law enforcement far too residual a role and that the balance needs to be redressed. The law enforcement agencies will need clearer and more specific guidance on how to distinguish between desirable and undesirable professional practice in making and recording decisions on the termination of pregnancy. I greatly welcome that, and I have no doubt that it will make the task of prosecutors much easier.

The Attorney-General has rightly said that we should not second-guess a prosecutor, the professional judgment of a doctor or the position of a jury when taking evidence. We can, however, second-guess ourselves as legislators. During the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, we were assured that gender selection would not be permitted as a ground for abortion, and that a proposed amendment to that effect was redundant. I am sure that that was said in good faith, and the amendment was withdrawn on that basis, but do we not have cause for consideration in that area?

It is quite clear from a reading of the 1967 Act that gender selection alone is not grounds for the termination of a pregnancy. The debate has highlighted policy issues, which Parliament can debate further if it wishes, about how the question of gender selection may carry some weight in respect of, in particular, the impact on a woman’s mental health of continuing with a pregnancy. That is inherent in the drafting of the legislation, which places a great burden of responsibility on the medical profession to carry out a specific assessment, under the subsection that, as we know, is the most relied on as the justification for a termination.

It would be wrong of me, in the course of this debate, to start re-examining something that is a policy issue for Parliament. I have done my best to answer the question, which is whether the law as it stands is workable and can be made better. I have already indicated that if, as I understand to be the position, the General Medical Council produces such guidelines, they will be of immeasurable assistance in providing a benchmark for how doctors are expected to make the assessments required under the 1967 Act.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has informed me that he would be more than happy for his officials to comment on the practicalities, from a prosecutorial viewpoint, of any amended arrangements, should that be thought necessary. I can see that that might be of great practical value. I hope that I have been able to provide hon. Members with some reassurance.

Teaching Unions (Strikes)

It is an honour to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

This debate is extremely timely, as it comes against the backdrop of recent strike action by certain teaching unions. Last week, on 1 October, members of the National Union of Teachers and NASUWT went on strike in 49 local authorities in eastern England, the midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, consequently denying education to pupils in 2,500 schools. I want to put on the record that, thanks to non-striking teachers’ dedication to their pupils and profession, many of the schools that expected to close were able to remain open.

Another wave of strikes is planned on 17 October in London, the north-east, the south-east and the south-west, where my constituency is located. I take this opportunity to urge teachers in schools in my constituency to think twice about strike action and, like their many fellow professionals who turned their back on last week’s strike, not to strike at the expense of their pupils’ education and welfare. A national strike of union members is planned for later in the year, before Christmas, and that will inevitably disrupt the lives of pupils and parents alike.

Let us turn to the origin of the decision to take industrial action. Last year, the two largest teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, voted to take industrial action throughout 2013. At first glance, the results of the ballots seem decisive: 82.5% of NUT members and 82% of NASUWT members voted in favour of strike action. We must, however, look at the turnout for the ballots: just 27% of all NUT members responded by returning their ballots, as did 40% of NASUWT members. In reality, strike action was therefore voted through by just 22% of NUT members and 33% of NASUWT members.

Even then, it is important to note that those unions do not represent the teaching profession of more than 750,000 teachers in its entirety. Taking that into account, strike action was agreed by the unions with a mandate of only 17.3% of teachers voting to strike. That is significant, because we must recognise the increasing divide between teachers or teaching professionals and the unions who claim to represent their voice.

In recent years, it seems that the only voice that unions represent is the growing tendency towards militant socialism that has gripped the heart of teaching unions. A breakdown of the NUT national executive shows that more than half its members have links to far-left organisations, with 21 of the 40 members having links to the Socialist party or the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, while 11 were endorsed by the Socialist Workers party in their election to the executive, four are members of the Socialist Teachers Alliance, one was a Socialist party candidate in the 1997 general election and there is even a member of the Communist party.

It is well known that union leaders do very nicely in pay and conditions out of their members’ subs. In the NUT, Christine Blower’s total remuneration is now £158,155, which has increased by 25% since she became general secretary in May 2009. That is more than seven times higher than the average teacher’s starting salary, and her pension contribution alone, of £42,236, is almost double that starting salary. Chris Keates of NASUWT earns a total remuneration of £139,834, which has increased by 78% since she became general secretary in 2004.

Let us not believe that the unions, either in numbers or in voice, reflect the everyday lives of the teaching profession. Tens of thousands of teachers—the silent majority—work tirelessly to transform the lives of young people in their care, and do so without recourse to strike action or what might be termed “teacher absenteeism”.

A new generation of teachers is coming forward who are the best trained and best skilled work force we have ever had. This generation of teachers deserves to be rewarded for their ability to raise their pupils’ performance. They are increasingly turning their back on the unions as their mouthpiece, knowing that they are being given greater freedoms to teach and improve their pupils’ education in the classroom. Some are even tearing up their union cards. One teacher wrote on The Guardian “Secret Teacher” site that

“we came into teaching for a reason. To inspire children, to go that extra mile, and to become better at what we do—ultimately for the students who are the reason we chose this profession. Yes, there are many issues facing us that do need action—but why is it that the unions’ suggested actions simply serve letting down the very people at the core of teaching?”

We need the best teachers to be in place, particularly in schools where the gap between the most affluent and the most disadvantaged pupils remains stubbornly high, to help turn pupils’ lives around. A good-quality education depends entirely on good- quality teachers, so rewarding good teachers must be at the heart of this Government’s school reforms.

That belief is overwhelmingly backed by the public. In a recent Populus poll of 1,700 people, 61% agreed that schools

“should be able to set the pay of individual teachers based on the quality of their performance as determined by an annual appraisal”,

while 28% believed that teachers

“should…receive the same salary regardless”.

When asked what the most important factor is in deciding teachers’ pay, only 8% plumped for length of service, which is the current measure. The poll found that 70% of people are opposed to teaching unions’ planned strikes, while 34% believe that teachers should be entirely banned from taking strike action.

I do not believe that the Government should be in the business of banning teachers from going on strike. It must be up to teachers themselves, not only as responsible adults, but above all as responsible professionals, to choose how they wish to be regarded. Do they believe that as professionals—that is how we wish teachers to be seen—they should take strike action where no other professionals would dare to? It must be up to teachers to face their responsibilities and to ask themselves why, if it is not acceptable for pupils to be absent from school, it should be acceptable for teachers to indulge in teacher absenteeism. What possible example can that set? How can the authority of a teacher’s professionalism be anything but diminished by strike action?

If teaching unions think that there is a genuine and deeply felt need to strike, they will recognise that such a need is also felt by the entire school community—pupils and parents alike. Each individual school, rather than taking its cue from the phantom democratic ballots of union leaders, should know whether strike action is necessary at local level and whether taking the ultimate step of sacrificing a day of pupils’ education is in those pupils’ interests.

The teachers’ cause would be strengthened if they had the backing of the entire school community, including parents. One solution for assessing whether an individual school has a truly effective mandate for strike action would be for it to ballot its parents on whether they agree with any proposed strike action. After all, parental ballots are not a new feature of our education system: they were introduced by the Labour party in 1998 as a means of assessing whether grammar schools should close.

Rather than strike action taking place with just over 17% of support from teachers, industrial action backed by parents would appear far more legitimate and have a greater chance of being taken more seriously. Allowing parents a voice over teacher strike action would help to depoliticise strikes, which are currently organised by a militant few at the expense of the welfare of the many pupils and parents whose lives will be disrupted in the next few weeks.

Of course, rather than take strike action in term time, thereby disrupting the education of thousands of young people and effectively denying them a day’s learning, surely it would be better for teachers to strike during the school holidays, when they are still at work in schools? We are frequently informed that just as a parliamentary recess is not a holiday for Members of Parliament, school holidays are not entirely holidays for teachers, who continue to work hard in their schools.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Does he agree that we should encourage head teachers and chairs of governors to do their utmost to keep schools open as a learning environment for children, given that being at home may not be suitably positive for learning reinforcement?

It is extremely important that school leadership remains strong at this time. I am referring here to the chair of governors, who has a duty to reflect the community’s voice, and the head teacher. As we know, it is the leadership that decides whether a school should remain open or should close. In my own constituency, I have seen the head teacher make the decision. As well as telling teachers who wish not to strike to have the courage of their convictions and to cross the picket line and go into school, we must also tell head teachers to stand firm on their principles. They are the captain of the ship in the school and they must ensure that it stays open for as long as possible.

Going back to my point about teachers striking in school holidays, I do not believe that teachers are taking off the entire school holiday. They are working hard in that period when the pupils are away from school, so it should not make any difference if the strike action was taken in school holidays rather than term time unless the deliberate aim of the teachers’ unions is to cause the maximum possible disruption to pupils’ learning, which would be regrettable.

In conclusion, there will always be disagreements and battles over how schools are run and pupils are taught. That is fair enough. Teachers themselves may disagree over the direction of a policy or a Government, and that is their right, but such battles should be fought not by strikes but in the court of public opinion, with ballots that reflect the views of all teachers and parents, and, ultimately, at the ballot box. They should not be fought, as those striking well know, at the expense of the children whom they claim to serve.

It is a pleasure, Mr Pritchard, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on his excellent speech, which outlined many important issues, and on his ongoing work to support the reform of education, which is vital for our country. I note that we do not have Opposition Front Benchers at this debate. The Opposition have remained silent on the issue of trade unions, even though many of their Members of Parliament are funded by those organisations.

Strikes benefit no one. They damage the education of pupils and inconvenience parents and carers, who often rely on school when they are out at work. The children who are let down the most are those from low-income backgrounds who desperately need an excellent education to help them get on in life. Moreover, strikes do not support the teaching profession. What we want is a highly valued and respected profession that takes professional responsibility for what it does. The strikes are in danger of undermining the well deserved public respect for teachers.

The recent strikes have been particularly disappointing. They do not command public support. A recent Populus poll found that 70% of the public do not support the planned strikes, and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, teachers themselves do not support them. Less than a quarter of teachers voted in favour of strike action when they were balloted by the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT.

I am pleased to say, though, that fewer schools closed than on previous occasions. In last week’s strike in Yorkshire, the midlands and the east of England, only a third of schools were fully closed to pupils. That was down to the hard work and dedication of many teachers and head teachers. By comparison, 60% of schools in the same regions were fully closed in the national strike of November 2011. That shows that those who seek wholesale disruption of our schools are losing the argument, and less and less support for such action is being shown in the classroom. Like my hon. Friend, I encourage teachers and head teachers in constituencies that could be affected by the forthcoming strike to keep their schools open. The majority of Britain’s hardworking teachers understand that strike action is not the right way to express their concerns about education reform, and they need to put pressure on their unions to stop it.

The NUT and the NASUWT have identified the issues of pay, particularly performance-related pay, and pensions as an underlying cause of the strikes. Most people get performance-related pay, so the concept is widely understood. It helps to improve performance and retain high-quality personnel. Teaching should be no different. The public understand that. In recent surveys, 61% of the public supported performance-related pay for teachers. Pay reform, which means moving to a performance-related pay system and away from automatic increments based on how long someone has been a teacher, will reward excellence and raise the professional status of teaching. It will help schools to attract high-flying graduates and career-changers, particularly to subjects for which it is difficult to recruit teachers because there are highly competitive jobs available elsewhere.

Schools in challenging circumstances, which often struggle to retain good teachers, can now, because of the additional flexibility that we are giving, use the pupil premium to attract the best staff and make the biggest difference to the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said:

“Basing pay progression on performance would bring classroom teachers into line both with head teachers, where it already operates, and with most other sectors”,

so the leader of the head teachers’ union has suggested that performance-related pay would help.

A recent YouGov poll for Policy Exchange found that nine out of 10 teachers think that the quality of teaching should be a major driver in pay and progression, while only six out of 10 think that years of experience should be a major factor in pay. Many teachers themselves support the changes. The unions should be helping us to work with head teachers to ensure that performance-related pay is implemented in a way that is fair to teachers, rather than calling for strike action, which will not only cause problems for the profession but potentially affect children.

The other issue is pension reform. Changes to teachers’ pension arrangements are in line with changes to public sector pensions in general. We all know that people are living longer, and the cost of public service pensions has increased by a third in the past 10 years to £32 billion. The new teachers’ pension scheme remains one of the very best available. All the evidence suggests that it does help to attract people into the teaching profession.

The Minister for Schools and the Secretary of State for Education have had extensive discussions with the unions and others involved in education, and the policy direction on pay and pensions is now fixed. As I have demonstrated in my speech, the reforms command broad popular support, and support in principle from the teachers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood made some interesting points about why the teaching unions might be motivated to take strike action for ideological reasons, or for reasons relating to their pay and pensions, which appear to be pretty generous when compared with those of teachers. That is no excuse to damage children’s education, disrupt parents’ lives, which has an ongoing impact on the economy, and bring into disrepute the teaching profession.

We are willing to meet the teaching unions; we are planning to meet them again soon to discuss their concerns. However, we are very clear that the direction that we have set on pay and pensions is right, and it is part of our overall reform package to improve education in this country.

We have great esteem and respect for the role of teachers. All educational research suggests that the quality of teaching is the No. 1 factor in a child’s education that will make the difference between learning and not learning. However, we have seen this week, in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies study from the OECD, exactly where we are in the skills league table, and during the past decades, our skills have not significantly improved. It is a huge worry that, in key skills such as literacy and numeracy, we have not seen the kind of improvement that those who said that exam grades had improved have claimed.

We face a big issue with our education system. We know that the quality of our education and skills is related to economic growth. We also know that children who do not reach the levels of literacy and numeracy that they need to reach will not get good jobs and will face more danger of being unemployed. Those are critical issues, which is why we have embarked on a wide-ranging series of reforms in education. First of all, there was the academy and free schools programme, to ensure that head teachers have the powers they need to improve results in their school. Secondly, there was our programme to reform exams and the curriculum, to ensure that we are teaching subjects such as mathematics, science and English in a rigorous way. That is why we have reintroduced marks for grammar, spelling and punctuation at GCSE level, and why we have addressed the rampant grade inflation that has been evident in our GCSE results. However, possibly most important of all our reforms is the way that we are working to recruit the best and brightest to the teaching profession.

There are a lot of tales of doom about teaching, but our figures compare very well with those of other countries around the world when it comes to the age profile of teachers. In many countries, those in the teaching profession are close to retirement; that is a particular issue in Germany. Here in England, those in the teaching profession are pretty young. Teach First, a programme that ensures that top graduates are attracted to teaching as soon as they leave university, has been very effective. It is now the biggest graduate recruiter from our universities, and teaching is now seen as an aspirational career by many graduates when they leave university, which is fantastic. I am delighted that this autumn we have been able to extend Teach First to the early years, so we now have teachers who are top graduates straight from university teaching three and four-year-olds.

A recent OECD study compared the rates of pay and pensions of our teachers with those of teachers in other countries. We perform above the average for OECD member countries, so our teachers are well remunerated, as is right, and we need to bear that in mind.

There is so much that we have to work on as a country to ensure that our education system is world class. It is about all the things that I have mentioned: teaching; the way that schools operate; and head teachers having the flexibility to run their school in a way that will deliver results for children. There are so many things that need to be done that it is vital that everybody in the education system works to those objectives. Progress is being made, and we have seen very positive results. For example, the number of girls studying physics and chemistry at GCSE is at a record high, and we have also seen the number of children studying maths and science at A-level go up. When we have these very positive results in our education system, it is very disappointing that there are still those who seek to disrupt that system, rather than help us and work with us on the progress that we are making.

I note that there is a new shadow Education Secretary in position, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), although I am sad to see that he is not in Westminster Hall today. The former shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), refused to condemn the strike action; actually, I do not think that he supported or condemned it, but just said nothing about it, even though children’s education was being disrupted. What we need to hear from the new shadow Education Secretary is an answer to this question: does he agree that these strikes should be condemned, and does he agree with us that it is wrong for teachers to go on strike at this important time in children’s educational careers, or is he in the pockets of the unions, like his predecessor and like the leader of his party? That is a question that I hope the Opposition will answer very soon.

It is very important to have had this debate, and to have discussed these issues at length. It is crucial for our children that they are able to attend school every day knowing that they will receive a good education. The best way of reforming a system is to participate and to have the debate in proper public forums, not to take out frustrations on innocent bystanders—those children and parents who do not have an alternative, including parents who may have to miss a day of work because a school is not open, and children, perhaps from low-income backgrounds, who are learning and who miss a day of their education as a result of this strike action.

I note the positive trend in the proportion of schools staying open. I hope that next week and the week afterwards we will see more schools stay open, and that today’s debate will encourage them to do so.

“Go Home or Face Arrest” Campaign

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon for this short debate, Mr Pritchard.

I want people to imagine a situation and just think about it for a minute—a van pulls a billboard through the streets, telling illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest”. Just imagine it, and picture it. This is not 1940s occupied Europe; it is not even one of those National Front campaigns from the 1970s. This is the United Kingdom in 2013, where a van pulls a billboard through the streets of London telling people to “Go home or face arrest”. Just in case people did not quite get it, what else was on that poster? It was a huge set of handcuffs. And just to make it even more provocative, this van was trailed through some of the most racially diverse and multicultural parts of London. That was almost as stupid as it was grotesque.

What sort of response did that action get? Well, I do not think that I have seen a Government campaign that has been so roundly condemned. I could not even start to read out the lists of organisations, individuals and groups that were overwhelmingly opposed to it. Suffice to say that it managed to create a coalition of everybody from the Deputy Prime Minister to Nigel Farage, with the Business Secretary flung in for good measure, with his acerbic comment that it was “stupid and offensive”. As I say, this particular campaign united everybody from the Deputy Prime Minister to Nigel Farage, such was the opposition to it.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. Does he agree that this campaign has caused division, and also fear in the minds of the citizens who freely walk on the streets that they will be stopped and perhaps harassed by the police and other agencies?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because he reminds me of something else that went on that week, and he is right to mention it. Not only did we have the grotesque sight of a van pulling a billboard in London telling people to “Go home”, but it was part of a joint operation whereby, for the first time in years if not decades, we had racial profiling at London underground stations as part of UK Border Agency operations. What on earth was going to happen next? Where was this going to go after that?

Of course, today we had the landmark ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority, which has effectively banned this stupid and grotesque campaign. I have seen the Minister who is here today go round—

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that, because I saw the Minister this morning, going from studio to studio, defending this decision. I think that he took some comfort from the fact that the ASA only banned it because it was misleading, not because it was offensive or racist. However, that is cold comfort to the Minister, because the ASA said that this campaign was reminiscent of the anti-immigrant campaigns of the ’70s and that people would find it offensive.

The Minister is scowling. The saddest thing about these TV appearances this morning is that he is still prepared to defend this absurd campaign and to revise it and bring it back to us, once again, aping his boss, the Home Secretary, who made the same remarks in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. We might see the son of hate vans in the streets soon.

I apologise for missing the start of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not just on securing this debate, but securing the decision from the ASA to coincide with it. Has he seen the reply to my parliamentary question about the cost of the pilot project, which was put at £10,000? Given the pressure on the public purse, does he not think that that £10,000 could have been used better in some other area of the immigration field, which we know the Minister is keen to repair?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I must have missed his parliamentary question, which is remiss of me, because I usually look out for every one of his parliamentary utterances and questions. Of course, he is right. The £10,000 could have been better spent than on that absurd campaign with a hate van, trailing through the streets of London with a message saying, “Go home”.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the Minister can hardly take any comfort from the ASA’s statement that the Government were using misleading statements? They were basically saying things that were not true on a van being trailed through areas of mixed ethnicity, which was bound to cause trouble.

My hon. Friend is right. I cannot remember any campaign that has effectively been banned by the ASA. It is the first time in my 12 years in the House that I have seen anything like this misleading information. The Minister should be thoroughly embarrassed about what happened this morning, but instead we have seen the parody of him going through the news studios, defending these awful, appalling vans.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that all vans advertising the breaking of the law may put fear into the hearts of those who may be breaking it? For example, people could go to prison if they did not pay their television licence.

That is a good point. I want to come on to such points, which are important, about how the message was communicated and observed by the target groups. If I miss that point, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman once again.

These vans have been correctly labelled, in common parlance, as hate vans or racist vans, and that is how we have started to refer to them. We could not find a terminology to express our horror and disgust at the sight of these things and we were right to label them as such.

I agree with the Minister that illegal immigration must be tackled. I think that all hon. Members here agree with that. It is wrong and the Government must do something to deal with it. However, they have to deal with such issues reasonably, in a measured and mannered way. Probably every hon. Member in this Chamber agrees that there should be voluntary return. If people want to go home, let us assist them.

Can we also send out the message of the importance of immigration and how people benefit, both in host countries and countries of origin? The Philippines, for example, with about 9 million of its citizens migrating abroad for work, has a national migrants day. I encourage hon. Members to read Philippe Legrain’s book, “Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them”, and to see the benefits that immigration generally brings to all societies, where it happens.

My hon. Friend gets to the heart of so many of our debates on immigration, including the philosophical debate about the value and worth of immigration. We never hear about that from this Government. They do not accept for a minute that immigration is valuable. It is a problem that has to be managed, and this Government in particular say that it has to be managed in a more hostile, aggressive, robust way. As we head towards the new immigration Bill, which contains some thoroughly nasty horrors, we will see much more of this from this Government and it will get ever worse.

I have given way already and shall try to make some progress. I may come back to the hon. Gentleman later.

The hate vans, or racist vans, were ranting at people through a billboard with a telephone number on it, instead of communicating with them reasonably, trying to get a measured response and trying to ensure that people can return voluntarily. We should be helping them—assisting them—not shouting at them and giving a telephone number on a billboard. That is not the way to deal with some of the keen and sensitive issues to do with immigration. However, there is no way that we will get through to this Government on such points.

The Minister knows how hard life is for illegal immigrants. Life is desperate for illegal immigrants in this country. They cannot work—certainly, not legally—and they do not have access to benefits. They live a life of destitution, in fear of being detected. That is the reality of life for illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom, not the Daily Mail version, in which they are living the life of Riley, at our expense, laughing behind our backs, which sometimes I think that the Minister believes. It is a life of desperate destitution and fear.

It is about fear and that is what is being communicated. We have to look underneath the stupid message—the silly “Go home or face arrest”—and find out what it is intended to do and to achieve. Stupid poster though it is, there is something fundamental underneath this. The campaign is trying to engender a sense of fear and exaggerate the problem, to politicise it and appeal to the basest political instincts. That is a dangerous game to play. That is where it leads to real issues, tensions and anxieties in our communities. This Government should stop that and ensure that it is never done again. These hate vans and racist vans are touring our country.

Let us gloss over the obvious point that those who are notionally targeted by the campaign probably cannot read English and probably have no idea what the vans are trying to say. If they do read English, the first thing they will do is go right underground and try to hide away, having been made aware, thanks to the Government, of a more aggressive campaign that is out to get them.

Let us be generous and say that this campaign gets through to its target audience. Mr Pritchard, imagine that you are an illegal immigrant, walking down your street in your multiracial, multi-diverse community. There is something in the back of your mind and you are thinking, “There’s something I’ve got to do. What is it? I can’t figure out what it is.” Then, all of a sudden, one of these vans comes along, telling you to go home and you say, “That’s it! That’s what I forgot to do! All this time I’ve been in this country, I’ve forgotten to go home whence I came.” What nonsense. [Interruption.] No wonder you are laughing, Mr Pritchard, as is every other hon. Member. That is how nonsensical a concept this is. Imagine that.

Order. For the record, unless I misheard the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that I show any emotion when chairing debates. I am completely impartial.

I am glad that that is resolved. Thank you, Mr Pritchard.

Come on, let us figure out what it is really all about. I think that all hon. Members in this Chamber can be candid. This has little, if anything, to do with illegal immigration, but everything to do with the rise of the UK Independence party in the opinion polls. It is about this Conservative Government’s fear of the electoral challenge from UKIP and the fact that it has made immigration a key plank of its appeal. The Government are now engaged in a desperate race to the bottom with Nigel Farage, to see who can be the hardest on immigration. I gently say to the Minister that he will never out-UKIP UKIP. UKIP is the master of nasty, pernicious, right-wing populism, and it is to the Conservative party’s credit that it will never beat UKIP in a race to the bottom on such issues, regardless of how hard the Conservative party might try.

What did Nigel Farage do when he saw the campaign? He laughed in the Home Secretary’s face and mumbled something about the Big Brother state—imagine the campaign’s target laughing in the Home Secretary’s face. I bet Nigel Farage went home that evening and, like a badge of honour, knew that he had managed to move the Government significantly on to his territory, where he will decisively beat them on such issues. This is UKIP UK. UKIP does not have even one Member of Parliament, but the whole political world down here is now spinning around the world of the fruitcakes and loonies, as the Prime Minister so cleverly, clearly and accurately described them. That is where we are now: the reality of UKIP UK. UKIP is pulling the strings and the Conservative party is dancing to it.

People might wonder why I, as a Scots Nat, am concerned about these vans in London. First, they appal me as a citizen of this country, and they should appal every decent, reasonable person. They are appalling and should not be here. But the Government brought the campaign to Scotland. When I first saw the vans, I immediately wrote to the Home Secretary asking whether there were any plans to bring them to Scotland. I said, “We do not want the vans in Scotland. We have fantastic relations throughout every single community, and we value those relations. The vans would be most unwelcome.” I did not get the courtesy of a reply. I therefore wrote again to the Home Secretary asking why I did not get a reply to my letter. Coincidentally, I got a reply from the Minister yesterday—it might be that there just happens to be a debate. I say this not to the Minister but to his officials: get your act together, for goodness’ sake.

Order. Remarks should be made to the Chair, not directly to officials. I am sure the hon. Gentleman recalls that, as he has been here for many years.

I am grateful, Mr Pritchard. It must have just slipped my mind.

I ask the Minister to ask his officials to ensure that they reply, for goodness’ sake, to Members of Parliament on sensitive issues such as this. Will the Minister pass on to his officials that it is not good enough that Members of Parliament are not responded to until they decide to hold a debate on an issue to ensure that they get that reply? That certainly seems to be consistent with what is happening in the Home Office.

In the meantime, between my writing to the Home Secretary and where we are today, the full suite of “Go home” materials arrived in Glasgow. The UK Border Agency office in Brand street, Glasgow now plays host to those appalling materials. We do not have UKIP in Scotland. In Scotland, we loathe UKIP to the bottom of our ballot boxes. UKIP does not even retain its deposits. Nigel Farage had to get a police escort the last time he visited Edinburgh. UKIP is alien to our cultural and political values. The campaign jars with our sense of community, and it is something that we just do not want in Scotland.

The Minister should take his battle with UKIP elsewhere and leave Scotland out of it, because I do not want people in Scotland who go to the Glasgow Brand street office to be met with those materials. What do those materials say? Before people are even sitting down, they are asked to think about going home, with the inquiry “Is life hard here?” They are then told “Going home is simple,” before being told by another poster with a photograph of a plane:

“This plane can take you home. We can book the tickets.”

On the way out there is a dangling plane, which suggests “This is the plane that can take you home.” That is absolutely disgusting and contrary to how we would like to address such issues sensitively, and it makes me more determined than ever that, with independence, Scotland will always get the Government whom we vote for. We will not have a Conservative Government with their one lone panda of a Member of Parliament ruling the roost over our country and imposing such nonsense on my nation, and thank goodness we will secure that next year and end such Tory rubbish in our Glasgow offices. Minister, please keep Scotland well out of this.

What happens now? We have had the ASA ruling today, and we are all very pleased. It looks like the end of these appalling hate vans—these racist vans. The son of hate vans might be coming, I do not know, but perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he is encouraged by what he has seen over the past few months. When the Government were first challenged, they seemed to be able to pull out some sort of statistic showing that the vans were actually working. I do not know what on earth that statistic was based on, but perhaps the Minister could tell us about how the vans were supposed to be working.

My time is up, sorry.

Hopefully we will see the end of the vans, which I think were a testing exercise in advance of the next immigration Bill. The Government floated the policy just to see how much they would get away with, how nasty and pernicious they could be, in trying to get their immigration Bill through. That is exactly what they were doing. Everyone in this room has a concern on immigration, and we will be questioning the Minister when the immigration Bill is introduced, because it will contain some horrible stuff that we must confront. We are still part of the UK, and we will be subject to the Bill. We do not want it, but unfortunately we will be subject to it. The Bill is contrary to everything that we are trying to achieve for positive, good relations in Scotland, but we will be subject to a Conservative Government’s immigration Bill.

How did the Conservatives get this past the Liberals? I want to hear the Minister’s take on this. How on earth did they get the Liberals to sign up to something like this? I heard that the former Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), was not available, so the Conservatives decided to proceed any way. After what we have heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, with whom I know he worked closely, the Conservatives managed somehow to get the policy through the Liberals and into the campaign. Hopefully the Liberals will veto anything like this in future so we have no repeats.

The one thing I want from the Minister, and I know I will not get it, is an apology for exposing this nation to a nasty, pernicious and grotesque campaign. I know I will not get that apology, but perhaps I will get a small acknowledgement that there was something wrong with the campaign, that it was not right and that it was inconsistent with the good community relations that we are trying to achieve. I just want an acknowledgement, but somehow I do not think I will get that, either. Let us hope that we never see the likes of this again, but I have a feeling that it is just the beginning.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asked me lots of questions and has not left me a great deal of time to answer them, but I will do my best. If colleagues will forgive me, I shall address my answers to him, as it is his debate. If I have chance, I will take interventions from others, but it is right that I try to address his questions.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I, from the sound of his remarks, will not agree on the merits of the campaign, but it is worth setting out our thinking, because the campaign is not what he suggests. It is not focused at migrants; it is focused at people who are in the United Kingdom illegally—people who are here and breaking our laws. The campaign is not about migrants.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—I apologise again, because I always mangle the name of his constituency—said that the Government do not welcome people to Britain, which is not true. Every single time we make a speech or publish something, we make it very clear that Britain is open to migrants from across the world: people who want to come here to work, to study and to make a contribution. That message, which is welcoming to people who want to follow our laws and rules, is perfectly compatible with a message that says, “For those people who come here and do not follow the rules, and who want to break our laws, we should be equally firm about telling them that we want to enforce those laws.” Frankly, if people are here illegally, they should go back to their country of origin. There is nothing wrong with suggesting that they do so. If it is as bad here at the moment as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire suggests, the obvious question is why people are in this country illegally and not returning to their country of origin. We have worked closely with community groups and those involved in supporting migrants to help them to deliver that message sensitively.

The campaign to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a pilot, and we were trying to give a tough message about what will happen if people do not leave the country voluntarily: they will leave themselves open to arrest, detention and enforced removal. But the message also said that there is something that those people can do: they can contact the Home Office, and we will assist them in returning to their country of origin voluntarily, perhaps supporting them to do so. A significant number of people, more than 29,000, do that each year. That way of addressing the problem is greatly preferable, and it is much better for the taxpayer.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the cost. The cost of the pilot was just £10,000. If an individual who was in the country illegally chooses to go home as a result of the pilot, it will have paid for itself. We are doing a full evaluation. At the end of the three-month period, which is a reasonable period because of the time it takes to get travel documents, we will do the evaluation and then make a decision about the pilot.

However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the first voluntary departure as a result of the pilot took place on 2 August. It was that of a Pakistani national who had been living in the UK illegally since December. Interestingly—colleagues might find this slightly ironic—he did not see the ad van itself; he saw a picture of it in The Guardian newspaper. He texted the number and we arranged to support him for his flight home, so at least one individual has left the country as a result of the pilot. From a cost perspective—something that I think the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs has mentioned—the pilot has already paid for itself. If we had had to arrest, detain and enforce the removal of one individual, it would have cost the taxpayer probably the best part of £15,000, so from a cost perspective, if we can persuade people to go home voluntarily, that is clearly the right thing to do.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire referred to the Advertising Standards Authority, but I do not think he accurately set out its view. It was very clear today and did not uphold any of the complaints about the vans or the allegations that the vans were offensive or racist. It said:

“We considered that, in context, the claim would be interpreted as a message regarding the immigration status of those in the country illegally...not related to their race or ethnicity.”

It concluded that

“the poster was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress”

and was

“unlikely to incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural communities...it was not irresponsible and did not contain anything...likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour.”

The van referred to someone’s area, and the hon. Gentleman is right about the ASA’s view that people would interpret that as being quite a narrow area. For example, in a London borough, people would assume that it meant the London borough. Since our statistics were from a slightly larger area, the ASA said that it was misleading. We have therefore agreed not to use those advertisements in the form that was used.

The ASA did not support the outlandish claims that I think the hon. Gentleman suggested. He should also be aware that his views are not supported by the public. The poll conducted by YouGov on 13 August found that 66% of those polled in the United Kingdom did not consider the poster to be racist, so two thirds of those polled do not agree with him. Also, the comprehensive poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft and published on 1 September found that 79% of those polled supported the messaging in our posters, because they can see that giving a firm message to people who are in the country illegally is perfectly compatible with being welcoming and supportive of those who come to our country legally, follow our rules and comply with the law.

The hon. Gentleman got very heated on that point, but I do not think that he has the measure of public opinion on this issue. People want to welcome those who come here for the right reasons, but the public want to deal firmly with people who should not be here. The advertising campaign was squarely aimed at those who are in the country illegally and have no right to be here. Asking people in that context to return to their country of origin is perfectly reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Scotland reporting centre. He should know that that pilot ran from 29 July, which is prior to his letter, to 4 October. It did not use any of the materials that we used for the ad van campaign. A significant proportion of those using the reporting centre are people who have no right to be in the United Kingdom. They should not be here and should be returning to their country of origin. Partly, the message is a tough one, but the other side of the message tells people that we can support their return and help them to go home.

Our immigration enforcement officers work closely with many communities in the United Kingdom. They work with faith and voluntary groups that know of people who want to return home, but need support to do that. They do not want to be arrested or detained; they want to come forward in such a way that they avoid that experience, and I think that that is perfectly reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we might do in future. As I said, we are evaluating the campaign to see how successful it has been in driving up significantly the number of voluntary returns. We will make that information available and then decide whether to continue.

On the street operations that we conducted, the hon. Gentleman referred to racial profiling. I absolutely refute that. Our officers do not have the legal power, and we do not have the ability, to do that. We use intelligence to identify where to run the operations, and when we encounter people, we decide whether to talk to them based on their behaviour, not their race, ethnicity or appearance. I absolutely refute his allegation that we are involved in racial profiling in street operations, and it is not supported by the evidence. Again, it is worth saying that the general public support the work that we do in enforcing illegal working laws and in making sure that people obey the law.

Our officers have a difficult job to do. I have been out with them on operations. They take their responsibilities and the intelligence seriously, and they are well aware of the legal environment. They have proper briefings before the operations and they deal with the people they encounter sensitively. I have seen operations where, for example, we have encountered people who have done nothing wrong, and our officers have dealt with them very sensitively and handled a difficult situation well. I do not think that the way in which the hon. Gentleman characterises the issue reflects the reality on the ground. It is hard and difficult work. Just as the police have a difficult job in enforcing criminal laws, our immigration enforcement officers have to enforce immigration laws. They deal with people who should not be in the United Kingdom, and who might not wish to return to their country of origin, but it is important that we enforce the law. It is difficult work and will remain so. It has to be done sensitively, which is what we have been doing.

Nobody is questioning that we are talking about illegal immigrants. We support the idea that there should be no illegal immigrants, but we question the tactics used—for example, when there is forced entry into shops and other places where they cannot find anybody and the intelligence is poor. The small sample of 500 people supporting the idea is not good evidence.

On the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about entry, our officers have to obey the law in the same way as other law enforcement officers. I have attended operations on which we have encountered the “beds in sheds” phenomenon in his part of London, where there are some appalling pieces of accommodation. When we have to gain entry to those properties, we have to work with the local authority. The local authority has to seek a warrant for entry. We have to go through a proper legal process. We have to have evidence and intelligence when we deal with those things, and it is the same when we do illegal working operations. We have to have intelligence; we do not simply do it on a speculative basis. If we have intelligence, we approach people and gather evidence on whether people are working illegally. I make no apology for doing that, because it is not simply about the fact that they are breaking our laws. Employers who employ people illegally undercut legitimate business people. They compete with them unfairly, and we should deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire both said that they are against illegal immigration. I am glad that they said that. All that the campaign was about was trying something—a pilot—to see whether it was successful. We have been frank about it and we will be guided by the evidence. If the evidence suggests that the pilot has been successful, I might flip the question round and ask why we would not go ahead with a pilot that is successful and that leads to more people leaving the country voluntarily. If the pilot proves unsuccessful, we will not roll it out. It will be based on the evidence. We will analyse the pilot properly.

The evidence from the public is that they support a tough approach. I make no apology for dealing with the concerns of the public. We are not, as was suggested, talking about a recent phenomenon. We said at the general election that we would deal with immigration. We have reduced net migration to the country by a third. We have cracked down on abuse. We have seen an increase in the number of students and skilled workers coming here. We want to give the message that we are open for business for the best and the brightest, but that should be combined with dealing firmly with people who break our immigration laws and either come here illegally or overstay their visa. Those things are compatible, and that is how we wish to continue.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).